Braves Transactions: Sean Rodriguez

Did the Atlanta Braves find a bargain bin version of Ben Zobrist?

Sean Rodriguez manning first base for the Pittsburgh Pirates. (Photo: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Sean Rodriguez manning first base for the Pittsburgh Pirates. (Photo: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

While most of Braves Country was slipping into a carbohydrate, tryptophan, and Lions/Vikings induced stupor, the Atlanta Braves made a rare Thanksgiving Day transaction, signing super-utility player Sean Rodriguez.

Probably like most fans, my first thought was that signing Rodriguez is an attempt by Atlanta to build more versatility for the bench. If Rodriguez is known for anything, it’s positional flexibility. A follow-up tweet by ESPN’s Buster Olney followed that line of thought.

Then I looked up his numbers from last year and HOLY MOTHER OF BEN ZOBRIST!

 

Year Age Tm Lg G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+ Pos
2008 23 LAA AL 59 187 167 18 34 8 1 3 10 3 1 14 55 .204 .276 .317 .593 56 4/6D5
2009 24 LAA AL 12 29 25 4 5 0 0 2 4 0 0 3 7 .200 .276 .440 .716 85 /4789
2010 25 TBR AL 118 378 343 53 86 19 2 9 40 13 3 21 97 .251 .308 .397 .705 95 4/89576D3
2011 26 TBR AL 131 436 373 45 83 20 3 8 36 11 7 38 87 .223 .323 .357 .679 93 645/37
2012 27 TBR AL 112 342 301 36 64 14 1 6 32 5 0 27 75 .213 .281 .326 .607 70 564/D
2013 28 TBR AL 96 222 195 21 48 10 1 5 23 1 3 17 59 .246 .320 .385 .704 97 73/964D
2014 29 TBR AL 96 259 237 30 50 13 3 12 41 2 1 10 66 .211 .258 .443 .701 97 4D37/596
2015 30 PIT NL 139 240 224 25 55 12 1 4 17 2 2 5 63 .246 .281 .362 .642 76 379/546
2016 31 PIT NL 140 342 300 49 81 16 1 18 56 2 1 33 102 .270 .349 .510 .859 126 346957/8
9 Yrs 903 2435 2165 281 506 112 13 67 259 39 18 168 611 .234 .303 .390 .693 91
162 Game Avg. 162 437 388 50 91 20 2 12 46 7 3 30 110 .234 .303 .390 .693 91
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/24/2016.

 

Career highs in all three major rate stats and home runs? Rodriguez was sensational for the Pirates in 2016 at the plate after an 8-year career of being a light-hitting, multi-positional bench option. His 2016 wRC+ of 129 ranks 33rd with major league players with a minimum of 300 plate appearances. His 1.9 fWAR would have been third on the Braves among position players, behind only Freddie Freeman and Ender Inciarte.

Extrapolating his season to 600 plate appearances, he would have generated 3.3 fWAR if he maintained that performance, which again finishes behind Freeman and Inciarte, but puts him nearly three times as valuable as Nick Markakis or Tyler Flowers.

Is This The Real Life?

Naturally, though, nobody can possibly believe that Sean Rodriguez could really be a 3+ fWAR player suddenly at the age of 31, right?

According to analysis by Ronnie Socash at Beyond the Box Score, the offensive surge that Rodriguez produced last season could be real. According to Socash:

In 2016, we see big changes. Reminiscent of the leg kicks we see from Jose Bautista and Josh Donaldson, Rodriguez started using his lower-half to generate bat speed and power. In 2008, it was Bautista who re-invented his swing after flaming out as an infielder with the Pirates. Rodriguez has now seemingly flipped the script through the same leg-kick that turned Bautista into an all-star.

If the offensive changes Socash details allow Rodriguez to come close to maintaining the performance he exhibited with Pittsburgh, what the Braves have signed for an average salary of $5.5 million over each of the next two seasons could potentially be an incredible bargain. A 3+ fWAR player who can also provide major league average defense at all infield positions plus the outfield corners is… Ben Zobrist. And the Cubs signed Zobrist last offseason to a contract that costs them on average $12 million per year for four years.

What Rodriguez really brings to Atlanta though is options. Depending on what the Braves’ major league scouts think about Rodriguez, he could fit in a wide variety of roles.

At minimum, he could be super-Chase d’Arnaud –  essentially a bench support player. And maybe that’s all Rodriguez is after all, which is what he’s been the first 8 years of his major league career.

At maximum, he should absolutely be starting every day for the Atlanta Braves. He’s a better option at third base than Adonis Garcia. He’s a better option at second base than Jace Peterson. He’s a better option in left field than Matt Kemp. And he’s a better option in right field than Nick Markakis. This is regardless as well of the handedness of the starting pitcher. While he has platoon splits that favor him against left-handed pitching, his splits against right-handers were still better than those of Garcia, Peterson, Kemp, or Markakis.

The truth is probably, as in so many things, somewhere in between. But his presence does have some potential repercussions for the rest of the Braves off-season as well.

Is This Just Fantasy?

Rodriguez represents an option for the Braves if they decide to move major league assets in trade this offseason. The presence of Rodriguez immediately makes the prospects of trading any of Garcia, Peterson, Kemp, or Markakis easier for Atlanta.

If none are traded, Rodriguez allows the Braves to more easily send Mallex Smith to AAA for more seasoning if they are so inclined, as Rodriguez could act as the fourth outfielder.

If Rodriguez is just the platoon partner for Jace Peterson, as Olney suggests, that duo should provide enough value that the team shouldn’t feel compelled to try to rush prospect Ozzie Albies to the big leagues if they aren’t sure he’s quite ready yet.

Finally, Rodriguez represents a legitimate major league option that could hold down either third or second base if the Braves do want to use Albies or third base prospect Rio Ruiz in a larger trade. (Note: I do not advocate for this. To see my thoughts on the player I think Albies could be, please check out Get to Know a Prospect: Ozzie Albies on this very website).

For most of the off-season to date, the focus has been on improving the starting rotation, as it should be, considering it was the most disappointing single unit of the team in 2016. The signing of Sean Rodriguez however is a clever move from a confident front office that could simply be a move to bolster a very weak bench… or it could be much more, a pebble in a pond that could ripple the major league roster.

About Andy Harris 58 Articles
Andy Harris has been a baseball fan since seeing the Big Red Machine in 1978 and hardcore baseball fan since reading Bill James's Historical Baseball Abstract in 1990. Andy moved to the Atlanta area in 1991, which turned out to be a pretty good year for the local team.

7 Comments

  1. You can’t say Rodriguez is better after one career year. Kemps career numbers smoke Rodriguez’s and Kemp was a different player offensively once he got out of Petco. His defense has slipped but let’s not get crazy with advanced stats, every team in MLB would take Kemp over S-Rod in left if the dollars are the same.

    • I agree, to an extent. Rodriguez did have one career year. But as explained in the Beyond the Box Score link and elsewhere (like my Twitter feed), there is reason to believe that what Rodriguez did last year is repeatable, or should be. I expect his HR rate to drop, but I expect the doubles to increase similarly.

      Kemp’s defense hasn’t just slipped; it’s virtually non-existent. Betty White has better hips for LF. There is no reason to believe his defense will improve, and it should only get worse, dragging down his overall value.

      Of course teams would take Kemp over Rodriguez if the dollars were the same. But they aren’t.

      And, I didn’t say Rodriguez was better; the author did. I said an argument could be made for it, albeit using recent data. For their careers, Kemp has definitely been better. But neither player is the same as what they were 5 years ago. Players change. They age. They make adjustments.

      I wouldn’t play Rodriguez over Kemp every day, but I’m not keen on Kemp aging well. I’m a fan of moving him and his salary by the deadline to free up $21M a year for next year’s free agent class.

    • But I get your point. Kemp is the offensive option with more power on a team that lacks it. And, while he may be slipping a little, pitchers still pitch to his reputation. That counts for something.

    • Hey Josh, thanks for taking the time to read this.

      I don’t believe I was actually saying that Rodriguez was a better option than Kemp.

      “At maximum, he should absolutely be starting every day for the Atlanta Braves. He’s a better option at third base than Adonis Garcia. He’s a better option at second base than Jace Peterson. He’s a better option in left field than Matt Kemp. And he’s a better option in right field than Nick Markakis.”

      We don’t really know what the Braves have bought in Sean Rodriguez. What I was saying was that IF (and it’s admittedly a big IF) Rodriguez can produce comparable value in 2017 as he did in 2016 and extend it over 600 PAs, he would be more valuable than those guys.

      That said, I’m pretty bearish that Kemp’s post-trade surge is sustainable. Regardless of his off-season conditioning, he’s still a player with knee and ankle surgeries on his resume and chronically arthritic hips. Whatever he’ll be able to give the team with the bat, he’s going to take a lot back with the defense and baserunning.

      I’d assumed that Mallex Smith would almost have to make the team because someone has to be Kemp’s late-game defensive caddie. Rodriguez can now take that roll if the team thinks Smith needs to go back to AAA.

  2. Well, Andy just commented, but I spent a long time writing this, so I’m going to post it anyway…

    I reread it, and Andy didn’t even say Rodriguez was definitely going to be better. He said “at maximum” he’s better. If there’s a range of possible performance, even if last year is his “maximum,” if he repeats it, he’s probably a better option than Kemp.

    Kemp is fine enough. I don’t hate on him as much as some, but he hasn’t been a consistently great hitter (good but not great), he’s not getting any younger, his hips aren’t getting any less chronically arthritic, and his defense is about the worst, which negates some of whatever offensive value he provides (and that’s true even if we don’t get crazy with the sabermetrics).

    If we question Rodriguez’s ability to repeat this year’s performance next year, then shouldn’t we also question Kemp’s ability to put up similar numbers next year (especially compared to what he put up since he came to Atl)?

    I’m not here saying Rodriguez will definitely be better than Kemp next year. I don’t know if what he is doing is sustainable (even though there are some good indicators that his new approach is bearing fruit), and I’m confident the 25% HR/FB rate is not sustainable. I’m just saying him being a better option than Kemp is not as ridiculous an idea as you make it out to be. (Although the lack of power alternatives outside of Kemp is a good contextual point by Chris. But I’m guessing Andy was just talking overall value in terms of WAR to make a point, not suggest he needs to replace him for real. There are other areas where he fits better).

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