This off-season is nuts. Every day, there are interesting moves, including some pretty fun trades that just go beyond the normal prospects-for-rent-a-veteran template that we’re all accustomed to. Today, there have been a bunch of moves, but perhaps none is more interesting from a pure baseball perspective than a swap of non-household names between the Rangers and A’s.
The move shapes up like this: the A’s trade outfield prospect Michael Choice and infield prospect Chris Bostick to the Rangers for outfielder Craig Gentry and reliever Josh Lindblom. Bostick and Lindblom are secondary pieces of some potential value, but this deal is mostly about Choice and Gentry. And the differing skillsets from those two players makes this a pretty fun challenge trade.
Choice is a 24-year-old corner outfielder whose value is going to be primarily tied to his bat. A former first round pick, Choice has hit fairly well in his minor league career, but hasn’t yet displayed the kind of power that one might expect from a corner outfielder built a linebacker. Despite playing in the PCL, Choice posted just a .143 ISO in 600 plate appearances last year, which followed a .136 ISO in 400 plate appearances in Double-A in 2012. Power certainly can develop later, and Choice looks like he should hit for power, but his recent minor league performances cast some doubt on how soon that power might translate into the big leagues.
That said, Steamer is relatively optimistic about Choice, projecting him as a slightly above average (106 wRC+) hitter in 2014. While he’s not a defensive wiz, he’s athletic enough to hold his own in a corner spot, and there’s value in a guy who can provide league average offense and not embarrass himself with the glove in right or left field. And this is just his 2014 projection; with some improvement and more development, Choice might turn into a pretty effective everyday player down the line.
So, the A’s are trading some away a cheap source of potential offense, which is not exactly what you expect from a team that has historically hoarded young cost controlled talent. In several years, Choice may be a regular on their division rival, and trading a young player with some potential to a team in your division is usually not something most GMs are eager to do. However, the A’s are surrendering Choice’s future for the chance to make their 2014 team even better, and Craig Gentry has a chance to push their team forward in the short term.
This might be a weird thing to say about a 30 year old who has spent his career as a reserve, but even as a non-everyday player, Gentry can make a real impact, because of the crazy value he creates with his legs. During his time in Texas, Gentry was frequently used as a pinch runner and defensive replacement, so while he doesn’t always start games, he often finishes them. And because of those partial games, he’s managed to create some serious value even as a non-starter.
In his career, Gentry has had 317 opportunities to steal a base, according to Baseball-Reference’s data. He’s attempted a steal on 66 of those 317 chances, or 21% of the time he’s had the chance to run, and has been successful on 56 of those 66 attempts, an 85% success rate. For reference, those rates are virtually equal to what Jacoby Ellsbury has posted in his career. As a baserunner, Gentry has roughly been Ellsbury’s equal, even despite losing any element of surprise after being inserted as a pinch runner.
Over a full season’s worth of playing time, this kind of baserunning can be worth nearly a full win, as Ellsbury has averaged +8 runs from baserunning per 600 plate appearances in his career. Of course, Gentry won’t get 600 plate appearances unless something goes terribly wrong in Oakland, but even as a 300 plate appearance guy with regular pinch running and defensive replacement innings, he shouldn’t have much of a problem creating half a win just with his value on the bases.
And then there’s the defense. Over the last three years, here is the UZR/150 leaderboard for players with at least 1,000 innings in center field.
Defensive statistics are not perfect, and require significant regression when building a future projection, but Gentry hasn’t just been a good defender, he’s been exceptional. Regress a +30 UZR/150 even by 2/3rds and you’re still left with an elite defensive player. Yeah, we only have 1,500 innings worth of data for Gentry in center field, but those 1,500 innings suggest that he’s one of the best defensive outfielders in the game. Which is what we’d expect from an absurdly fast player who has already established his running skills on the base paths.
Even if we just call Gentry a +10 defender in center field over a full season going forward, we’re now basically saying he’s a +1.5 to +2.0 WAR player (per 600 plate appearances) before he ever steps to the plate. And unlike some other speed-and-defense specialists, he’s not a nothing as a hitter.
He has no power, but his career line is still .280/.355/.366, good for a 96 wRC+, making him roughly a league average hitter. Yes, as a right-handed hitter who has served as a part of a platoon, he has gotten the advantage of facing his fair share of lefties, so you’d have to lower the expectations a bit if he was pushed into more regular playing time, but the adjustment isn’t as large as you might think. For his career, Gentry’s split of facing RHPs and LHPs is 50/50, while the average right-handed hitter is usually around 58/42 or so. Move 8% of his plate appearances from the vs LHP column to the versus RHP column and you lower his wRC+ from 96 to 94.
In many ways, Gentry is very similar to Peter Bourjos, as a slightly below average hitter who adds a lot of value in the field and on the bases. Gentry’s a little older and might see more age-related decline sooner, and he probably won’t profile as a full time player in Oakland, but even as a super sub, expecting +2 to +3 WAR is entirely reasonable. And he provides a really nice insurance policy in case of injury to any of the A’s regular starters.
For the $1 million or so that he’ll get in arbitration, Gentry’s going to provide a lot of value for the 2014 A’s, and they’ll retain his rights for 2015 and 2016 as well. It is certainly possible that he could move into the starting CF role for those years, depending on what the team does with Coco Crisp after his contract expires. The A’s have acquired three years of a guy who should be able to provide real value in center field, either as an often used reserve or a starter when the need arises.
Giving up Choice’s long term value for Gentry’s shorter term productivity shows how far the A’s have moved into win-now mode. They’re not building for the future; they’re trying desperately to take advantage of their chance to win while they have a team that can compete for the AL West title. Gentry pushes the A’s 2014 hopes forward, while Choice gives the Rangers some longer term value to try and offset the downgrade of losing Gentry.
It’s a fun trade without an obvious winner or loser. It’s a present for future trade, but also an offense for defense trade. Toss in the intra-division aspect of this, and we might not see a more fun trade all winter. The A’s are certainly being aggressive in maximizing their 2014 value, and are no longer operating as a team primarily concerned about retaining young talent to maintain long term competition. Moving a prospect like Choice for a piece like Gentry shows that the A’s are pushing their chips in now. If used liberally, Gentry may very well justify the cost.
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