Should the Brewers exercise Jenkins’s option?

Last winter, many Brewers fans were anxiously awaiting this month: the time when the team could cut ties with long-time left fielder Geoff Jenkins. Jenkins was entering the last year of a three-year, $23 million deal, and it seemed like a foregone conclusion that the Brewers wouldn’t exercise their $9MM club option for 2008.

Times change, and perspectives change faster. Nine million bucks is still a lot of money for a left fielder who needs a platoon partner, but the case is not nearly so clear cut as it was a year ago. In fact, one can construct a reasonably convincing argument that the Crew ought to keep Jenkins around.

Here are some of the reasons why the decision isn’t as easy as it looks:

$8 million doesn’t buy what it used to

Since Jenkins reached plate appearance incentives, the buyout on his option—initially $500,000—is up to $1 million. Thus, it costs only $8 million to exercise the option. Based on last year’s free agent market, some rough comps are Moises Alou ($8.5 million) and Luis Gonzalez ($7.35 million), both of whom were considerably older (and greater injury risks) than Jenkins will be in 2008.

Using the simple rule of thumb that each marginal win costs about $3 million on the free agent market, we should start with the question of whether Jenkins is likely to be worth three wins to the Crew.

He can still hit lefties

For much of this past year, Jenkins was used in a fairly strict platoon with Kevin Mench. Both players were very effective in their roles: for his part, Jenkins hit .262/.326/.482 against righties, slightly above-average production for the position.

Mix that in with a handful of unavoidable plate appearances against lefties (usually strikeouts), and you get about one win over replacement with the bat. Ned Yost might be able to eke out a little more value if he managed Jenkins and a platoon partner a little more aggressively, pinch-hitting in the 6th and 7th inning more often, but that’s not likely.

He’s a top-notch defender

Jenkins has always had a reputation as one of the best left fielders in the game, and deservedly so. Some doubted his prowess in the outfield after a less stellar couple of years in right field (myself included), but most metrics suggest that he picked up right where he left off upon his return to left in 2007.

Judging from his Zone Rating this past year, he made approximately ten more plays than the average left fielder would have. Given that many of those balls would’ve turned into extra-base hits, the additional outs translate into at least another win above replacement.

Again, it’s a fool’s errand to expect that Yost (or any big league manager) will, Diamond Mind-style, deploy his resources optimally, but if Jenkins were sometimes used as a defensive replacement, the increase in innings would make him that much more valuable. Tack on his reputation for a strong and accurate arm, and it’s reasonable to estimate his defensive value around 1.5 wins, perhaps 2 wins if you’re feeling generous.

An option is a one-year deal

Saying that a marginal win costs about $3 million on the free agent market somewhat obscures the issue. The better the player, of course, the longer the commitment usually required to sign him. Any more, one-year deals are the province of roster filler, reclamation projects, and 40-somethings.

Jenkins will probably never make another All-Star team, but he would almost certainly score a multi-year deal if he ends up on the open market—think a somewhat richer version of Frank Catalanotto‘s three-year deal. As part of that deal, he might not get $8 million in 2008, but the accompanying commitment for 2010 could end up costing somebody $6 million bucks for a bench player.

Independent of the specific context of the 2008 Brewers, this final consideration might be enough to make the case. About $3 million per win may be the break-even point, but it looks better than that for a single year of a relatively low-risk player.

Actual replacement level

If the Brewers options for left field were limited to Jenkins, replacement-level minor leaguers, and free agents, this analysis would be done. But, as is usually the case, real people make for harder problems than abstractions do.

In the case of the 2008 Brewers, those real-life alternatives to Jenkins are Gabe Gross and Tony Gwynn. The actual range of possibilities is much wider: Ryan Braun or Rickie Weeks could be tried in the outfield or Bill Hall could be shifted to left, and I suppose the full-time job could be given to Mench, but we’ll set aside those options, as they are much less likely than Jenkins, Gross, or a free agent manning left field next season.

Focusing only on the left-handed half of the platoon, here are my forecasts for the three contenders:

Player  AVG     OBP     SLG     RC/400
Gross   0.256   0.338   0.410   55.4
Gwynn   0.242   0.297   0.273   32.4
Jenkins 0.269   0.343   0.432   59.3

Gwynn is known for his defense, but it’s hard to imagine him being worth another win or two on top of Jenkins’s value with the glove, so it’s easy to eliminate him from consideration. Even with the utter lack of power, Gwynn probably will never pass muster as a starter in center, let alone a corner spot, though his speed and defense may earn him a spot on the bench.

Gross is the more solid option, especially if the role is again a platoon. Because about 90% of Gross’s career at-bats have been against righties, his projection is a bit rosier; Jenkins should outperform those numbers as long as his manager keeps him away from southpaws.

But even adjusting Jenkins’s offense production up a little bit, the difference between him and Gross is not as large as the gap between him and the generic replacement player. We don’t have much data on Gross’ defensive skills at the major league level, but since he has spent a fair amount of time in center field, it seems reasonable to assume that he would be above average in left.

Let him walk

Gross, at least as the left-handed half of a platoon, is likely to be several runs above replacement level in left field. He’ll make close to the league minimum, so the difference between him and Jenkins is about $7.5 million, and less than two marginal wins, perhaps no more than one. But that doesn’t mean we’ve quite covered all the bases.

One thing I haven’t mentioned is the residual effect of moving Gross off the bench and into the lineup. However, that’s likely to be minimal: Finding a lefty pinch-hitter who can come close to a .750 OPS isn’t all that hard. Even if Doug Melvin fails in that quest, it’s only likely to negatively impact 100 or so at-bats.

Also, while $4 million per marginal win is pricey, the Brewers are at the stage where it could conceivably be worth it. It’s easy to imagine Milwaukee in the midst of another tight race next season, and the wins that get them from 83 to, say, 87 are very valuable ones.

In all likelihood, though, there will prove to be better ways to spend the $8 million saved by letting Jenkins walk. The bullpen was a problem, and Melvin could probably acquire two solid middle relievers for that sum. Another possible use would be to absorb salary as part of a trade for a catcher, another position at which the 2007 team was weak. While the Crew has fairly evenly-distributed talent throughout the diamond, there are still holes that eight million dollars would go a long way toward filling.

It’s been a nice run, Geoff. Thanks for the memories, and I hope you make a lot of money, play in the postseason, and find eternal bliss. Just not with the Brewers.

References & Resources
The projections are my own, using a regression-based system I developed for The Graphical Player 2008. As always, thanks to Cot’s Contracts for the salary data used here.

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