Over the weekend, the Atlanta Braves swapped their bad infielder embroiled in a domestic violence incident, Hector Olivera, for nice-guy outfielder Matt Kemp. The deal was largely panned within the industry, and many felt the Padres benefited most by ridding themselves of Kemp while he still had value. Olivera’s involvement in the deal was a purely financial exchange, as he was immediately designated for assignment, and he may never play in the majors again amid the stink of mediocrity and domestic violence. But the complex financials of the deal effectively mean that to land Kemp, the Braves’ bank account will be light just $30M or so over the next three years. Forgetting for a moment the enormous misstep the Braves made in acquiring Olivera in the first place, this Kemp acquisition is unbelievably impressive considering the price other teams are paying for defensively-challenged power-hitting outfielders.
Take Jay Bruce. One of the hottest names on the hot stove this July, he got moved on Monday for Dilson Herrera and Max Wotell. The interesting thing here is that Bruce is due $13M and signed only through next season, and the Mets had to give up real talent to acquire him. Herrera, the headliner going back to the Reds for Bruce, is a 22-year-old second baseman with a .790 OPS in AAA. But the kicker here is that Bruce isn’t good. He’s been worth six wins below average over the last three years.
- Matt Kemp 2015/16: .263/.301/.460, 46 HR and an OPS+ of 109
- Jay Bruce 2015/16: .240/.301/.481, 51 HR and an OPS+ of 108
Undoubtedly, Bruce has been the better player this year. His OPS+ is 20 points higher than Kemp’s, meaning he’s been about 20% better than Kemp. But let’s consider what that means for a moment. Purely in terms of slugging, it’s about 25 total bases over the course of 400 at bats. That’s an extra base every four games, or twice a week. I realize that baseball is made up of all those little differences — and that those differences are what separate the contenders and the pretenders — but we’re talking about a whole lot of luck when we’re talking about two extra bases a week.
So why does “the industry” value one of these guys so much more highly than the other? Perception. The Reds have spent the greater part of the last year building up Jay Bruce as a potential difference-maker for a playoff team desperate for power. They’ve subtly leaked rumors of his availability to the press. They’ve reminded everyone that he’s clocked 233 homers in his career, and they had to smile as Yoenis Cespedes proved last year that flawed players can bring teams over the hump.
But is Kemp really all that different from Bruce? Was Kemp available for 3/$30M to everyone? Do you realize what 3/$30M means in today’s baseball? Last offseason, Joakim Soria signed for 3/$25M while Gerardo Parra got 3/$27.5M. That type of money goes to 7th-inning relievers and 4th outfielders. Kemp doesn’t even have to be good to be worth that type of money; merely average.
But Sean, the Defense!
Eh. They’re both pretty bad at defense. Whether one guy is worth -20 runs while the other is worth -15 really doesn’t matter to me. Maybe it should, but it really doesn’t. That type of difference is similar to the white noise to which one can ascribe that one extra base per week.
So really, it comes down to a simple proposition. It’s not as glamorous as trying to pick between Nolan Arenado, Manny Machado, or any other young superstar. You’ve got two guys. Both are power hitters and play bad defense. One might be better than the other this season, but he was way worse last year. That one costs a solid prospect, and is signed for one year at $13M. The other costs zero prospects, and is effectively signed through 2019 at ~$10M per.
Who do you take?