Winter Meetings Coverage: Gerald Laird trade

Today, MLB’s winter meetings kick off in Las Vegas, and with that, the off-season kicks into high gear. We’ll see a bunch of trades, some free agent signings, and a lot of rumors floating around in the next few days. Here at FanGraphs, we’re going to team up to bring you nearly instant analysis of the transactions, breaking them down as they happen. If there’s a lull, we’ll still be pushing out our regular content, but expect heavy coverage of all the moves over the next few days.

Trade number one, according to Ken Rosenthal, is Gerald Laird going from Texas to Detroit to become the Tigers new starting catcher. Texas clearly needed to move Laird due to their logjam behind the plate, and the Tigers needed a backstop, so this was a good fit between the two teams. But what should Detroit expect from Laird?

Inconsistency is probably the best expectation. Laird’s had an up and down career, where he went from very good in 2006 to miserable in 2007 before bouncing back to be okay in 2008. His skills haven’t changed much, but he’s gotten drastically different results from his balls in play over the last three years: a .345 BABIP in 2006, a .278 mark in 2007, and a .315 mark in 2008. His career BABIP is .310, just a bit above average, so both ’06 and ’07 stand out as random variance. He’s not a .296 or .224 hitter.

For 2009, Marcel has him at .259/.313/.398 for a .310 wOBA, but remember, Marcel doesn’t do park adjustments, so it doesn’t know that Texas is a fun place to hit. We need to knock that projection down to account for the lack of 81 home games in Arlington, so let’s call Laird a .300 wOBA guy for next year.

A .300 wOBA would make Laird worth about 15 runs less than an average hitter over 500 PA, but of course, catchers don’t hit like average hitters, so the +12.5 run positional adjustment covers almost all of that, and leave’s Laird as a -2.5 run offensive player. A bit below average for his position, basically.

Catcher defense is extremely hard to measure as a whole, but we can measure parts, such as blocking balls in the dirt and controlling the running game. Laird is above average at those by about five runs, so we’ll call his defensive value +5, admitting that there’s a huge part of his job that we just can’t measure yet.

-2.5 offense + 5 defense = +2.5 runs compared to a league average catcher. That makes Laird something like a +2 to +2.5 win player, or a guy who should command something like $10 to $12 million per season on the open market. He’s arbitration eligible, however, and unlikely to get more than $3 or $4 million in salary for 2009. That makes Laird a pretty huge bargain.

Detroit did a nice job of identifying Laird as a guy who could help them. Marc will be around to tell you about the prospects they’re sending to Texas, but I’d say this move gets a thumbs up for the Tigers.

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Dave is a co-founder of and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

16 Responses to “Winter Meetings Coverage: Gerald Laird trade”

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  1. Isaac says:

    I’m not all that informed when it comes to calculating how many wins a specific performance is good for, but how is a player who is only two and a half runs better than the league average for his position worth nearly two and a half wins. Are you comparing his performance to replacement level, and if so why? Wouldn’t it be better to compare him to the league average, because that is what his team will be competing against?

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  2. JWay says:

    Value is compared to replacement level because its freely available and easy to find. Average is not as replaceable.

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  3. JWay says:

    If you want to compare it to league average you can say he’s a 0-0.5 win above average player. But to calculate their money value you need the baseline (replacement level). Sorry for the double post :) Hope that helped, that’s my general understanding of Dave’s wisdom.

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  4. Isaac says:

    I realize that but league average is what they are competing against, so finding a league average catcher, while clearly better than the average 4A player, doesn’t do anything in terms of gaining an edge over the competition. To me, applauding the Tigers for going out and finding a league average catcher is damning them with faint praise.

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  5. JWay says:

    I think you’re over thinking it. The hitting value is based on him hitting against those pitchers. He hit pretty poor, but catchers generally do, and they get an adjustment to put them in line with all hitters. So in a way he is compared to league average catchers, and as a whole there aren’t many who hit after Mauer, Martin, Soto. So if Laird is put on the same playing field value wise as every other hitter he’s an average player.

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  6. JWay says:

    And the Tigers get the pat on the back for finding a player worth 8-10 million a season for 4-5 and under team control. Unless they gave up ‘spects that we’re really good, which I have no idea.

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  7. Isaac says:

    Thanks for clearing that up a bit. Still, I find it weird that 8-10 million dollars is a deserved amount of money for a slightly above league average backstop.

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  8. NadavT says:

    Keep in mind that the 8-10 million dollar figure is based on what teams generally pay per win for free agents. It’s not a question of what people here think a player deserves, but rather it’s based on historical patterns in the market. So if Gerald Laird were a free agent playing the market, it’s likely that he’d end up with a one-year deal worth about 8-10 million, assuming that perception of his value was fairly close to his actual value. The fact that Laird’s contract status means that he’s earning less than that for the next few years makes him a player of value.

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  9. David says:

    “Thanks for clearing that up a bit. Still, I find it weird that 8-10 million dollars is a deserved amount of money for a slightly above league average backstop.”

    I don’t know if it’s deserved, but look at Ramon Hernandez’s contract… he’s worse defensively than Laird, and not any better with the bat. of course next season the Orioles will pay Wieters the league minimum salary for performance that is decidedly above league average, or so I hope :-)

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  10. JWay says:

    Yeah, I donKt think its meant to be, he should get 10 million or everyone freak out, but if he did make his expected numbers, with where the market is at you could be ok with paying him that much.

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  11. Terry says:

    How many catchers are getting paid $10-12M/yr?

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  12. David says:

    Jason Kendall, Jorge Posada, Ivan Rodriguez, and Jason Varitek all made $9 million or more in at least one of the past two seasons. it’s a bit misleading to look at catcher salaries, though, because once a catcher has solidified his reputation and has played in the majors long enough to get this kind of salary, his body is probably starting to go downhill from the physical stresses of catching every day.

    try ranking all catchers with >300 PA by wOBA. the top 5 list is… Chris Iannetta ($400k), Brian McCann ($950k), Joe Mauer ($6.5 million), Geovany Soto ($400k), Kelly Shoppach ($400k). if you crank it up to 500 PA you replace Iannetta and Shoppach with Russell Martin ($500k) and Bengie Molina ($6.25 million). so either way you look at it, most of the top catchers in the major leagues are still early in their careers. the other obstacle catchers face, of course, is that they are generally terrible hitters, and catcher defense is even harder to measure than other positions.

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  13. JWay says:

    The fact that their careers are generally shorter doesn’t help their case either. Which helps the Tigers in this case cause they aren’t weighed down long term by any means with this deal.

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  14. Terry says:

    So basically it would be considered unusual for a catcher to be paid at a “market” rate?

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  15. NickP says:

    500 PA is light for most players. probably about right for a catcher. My question is does a catcher get the full 12.5 run position adjustment if he’s only projected for 500 PA. Shouldn’t you prorate that?

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  16. Micah says:

    Laird has yet to log 500 PA’s in a season.

    The argument that Laird is a league average player rests entirely upon giving him a win+ for doing something he has never done before (catching 135+ games) and making some significant “thumb in the air” inferences about his defensive ability.

    The Tigers have addressed two of the most valuable positions on the field by locking in below average at shortstop and crossing their fingers that they’ll get average from behind the plate (though that is really Laird’s ceiling/upside). It’s great that they did it cheaply but really that should be faint praise.

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