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Chris Coghlan roundup: Everything you need to know about the Oakland A's new hitter

One more cog in the green machine.
One more cog in the green machine.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Oakland A's made another last-minute trade on Thursday, acquiring Chris Coghlan from the Cubs in exchange for pitcher Aaron Brooks. With only a few days remaining before Cactus League games begin, let's not waste any time getting to know our new player.

First, the basic facts. Coghlan is listed as an outfielder and has spent the vast majority of his career in LF, but he has played six different positions in the bigs including five for Chicago last year. He's a left-handed batter who does a bit of everything at the plate but doesn't excel at any one skill, adding up to a slightly above-average line for his career but with positive trends the last couple seasons. He's a solid baserunner, according to FanGraphs' metrics, and can even swipe a few bags. And he's 30 years old, though with a June birthday this will be his age-31 season, and he's making $4.8 million in his final year before free agency. His name is pronounced "KAHG-lihn," via Baseball-Reference.

And now, a deeper look. For complete AN coverage, check out our StoryStream.


Let's start by seeing where Coghlan has been. He was a first-round pick by the Marlins in 2006, and in 2009 he burst onto the scene in Florida and won the NL Rookie of the Year award on the strength of a .321/.390/.460 batting line. However, that success didn't continue, and the next year he saw his OPS+ fall from 122 to 91 while also missing two months to knee surgery.

Things got even worse in 2011 -- another two months lost to his troublesome left knee, an 81 OPS+, and a negative WAR total. In 2012, his OPS+ fell to 8 (eight), and in only 105 plate appearances he managed to accrue negative-1.4 WAR. Which WAR scale? Both of them. Coghlan was so bad that he got both WAR systems to agree, and their common answer was, "Nope." He bounced back somewhat in 2013 but still didn't reach replacement level, and he also missed nearly half the season to a back strain. By that point the Marlins had seen enough, and he was non-tendered after that 2013 campaign.

Coghlan wasn't unemployed for long, though. The Cubs picked him up later that winter and stashed him in Triple-A, and by the beginning of May an injury to none other than former Athletics outfielder Ryan Sweeney opened the door for Coghlan in Chicago. He got off to a slow start, but he heated up as the year went on and posted a monster July in particular. By season's end, he'd matched the career-high 122 OPS+ he'd posted in his rookie year, and he followed that up with a 113 mark in 2015. He also set a career-high last year by playing in 148 games and set a personal best on both WAR scales (1.9 bWAR, 3.3 fWAR, with the difference chalked up to defensive metrics).

Scouting report: Offense

Coghlan credits a change in approach for his recent resurgence and thinks he's a different hitter than he was in his ROTY season, via this quote from David Laurila on FanGraphs:

When I was younger, I valued batting average and hits. Now I value slugging and on-base. That's how you win games. You have to get on base to score runs, and you slug to knock them in. If you look at my numbers, you'll see they're different, and that's because my values have changed. That said, I'm still instinctual. I still want to be aggressive. I want to hit every pitch until my eyes tell me otherwise.

If those aren't the words of a future A's player, then I don't know what are. And considering that he also set career-highs last year with 16 homers, a .193 isolated slugging, and an 11.5% walk rate, it's safe to say his self-report is accurate. His overall line from his two years with the Cubs, averaged together:

Coghlan, 2014-15 avg: .265/.346/.447, 12 HR, 10.4% BB, 18.7% Ks, 118 OPS+ (in 468 PAs)

Like I said, he does a bit of everything without standing out in any one category. Those walk and strikeout rates are both better than the league averages, which in 2015 were 7.7% for walks and 20.4% for Ks. There's enough power for double-digit homers, but not enough to call him a slugger. He hits for a decent enough average, though not the .321 he managed as a rookie. Heck, he even stole 18 bases over those two seasons, at a juuuust good enough 75% success rate. There may not be one carrying strength, like Khris Davis and his dingers, but Coghlan has no obvious weakness at the plate either.

If you really want a deep look at his evolution as a hitter, I highly recommend this profile by Alex Chamberlain on FanGraphs. The bottom line is that Coghlan appears to have gotten smarter in his approach, by more regularly attacking the low-and-away stuff that pitchers tend to give him and laying off the chase pitches as well as the parts of the zone in which he doesn't do as much damage. Chamberlain points out that this approach allowed Coghlan to do several things more often than he used to: hit the ball in the air, hit it hard, and pull it. It's no wonder he hit more homers than ever before, and the analysis jibes with this quote from Laurila's interview: "If I hit a ground ball, it's a mis-hit. I want to hit the ball in the air and drive it."

One final note about Coghlan's offense is that he does carry noteworthy platoon splits. The lefty hitter has a career OPS of .784 against right-handed pitchers, but only a .629 mark against southpaws, against whom his power all but disappears. The splits were even more pronounced in the small sample of his two years with the Cubs, so his new approach hasn't changed anything in this area. Coghlan is best utilized as a platoon bat, but the good news is he fits into the heavy side of the platoon -- righty pitchers were on the mound for 73% of MLB plate appearances last year, so Coghlan is in his wheelhouse three-quarters of the time.

Scouting report: Defense

There's good news and bad news. Let's start with the bad news: Coghlan has negative numbers across the board for his defense. His primary position has been left field, where he has ranged from neutral to awful. He's also spent some time in center, where he's mostly been awful. In both cases, the culprit is a lack of range, as his arm grades out fine and he seems to make the plays on balls he can get to. He's also made brief appearances at 1B, 2B, 3B, and RF, but hasn't spent enough time at any of them to reveal how proficient he is at playing them. Overall, his career defensive value is a giant negative, with a best-case scenario of being average in small stretches.

Ah, but there is a backhanded compliment hidden in there, which brings us to our good news: Coghlan has played six different positions in his MLB career, and he saw time at five of them just last year: LF, RF, 1B, 2B, and 3B. If you're trying to fit a strong platoon bat into a mix-and-match lineup, it sure does help that he can at least fake it at nearly every position on the field other than catcher and shortstop. And remember, the A's had arguably the best catching tandem in MLB last year (118 wRC+ ranked 2nd, behind the Dodgers), while their young shortstop managed 601 plate appearances and enters the year as a prime breakout candidate. They are well set at the only positions Coghlan has never attempted.

Here's one last bit of encouraging news. Last season, SB Nation did a promotion with Maytag in which each team site picked its club's "filthiest" player, meaning the guy who proverbially gets his uniform the dirtiest with his all-out style of play. For the A's, I picked Sam Fuld. Al Yellon of Bleed Cubbie Blue picked Coghlan as Chicago's down-and-dirtiest Cub. Of course, there is a dark side to playing extra hard -- Coghlan is the guy who infamously broke Jung-ho Kang with a takeout slide last summer, though the general public opinion was that the play was fair within the accepted practices of the sport (which have since been changed for the better, by the way). The point is that this is a guy who will play as hard as anyone, and that's a trait that just about any fan can appreciate.

Comparable players

Upon the acquisition, general manager David Forst referred to Coghlan as a "Zobrist-type guy," as a reference to his defensive versatility. While the specific point he's making is apt, that doesn't make Zobrist a good comp overall. First off, Zobrist doesn't just play lots of positions; in his prime years, when he was putting up 5-8 WAR per season, he was good at several positions. Coghlan just scrapes by well enough to get his bat in the lineup. Also, Zobrist has been the superior hitter in his career, with more power and far better K/BB numbers and no significant platoon split, and even in his decline years he's still probably slightly superior at the plate. Remember, one reason Coghlan got forced out of Chicago is that they signed the actual Zobrist to a 4yr/$56M contract. A 35-year-old Zobrist probably represents Coghlan's absolute best-case ceiling.

No, if we're looking for a more reasonable comp for Coghlan, we'll probably need two players -- one for offense and one for defense. In terms of hitting, the name that immediately comes to mind is Seth Smith. Here is Coghlan's two-year Cubs resurgence next to Smith's career as a regular player (season averages):

Coghlan, 2014-15 avg: .265/.346/.447, 12 HR, 10.4% BB, 18.7% Ks, 118 OPS+ (in 468 PAs)
Smith, 2009-15 avg: .262/.343/.451, 13 HR, 10.6% BB, 19.3% Ks, 113 OPS+ (in 449 PAs)

It doesn't get closer than that. In fact, has anyone actually seen them in the same room at the same time? We can't rule out that they are the same person in disguise. Smith should be familiar to A's fans after spending the 2012-13 division-winning seasons in Oakland, and he was always a quality presence here. To have a new version of him, one that can also play a bit of infield, is definitely a good thing.

And on defense? I can't decide between Dustin Ackley or Brock Holt. Ackley is a 2B-turned-LF, and I'd choose him outright except that he used to be fabulous at the keystone (he was pushed off by the signing of Robinson Cano). He played five positions last year (1B, 2B, LF, CF, RF), but was below-average at each. Holt has that same spirit of playing everywhere but thriving nowhere (except arguably RF), but he's slightly better across the board and has enough infield chops that he's been allowed to play some shortstop, which isn't something I expect from Coghlan. So, neither Ackley nor Holt are perfect comps, but swirling both names around in your brain will give you a general idea of what to expect.

So, to summarize, Coghlan has the bat of Seth Smith, and a defensive profile similar to Dustin Ackley and Brock Holt.

How does Coghlan fit into the lineup and roster?

Let's return to Forst's comments from Thursday:

That's fairly open-ended, so let's use some process of elimination to figure this one out. The outfield is presumably made up of everyday players: Davis in LF, Burns in CF, and Reddick in RF. There will be days off for each of them, or perhaps a DH day now and then, and injuries can always happen. But for now it's tough to see Coghlan getting substantial time in the outfield.

What about the infield? Jed Lowrie and Yonder Alonso get hurt a lot, and Danny Valencia still has to prove he can continue hitting right-handed pitching like he did last year. Also, no one knows what exactly will happen with the DH spot, so there could be time available there. Jeremy Koo did a theoretical rundown and saw Coghlan getting time at 2B, 3B, RF, and CF, never as the regular guy but instead moving around wherever needed (Jeremy has Mark Canha getting the stray at-bats in LF).

The bottom line seems to be that Coghlan takes the roles of both Sam Fuld and Eric Sogard and combines them into one roster spot with a far better bat (albeit far worse defense). Those two combined for 726 plate appearances last year, and 536 the year before that (and Fuld didn't even spend all of 2014 on the team). Fuld's role was to spell the regular outfielders and serve as the emergency backup in CF, while Sogard was there as the utility infielder. Coghlan should do all of those things. It's not even worth conjuring a sample lineup, because that's the whole point of a super-utility player -- you don't know why you'll need him or where he'll play, but by the end of the year he will have gotten his at-bats somehow, just like Fuld and Sogard always did.

As far as the displaced players go (my speculation), Fuld now strikes me as Cactus League insurance -- if someone gets hurt this spring then there will still be an MLB-quality outfielder to fill in, but if not then he's likely to be DFA'd by Opening Day. (This was probably already the case once Davis was acquired, but now it seems even more clear; of course, the A's aren't committing to anything yet, which is fair enough.) As for Sogard, he still has an option year remaining and can be stashed at Triple-A if a need doesn't arise during the spring.

If there are no more moves and no one hits the DL, these could be the 13 position players to break camp: Vogt, Phegley, Alonso, Canha, Lowrie, Semien, Valencia, Coghlan, Davis, Burns, Reddick, Coco, Butler.

Salary and contract status

This sections is simple. Coghlan is in his final arbitration year and is eligible to become a free agent at the end of the season. He is a one-year rental, and he'll earn $4.8 million in 2016. According to Jeremy's most recent rundown, that puts the payroll at around $85 million, assuming Fuld is cut promptly.

What the A's gave up to get him

This section is also fairly simple. Oakland parted with pitcher Aaron Brooks in this trade. Brooks has six years of team control left, but his ceiling seems low. He's currently a starting pitcher but seems more likely to wind up in a relief role. He could absolutely succeed in the bullpen, and Tim Eckert-Fong included two of his offerings (slider and change) among the whiffier pitches thrown by Oakland's starters, but even that is no guarantee. The A's basically gave up a reliever prospect for one year of Seth Smith's bat at up to six defensive positions. That is a quality swap. (For the Cubs' part, they shed unnecessary salary after an expensive offseason.)

And what about the hit to the A's starting pitching depth? The Opening Day rotation figures to include Sonny, Hill, Hahn, Bassitt, and Graveman, with Doubront in the bullpen as an emergency spot starter. With Brooks and Sean Nolin gone, that group will have to survive long enough until either Sean Manaea or Dillon Overton are ready to graduate from the minors, or until Henderson Alvarez is ready to return from his long-term injury recovery. That's a little sketchy, but let's remember that Brooks posted a 6.33 ERA in his nine starts last year so it's not like he was a comforting backup option either. The SP depth looks worrisome in March, but it could take care of itself by July.

Final verdict

My knee-jerk reaction to this trade was negative, for two reasons -- I didn't know the extent of Coghlan's resurgence, and I didn't see how the A's could fit another hitter onto their Opening Day roster. But Joseph DeClercq was absolutely correct with his take, that even though the A's didn't need Coghlan, they are still better off for having him. And really, the logic is the same as with the Jed Lowrie deal; if you have the chance to acquire a legit MLB regular in exchange for a minor leaguer who profiles as a reliever, you simply have to make that upgrade if at all possible. The playing time will sort itself out, and it's not like every player on the roster will stay healthy. Value adds like this one are what allow Oakland to remain competitive, and with Davis and Coghlan on board the outfield depth for 2016 has gone from worrisome to downright encouraging.

Extra links

Susan Slusser's report on the trade for the S.F. Chronicle, complete with quotes from the team and the player.
Jeremy's story upon hearing news of the trade
Adam Berry of on how Coghlan used Statcast and sabermetrics to improve his game

Sexy and cool? Oh man, if that's a Hiro Nakajima reference, then Coghlan just won my heart forever.

Welcome to Oakland, Chris!