Some Cubs fans entered the season with relatively high expectations for Bryan LaHair. Others weren't optimistic at all. I was somewhere in between. I was fairly certain LaHair's numbers were so damn good at AAA that it indicated he should probably be about a league average ballplayer at the MLB level. To this point we've all been wrong.
MLB's best hitters can be separated into a few groups right now (the numbers here are through Monday's games). One group has David Wright, Paul Konerko, Carlos Gonzalez and Derek Jeter. The next group has David Ortiz and Josh Hamilton. The best group has Bryan LaHair and Matt Kemp. the reason I distributed these into groups was to highlight the differences. There is a considerable drop in 2012 wOBA (and wRC+) after Kemp and LaHair. There is also another sizable drop after Ortiz and Hamilton. I could have included several other names with the first group, but chose only to name four players instead.
Kemp has wOBA/wRC+ of .532/247. Next best is LaHair at .523/234. If we were to look at WAR instead, LaHair's 1.9 falls to 6th best in MLB, but consider two things: LaHair plays 1st base and has 20-35 fewer plate appearances than all those around him. Matt Kemp's 25 leads the way by 0.5 WAR.
The start to LaHair's season has been unreal. It's not at all unreasonable to think that LaHair may actually represent the NL as the starting 1st baseman in the all-star game. Among NL 1B, LaHair has .7 fWAR more than the next best (Joey Votto). Over the next couple months it's more than likely that Votto will out-perform LaHair, but he's already put himself in a good position to at least make the team and perhaps even start the game*. The Cubs could be the worst team in history to have 4 all-stars (LaHair, Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija).
* It was pointed out in the comments that LaHair would never get the start over Votto due to the fan voting and I had completely forgotten that's how the teams were set up.
LaHair now has a .361 rest of season ZiPS projection meaning he's projected to be worth an additional 2.1 WAR the rest of the season. That's basically equal to the offensive production that Derrek Lee provided in 2004, 2006 and 2006. Overall it's obviously not as good as Lee, but not that far off either. LaHair isn't know for his defense like Lee was though.
We've already looked at when the Cubs may consider calling Anthony Rizzo up, but the bigger question now is how you can call him up and keep LaHair in the lineup. You're not going to replace LaHair with Rizzo. The Cubs have a few options. They could move LaHair to LF or trade him. Or they could trade Rizzo. I don't see them trading Rizzo. So the Cubs actually have a couple options: move LaHair to LF or trade him.
The smartest thing to do would be to release Alfonso Soriano and stick LaHair in LF, but let's say they decide they want to trade him. Let's assume it would happen around the deadline so LaHair could probably be expected to provide another 1 WAR after that. LaHair isn't even arbitration eligible until the 2015 season and is under club control through 2017. We could estimate LaHair's value based on the average aging of a player and his current value.
- 2012 (last 2 months): 1 WAR
- 2013: 2.5 WAR
- 2014: 2.0 WAR
- 2015: 1.5 WAR
- 2016: 1.0 WAR
- 2017: 0.5 WAR
- Total: 8.5 WAR
We have to estimate his salary based on that information.
- 2012: .1 million
- 2013: .5
- 2014: .5
- 2015: 3
- 2016: 5
- 2017: 6
- Total: $15.1 million
If we estimate the average win value on the low side of about $5.5 million that means LaHair's surplus trade value is approximately $31 million, give or take. In terms of value that's basically a top 10 hitting prospect, but LaHair isn't going to bring that much in return. At least it's difficult to see that happening anyway. I think it's safe to say the Cubs could probably trade LaHair for something valuable, but I'd also say they might be better off keeping him.