Tuesday, December 14, 2004

2005 Dodgers: Chin-Feng Chen

With Ricky Ledee signed as the Dodgers' fourth outfielder, there's a good shot they'll have a right-handed bat on the bench who can play the outfield. The obvious in-house candidates, all of whom are on the 40-man roster, are Jason Repko, Cody Ross, and Chin-Feng Chen. Chen has the inside track for two reasons. First, he had the best offensive season of the trio in 2004. Second, the other two are young enough that they'd likely improve more from another season in AAA than a season as a role player in the bigs.

Chen has gained a degree of notoriety over the years. A highly touted prospect signed out of Taiwan, Chen dominated the high-A California League at age 21 in 1999. Promoted to AA in 2000, though, he struggled mightily. More accurately, he made the transition well in every facet of his game except hitting home runs: he'd hit 31 in '99 and only 6 in 2000. He was demoted to high-A to start 2001, and fared pretty poorly. But midway through 2001 the Dodgers decided, in spite of his rough and power-devoid showing with Vero Beach, to promote him back to AA. This time he dominated, putting up outstanding numbers; the power, walks, and line drives were all out in full force.

2002 saw Chen in Vegas, where he hit a disappointing .284/.352/.503. Obviously, that line can only be disappointing when one is hitting in the PCL and has high expectations, but it seemed an indication that Chen may have topped out. That notion was strengthened in 2003, when he showed only marginal improvement, hitting .281/.360/.530. At the age of 26 in 2004 and repeating the PCL for the third time, Chen's power again made slight improvement as he hit .289/.359/.584, but that improvement certainly was not enough to put him on the fast track.

At this point Chen is likely a failed prospect. One could still conceive of him having a Calvin Pickering-type breakout, but there's no reason to expect it. Nonetheless, a team could do a lot worse than having Chen on the bench. He's no great shakes with a glove, but he ain't Manny Ramirez or anything. Offensively, if he's used exclusively as a lefty-mashing pinch-hitter or spot starter when Olmedo Saenz has the hiccups, he should be above average in terms of raw production, putting up an EqA in the .265-.275 range. In fact, let's play a little game:

Line A: .232/.305/.398
Line B: .240/.316/.448
Line C: .250/.329/.466

Line B is Chen's 2005 ZiPS projection. Line C is that same projection adjusted to resemble what he'd do if two thirds of his plate appearances were against left-handed pitchers. Line A? Shawn Green against left-handed pitching in 2004. Green could still possibly be the Shawn Green of yore who was pretty good at hitting lefties, but if his splits from the shoulder-injury era continue then a platoon would likely be wise. This isn't simply small sample size wizardry, either; Green had 203 PA against lefties last year. And considering that Shawn Green was the worst defensive right fielder in baseball for the 2000-2003 period according to UZR, the defensive drop-off would probably be negligible or even reversed. Now, whether Jim Tracy would tolerate platooning Green and whether Green would tolerate being relegated to pinch-hitter for 35 games is itself a different story. But from an analytical standpoint, I think I endorse a Green/Chen platoon, at least until such time as Green demonstrates he's playing as he did during his peak or Chen demonstrates he's already peaked.

I think Mike Edwards might have been signed to fulfill a role similar to the one you describe here. He was quite good as a righty 3B/OF for the Sacramento River Cats in 2004.
- Jonathan
I forgot about Edwards. He could be useful too, but I don't imagine him providing better offense than CFC-- he walks a bit more, but isn't that close in power.
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