In rebuilding the Colorado Rockies for 2012, general manager Dan O'Dowd has left the team's more analytical fans in a bit of a tizzy by eschewing projections based on past on field results in favor of qualities that can't be quantified. Trading Chris Iannetta was likely a bad idea for 2012, by the numbers. So too, the "so long," to Huston Street. The Ian Stewart trade again, was awful, because the Rockies gave Stewart's tremendous potential away for a couple of reserves that have no position or place on their franchise. Now, on the near horizon looms another move just as devastating to SABRmetric oriented fans, the shipping out of useful cheap and still worth living at 29, Seth Smith, to replace him, if the Rockies have their way, with an expensive, painfully obvious poor right field defender by UZR, and ancient at 32 years old, Michael Cuddyer.
In a conference call with season ticket holders yesterday, O'Dowd admitted that a major motivation in all these moves was to change the "clubhouse culture," that he didn't want a team of "little boys," but of men willing to be held accountable and do what it took to win. The inference to the dispatched players was clear, the question remains whether there's any merit behind the philosophy or not. If you ask the Internet analysts, you'll get a fairly resounding "no" answer to this question. The theory holds that winning begets team chemistry and therefore team chemistry is an artificial construct.
The trouble with this is that the correct answer analytically should be "we don't know, because we can't measure it," and so analysts would be right to make their remarks on what they can observe and quantify, but wrong to dismiss out of hand what they can't as immaterial to personnel decisions. Honestly, I think the San Francisco run in 2010 may have been an example of clubhouse chemistry being attributed after the fact, whereas the Diamondbacks of last season have a stronger case of it actually mattering, given all the articles about the changed culture in Arizona with Kirk Gibson before the team actually started winning.
Over his last three seasons, all in his prime, Seth Smith has been worth 3.0 r-WAR, Cuddyer, 5.2. All three seasons for Cuddyer were after his 30th birthday. Aging curves for all players as a pool suggest that Cuddyer is the weaker choice going forward, but they are based on a lot of average to below players (like Seth Smith, frankly) dropping like rocks before they reach the point that Cuddyer already has. If you limit your selection to the pool of players that continue to produce at the plate after 30 (as Cuddyer has) the aging curve flattens until a player reaches about 35. People who see Smith as the safer alternative need to understand that while that may be true in the aggregate for all players, when you narrow the selection field to pools of similar players, the outlook doesn't look nearly as rosy for him.
My second point for Cuddyer: at corner positions, defense should always be a secondary consideration, particularly given the fickleness of the measures and the variability players have year to year. Imagine if the Red Sox had signed Lance Berkman last season instead of Carl Crawford, or alternatively, if the Cardinals had gone after the Tampa Bay defensive whiz instead of the plodding slugger they signed. Cuddyer has had two seasons (2009, 2011) at the plate in the last three years as good as Smith's best season (2009, all with a wRC+ 124) his worst season in that span (wRC+ 104 in 2010), was better than Smith's worst (98, also in 2010.) Smith's best season of his career, 2009, is now far enough in the past that it seems unlikely he'll be able to repeat it. If the Rockies have an opportunity to trade him right now, they should. The question of whether they should replace him with Cuddyer or another player is a bit more debatable. I think Cuddyer's a decent bet to be productive going forward, but so too, may have been Josh Willingham, who will be signing with the Twins for less than what Cuddyer will likely wind up with today.
The Rockies are pretty clear that they like Cuddyer over other outfielders on the market because he can also play first base, as was mentioned by O'Dowd yesterday in the conference call. I saw the Moneyball movie, though, and Brad Pitt said that you can eventually teach anybody to handle it, so who knows.
At any rate, I don't think the Rockies are getting screwed here by going after Cuddyer, and if I'm reading about what O'Dowd wasn't saying about a player neither he nor an opposing general manager are talking about, there might be an even more valid reason to suspect that getting an outfielder to replace Seth Smith makes Smith more valuable to the Rockies as a trade piece than as a player to keep. Even without adding chemistry, Cuddyer plus Tyler Colvin, plus the player nobody can mention, is far better for the Rockies chances over the next two seasons than Smith plus Andruw Jones plus DJ LeMahieu.