A Viable Plan B?
Both the Los Angeles Angels and Boston Red Sox lost out on the Mark Teixeira sweepstakes and are now left to figure out which roster tweaks remain both available and viable this off-season. In itself, not going to $180 million, $190 million, $200 million for Tex's services is perfectly defensible but that does not change the notion that if you are not improving while teams around you are, you're effectively getting worse. For both teams to maintain the competitive advantages they have enjoyed for the last handful of seasons, they would be wise to consider other options.
One player that both teams might consider is Adam Dunn. He is the same age as Teixeira and has experience at first base. This piece will go into some depth comparing the two to see if the Angels or Red Sox should consider Dunn, who will be available at a fraction of Teixeira's cost. Dunn has indicated he would like to play right field for the Cubs and the Dodgers have now reportedly turned their attention from Manny Ramirez to Dunn, but perhaps those teams that were so hot for Teixeira should hop into the bidding for Dunn's services as well.
There is one item to get out of the way before we dive in. Dunn has been an absolutely awful outfielder. Interestingly, four of the remaining corner outfield free agents this off-season are four of the worst fielders in all of baseball. Dunn, Ramirez, Pat Burrell and Bobby Abreu are all terrible with the glove. Thanks to Fangraphs, here are their average UZR/150 figures for the past three seasons.
UZR/150 Dunn -16.6 Abreu -14.9 Ramirez -19.4 Burrell -17.5
UZR/150 is defined on the site as follows:
UZR/150 (ultimate zone rate per 150 games): The number of runs above or below average a fielder is, per 150 defensive games.
That Dunn has been so terrible in the field is an important point because it dramatically hampers his overall value as a player when you consider him for an outfield position. This is why, if you want to compare Tex (a terrific defensive first baseman) and Dunn in terms of, say, Baseball Prospectus' WARP or Fangraphs' Value Wins, you see that the numbers pretty drastically favor Tex. So for the purposes of this exercise, or at least initially, we are going to stick to offense (we will circle back to Dunn's first base defense in a little bit).
Let's start with a look at each player's career batting numbers.
AVG OBP SLG OPS+ OWP Dunn .247 .381 .518 130 .670 Tex .290 .378 .541 134 .673
Readers of this site do not need a tutorial on OPS+ but some may not be familiar with Offensive Win Percentage which, most simply, means the percentage of games your team would win if it consisted of nine of that given player, assuming average run prevention on the same team.
As you can see, there is not much difference here. But let's dig in a little more. Pictured below is a comparison of Tex and Dunn by wOBA (weighted on base average), a number created by Tom Tango to improve upon OPS by appropriately weighting on-base and then scaling it to league average on-base (like how EQA does the same with batting average). After the graph, I list each of their figures starting in 2003, because that was Tex's rookie season:
wOBA Dunn Tex 2003 .353 .345 2004 .403 .389 2005 .391 .405 2006 .365 .374 2007 .399 .406 2008 .383 .410
And how about the last three seasons, an arguably more reliable indicator of future performance?
AVG OBP SLG OPS+ Dunn .244 .379 .518 126 Tex .298 .393 .541 141
Teixeira clearly outperforms Dunn when you look at their three-year numbers, but just as we did with the wOBA numbers, let's once again have a look at their numbers since 2003:
AVG OBP SLG OPS+ Dunn .245 .379 .525 131 Tex .290 .378 .541 134
The narrowing is attributable to a few factors. For one, Dunn was terrific in 2004 (146 OPS+) and not so great in 2006 (114 OPS+). Adding his 2004 numbers is worthwhile because a 24 year-old who puts up such a great season is in all likelihood capable of doing it again at 29. This should be taken into consideration by incorporating more data; three-year splits omit Dunn's best work. And just so readers are clear that I am not cherry-picking, Dunn had a mediocre 2003 as well, which is accounted for. For Teixeira's part, his three-year numbers favor him because he has been consistent for much of the three years, and then went nuts as an Angel. If you run his numbers from Opening Day 2006 through his last game as an Atlanta Brave, his line is .286/.373/.536. Add in his Angels stretch of .358/.449/.632 and you get the three-year numbers above, .298/.393/.541. We don't want to eliminate these numbers. They happened, after all. What we want to do is bring in more data, so we note the numbers going back to 2003 and observe that there isn't a whole lot of difference between the two players offensively.
To be sure, there are stylistic differences between the two players. For one, Teixeira hits for more average and therefore will be a better RBI-man. Dunn walks more, and will therefore see more pitches per plate appearance. And here are their differences versus lefties and righties:
vs. RHP vs. LHP Dunn .252/.398/.539 .235/.359/.474 Tex .281/.371/.541 .309/.393/.541
Tex is a switch hitter and remarkably consistent from both sides. This will offer the Yankees tactical advantages, as opposing managers will not be able to use their bullpen to match-up against Tex in later innings. On the other hand, though his productivity is still respectable, Dunn falls off against lefties. But most pitchers are right-handed, and Dunn enjoys a considerable advantage over Tex in this department.
There exists, relative to Tex, limited data on Dunn's ability to play first base.
Fielding as 1B Games Innings UZR/150 Dunn 127 891.2 -12.5 Tex 853 7,345.2 3.5
Clearly Tex has been better, say a full win per season better, but what if Dunn were to play there more regularly? Isn't it conceivable that he could improve his first base glove work with more consistent play at the position? I don't think that he would ever catch Teixeira, but I think he could be within a win of him over the course of a season.
The case for Dunn hinges on four different points. First, as shown above, Teixeira and Dunn are very much comparable hitters. Tex was unreal down the stretch in 2008 and Dunn was mediocre in 2006 but if you go even further back - their numbers since 2003, their career numbers - you can see that there isn't much difference in productivity between them.
Second, while Dunn is a notoriously bad defensive player, he has earned the lion share of that reputation while toiling in the outfield. He is not a very good first baseman either but a couple of points warrant mentioning regarding his first base defense. There is a much narrower band between the worst and the best first baseman than there is for, say, the worst and best shortstop or even the worst and best right fielder. Relatively speaking, first base defense is of marginal importance. Moreover, it's likely that Dunn would improve at first if he got more regular time there.
Third, Dunn is known to be a laid back guy with a questionable work-ethic and desire to be the best he can be. This is important because he is currently a free agent, and teams need to perform their diligence in order to determine if he would be a worthwhile hire. So if I am the Red Sox, I say "We understand that you have been in Cincinnati for all of these years. Maybe you let your weight slip at times, maybe you didn't dig it out all the time on the base paths, maybe you lolligagged for a blooper or two here and there. But we still think you have the ability to be special. Will you join the reining AL MVP and Kevin Youkilis during the off-season at Athletes Performance Institute in Tempe? Because if you do, or if you make a similar commitment off the field, you will be a hero here in Boston."
And then just sit back. See what he has to say and make a judgment call. Corporations, Law Firms, Medical Facilities and just about any other entity that competes in some form or another has to make judgment calls on their talent. If Dunn lost 25 pounds and took 1,000 ground balls a day in the off-season, I think many would agree that he could be a top-tier MLB performer. Dunn's natural athleticism cannot be questioned; he was once recruited to be a quarterback at The University of Texas. He can become a decent first baseman. But I do think that signing Dunn would have to hinge on the belief that he would commit to being the best he could be.
Finally, teams need to take value into consideration. It's likely that the team that nets Dunn this off-season will do so for half as many years as Tex demanded and at an annual salary that is also half of what Tex signed for. From what I can see, when you take all of these components together, maybe Dunn would be a viable Plan B.
How does Dunn fit in with the contending teams that missed out on Teixeira? Rich Lederer emailed me regarding how it might play out with the Angels and had the following to say:
Dunn Could DH for the Angels and play occasionally in left or at first. Vladimir Guerrero in RF, Juan Rivera in LF, Kendry Morales at 1B, and Dunn at DH would be the way to go but Dunn could also play LF (allowing Rivera to DH or give Vlad a day off in RF) or 1B (with Morales serving as the DH). Gary Matthews could back all of them up, playing a corner outfield spot or DH'ing.
I think that all sounds about right. But how about the Red Sox? They were ready to trade Mike Lowell when they were in the running for Tex and there is no reason to believe that still wouldn't be the case with Dunn. Lowell is fragile, and has had all of one productive season in the last four or so. Dunn could play first with Youkilis at third. What makes this option even more interesting is that if Boston decides they do not want to re-sign Youkilis or pick up David Ortiz's option after the 2010 season, they have a new 1B/DH combo ready to go. Lars Anderson, who hit .316/.436/.526 finishing up the season in AA Portland last season, would be ready to assume first base duties. Dunn could move to DH. If Boston wanted to re-up Youkilis, he could still play third. Given personnel choices coming down the pike, adding Dunn would seem to make sense for Boston.
Make no mistake, Adam Dunn is not Mark Teixeira. He is not quite the hitter and he is most definitely not the defensive asset that Tex is. But the decision comes down to this. If you were willing to go more or less all-in on Tex, if he was your guy this off-season and you were ready to pony up nearly $200 million for eight years (and trade the 2007 World Series MVP in the process), how can you be uninterested in even kicking the tires on Dunn at a quarter of the total financial outlay, half the contract duration and half the annual salary? Make me Boston's GM and this is an option that I would be pursuing aggressively.