On the Margin - Positional Quality
In each baseball game, both teams field players at the same positions. Other sports feature more interchangeability between the various players on the playing surface. Magic Johnson won the NBA Finals MVP as a rookie when he subbed for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at center to clinch the title. Magic's big enough and tall enough to do that. While there will always be valuable guys like Chone Figgins playing baseball, needless to say, Jason Varitek could not have replaced a slumping Julio Lugo in the World Series.
This phenomenon engenders a situation in which, for the purposes of team construction theory, baseball contests end up amounting to a series of indirect, one on one match-ups. Let's stick with the Red Sox. Varitek was just ok by his standards in 2007 (.255/.367/.421) but he was good enough that on a given night, chances were the Red Sox had the better catcher than the other team. The same could be said of Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Mike Lowell and Manny Ramirez. None of these players is the best at their given position but more likely than not, better than the guy in the other dugout penciled into the lineup at the same position. Have the upper hand at enough positions, mix in solid pitching and you are in business.
Like anything else, quality at a given position in Major League Baseball will fluctuate. From 1996 through 2005, an annual average of 4.3 National League right fielders posted an OPS+ of 130 or better. You can see the full list here. Between 2006 and 2007, not one right fielder managed to post such a number.
Perhaps I am late to the game here but I think that positional quality at a given snapshot in time should factor into teams' talent assemblage. To break this down, let's have a look at the top-5 National League right fielders in 2007, according to Baseball Prospectus's VORP.
C. Hart 39.2
B. Hawpe 37.4
K. Griffey 31.1
J. Hermida 27.3
R. Winn 26.4
So let's play GM now, National League GM to be exact. Such a weak top of the right field class screams opportunity to me. Sure, on the one hand you could throw a second-rate rookie out there and not take on too much risk because because even if he flops, other teams are not beating you too badly in right. On the other hand, a single bold move or exercising some creativity could net an enterprising team a decided advantage.
Take the Philadelphia Philles, for instance. They will be using a right field platoon of Geoff Jenkins and Jayson Werth. On the surface, there is not a whole lot to get excited about here. But let's look closer. Below are their respective three-year splits against both right-handed and left-handed pitchers:
AVG OBP SLG
Jenkins .292 .365 .504
Werth .243 .350 .389
AVG OBP SLG
Jenkins .209 .312 .372
Werth .316 .413 .471
It looks to me like the Phillies might have managed to put together the NL's best right field for 2008. With an excellent southpaw-hitting right-fielder in the fold already and Jenkins out there and available, the Phillies acted. Jenkins is the sort of player who is often panned by some as exactly the sort of mid-market overpriced talent you should steer clear of. You pay up for premium talent, develop and play the scrap-heap for the rest of your team. The Phillies spotted the opportunity, however, and figure to be rewarded.
Another option in a situation such as this is to really go for the kill. What would it have taken to pry Magglio Ordonez away from the Tigers? With two years left on his albeit pricey contract, would it have been worth it for a team that's close but not there yet to part with some prospects for the opportunity to blow away the right field pool in the National League? Would the Angels ever part with Vladimir Guererro?
You don't make such a deal without careful consideration but to the extent that you would ever be willing to deal prospects for a name brand superstar player, isn't this precisely the sort of time to do it? Widespread mediocrity at a given position should trigger the aggressive, smart GM to get either creative, bold or both in order to net his team a quick positional advantage.