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The Big Deal, Part 2

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The Strange Case of Crisp v. Michaels

In the flurry of an eight-player exchange, it's unclear what the effect will be on the Indians 2006 season. Many Indians fans are decrying the Crisp trade on the grounds that it smells like a step back for 2006, which an impatient and thirsty fan base is not in the mood to tolerate. The net effect is that Jason Michaels will be taking over for Coco Crisp as the Indians' starting left fielder. Both players are experienced major leaguers who came up as center fielders, neither is known for his power. But the similarities end there.

Crisp is one of the jewels of Shapiro's 2002 rebuilding project, a supposedly B prospect who unexpectedly turned into a solid major-league starter. Crisp wowed with his speed in a brief 2002 callup but started 2003 in Buffalo, where he terrorized pitchers with a .360/.434./.511 line, piling up 20 stolen bases and 26 extra base hits in just 56 games. That performance and a spate of injuries got Crisp back to the majors, where in 99 games he hit relatively poorly for an outfielder (655 OPS) but didn't embarass himself. Crisp was all but guaranteed a ticket back to Buffalo to start 2004, but that changed with the 11th-hour trade of Milton Bradley. Crisp found himself contending for playing time with the often-injured and more-accomplished Jody Gerut and the rarely-making-contact and highly-touted Alex Escobar. By the end of 2004, Crisp had passed both players on the depth chart, putting up a respectable 790 OPS as he unexpectedly blossomed into a deft hitter with decent pop. Gerut hit the Disabled List, and Escobar was cut from the roster.

Going into 2005, Crisp was pushed to LF by another last-minute roster move: the promotion of Grady Sizemore. Sizemore had superior defensive skills and, unlike Escobar before him, he had the baseball skills to stick around. Crisp put up another quality season at the plate with an 810 OPS, and in a year when quality AL outfielders seemed in short supply, Crisp stood out as an outstanding corner defender and solid contributor at the plate. Still, Sizemore's emergence created a prevailing perception that Crisp was just a poor man's Sizemore. While that perception was accurate, quality hitters who can play CF adequately are nonetheless in high demand, and it was inevitable that another team eventually would insist on overpaying to acquire Crisp.

The Indians delayed the inevitable by not developing or acquiring a single quality corner outfielder so far this century. The risk of replacing Crisp's production with any of the available internal options was simply too great to take, which led the Indians to explore options such as the Braves' Ryan Langerhans as well Michaels from the Phillies. While considerably older at 29, Michaels was deemed the better fit because of two of his particular gifts: getting on base, and hitting left-handed pitching. Both were areas in need of improvement in an otherwise high-quality Indians offense in 2005.

Drafted for the fourth time in the 4th round of the 1998 draft, Michaels made solid progress through the Phillies system and made a solid major league debut in 2002. Despite this, Michaels had to watch from Scranton as the Phillies gave over 800 big-league at-bats to Marlon Byrd, a highly touted prospect who wore out his welcome by the end of 2004. By that point Michaels had compiled an 870 OPS in 580 plate appearances, yet the Phillies acquired Kenny Lofton to platoon with Michaels in 2005. Michaels put up yet another solid performance, an 814 OPS in 340 plate appearances, but the Phillies acquired yet another CF in Aaron Rowand after the season. Unlike the Indians, the Phillies have big sluggers with big, untradeable contracts playing in both corners.

Tagged as a part-time player by the Phillies, the Indians clearly see something more in Michaels. His .399 OBP would have put him ninth in the NL, had he been allowed to qualify for the batting title. By most advanced "rate stats," Michaels was about as productive as Crisp last season if not moreso. Michaels wins in OPS and VORP-rate, while Crisp wins the OPS+ comparison (119 to 108) due to a 55-point adjustment for park effects between the two players. OPS and OPS+ both under-weight OBP, which is Crisp's weakness and Michaels' strength.

And this is where the discussion turns. In order to appreciate this swap -- maybe even just to tolerate it -- you have to acknowledge that Crisp, while valuable, had his weaknesses as a hitter. His .345 OBP in 2005 was a one-point improvement over 2004, a reflection of a high batting average and a very poor walk-rate of less than 0.07, consistent with his career numbers. Sizemore's numbers were not much different, but his track record suggests that he's much likelier to improve on them. Eric Wedge often commented that the lineup seemed to fall into place once Sizemore-Crisp was installed at the top. If that was true, the effect was almost purely psychological. Strictly by the numbers, there was nothing particularly great about having those two start each game -- although most teams manage to do even worse.

But the Sizemore-Crisp story got truly ugly when the Indians faced lefthanders, as their OBP's dropped to .296 and .305. At some point, the team had to wonder if they could afford to have two guys at the top of the lineup who struggle that much against lefthanders. Fully half of our our opponents' rotations in the AL Central are manned by lefthanders, including Santana, Buerhle, Liriano, Rogers and Maroth. The Indians could easily play 70 games this season against lefthanded starters.

Michaels, by contrast, excels against lefthanders, and does an excellent job of getting on base in general. His OBP against lefties last season was .438 (career .408). Compared to Crisp, this is essentially like turning 28 groundouts into 28 walks. That is a weekly event. And contrary to popular lore, Michaels has faced right-handed pitching plenty in his career -- more than left-handed pitching in fact -- and has performed decently, with a 778 OPS last season (780 career). In fact, even against right-handed pitching, Michaels has essentially the same OBP track record as Crisp. Crisp's entire advantage over Michaels comes down to slugging against righthanders.

Of course, slugging against righthanders is not to be ignored, and there are other reasons to prefer Crisp -- mainly, his age, and the potential he has for improvement which is probably greater than Michaels'. Crisp's spike in doubles last season may precede a future spike in home runs -- then again, it may have just been an aberration. Crisp may be able to improve on his poor walk rates -- then again, his poor walk rates may ultimately crush him as scouts zero in on his weaknesses better. And he may someday learn to be a good baserunner, rather than just a guy who runs real fast. But the majority of Crisp's upside value resides not in 2006, but in 2007 and beyond. And in 2007 and beyond, that upside value is going to be counterbalanced by rapidly escalating salaries. Crisp likely will earn close to $20 million over 2007-2009, and it is hard to imagine him having so much upside that we'll feel like he was irreplaceable at those prices.

Which brings us back to 2006. And in 2006, I believe we're looking at two players with a lot of similarities. Crisp has a bit more range in the field, Michaels has a much better arm and conceivably could play RF if needed. Crisp holds a 100-point advantage in slugging against righthanders, Michaels holds a 100-point advantage in OBP against lefthanders. I think the key to evaluating this swap is not only to ask: Which player has the better total package of skills? The key is to ask: Which player has the better package of skills for the Indians in 2006?

Sizemore-Michaels-Hafner-Martinez-Peralta ... Michaels-Sizemore-Peralta-Hafner-Martinez ... it all sounds pretty good to me.