Minimizing Risk In Atlanta

This afternoon, I mentioned that there may be an opportunity for teams to improve their rosters through diversification rather than purely pursuing upgrades. Let’s take a look at one of the specific opportunities and how this could work practically.

Atlanta, Left Field

The Braves want to upgrade their output for 2010, and the natural spot to do that would be left field. Garret Anderson didn’t produce at all in the position last year, posting a .305 wOBA while UZR hated his defense. They can certainly do better, and there are some big name run-producing outfielders on the market this winter.

However, they also have Jason Heyward, the best prospect in baseball, who happens to be a corner outfielder. He’s just 20 years old and has less than half a season of experience above A-ball, but his natural abilities and 2009 performance put him squarely in the 2010 picture.

There’s some real upside to handing Heyward the left field job and letting him run with it, but his projection necessarily has to include significant amounts of risk as well. He’s a classic high variance type of player, and the relatively high probability of failure drives down his expected value to the point where you can make a good case that he should be replaced, at least for 2010.

However, this is a situation where I’d argue for depth rather than replacement. Instead of bringing in an established player to perform at a level above what you’d expect from Heyward, the Braves may instead be able to bring in a player that allows them to minimize the cost of Heyward’s downside while still allowing them to give him an opportunity.

Randy Winn, for instance, is a low upside, low variance veteran that won’t command a large contract as a free agent. You generally know what you’re going to get from him – good contact, good defense, and no power. Having Winn on the team would allow the Braves to give Heyward a shot without bearing the full risk of collapse, as his steady but unspectacular production would serve as a stop loss if Heyward proves to not be ready for the big leagues.

By adding a player like Winn, the Braves minimize the variance that would be attached to giving Heyward a real look at the LF job. Removing risk in that way is significantly cheaper than doing so by pursuing a superior player with a steadier projection. It’s not free, of course – Winn will require some money to sign, and carrying both Winn and Heyward would cost the Braves an extra roster spot that consolidating into a better player would not.

In this case, though, I’d argue that the benefits probably outweigh those costs. A Winn/Heyward pairing in left field for Atlanta could provide a similar expected return to pretty much any of the non-Holliday free agent outfielders at a fraction of the cost.

This is just one example of a situation where pursuing depth is preferential to upgrading talent. Hopefully, it helps illustrate the point I was trying to make this afternoon. We’ll talk more about this next week, as we flesh out some of the issues that we didn’t have time to cover today.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Hi Dave – Excellent article, I found it very interesting. I am curious as to your description of Heyward as a “classic high vairance type of player”. Everything I have read seemed to indicate his floor is exceptionally high, and thusly I was confused by your “relatively high probability of failure” tag.

Maybe I am just misunderstanding based on context… it is Friday evening and I am still at work for some reason. Obviously doing work.