Monday, March 21, 2005

Kotchman's Time is Now

Mike Scioscia and Bill Stoneman made a tough call this past off-season when they let Troy Glaus walk as a free-agent to make room for their hot-shot third baseman of the future, Dallas McPherson. But another battle is looming at the other corner infield position between incumbant Darin Erstad and the Angels most productive hitter this spring, Casey Kotchman.

When Erstad inked a four-year extension for $32 million back in 2002 many scoffed, including ESPN's Rob Neyer who called the signing "monumentally stupid." Two years later Neyer is looking pretty sharp in his assessment. Erstad has been a decent player, hitting for average and playing excellent defense. But for $8 million per season I would expect power, speed and on-base-percentage in ADDITION to defense and batting average. In a nutshell, this deal has been a stinker for the Angels and their fans. With his degenerating hamstrings sapping Erstad of his once legendary speed, the move to first base is looking more like it would have been a necessity for the former center fielder anyway. At the very least a move to right field was in order. But with the outfield corner positions occupied by Vladimir Guerrero and Garrett Anderson for the foreseeable future Erstad’s options coming into spring training were down to two: (1) first base; or (2) DH. With the emergence of Kotchman however, those options should dwindle to one. But with a contract that does not expire for two more seasons on a deal that is virtually untradeable except to the most desperate of teams (damn the Red Sox for trading Mientkiewicz to the Mets!), the Angels seem to be stuck with Erstad. So now the Halo front-office has a couple of options of their own: (1) cut the first baseman ala Kevin Appier and eat the contract; or (2) they can keep him around as a utility player/DH. The Angels paid Appier $12 million to NOT play for them but Appier actually made the Angels a worse team just by taking the mound. Erstad on the other-hand has value (though clearly not $8 million worth) and could be a valuable weapon off the bench if he can get his head around not starting. That is the rub here and his attitude will likely go a long way to determining how the Halos can and will utilize him.

Casey Kotchman just surpassed Dallas McPherson as the Halo's top prospect per Baseball America. So far this spring the Angels first baseman of the future is hitting .432 with 3 doubles while leading the team in both at-bats (37) and RBI's (12). Meanwhile Erstad has been sidelined much of the spring with bronchitis and other ailments that have limited him to 17 at-bats where he is hitting .059 with no extra base hits. I can hear Erstad fans complain "but it's only spring training! C'mon, Guererro is hitting .212 would you cut him too?" No, and I would not cut Bengie Molina for hitting .125 either. But when evaluating a player's future value you study their "arc". That is, you hope to see a pattern of improving numbers that looks like the path of a homerun ball with a nice plateau in the middle of extremely productive years. What you definitely hope not to see is the flat line death pattern Erstad's career has followed except for a brief spike in the middle that skews his career statistics and cost the Angels a lot of money. That spike was 2000 when Erstad nearly doubled his homerun and RBI total from the year before while compiling a mind-blowing 240 hits. Maybe it was the Y2K bug that juiced Erstad's numbers but it goes without saying that he has not approached those lofty heights since. Especially disturbing is the drop in power (11 homeruns in 2003 & 2004 combined after hitting 25 in 2000) and speed (25 stolen bases in '03 & '04 combined after swiping 28 in '00). Erstad was limited to just 67 games in 2003 and 125 in 2004, further testament to his growing fragility and the need for the Angels to allow Kotchman to continue his development by promoting him to the starting job in the majors. Last year in the minors Kotchman was a machine, hitting .368 in 46 games at double-A Arkansas and then after getting promoted to triple-A Salt Lake he actually improved his average by hitting .372 in 49 games. In a call-up to the Angels last season the 22-year old hit just .224 in 34 games, not an uncommon drop in production from triple-A to the bigs. But what Kotchman needs is more big-league at-bats, not minor-league ones, to improve and continue to develop. Kotchman is another in a long-line of power-free, slow-footed Angel first baseman (Wally Joyner, JT Snow, Mo Vaughn, etc) so the Angels would not gain a lot more power or speed wise by changing from Erstad to the rookie. But the upside for Kotchman is far greater than with the 31 year-old Erstad. Between double & triple A last season, Kotchman hit a HR every 9.625 games. Not great for a first baseman but significantly better than Erstad's rate of one HR for every 17.86 games last season. Kotchman also has much better plate discipline, drawing a walk every 5.58 at-bats last season compared to Erstad's rate of a walk every 13.38 at-bats.

Erstad's defenders will extol his leadership and "grittiness". That's great but at some point Erstad's teammates are going to want some production as well. If team spirit and pumped fists were all it took to win games then Rex Hudler would still be playing. Erstad has shown no inclination that his career is going to suddenly begin ascending again so if the Angels believe as I do that he will not be retained beyond 2006, why not start making the change now? Let Erstad help bring Kotchman in and develop the youngster over the next season or two. In return Erstad can continue to contribute by playing DH and filling-in when needed in the outfield or at first. This would also benefit Erstad by allowing him to preserve his legs for an eventual trade (miracles can happen) or free-agency at the end of 2006.

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