Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Getting to Know…Aaron Rowand

"I hate to watch guys come out here and not play hard. I wouldn't want to buy a ticket for a ballgame and see somebody giving 50 percent. My dad told me a long time ago that I shouldn't bother playing unless I leave everything out on the field." – Aaron Rowand

The one constant theme in all of the newspaper stories and internet articles after Aaron Rowand arrived in Philadelphia was how sad Chicago fans were to see him go. This wasn’t based on any quantitative assessment of Rowand’s worth to the club; it was based on a legion of fans upset to see a player they loved to watch at the ballpark every day depart. How Rowand performs on the field and little else will determine the success or failure of the Jim Thome trade as it pertains to the Phillies in the short-term (long-term success or failure will also be impacted on the development and performance of the two young pitchers in the deal). Being a good guy in the clubhouse and a favorite amongst fans are great bonuses to the total Rowand package, but if he has an OPS just a shade over .700 come July, who cares? I’m not saying character doesn’t matter when it comes to baseball, I’m just saying that performance is about 100 times more important. A great guy that can’t hit? No thanks. A real jerk who can? I’ll take him more often than not. Anyway, that is really more of a random tangent than anything that specifically relates directly back to Rowand (he has hit before and he is by all accounts a nice fellow).

Since that was a bit of a rambling mess, I’ll sum up real fast: Even though it is adorable that White Sox fans and members of the Chicago sports media loved Rowand as a person and player, he’ll needs to perform on the field for this to be a worthwhile investment. I’m not trying to understate the importance of the gritty, hard-nosed, run through a wall mentality that Philadelphians love. That’s all well and good. Only a fool will think those things will be enough for Phillies fans if Rowand isn’t hitting. Simple as that.

My first thought after hearing the Phillies acquired Rowand was, based on the high demand for centerfielders around the league this offseason, he wouldn’t be a Phillie for long. I even went as far as to say he’d never don the red pinstripes and he’d be dealt within days. I was wrong. Rowand will almost certainly head into 2006 as the Philadelphia Phillies starting CF. What do we know about Aaron Rowand? He has a very favorable contract. Rowand signed a two-year deal back in January of 2005 that paid him $2 million this year and will pay him $3.25 million in 2006. In today’s market, that’s a verifiable steal. Rowand has one of the unique player/team options for 2007; the team has first crack at exercising the option and, if the team declines, the player can exercise a separate option. So, about eleven months from now, the Phillies must decide if they’ll pay Rowand $5 million in 2007. If the Phils decline, Rowand must decide if he wants to return to Philadelphia in 2007 for a salary of $3.25 million or test the open market by rejecting the option. Many assume Rowand will be good enough for the Phillies in 2006 that the team will feel compelled to pick up his option for 2007. That amounts to an $8.25 million investment for two years of Aaron Rowand. This would still be a very good contract for the Phillies especially when you consider Michael Tucker earning $2 million in 2005 to be a fourth outfielder for the majority of the season.

We’ve talked about Rowand’s makeup, we’ve talked about Rowand’s contract, how about getting to his actual abilities as a ballplayer? Rowand was drafted by Chicago in 1998 in the first round (35th overall) out of Cal State Fullerton. Rowand crossed paths with many a big leaguer while at Cal State Fullerton. Included on this list are Brandon Duckworth, Jeremy Giambi, Mark Kotsay, Kirk Saarloos, and Matt Wise. That’s one interesting collection of guys. After getting drafted, Rowand was sent to Hickory in the South Atlantic League where he put up huge numbers (.342 batting average with a .905 OPS). Going immediately to Low A after being drafted is quite the compliment for a young player. Oftentimes, advanced college players will be the ones to make that jump; Rowand is a perfect example of this. Rowand was ready for Low A after leaving school and he made sure the White Sox took notice through his fine performance. After his impressive debut, the Sox moved him up one level each season over the next two years (High A in 1999, AA in 2000). Rowand tapered off a bit by the time he hit AA (.258 average, .758 OPS), but the White Sox liked his power potential enough (44 combined homers in 1999 and 2000) to give him a job on the major league bench in 2001. Let me get this straight. After a down year in AA (117 strikeouts to 38 walks was just one of the problems), the Sox decided to have Rowand skip AAA and head right to bench duty and the irregular number of at bats that come with it. Questionable decision at the time, but it paid off – in 2001 anyway.

Rowand began 2001 as the White Sox fourth outfielder. He was used primarily off the bench as a late inning defensive substitute for Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Lee, but still managed to snag 29 starts in CF. Rowand’s reputation as a premier defensive outfielder, not fully developed in the minors, was beginning to grow. He also managed to hit a very impressive .293/.385/.431 in 123 at bats (beware the small sample size!). This was the same guy who only managed 38 walks in 592 plate appearances in AA. Now he was getting 15 walks in just 148 plate appearances? Small sample sizes reveal little, more time would be needed to judge Rowand. Even still, the Sox had to have been encouraged by Rowand’s fine performance. 2002 began with much of the same for Rowand – 4th outfielder work from the start. Rowand couldn’t unseat Kenny Lofton for a job in CF, but as the Sox floundered, veterans (including Lofton) were dealt off. This freed up a spot in the starting lineup for Rowand. He didn’t exactly take the job and run with it. Rowand’s .258/.298/.394 line was a huge disappointment to the Sox who expected more power at the very least. Rowand’s defense continued to get good reviews and his name began popping up on all of those “best defensive players you’ve never heard of” kind of lists. Even with the disappointment of 2002, the Sox expected Rowand to come in ready to work in 2003 as the starting CF from opening day on. A motorcross accident derailed any plans of this happening. Rowand rushed back from the injury, but was clearly not ready for extended playing time. After one month, Rowand’s numbers were dreadful (.140/.210/.175). Those are some impossibly bad stats. The Sox recognized Rowand rushed back from injury too soon (numbers that bad how could they not?) and sent him down to AAA for the first time to rehab. Rowand hit .242 while in Charlotte, but after just 120 at bats Rowand was deemed physically fit and ready to return to Chicago. Since baseball really is a funny game, he then went on a tear for the rest of the season. He hit .381/.408/.629 for the remainder of the season. Go figure, right? These numbers were in a very limited number of at bats, however, as Chicago had imported Jurassic Carl Everett to play centerfield everyday in Rowand’s absence.

Everything changed for Rowand and the White Sox in 2004. Finally, the centerfield job was all Aaron’s from the start. Ozzie Guillen, the new Sox manager, pledged his full support to Rowand and Rowand was finally completely healthy. Even with all of these factors going in his favor, nobody could have predicted the year Rowand had. He hit .310/.361/.544 with 94 runs scored, 24 homeruns, 38 doubles, and 17 steals in 487 at bats. Rowand was rewarded after that season with the two-year contract discussed earlier. With these impressive numbers coming in Rowand’s Age-26 season, many believed he was a player just reaching his peak years.

Aaron Rowand’s career never followed a traditional path, so why should his development at the major league level be any different? Many expected Rowand to build on his 2004 season with an even better 2005, but it wasn’t the case. The White Sox experienced great success as a team (something about a World Series title I think) and Rowand was a part of that through his total package of skills as a ballplayer. In more direct terms, Rowand’s offensive output was below average in ’05 (.270/.329/.407, OPS+ 93), but his defense was so darn good that he remained a valuable contributor on a championship ballclub.

Defense is an extremely difficult facet of the game to judge properly and it makes for very difficult player evaluations. There are two schools of thought when it comes to appraising a player’s defensive worth. One is easy – the old eyeball test. If you watch a guy play every day, you tend to believe you get a pretty good field of what he can and can not do defensively. Baseball’s statistical evolution has led us to the point where defense can be viewed in a new light. Newer defensive metrics are rapidly being introduced in an attempt to quantify how good players really are defensively. The use of more detailed statistics (many with an emphasis on determining the defensive range of a player) is changing the way many think of the relevancy of errors and fielding percentage. I am a big advocate for the use of statistics whenever possible, but am forced with a dilemma when a player like Jimmy Rollins comes along. Watching him play everyday, he seems like a significantly above average major league shortstop. However, some of his defensive metrics aren’t so hot. It is tough to just ignore the stats and risk being a typical homer fan that picks and chooses when to use stats only to help the cause of an argument (something about how to lie with statistics comes to mind there…). In my defense, defensive metrics are still in their infancy (at least as far as the mainstream baseball community goes) compared to some of the more tried and true offensive stats that have shown a direct correlation to player value and success (OPS is a biggie there). Luckily we human beings were created with the ability to think rationally and come to conclusions based off of many pieces of evidence if we so choose. Combining what we see with what the stats tell us makes for a pretty accurate picture of what defense is really all about – until some more definitive measure of defensive worth comes along anyway.

Weren’t we talking about Aaron Rowand at one point? The great debate on the accuracy of defensive metrics versus the more traditional approach to evaluating good defense luckily does not really apply when it comes to Rowand. Rowand just so happens to be a guy who will pass every fan’s naked eye test (watching him play in the field will be a real pleasure this season) while also being a guy who also scores very highly on any defensive metric known to man. His defense is top notch and makes up a large percentage of his value as a baseball player.

That sums up Aaron Rowand prior to 2006 pretty well, but the real questions about the guy concern his future with the Phillies and his role in making the Jim Thome trade a success or failure. Those are the most interesting things, I think. But, alas, we have to get an understanding of where Mr. Rowand came from to fully grasp what to expect in the future. Talking about Rowand’s entire back story for so long means we have run out of time for the fun future stuff – but don’t worry, it’s coming. I say that a lot, but this time I do mean it.

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