Not everyone from the 2011 Oakland Athletics is leaving town. Last night Buster Olney reported that the As had re-signed their center fielder from previous two seasons, Coco Crisp, to a two-year deal guaranteeing the 32-year old $14 million dollars with an option for a third season. Some may doubt whether Crisp is really worth the money, particularly given his health record, but the more interesting question is what this means for the As seemingly-eternal rebuilding effort and future.
Some recent takes on Coco Crisp might leave you with the impression that the idea is that he has been generally unproductive the last few seasons due to mediocre hitting and poor health. Thus, it might be surprising to see that he has averaged over two Wins Above Replacement the last two seasons, which is about what an average major leaguer might be expected to produce. And Crisp has done that while averaging less than 100 games a season. Of course, that lack of playing time is what makes Crisp something of an enigma.
Crisp is generally thought of as a defense-first center fielder, but he has been better on offense in recent seasons than some seem to think. His three slash may not look that impressive the last couple of seasons, but it is important to keep in mind the recent decline in league offense and a Crisp’s very pitcher-friendly home park in 2010 and 2011. While Crisp excels on the bases (32 of 35 in 2010, 49 of 58 in 2011), it is not all of his offense, and he had a 127 wRC+ in 2010 and 100 wRC+ in 2011. Crisp’s career walk and strikeout numbers make him look like a bit of a hacker, but in some recent seasons (2009 and 2010) he has taken a few more walks while maintaining a good rate of contact, and has hit for a bit more power despite a home park that suppresses it.
Crisp has also been good for adding a few runs a season by doing a good job taking the extra base. Oliver projects him for a park-neutral.272/.329/.408 line (.322 wOBA) in 2012. That will come down a bit once the line is changed to reflect his home park, but that production is acceptable for even an average defensive center fielder. It is worth noting that the switch-hitting Crisp has hit right- (94 wRC+) and left-handed (97 wRC+) pitching almost equally well during his career.
Fielding is likely where Oakland sees much of Crisp’s value. The problem is that is also something that is hard to pin down, given that even the strongest defenders of current, publicly-available defensive metrics admit that they have a long way to go in terms of reliability. Moreover, in Crisp’s particular case his performance as measured by metrics seems to vary a fair bit from season-to-season and from park-to-park. The general take of most visual observers seems to match that of the metrics: Crisp has a lousy arm and good range. What that comes to in terms of runs saved makes a pretty big difference in his overall value.
If you think that Crisp is merely an average overall fielder at this point in his career, then with his projected hitting, base running, and positional adjustment, he is probably worth around 2.5 wins (understood as “between two and three wins” rather than a precise number) over 150 games. If you think he’s an elite defender despite his issues with base runners, then he could be worth three or four wins player. Either way, it looks like a pretty good deal for Oakland.
But to stop there would be to leave aside Crisp’s primary issue the last few seasons: health. In 2011 he played in only 136 games, and that was his most since 2007. He only played in 124 games total in 2009 and 2010. Health is probably the primary issue that kept Crisp from getting more attention from other teams on the market, as it seriously cuts into his projected value. It is hard to say how many games is a good projection for Crisp in 2012 — 100 seems pretty fair, but who knows? At 100 games, his value given the range of defensive possibilities given above is somewhere between 1.5 and 2.5 wins.
Given how the free agent market currently seems to be shaking out, guaranteeing $14 million over two years is in the expected neighborhood for a 1.5 win player in 2012 who will decline a bit in 2013. Assuming Crisp can play at least 100 games, Oakland is paying about the fair rate — there is upside, but there is just as much risk.
The more interesting question is how this fits in with the Athletics plans. The As let the rest of their 2011 outfield (David DeJesus and Josh Willingham) go to free agency, and Crisp is currently be flanked by a couple of young players who are hardly sure bets to be solid major-league regulars in Michael Taylor and the recently-acquired Josh Reddick. The various pitching trades pretty clearly signal that the team is rebuilding (again) in anticipation of a projected move to San Jose in the next few years.
So why give a market-value deal for multiple years to a 32 year-old center fielder? The best answer is the uninspiring one: someone has to play center field. There is some value in not having a total disaster of a product on the field, and as we have seen, even in reduced playing time, Crisp is probably something like an average player. Beyond that, though, there is not much to be excited about. I do not have inside information on what other teams were offering Crisp, but the market for him did not seem to be especially hot. Crisp is not getting overpaid, but he is not making so little that he offers much surplus value on the trade market down the road if the As do come up with a better option, and teams are not giving up much by way of prospects for rentals of players like Crisp, anyway. That is not to say that the deal is totally pointless or harmful — as said above, someone has to play center field, the As do not have any other immediately attractive options, and it is not like Crisp’s salary is going to be hampering some plan for “big splash” in free agency next year.
Hopefully for As fans, Crisp will offer up some highlight reels catches and fun on the bases the next couple of seasons. Beyond that, this deal is basically just more treading water for a franchise that might actually have some hope for a few years down the road if some of their prospects turn into stars rather than just role players. Hopefully for those same fans, Billy Beane‘s recent trades are moves toward finally making that happens.