Billy Beane cares not for outfield log jams. Last season, Beane’s Athletics acquired Seth Smith for Guillermo Moscoso and Josh Outman despite already having Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick and Coco Crisp on hand. Saturday, Beane added another outfielder to the mix, acquiring Chris Young from Arizona in exchange for Cliff Pennington and infield prospect Yordy Cabrera.
The situations aren’t entirely analogous — the Athletics had DH at-bats to hand Smith but may not have those for Young (or another member of the Oakland outfield), but the general idea remains: when an asset can be acquired on the cheap, the Athletics will make it happen.
Young’s situation is an ideal buy low opportunity. He owns a 104 wRC+ over the last three seasons and could still have his peak in front of him at age 29. The counterpoint — and perhaps the reason the Diamondbacks were willing to take on Cliff Pennington despite his horrid offensive season (65 wRC+ in 125 games) — was a decline in 2012 from Young. After notching a 109 wRC+ as a 26-year-old in 2010, Young slipped to 101 last season and 97 this year.
The bet on upside can be seen as relying too heavily on 2010 and not enough on 2011 and 2012, but it would be remiss to ignore Young’s injury issues in 2012. On April 17th, Young entered play with a 1.392 OPS, boosted by a .370 BABIP but also eight XBH and six walks in 10 games. Young would leave the game with a shoulder separation. Here’s Corey Dawkins of Baseball Prospectus two days later:
The Diamondbacks also placed Chris Young on the disabled list Wednesday. Young injured his shoulder when he crashed into a padded wall on Tuesday night while making a catch. He was diagnosed with a severe contusion and a small tear in the ligament. After crashing into the wall, he grabbed his collarbone and the top of his shoulder, an almost universal sign that he separated his shoulder and did not dislocate the ball-and-socket joint. According to our injury database, these injuries have kept players out for over three months, but there is no word on how long Young will be out at this point.
Thirty days later, Young was in the Diamondbacks’ lineup. From the May 17th edition of the Arizona Republic:
Young has been on the disabled list since crashing into the wall at Chase Field on April 17, injuring his shoulder. For now, the club is saying that his throwing is behind his hitting.
“I wouldn’t say he’s back 100 percent with the arm,” Towers said.
Young’s swift return was a surprise to many, and given the immediate results one has to wonder if Towers was simply working the media with his response that Young’s hitting was somehow ahead of his throwing. From his return through the All-Star break — his only layoff of more than three straight days after returning from the injury — Young hit just .140/.234/.248 (.172 BABIP) in 145 PA. In his 168 plate appearances after the break, Young managed a .261/.327/.471 (.301 BABIP) line. His overall .203 ISO was his highest mark since 2007.
Small samples are at play here, but Young’s slump sports a combination of length and magnitude worth note. He notched just a .239 wOBA over those 145 PA. According to The Book, the uncertainty in measured wOBA is 0.5/sqrt(PA), or 0.041 over 145 plate appearances. Young was projected for a .325 wOBA by Marcel and a .366 wOBA by ZiPS; either way, his slump performance is over two standard deviations from either true talent measure and over three standard deviations from the ZiPS projection.
A separated shoulder cost Jacoby Ellsbury over two months earlier in the year. Jordan Schafer was out 25 days but only returned due to 40-man September rosters; he was used almost exclusively as a pinch-runner or defensive replacement as he went 0-for-8 in 10 games played.
Although it’s plausible Young was simply in a two month long slump to end all slumps, chances are high his overall numbers in 2012 were done in by a decision to return too early from his separated shoulder injury. With peak years still remaining, a moderately low-cost 2013 contract ($8.5 million) and a history of good to great center field defense, the Athletics had reason to buy low anyway. If it turns out real improvement was masked by recovery from a debilitating injury, Oakland could have more than just a nice asset on their hands.
The crowded outfield situation in Oakland has an entire offseason to work itself out. For now, the Athletics simply have more talent on their roster than they did heading into the weekend.