Evaluating CarGo

On Monday, we looked at Matt Holliday’s potential value to the A’s, and how his acquisition could boost Oakland’s chances for the postseason in 2009. We know the A’s are getting a good player. But what about the Rockies? Is the haul they’re getting for Holliday going to allow them to get back on the winning track?

Let’s start with Carlos Gonzalez, the centerpiece prospect of a major trade for the second time in as many years. Gonzalez is an extremely athletic, left-handed hitting center fielder with power, and that skill set doesn’t grow on trees. It’s those tools that have made him valuable enough to be dealt for both Dan Haren and now Holliday, as it’s pretty easy for scouts to see the potential for an all-star center fielder.

However, the flip side to that coin is that Gonzalez has now had two organizations deal him away in 12 months, and it’s pretty rare to find an elite player who two organizations passed when he was near major league ready. It happens (Jason Bay, Adrian Gonzalez), but it’s rare. So, what might the D’backs and A’s have seen that would lead them to give up on Gonzalez’s upside?

Well, to start, his approach at the plate can only be described as poor. In 316 major league plate appearances, he swung at pitches out of the strike zone 32% of the time and only made contact in 45% of those swings. In other words, he just swung and missed at a lot of pitches that were going to be called balls. Now, there are players who swing at pitches of the strike zone a lot – Vladimir Guerrero is famous for this, swinging at 45% of all balls he sees. However, he makes contact 70% of the time he swings at a pitch out of the strike zone.

In fact, among major league players who swung at balls 30% of the time or more, every single one made contact half the time (okay, Aaron Rowand’s 49.71% is not exactly half, but let’s round up). Most of them made contact 60-70% of the time, showing that they were chasing pitches because they could hit them, not because they didn’t understand the strike zone.

Perhaps it was just nerves, and he’ll adjust as he grows, but in his first taste of major league pitching, Gonzalez showed a minor league approach. That approach is going to significantly limit his offensive upside, and giving him a narrow path to success. Essentially, with that kind of swing-at-anything mentality, his upside is narrowed to something like 2008 Torii Hunter – a .280/.340/.470 guy who combines power and good defense to be a +3 to +3.5 win player.

There’s certainly a lot of value in having a 23-year-old with +3 to +4 win upside, but if that’s his peak, he’s not quite as shiny as he may have appeared previously.

The good news for Rockies fans is that he does appear to be a quality defender – the A’s fans rated him a 74 on the Fan’s Scouting Report, and the +/- rankings had him at +10 plays in only half a season of work, so while the sample is small, it looks like he’ll be an asset with his glove. That might be necessary to keep him in the line-up, however, because the questions about his bat look legitimate.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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15 years ago

FYI, we nicknamed him “CarGon” last year. That or “Patrol Craft”.