There is something serendipitous about Austin Kearns being signed to a a minor-league deal by Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro. Both have long been admired for their potential, but both are widely perceived (at least in certain circles) as disappointments. Despite that perception (which is surely at least somewhat grounded in reality), both have had their moments — Cleveland’s 2007 ALCS run, Kearns’ 2002, 2006, and 2007 seasons. By signing Kearns and Shelley Duncan to virtually no-risk, minor-league contracts, is Shapiro showing he’s still capable of smart moves? Let’s see what Kearns and Duncan have to offer.
Austin Kearns is now 30 and and the apparent potential of the early 00s and the “rebound” of 2006-07 are a long way away. But the public emergence of superior defensive metrics shows that he was even more valuable in his good years than originally thought, and not totally worthless even in some of his bad years. Offensively, Kearns isn’t much. CHONE projects Kearns for a context-neutral .237/.338/.375, or 6 runs below average per 150 games. ZiPS is similar, projecting .237/.341/.377, which I translate to about -6/150. My own projection is right there: .247/.346/.376, -4/150.
That’s not good, but it’s also enough to justify a minor-league deal — even with CHONE’s average defensive projection for the corner outfield, that adds up to 0.7 WAR in only 452 PA. But UZR likes Kearns is much more than that, and Jeff Zimmerman projects Kearns’ RF UZR/150 for +10 in 2010. Putting it all together, per 150 games Kearns is probably around a 1.5 WAR player once we account for position. That’s excellent for a minor-league deal.
Shelley Duncan is an ex-Yankee International League superstar who is a pretty bad outfielder — CHONE’s TotalZone has him at -6 (there’s too little major league sample size to use UZR), and is probably more of a 1B/LF/DH type. One might dismiss his CHONE projection — .244/.329/.462, +12/150 — as overly optimistic given its reliance on MLEs, but ZiPS is also impressed with Duncan, projecting him for .252/.328/.460, about +8/150. Even if you don’t regard him as an above-average player as does CHONE, again, he’s a very valuable piece to have on a minor league deal.
Mark Shapiro’s team had a disastrous 2009 after a disappointing 2008. The team has revenue problems, as well. On the field, two spots in the outfield are set, with CF Grady Sizemore likely to be one of the better players in the league again after a inujry-plagued down year in 2009, and Shin-Soo Choo is a likely 3.5-4 WAR impact hitter in right field. But there are other holes that need to be filled and not much money with which to do so. Matt LaPorta is a good young hitter, but he might be needed to fill the hole in 1B (unless Andy Marte works out there). Left field was slated for the likes of Michael Brantley and Trevor Crowe — bench fodder at best. Perhaps they’d work out, but for next to nothing, players like Kearns and Duncan provide likely improvement as well much-needed right-handed bats (Sizemore, Choo, and Travis Hafner are all left-handed hitters) while adding practically nothing to the payroll. Moreover, Duncan can fill in at DH or 1B “just in case” Hafner gets hurt.
This isn’t to say that adding 30-year-old minor league outfielders like Kearns and Duncan makes Cleveland a contender (although it doesn’t take much in a weak AL Central), especially given the pitching situation by the lake. But smart, no-risk moves like this show that Mark Shapiro is paying attention and that he has something left in the tank.