The Casey Kotchman Conundrum

It was never part of the master plan to give Casey Kotchman 20+ plate appearances (PAs) before Easter. When the Rays signed him to a minor league deal, the intention was most likely to give the Rays a veteran backup and to give Triple-A Durham a quality first baseman. But, things -- as they are wont to do -- happened.

Evan Longoria's oblique exploded, Manny Ramirez went on the lam, and then Johnny Damon's finger fell off and Dan Johnson had a pitch thrown clear through him. The result: Kotchman has seen some consistent playing time.

Two camps have developed: (1) the Kotch-is-Crap Crew and (2) the Dan-Jo-Must-Go Co-Op. I exist as the odd refugee betwixt these two encampments -- neither vehemently for or against Casy Kotchman. Lets' explore why.

Defense, Defense, Defense
The Rays have been a team long-predicated around the continued market inefficiency of strong defenders. Continued? Yes, continued. The inefficiency remains largely unexplored because the world of defensive metrics remains mostly unfinished. As awesome as UZR (ultimate zone rating) and FSR (the fan scouting report) may be, they still rely on either the weight of reams and reams of data to become effective or the weight of fans' whims and fancies.

If and when Field F/X comes to save the day, fielding data will always be a bit nebulous -- subject to the inconsistency of statistics or the bias of scouts. As such, fans and GMs alike will undervalue great defenders here and there.

All this to say: Casy Kotchman is a good defender. Fortunately, we have the necessary data to definitively say, "Yon first-bagger hath a glove of majesty." Which, in general, doesn't matter much to us. Yeah, he's a great first baseman -- so what? It's like being the strongest man on the math team; you still can't pry open your Spongebob lunch box without help from the teacher.

Well, not so. If UZR can be trusted, then Kotchman is not just, hey, an alright kinda fielder -- he is much better. UZR says, "Fielder, please! Mr. Kotch is fieldin' son of gun."

Behold: Kotchman saves an average of 8.6 runs defensively in a full year. In spring training, we saw shades of that -- a first basemen who dared being more than a large target, but one who deftly threw out runners and exhibited un-first-baseman-like talents.

The Average Offender
Casey Kotchman's offense will likely be normal, average, unspectacular, or even bad. His bat has known only one above average, full season. We must accept that. Last night's offensive outburst (2 for 4 with a well-tagged double and single) was a taste of the cherry on top, not the vanilla underneath.

For his career, Kotch's offense has been 9% worse than league average (according to weighted runs created plus -- or wRC+). If we expect he regresses from last year's bad luck (a low batting average on balls in play -- or BABIP) and if we expect he recovers from playing in the cavernous Petco Park, then we can feel comfortable believing Kotchman will be a little less than league average. If he walks a bit more, then maybe he's league average.

No homer, no triples, a few doubles, but mostly singles. Don't expect much more.

The Kotchman Cocktail
If we put together his defense (a plus) and the offense (a minus), then we only need to consider one more thing: Context.

Evan Longoria is injured, likely out until the month's end. The Rays have Felipe Lopez (an average hitter, an average fielder, and flexible positionally), Sean Rodriguez, Reid Brignac, Ben Zobrist, Elliot Johnson, and Dan Johnson in the infield. All of these gents, outside of maybe Brignac, play more than one position. Evan Longoria owns third base, Brignac and E-Johnson share short, Zobee and S-Rod share second, D-Johnson has a lock on first base (if nothing else, on the merit of last year) but can also play third and DH well, and Lopez has experience playing third, second, short, and left field. Also: Johnny Damon can play first.

Kotchman plays first base.

There are two ways to look at this: (a) The Rays have enough flexibility to carry a backup first baseman best suited to defensive replacement work, or (b) Kotchman does not hit well enough to play one position. If we wanted a defensive replacement, they could make much greater gains by calling up Jose Lobaton or some such defensive beast of a catcher, a position where the present Rays focus largely on offense.

Still, Kotchman is a defensive maven and can realistically add a team 1 win given 500+ PAs -- not really the production a team wants from first base, but valuable nonetheless. In truth, he's cheap and he adds value, but he has no place on this team whence Evan Longoria makes his triumphant return.

He's not a total drain with a bat, just kind of eh, and he's not Carl Crawford with the glove, but still good. He's not useless; he's not amazing; he's Casey Kotchman.

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