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Community Projection: Richie Sexson

The second in a non-alphabetical and irregularly updated series of review pieces for each of the players we predicted last winter. (All entries are linked in the left-hand sidebar, below the Rotoworld stuff and the interviews.)

LL/USSM Community: 548 AB's, .260/.344/.512 (n=149)
Actual Line: 434 AB's, .205/.295/.399

Closest Projection: EnglishMariner, .222/.293/.396

Before the year, I had Richie Sexson pegged as a bounceback candidate. I thought it was unusual for that kind of guy to suddenly lose 30 points of OBP and 40 points of SLG out of nowhere, so I figured him for a moderate rebound. As did much of the community - his projected .856 OPS fell neatly in between 2005's .910 and 2006's .842. Only 36% of you thought he'd get worse, and only 10% of you thought he'd end up under .800. In short, the Mariner blogosphere was counting on Richie to be one of our most important run producers in the middle of the lineup.

Funny thing; he wasn't. He wasn't even close. Ten different Mariners came to the plate at least 200 times during the season, and Richie Sexson posted a lower OPS than eight of them. Instead of hanging out with guys Justin Morneau and Derrek Lee, Richie's offense settled in with such illustrious peers as Aaron Miles, Brandon Inge, and Ryan Theriot. Fourteen million dollars doesn't buy what it used to.

In a year of shattered hope, a lot of attention's going to go to Ho Ramirez and Jeff Weaver as being responsible for our falling short of the playoffs, but the bottom line is that this team didn't have a chance as long as its expensive first baseman and intended cleanup batter was struggling to hit .200. It's not that easy to recover when your #1 run producer suddenly turns into a black hole. The Mariners kept waiting and waiting for Richie to snap out of it and carry the offense on his back down the stretch, but he never did, and by the time he was mercifully relieved of his duties it was too late to make a big difference.

With Ben Broussard and his ability to hit right-handed pitchers sitting on the bench, we were told time and time again that Richie is a second-half player, and that he was on the verge of heating up. But as I've said before, you never want to be in a position where you're taking the bad and waiting for the good, because if the good never comes, then you end up looking pretty stupid. Sure enough, Richie's surge didn't happen, and the more impatient Seattle became with the whole embarrassing charade, the more we started to hear some boo-birds dogging Richie in his own ballpark. When you're getting the same Safeco treatment as Player A and Jeffs Cirillo and Weaver, you know you've taken too long a hike down the walls of Shit Canyon.

It's not that Richie didn't have his moments - he had a nice little hot streak in August, for example, including a walk-off bomb against Matt Guerrier - it's that a player of his status is supposed to be remembered for the sheer volume of runs he drives in, not for individual hits. We remember Yuni for all the times he came through in the clutch, and that's cool, because we don't expect Yuni to hit. But Richie Sexson? The fact that we can recall pretty much every situation in which he came up big is an indication that he didn't come up big very often. And that made him an absolutely colossal disappointment.

To be fair to Richie, he suffered from some bad luck. Based on his line drive rate, he should've hit around .230 instead of .205, pushing his final line up to a more respectable .230/.320/.430 or so. Nothing great, but at least it's not Theriot territory anymore. An important lesson to learn from this is that whenever you see a player unexpectedly perform at either one of the extremes, chances are there's a lot of luck involved. By playing worse and getting it in the shorts when it comes to luck, Richie wound up with an almost historically bad batting line for a first baseman. Ugly to watch, but pretty unsustainable going forward.

I'm a lot more confident calling Richie a bounceback candidate now than I was a year ago, because I just can't fathom that he could possibly get any worse. A line drive rate of 14.9% is extraordinarily low and likely to regress closer to the mean, which should push him back into the mid-.200's. Even with declining power, that's still enough to make him a decent #5 or 6 bat. Don't be fooled by his 2007 campaign; Richie can still drive in some runs, and I imagine it'll be a while yet before he calls it quits. After all, he only turns 33 in September.

Still, though, what does that mean for the Mariners? To answer this question, we have to think about what Richie's likely to contribute in 2008. Dave mentioned the "prOPS" statistic today - a measure of what a player's batting line should be based on his balls in play and a standard BABIP - and since it's a decent indicator of future performance, I think it'll serve our purposes here. Richie's "predicted OPS" in 2007 was .820. Not only is that not a black hole; it's actually pretty nice.

But then you have to look at this:

2005: .944 prOPS
2006: .855
2007: .820

...and realize that, even if Richie was the victim of a lot of bad luck last year, he's still firmly in the decline phase of his career. If we're looking at a terrible defender who can only give us a .790-.830 OPS out of first base next year, then that player doesn't have very much value, even if such a performance would represent a huge improvement over what he gave the year before.

If the Mariners want to take a step forward this winter, then Richie Sexson's time in Seattle has to be up. They're not going to trade Raul Ibanez. They're not going to trade Jose Vidro (nor could they if they wanted to). Nor are they going to put Vidro on the bench. So with Vidro locked in at DH, they need to trade Sexson, because otherwise we're stuck with the same comedy of horrors in left field that we couldn't wait to escape all summer long. Richie needs to go and Raul needs to take over at first base. It's just entirely too difficult to upgrade the team into a legitimate contender as long as it's giving away 30-40 runs of defense at two positions. Richie would basically have to flip out and go beyond 2005 levels for that to work, and I don't think anyone finds that very likely.

Think of it this way - if Raul, Vidro, and Richie all stick around, then the only change would be subbing Jones in for Guillen (I'm ignoring whatever happens at second base, because it isn't related). If you call that an approximate wash, then what you're left relying on is 2008 Sexson out-producing 2007 Sexson at the plate.

If Richie goes, though, and Raul shifts to first base, then not only do you get the offensive improvement from 2007 Sexson to our new corner outfielder, but you also upgrade from Raul's "range" to something that's presumably a hundred times better. This is a more substantial improvement. In a winter market that's short on arms, the Mariners need to get better in the field, and shifting Raul to first would make them a whole hell of a lot better.

Late edit: okay, I wasn't 100% satisfied with those paragraphs, so here's a little further explanation. In situation A, you have Raul in left and Richie at first. In situation B, you have somebody else in left and Raul at first. For the sake of simplicity, let's say that Richie and Raul are equally bad with the glove as first basemen. If the new corner outfielder is average defensively, then all he has to be is ~15-20 runs worse offensively than Sexson for us to break even. So if you project Richie to hit like 2007 Adam LaRoche, then the new guy only has to hit like 2007 Melky Cabrera or 2007 Stephen Drew to make sure we're not losing ground. Anything better than that and the move is worthwhile. And if the new guy is, I dunno, Local Boy Geoff Jenkins, who's an above-average defender, then we're probably at least 10-20 runs in the black. Dumping Richie however you can to make room for Raul is the smart thing to do.

Richie Sexson has supplied a lot of excitement as a Mariner, but his best days are gone, and even if he does rebound pretty significantly in 2008, it's just not in the team's best interests to keep him around. So, please, Bill, let this be the last time I have to talk about him at considerable length. With any luck, Richie's career in Seattle ended on September 9th.

Adrian Beltre's contract has always been so much better.