Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Plan With Kearns

Austin Kearns is one of the Nats up for arbitration. This is his second go at it, and he'll be a free agent after the 2008 season. Does it make sense to lock him up? We need to figure out what kind of player he is first.

Kearns was Jim Bowden's first-round pick (7th overall selection) in the 1998 draft out of a high school in Lexington, KY. Kearns signed quickly (a hallmark of Bodes' selections?) and reported to beautiful Billings, MT. (minor league stats)

He hit well for an 18-year old swinging his first wooden bat and earned a promotion to A-ball the next year. He hit for a ton of power, but the average dropped to .258 and the Ks piled up. He repeated in 2000 and destroyed the league, cranking out 68 extra-base hits and a .305 average. 2001 was a struggle. A promotion to double-A and a torn thumb ligament (the first of many nicks) kept him out of a majority of his team's games.

That spring, Kearns was set to start the year in AAA. They sent him to double-A instead, and he sulked, jumping camp for a day after he found out the news. He relented, went to double-A, smacked the crap out of the ball, and got the promotion he wanted -- to the majors!

As a 22-year old in the majors, he had the kind of season that was expected of a first-round pick, hitting a terrific .315/ .407/ .500, and finishing 3rd in the rookie of the year balloting (just behind Brad Wilkerson). He likely would have won the award, but he strained his left hamstring in August, forcing him to finish the rest of the season on the DL.

The next few years, he didn't live up to that potential. Injuries really hampered his performance, and prevented him from getting into any sort of groove.

2003: Elbow surgery to remove bone chips, bruised rotator cuff when Ray King fell on him, bruised quad after crashing into the wall for a catch, then season-ending surgery on that rotator cuff, labrum and assorted other shoulder parts.

2004: Recovery from that shoulder surgery, fractured left forearm after a HBP, an open sore on his right thumb (which caused him to miss a ton of time!?), surgery on that thumb (keeping him out two months), and pink eye

2005: No injuries in the first part of the year, but Wily Mo Pena and Ryan Freel stole his PT and the Reds optioned him to the minors (also in part, because they thought he was getting lazy and out of shape), and a sore right hamstring.

He finally stayed healthy in '06, at least until his collision with Nick Johnson. Not so coincidentally, he had his first really good season since his rookie year, finishing with a decent .264/ .363/ .467 line, and playing in a career-high 150 games.

So what are we left with? Over his 5 seasons, he's hit a respectable .265/ .361/ .463 line, but that's in only 100 games per season because of those injuries. Over 162 games, he's averaging 25 homers, 33 doubles and a decent 94 RBI. Just as with Nick Johnson, when healthy, he's a decent player.

Kearns' strengths are easy to see. He's got a strong, powerful bat, and a pretty good batting eye (78 BB/162 games). He's a terrific defender. Despite his size, he gets a good jump on the ball, accelerating quickly. I was impressed at how adept he was at cutting balls off before they rolled into the gaps, saving a number of extra-base hits. He's been a decent performer in center throughout his career, but is one of the 2 or 4 best defensive RFers in the game. (One metric calls him one of the best of the last 20 years, and shows that he's about 7-10 runs above average each year)

The weaknesses, though, are just as easy to see. Despite the good eye, he's a fairly undisciplined hitter, striking out a ton, especially for the mid-level power numbers he puts up. And the injuries. Oh, the injuries.

The above-average offense and excellent defense make him a pretty valuable player. He's not Vlad Guerrero, but with the defense added into the equation, he's probably not as far away as you'd think. To use one stat, Baseball Prospectus' WARP3 (Wins above replacement value, which factors in offense and defense to calculate just what the name says) says that Kearns was worth 7.3 WARP last year. Guerrero was worth 7.8, a relatively negligible difference. Most of that difference comes because of the glove. Guerrero still has the arm, but he doesn't have the range, and he made a bunch of errors.

Much of Kearns' value is hidden. It's not easy to see a double that he holds to a single. But it is easy to see one of Guerrero's three-run bombs.

Baseball Prospectus also has a projection system they use called PECOTA. It's a complicated system that can be explained fairly easily. It adjusts stats for era, league and park, then takes physical factors such as height and weight into account to figure out who a player is most similar too. It then uses these similar players to get a feel for the type of career a player is likely to have. Obviously it's not perfect, but it's a helpful tool.

Before last season, who were his top comps? Pat Burrell and Dale Murphy. Encouraging names like Bob Allison, Tim Salmon and someone called Frank Howard all cracked his top 7. He was in pretty good company. I'd take the careers of any of those guys. All were All-Star talents, and Murphy has a legit case for the Hall of Fame -- even Howard has an outside case.

This season, I don't have the full list, but his top 4 are: Bob Allison, Dale Murphy, Ivan Calderon, Dwight Evans. You'd take three out of those four, wouldn't you?

Obviously nothing is guaranteed, but Kearns has put up the stats of and is the type of player you can probably build around. Injuries have been the biggest impediment and, for the first time, they were under control last year. With his age 27 season (traditionally the best in a player's career), the sky could be the limit with him.

I was on the fence about committing to him long term, but the more I think about it, the more I think it might be a smart move if you can get him on a deal like Nick Johnson had, getting him to give up some salary in exchange for long-term security.

It'll be interesting to see how the Nats handle this. Kearns, for obvious reasons, if a favorite of Bowden, and I'd imagine that he'd want to try to lock him up. If so, will Kasten let him? Should he?

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