Martin Prado on the Move?

[I would make a self-deprecating comment about alliterative titles here, but the truth is I could not think of anything clever, so you got this generic-ness.]

The trickle of “on the block” rumors is turning into a stream, and one of the more recent ones down the, um, pipe (is that fine or a mixed metaphor?) is that the Atlanta Braves are “gauging interest” in multi-positional hitter Martin Prado and pitcher Jair Jurrjens, at least in part to free up salary. The Braves have a good collection of young pitchers, which is why they were able to execute a (partial) salary-dump by sending Derek Lowe to Cleveland. Jurrjens looks like the next out the door given his injury issues, dubious peripherals, and arbitration status. However, the more intriguing player might be infielder-turned-outfielder Martin Prado.

According to our own Matt Swartz‘s projected arbitration salaries, Prado, who is entering his second off-season of arbitration eligibility, would likely make something around $4.4 million in 2012. Barring disaster, in his third (and last) season of arbitration eligibility, we could conservatively estimate him to make $6-$7 million. Given those projected salaries, how much surplus value would he offer to a team?

Prado has had an interesting career so far. A few years ago, with Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson entrenched as the Braves’ double play combination, Prado looked like a good utility guy. Prado hit well in a couple hundred plate appearance in 2008 (123 wRC+, 1.3 WAR), and logged over 500 plate appearances with a 117 wRC+ (3.2 WAR) while filling in at various positions in 2009. With Johnson non-tendered after 2009, Prado took over at second base full-time to start 2010 (sliding over to third when Chipper Jones — you aren’t going to believe this — got hurt) and hit well yet again, finishing at 118 wRC+ and 4.4 WAR.

Prado looked like an important part of the Braves’ offense going into 2011, and the acquisition of Dan Uggla (ahem) allowed him to move to left field to theoretically help with the Braves’ continuing outfield problems. That did not work out so well. While Prado seems to have fielded his new position well, his bat suddenly fell apart, as he posted a 85 wRC+ (.260/.302/.385). Prado had never walked much, and his strikeout rate was also his lowest in a while. However, his power dipped and his BABIP took a serious hit. Much of Prado’s value in previous years had been due to his BABIP, although it was never an extremely high. Taking his past seasons into account and applying appropriate amounts of regression and age adjustment, Oliver‘s last in-season update had him as a .327 wOBA hitter, or about six runs above average per 700 plate appearances.

Much of Prado’s value on the trade market will depend on what position teams envision him playing. He has moved around a fair bit. His good left-field performance this season was in a small sample size, so we should not conclude that he is a defensive virtuoso out there. He does not have much more than one season’s worth of fielding experience at second or third over his career. It is probably fair to say that he is around average at third and below average at second. To avoid the illusion of precision in projecting defense as well as accounting for his ability to play multiple positions, it might be best to simply call his position “neutral,” that is no positional adjustment either way.

Prado has never played more than 140 games in a season, and has spent time on the disabled list each of the last two seasons, so an 80 percent playing time projection seems fair. Prado will be 28 at the beginning of next season, so while he is a young man in the real world, in the baseball world it is probably time to start accounting for a slight decline in skills and general attrition. To summarize: plus six hitter, no positional adjustment either way, plus 20 runs for NL replacement level, all times 80 percent playing time and adjusted for aging and attrition puts him at about 1.5-2 Wins Above Replacement for 2012.

Even at a conservative five million dollars per marginal win, there is projected surplus value there with Prado (at least for 2012). Other teams will definitely be interested, especially given the thin free agent market at second base for teams willing to play him there. His positional flexibility also makes him attractive. On the other hand, there is not much upside for a player with a non-elite glove (to put it generously) whose primary offensive skill is hitting well on balls in play. That is not to say that his $3-$5 million in surplus value disappears, or that it a trade would be a straight salary dump for the Braves like the Lowe trade. It simply means that Prado is not the sort of player that teams are likely (you never know…) to give up much for.

A good comparison in this regard might be current Angels third baseman Alberto Callaspo. While Callaspo had a nice “bounce back” in 2011, in 2010, when he was with the Royals, he bore at least a passing resemblance to Prado as a baseball player. Like Prado, Callaspo’s primary offensive skill is making contact and getting hits on balls in play (Callaspo generally has shown less power and taken more walks). Like Prado, Callaspo is not especially speedy. While both players have bats that “traditionally” profile for up-the-middle players, neither is good at second base, and perform better at third. With Mike Moustakas on the way, Callaspo did not have a place to play full-time in the Royals organization, which was not going to pay him his likely arbitration salary to sit on the bench. Atlanta seems to feel somewhat the same way about Prado. Prado has the longer “track record,” but Callaspo was only going into his first year of arbitration going into 2011, while Prado will be heading into his second. Both the length of time and expense make bring down Prado’s value-over-projected salary relative to Callaspo’s. While Callaspo ended up having a nice 2011 season, at the time he was traded his value was down (much like Prado’s is now), and he brought back a young pitching prospect with a little bit of potential in Will Smith and a classic #8 starter in Sean O’Sullivan.

One can argue about which player would be more attractive — Callaspo in 2010 or Prado now, but I think the comparison is somewhat helpful. One trade for a roughly similar player year ago does not “set the market” for the future, but it does give us some indication of how Prado’s perceived surplus value might play out in the trade market. Prado is a useful player, and the Braves can probably find a team who needs an infield stopgap or a right-handed super-utility player who will be willing to pay his arbitration salary. However, the main benefit Atlanta can likely expect in return is salary relief and an iffy prospect or two. That is nothing to sniff at for a team with a promising pitching staff, some young talent, and in need of payroll room preparing for another season in which they should contend for the playoffs.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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It’s a shame he has such a hard time staying off the DL. The dude can rake when he’s healthy.