After watching Josh Hamilton sign with their division rival, the Rangers made a move this weekend to replace his bat in their line-up, signing Lance Berkman to take over as their DH for 2013. Much is being made of the fact that Berkman got $11 million after spending basically the entire 2012 season on the disabled list, but Major League teams have begun to make the correct shift towards paying for future production rather than past performance. That Berkman was injured for essentially all of 2012 only matters to the extent that it informs our understanding of his likely health and performance in 2013, and the reality is that projecting future playing time is still something of a black box.
Healthy guys get hurt. Injury prone guys stay healthy. Some guys are more likely to end up on the DL than others, but there’s still an awful lot of randomness in playing time distributions. It is much easier to project a player’s performance than it is to project his health, and Berkman hasn’t yet established a track record of injuries that should make us view him like we do Travis Hafner. At 37, we shouldn’t expect Berkman to be an everyday player, but as a DH with big platoon splits, he doesn’t need to be. He plays the easiest position on the field to run a platoon at, and with the Rangers depth, they can afford to have Berkman spend a few weeks on the sidelines if the aches and pains start to add up. For their roster, performance is more important than durability.
And if we just look at expected performance for 2013, there’s a decent chance that Berkman will put up offensive numbers that are not too different from what Hamilton would have produced.
If you didn’t already see them, the Angels ZIPS projections were released this morning, and ZIPS is not a very big fan of Josh Hamilton. The system expects Hamilton’s plate discipline to remain steady, but his power to take a large step backwards, dropping his wOBA down to .335, or just two points ahead of where it projects Mark Trumbo next year. Because of park effects, that’s still about 25% better than a league average hitter in Anaheim, but it’s a real step backwards from what he did last year.
In fact, even with Berkman’s aging, a 125 wRC+ isn’t at all that unlikely given his overall skills. Over the last three years, he’s posted a 139 mark, and he was at 125 last year even in limited playing time. Berkman’s secondary skills dwarf Hamilton’s, and moving to Texas isn’t a bad idea for a guy whose power isn’t what it used to be. Especially if he’s platooned and spends most of his time hitting against right-handers, Berkman could easily outpace Hamilton’s offensive levels on a per at-bat basis.
And, of course, it’s not like you’re getting a lot of extra health certainty with Hamilton as opposed to Berkman. He was healthier last year, but his injury track record is longer than Berkman’s, and the best we can say is that both are likely to play less than a full season in 2013. If there’s a big expected difference in playing time, it probably has more to do with Berkman being a potential platoon guy than huge differences in durability.
So, what does the extra $114 million get the Angels with Hamilton that the Rangers are punting with Berkman? Defense, basically. Berkman is likely to be a DH who might occasionally play first base during interleague match-ups, while Hamilton is likely to be an above average defender in right field. There’s no question that makes Hamilton the better player, and certainly worth more in salary. I’m not suggesting that Berkman and Hamilton are equally valuable, or that Hamilton and Berkman should have signed the same contracts this winter.
However, I am suggesting that perhaps the overall net effect of the moves on the Rangers and Angels won’t be as big as they might appear on the surface. For one, Hamilton’s defensive value was a bit limited to the Rangers, in that keeping him in the outfield would have likely forced a decent defender (say, Nelson Cruz) to occupy the DH spot, creating some inefficiencies for the team overall. The Rangers just don’t have any classic DH types on their roster, so retaining Hamilton would have led to them playing a decent bat/decent glove guy at a position where the decent glove would have been mostly wasted.
The combination of Berkman’s bat and Cruz’s glove in right field is not so dissimilar to the total contribution one could have expected from having Hamilton’s bat and glove in right field with Cruz serving as the DH. And, as a bonus, going this direction still allows the Rangers to swing a trade for Justin Upton at some point if they can find a match with Arizona, and an Upton/Berkman combination is almost certainly an improvement over a Hamilton/Cruz duo.
While Berkman isn’t as good of a player as Hamilton, I think the overall impact of having one or the other on the Rangers roster isn’t too dramatically different. By going this direction, the Rangers have replaced a decent chunk of Hamilton’s value without absorbing the long term risks of matching the five year deal he got from Anaheim, and they’ve given themselves the option to still acquire a right field upgrade should the opportunity present itself.
$11 million might seem like a lot for a guy coming off a lost season, but Berkman is still a good hitter, and the Rangers needed a good hitter from the left side of the plate. Like with Edwin Jackson, this kind of contract might be surprising in light of what previous markets for his services have brought him, but that speaks more to the fact that he was undervalued in previous winters. Berkman is an injury risk, but everyone is an injury risk, and Berkman’s performances justify this kind of price tag.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.