Hector Olivera, amazing Cuban phenom and/or expensive disaster-in-the-making, is going to get signed eventually, and the A’s might be the team to do it! of course, I have absolutely no idea how likely this is — Kiley McDaniel, the fantastic prospect writer for Fangraphs, recently stated that he got the feeling that the A’s weren’t actually that interested and were just "doing their due diligence". Yesterday, Ken Rosenthal put the A’s alongside the Dodgers as one of the likeliest destinations for him. Basically, no one knows anything and we’re all just waiting on any news whatsoever.
One of the side effects of signing him would be, of course, the movement of Ben Zobrist from 2B to LF. And that should be fine, given the incredible versatility that Zobrist gives to the roster. Assuming that Olivera would get signed, however, I’m expecting to hear a lot of criticism of the A’s giving up their top prospect for a LF that doesn’t hit like the prototypical slugger LF. I’m expecting to hear a lot of sports radio people comparing his dinger total to Cespedes’s dinger total. It’ll be exhausting.
It’s actually a fair point: one of the basic truisms of roster construction has been "offense from the corners, defense up the middle". Left fielders used to be huge sluggers, the core of a team’s offense. People want a Cespedes, an Upton (the good one), a Moss, a Kemp, a Holliday. Okay, no one wants a Holliday in Oakland, but the point stands.
Corner outfield defense is valuable and expensive.
Corner defense is coming into vogue in a big way. A surprising amount of big money, big name teams have been buying into it. Brett Gardner on the Yankees, Christian Yelich on the Marlins, Jason Heyward on the Braves, Kevin Kiermaier on the Rays, and our own Josh Reddick all fit the bill of relatively light hitting corner outfielders who make most of their value on the defensive end.
Teams obviously value this skill set: Brett Gardner got a 4 year, $52 million extension last winter, and one year of Jason Heyward netted the Braves four years of a promising young pitcher in Shelby Miller. Both of those players played almost exclusively in a corner OF spot last year and both had a 110 wRC+ (which is a totally crazy coincidence). One of the best ways to analyze the effectiveness of a style of player is to see how much teams are willing to pay for them — on a whole, front offices are much more intelligent about what wins games than us internet plebeians. If front offices are willing to pay for that skill set, than by golly, it’s a dang good skill set.
If you’re looking for proof that a team centered around corner defense can win games, look no further than the 2014 Royals. Alex Gordon is the poster boy for this renaissance in OF defense — despite a fairly pedestrian 122 wRC+ in 2014, he put up 6.6 fWAR. Not everyone believes in that number, and that’s fair. What’s important is that a team that counted him among their key players got farther than the Billy Beane A’s have ever gotten in the playoffs. If you want to discount the importance of OF defense, that’s something to remember.
Ben Zobrist is really, really good in the corners.
Ben Zobrist measures alongside these defense virtuosos. For his career, he has a 21.0 UZR/150 in LF (albeit in a limited amount of innings), and a 21.9 UZR/150 for his career in RF in some 2000 innings in his career. For context, Jason Heyward and Alex Gordon, the 2014 leaders in corner UZR/150, put up 20.5 and 22.6 respectively. Zobrist, if he put up his career numbers, would probably be among the best defenders in the game.
Age seems to be affecting him though… like age affects a fine wine! (I know you’re laughing, that was funny). in 2014, in 358.1 innings, he put up a 37.0 UZR/150 in the OF. In samples as small as 350 that doesn’t mean a lot, but it at least shows that Zobrist’s not in the decline years yet.
In case you don’t believe me:
He’s good. He’s really really good.
Sam Fuld is not a good option in LF.
Sam Fuld was good last year, right? He had some good stats, and he’s likable too! But I’m here to rain on your parade. Despite the fact I’ve been pushing for OF defense in this article, you need something from the offensive end. Anything. The guys I’ve been describing have a 110-120 wRC+. Sam Fuld is not one of those guys.
Sam Fuld, in 53 games with the Twins in 2014: .274/.370/.354
Sam Fuld, with Oakland in 2014: .209/.275/.332
Sam Fuld, the rest of his career: .236/.316/.334
Sam Fuld’s age: 33
He’s a great defender in the corners. But that’s it. He gives you nothing else. Zobrist will hit some no matter where you play him. If the best way to upgrade LF is to get a new 2B, it’s absolutely worth doing.
Ben Zobrist is going to be good no matter where you put him. That’s his value. He’ll make a great 2B, a great LF, a great RF, a great SS, whatever. I bet he’d be a good catcher. Maybe he can pitch. Who knows. According to the scouts, Olivera is going to be real good too. That’s why Zobrist’s versatility is so valuable: it allows you to adjust when opportunities like this come up. Just because he’s not a classic corner slugger doesn’t mean he won’t be the best danged player on the team.
Anyway, in the immortal words of Marlo Stanfield, this is what you call one of those good problems.