With so much analysis and similar thinking taking over the game, it’s easy to imagine a reality where, down the road, every player in every organization is assigned a number that reflects his total value, and trades are made based on nothing more than balancing value numbers until they match. Even if that’s an exaggeration, you can see how things could come to feel that way, like trades are just the results of equations being run. In this hypothetical future, we’d see trades a lot like the one that’s just gone down between the A’s and the Brewers. Needs have been met on both sides. Everything makes very obvious sense.
I know the A’s and Brewers just finished with the same record, but the A’s don’t do the whole rebuilding thing, while the Brewers are in deep. Oakland wanted to add power from the right side and they were seeking help in the outfield, so that’s where Khris Davis fits. From Milwaukee’s side, if anything they had too many outfielders, and they didn’t have any catching depth behind Jonathan Lucroy, so that’s where Jacob Nottingham fits. Lucroy’s basically a goner anyhow, and Nottingham might not be that far away. And Bowdien Derby, known as Bubba? Live arm. Lottery ticket. More talent for the system. The A’s win the trade for the certainty; the Brewers win the trade for the upside. The A’s wanted certainty. The Brewers wanted upside.
Starting with the Oakland half of things, allow me to sell you on Khris Davis. Behold Khris Davis:
That’s what he is. More than anything else, Davis is a slugger, and he’s a slugger without a platoon split. He’s gone about his development rather quietly, given where he’s played, but there’s no denying what he’s done.
Somewhat importantly, Davis is 28. More importantly, Davis has just two full years of service, so he has another four years of affordable team control. There are similarities between him and Mark Trumbo, but when Trumbo brought back Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs, he had another three years of control. So Davis has the advantage there. He’s going to Oakland to hit the ball hard, and he’s going to Oakland to hit the ball everywhere.
According to Baseball Savant — and therefore Statcast — last year Davis ranked in the top five percent in average batted-ball speed on flies and liners. Over the last three years, since Davis debuted, he’s ranked in the top six percent in hard-hit rate. More specifically, he’s ranked in the top three percent in hard-hit rate on flies and liners. I know that sounds complicated but I’m just leaving grounders out because hard-hit grounders are less productive. Davis makes good contact when he puts the ball somewhere in the air. His air-ball hard-hit rate is basically tied with Chris Davis and Matt Kemp.
There’s something else about him that’s kind of neat. I took the last three years, again, and I narrowed all the hitters down to guys with at least 100 batted balls to the pull side, up the middle, and the other way. Davis is one of just three players with a hard-hit rate north of 35% to all three fields. The others are Paul Goldschmidt and Miguel Cabrera. The contact quality is fantastic, and Oakland has been somewhat starved for this sort of strength.
In terms of approach and strength, you can fairly compare Davis to Nelson Cruz. He looks like Nelson Cruz-lite — Cruz has achieved a certain level of consistency, but this is Davis’ ceiling. Players tend to fall short of their ceilings, but Cruz has been a four-win player two years in a row. It’s something to hope for.
As with Cruz, however, there are issues with the defense. This isn’t the usual case of a guy being a lumbering slugger — Davis, by range, has actually been something of an above-average left fielder. He can move around all right. But his arm plays impossibly weak. His arm is bad by DRS, his arm is bad by UZR, and his arm is bad by the Fan Scouting Report. Last year, the only outfielder given a worse arm-strength rating by the fans was Ben Revere. It’s not the easiest thing to improve.
As a consequence, Davis has been worth a total of about four wins. A little over two, per 600 plate appearances. Right now it’s fair to see him as an average player, more or less, just an average player with one great strength and one great weakness. You’d think that maybe the arm could be improved, or hidden, but you have to balance optimism with even pessimism, and you might also think pitchers could find a weakness in Davis’ swing. His contact rate dropped below 70%.
To simplify: Davis hits the crap out of the ball. He should keep doing that for a while, and Oakland has badly wanted bats like this. They were linked to Kemp earlier Friday, and they’ve previously pursued Cruz. If everything clicks, Davis could be Cruz. But even Cruz wasn’t that interesting prior to his late-career renaissance, and Davis isn’t a defensive plus. Oakland fans should enjoy watching him, and in the short-term he helps cover up for Coco Crisp and Billy Butler. Davis, though, is likely to feel like more of an impact player than he is.
I’m sure Oakland recognizes that. Clearly, Milwaukee recognized that, since four years of service is a lot of time. But in Davis, the Brewers didn’t see a long-term fit, not with other outfielders present or approaching, so they swapped a slugger for something the organization arguably needed most. I don’t want to take anything away from Derby, a recent sixth-round pick who’s worked his fastball into the mid-90s. He has yet to be unsuccessful, and even if he doesn’t make it as a starter, he’s already served as a closer in college. Derby isn’t just a throw-in, in other words, but the prize is Nottingham, who David Stearns gets to get back after he watched the Astros send him to Oakland during the summer when he still worked in Houston.
The Nottingham summary now is essentially what it was at the time of the Scott Kazmir trade: he’s a young catcher who could stick as a catcher, and his bat broke out after underwhelming earlier in his professional career. Nottingham slugged .363 two years ago, .385 one year ago, and .505 in the most recent year, the campaign ending in High-A. Nottingham improved his ability to make contact, and he didn’t just pull his power — he impressed observers with his ability to drive the ball out to right. That bodes well for his future against more advanced competition.
The power seems like it’s real, and if Nottingham is a quick learner, he could arrive in 2017. The Brewers, of course, aren’t in desperate need of catching depth as long as they have Jonathan Lucroy, but the Brewers, of course, are looking to trade Jonathan Lucroy, and then there was just nothing there. Nottingham becomes an in-house option, a long-term option, and more generally he’s also now one of the top prospects on an increasingly deep farm.
A young catcher with a power bat is a hell of a player. The risk here — the thing that made Nottingham available — is that he might still have to move. He’s not a young Yadier Molina, and even should he make it as a backstop, he won’t win Gold Gloves. And now imagine that Nottingham eventually shifts to first base: then he’s a righty first baseman with all-fields power. So, he’d be kind of like Khris Davis. Nottingham might have the higher ceiling because of his current position, but he hasn’t yet reached Double-A and he hasn’t yet handled an advanced pitching staff. Nottingham is a fitting exchange for a player of Davis’ skills and standing. Those who like to evaluate prospects by their upsides will love this for Milwaukee, but Davis does have real present value, even if it’s limited, and Nottingham, in a sense, hasn’t proven much of anything yet.
I do like it for the Brewers, because they addressed what they had to address. They also unblocked a part of the outfield, and I can’t wait to see what Domingo Santana might become. The Brewers are really on to something, and Stearns deserves high marks for what he’s already pulled off, with Lucroy and Will Smith still on the active roster. For the A’s, I like it just fine. Davis has the attributes that could make him an overrated player, but with maybe one more step he’s a multi-year cleanup slugger. Also, the A’s are doing what they can to eliminate weaknesses in 2016, because they can’t afford to play at the top of the market. What they’ve built isn’t a division favorite. It’s just a far better team than the one they just had. Whatever happens from here on out will happen.
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