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What Does San Diego See In Kotsay?

For the second year in a row, Mark Kotsay has received a major league contract. The Padres agreed to a one-year deal worth $1.25 million with the 35-year-old (about to enter his age-36 season) on Tuesday.

For the second year in a row, Mark Kotsay does not deserve a spot on a major league roster — at least, not on his merits as a baseball player.

There was a time when Mark Kotsay was a very successful major league player. Crazily enough, much of Mark Kotsay’s productive career was spent with the Padres during the 2001-2003 seasons. Kotsay compiled 13.4 Wins Above Replacement in those seasons, largely on the back of a highly-rated glove in center field. His bat was by no means incompetent, as he posted an on-base percentage above .340 in all three seasons. His home run total of 34 over those three seasons hardly measures up with the high tides of the steroid era, but he still managed to add 36 batting runs above average in his time in San Diego.

Those times are now squarely in the past. Kotsay would have one more good year, his first with the Oakland Athletics in 2004, but his bat would soon collapse. After posting five straight seasons with an OBP above .340 from 2000-2004, his OBP has never risen above .332 since. His hitting has ranged from mediocre (a 95 wRC+ with Milwaukee last year) to bad (83 between the Red and White Sox in 2009) to horrible (49 with Oakland in 2007).

But Kotsay’s bat hasn’t been so consistently bad to rule him out as a major league player — he consistently makes enough contact to get on base at a palatable rate. The problem is the glove.

First of all, to ever believe that Kotsay had more than average talent, you needed to believe in his glove. Never once in his career did he post a batting runs above average total above 20 in a single season. His fielding numbers power many of his high WAR totals in San Diego as well as his initial successes in Florida. Observe:

1998: 3.7 WAR, +25.0 FLD
1999: 1.1 WAR, +14.0 FLD
2000: 2.7 WAR, +10.0 FLD
2001: 3.7 WAR, +7.0 FLD
2002: 5.2 WAR, +9.2 FLD
2003: 4.5 WAR, +20.0 FLD
2004: 4.0 WAR, +3.2 FLD

Since 2004, Kotsay’s age-28 season and his last above-average season in the majors, Kotsay has a UZR of -26, or about -4 runs per season. If Kotsay could still rely on the excellent glove that made him from a role player into a borderline star in the early part of the decade, he would be more than worth the major league contract — and more importantly, the roster spot — the Padres are promising. Having watched him all last year with the Brewers, I can plainly tell you: he fails the eye test as much as he fails the metric test. He made 35 look like the new 45 in the Brewers outfield.

However, the Padres probably aren’t going to be in a position to compete next year. By all accounts, Kotsay seems to be a pretty good clubhouse guy. If he basically fills the Matt Stairs role (except without the power bat) for them, possibly helping some of their young players acclimate to life in the majors, the investment could work out. Still, it just seems like $1.25 million and a roster spot are an awful lot to guarantee a voice in the clubhouse — and little else.