Fantasy fallout: Mark Ellis re-signs with A’s

It was announced yesterday that the Oakland A’s would be re-signing second baseman Mark Ellis. Ellis might not be someone that fantasy players swoon over, but this signing does have some ramifications that should be addressed. First, we’ll look at how the signing affects the A’s and the market for middle infielders, and then we’ll check out Ellis’ skills.

Fallout: The A’s

With Ellis now locked up for at least two years, this means that the Athletics’ second base prospects will have to wait longer for a starting gig. Unless Ellis gets injured, we likely won’t be seeing Eric Patterson, Adrian Cardenas, or Jemile Weeks in 2009. It is possible that one or more are either traded or converted to shortstop, but we certainly won’t be seeing any of them until at least the second-half of 2009 (and quite possibly until 2011 or 2012) barring an Ellis injury.

It’s also possible that Ellis will be traded next off-season or during the 2010 season, but under such a favorable contract (which will be discussed in the next section), this seems unlikely. If you own any of the above guys in a keeper league, you might want to consider trading them quickly.

Fallout: The market

While the re-signing of Mark Ellis, on the surface, seems like a bland move, it actually could have an enormous impact on the market for middle infielders. Ellis will average just a little over $5 million per year over the next two years, well below what someone of his talents deserves (Ellis is a decent enough hitter but also perhaps the best defensive second baseman in baseball).

Of course, agents will try to say that Ellis took less as part of a home-team discount and because of his injury concerns, and he could be undervalued to begin with because his defense is less noticeable than, say, someone who hits a lot of home runs. If this is the case, then the market might not be changed a whole lot. If it isn’t the case and this is seen for what it is—a very cheap contract—then setting the bar this low could mean that other middle infielders will have to settle for similar contracts.

However, the lack of top tier free agent second basemen could negate this effect. With fewer good substitutions, teams might pay off a guy like Orlando Hudson simply because if they don’t sign him, there aren’t many comparable guys on the market. The number of teams who could be in the market for a second baseman might be a little lighter than you’d expect, though, which could drive the price back down a bit.

If, however, you lump in shortstops, guys like Rafael Furcal, Orlando Cabrera, and Christian Guzman would be in that top tier, meaning they all could get smaller contracts. Furthermore, if guys like Robinson Cano, Dan Uggla, or Brian Roberts hit the market, that would further serve to drive prices down. It seems less likely that guys like this will be traded, though, since the market for them will be subpar to begin with.

There are certainly a lot of factors to consider and some tricky cause-and-effect relationships, but weighing everything, my guess would be that the market value of second baseman will be less than what we thought it would be even a few days ago, and the market value for shortstops will be below that. Let’s take a look at what this all might mean for some specific players.

Fallout: Specific players on the market

Hudson, I’d imagine, will be fine since he seems to be the best second baseman left on the market, is known for his good defense, and should land in a favorable situation regardless.

Furcal, Cabrera, and Guzman might be hurt by this deal, though. If they are to receive less money, that means smaller market teams would be able to compete for their services. If one of these guys lands on a smaller market team that doesn’t have as potent a lineup as a large market team, that means fewer RBIs and runs. You could make the argument that they’d get better spots in the order to compensate, but do we honestly expect anyone to sign Rafael Furcal and bat him eighth? The Yankees and Red Sox are about the only teams that could conceivably do this.

I think this deal helps Luis Castillo. The trade market is a little different than the free agent market, but if the overall market for second basemen is lower, the potential return for Castillo is worse. That makes it less likely he gets traded and more likely he stays with the Mets where he could bat second in a terrific lineup.

Brian Roberts, on the other hand, might be hurt if he isn’t traded. Barring the O’s signing someone like Mark Teixeira, Roberts might be better off being traded to a team with a more potent lineup. Don’t overestimate the potential improvement, though, for as bad as the O’s were this year, the heart of their lineup with guys like Aubrey Huff, Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, and Luke Scott might actually be pretty good next year.

As far as the middle tier goes (think Ray Durham, Felipe Lopez, Jeff Kent if he doesn’t retire, and the like), if they will be paid less (I’d say this is probable as long as teams value Ellis at least close to where he should be), it becomes more likely that a slow start would put them into a bench role since teams wouldn’t have as much invested in them.

Analysis of Ellis

Power skills

+------+-----+-----------+-----+----+-----+-------+--------+--------+-----+--------+
| YEAR | AGE | TEAM      | AB  | HR | tHR | HR/FB | tHR/FB | nHR/FB | RAW | OF FB% |
+------+-----+-----------+-----+----+-----+-------+--------+--------+-----+--------+
| 2006 |  28 | Athletics | 441 | 11 |  12 |     8 |      9 |     11 | 0.0 |     36 |
| 2007 |  29 | Athletics | 583 | 19 |  21 |     9 |     10 |     11 | 0.5 |     42 |
| 2008 |  30 | Athletics | 442 | 12 |  16 |     9 |     12 |     14 | 0.0 |     35 |
+------+-----+-----------+-----+----+-----+-------+--------+--------+-----+--------+

Ellis isn’t a guy with a ton of power, but for a middle infielder, he does have a decent amount. He didn’t even reach 450 at-bats this year due to injury troubles, but True Home Runs says he would have hit 20 given 550 at-bats. That’s tremendous production out of a second baseman who wasn’t even drafted in many leagues.

There is one area of concern, however, that doesn’t show up in our traditional table above. Check out this one:

+------+-----+-----------+-----+------+--------+-------+
| YEAR | AGE | TEAM      | AB  | FB%  | OF FB% | IF/FB |
+------+-----+-----------+-----+------+--------+-------+
| 2006 |  28 | Athletics | 441 |   42 |     36 |    14 |
| 2007 |  29 | Athletics | 583 |   50 |     42 |    17 |
| 2008 |  30 | Athletics | 442 |   46 |     35 |    25 |
+------+-----+-----------+-----+------+--------+-------+

As you can see, over the past two years, Ellis’s fly ball rates have been fantastic, though when we look closer, his outfield fly ball rates have merely been good.

Take note of the last column, though. He has been hitting infield fly balls at an alarmingly high rate, and it has been steadily increasing for four years. In 2008, a full 25 percent of all of Ellis’s fly balls were infield flies. That is a huge number—tops in the majors, actually.

This in-and-of itself isn’t a huge problem. His raw power is still pretty good and he’s hitting a good number of outfield flies, but if this is a function of his approach and not just statistical noise, there might be a problem looming for Ellis.

Ellis turned 31 at the beginning of June this year, so we’d normally expect his power peak to have passed. His tHR/FB, however, is on a three-year rise, correlating with the rise in IF/FB. It’s very possible that Ellis realizes he is losing some strength but wants to continue hitting for power. As a result, he is really pressing. Because he’s focused on hitting home runs, he’s swinging for the fences, and while he’ll be hitting home runs as a result, he’s also popping a lot of balls up.

If this is actually what’s going on, we would likely see a severe power drop-off if Ellis ever changes this approach. And even if he doesn’t, that IF/FB is about as high as it can go. Since 2004, just two players with more than 300 at-bats have eclipsed that 25 percent mark. It’s possible it’ll remain that high or keep increasing, but it’s more likely it’ll go down, possible taking the tHR/FB with it.

This is all just speculation, but it does seem to fit what’s been going on.

Contact skills

+------+-----+-----------+-----+-------+-------+-----+-------+--------+-----+--------+---------+
| YEAR | AGE | TEAM      | AB  | BA    | tBA   | CT% | BABIP | mBABIP | LD% | BIP/HR | BIP/tHR |
+------+-----+-----------+-----+-------+-------+-----+-------+--------+-----+--------+---------+
| 2006 |  28 | Athletics | 441 | 0.249 | 0.273 |  83 | 0.280 |  0.306 |  19 |     33 |      30 |
| 2007 |  29 | Athletics | 583 | 0.276 | 0.279 |  84 | 0.302 |  0.302 |  18 |     26 |      23 |
| 2008 |  30 | Athletics | 442 | 0.233 | 0.264 |  85 | 0.249 |  0.276 |  20 |     31 |      24 |
+------+-----+-----------+-----+-------+-------+-----+-------+--------+-----+--------+---------+

Ellis isn’t a tremendous contact hitter, but he’s solid enough. He actually got quite unlucky with his True Batting Average in both 2006 and 2008. He won’t be helping your fantasy team’s batting average, but he won’t hurt it a whole lot either. Of course, if his power drops off, all it would it take is a little BABIP bad luck to make that average incredibly ugly.

Speed skills

+------+-----+-----------+-----+----+-----+-------+------+-----+-----------+
| YEAR | AGE | TEAM      | AB  | SB | SBA | SBO%  | SBA% | SB% | FAN_SPEED |
+------+-----+-----------+-----+----+-----+-------+------+-----+-----------+
| 2005 |  27 | Athletics | 434 |  1 |   4 | 0.300 |    3 |  25 |        68 |
| 2006 |  28 | Athletics | 441 |  4 |   4 | 0.242 |    3 | 100 |        64 |
| 2007 |  29 | Athletics | 583 |  9 |  13 | 0.249 |    8 |  69 |        61 |
| 2008 |  30 | Athletics | 442 | 14 |  16 | 0.249 |   13 |  88 |        61 |
+------+-----+-----------+-----+----+-----+-------+------+-----+-----------+

Ellis isn’t a speed demon by any means, but he did post double-digit steals for the first time in his career in 2008. This was due to an increase in Stolen Base Attempt rate and Stolen Base Success rate. He has just a 75 percent career rate, so it’s possible he got a little lucky in 2008 (although that only equates to about one additional steal), especially if you look at the last column. This is the grade given by the fans in Tango’s Fan Scouting Report. As you can see, Ellis’s speed appears to be on the decline.

Overall, he should see a little stolen base regression next year, but he’ll still likely to provide a bit of value.

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