As a 25-year-old, Angels first baseman Mark Trumbo had a solid rookie season: He hit 29 home runs, finished tied for 18th in the American League in extra-base hits and displayed good range on defense.
However, those numbers came with a big negative: 25 walks that led to a .291 on-base percentage, 68th out of 73 AL regulars.
Knowing it's near impossible to win with a first baseman who posts a .291 OBP, the Angels have to consider: (1) How likely is Trumbo to improve? (2) Do they spend the money to go after Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols? (3) Could Trumbo handle third base?
I think the first question is the biggest key here. If the Angels think Trumbo is a productive hitter, they don't need to worry about the second question (especially if they also count on Kendrys Morales returning).
Trumbo's skill-set is relatively odd: Despite the .291 OBP, his park-adjusted OPS was better than league average -- 113 (where 100 is average). The first step in determining Trumbo's future as a hitter is to look at similar hitters. Since 1990, only three other 25-year-olds posted an OBP of .310 or less and an OPS+ of at least 100: Matt Kemp (2010), Jose Lopez (2009), Torii Hunter (2001) and Matt Williams (1991).
It's an interesting list. Kemp, of course, turned into an MVP candidate, but he's the least similar as he'd already had two much more productive seasons prior to his 2010 slump. Hunter gradually increased his walk rate from 4.8 percent in 2001 to 7.8 percent in 2003 to 9.6 percent in 2011. That improved strike-zone judgment was key in his development as a hitter. Lopez was well into his career by 2009, but after a 25-homer season that year, he fell apart and has hit .233 with a .263 OBP the past two seasons.
While Lopez is the worst-case scenario, Williams is the most interesting comparison. He hit .268/.310/.499 in 1991, numbers slightly more impressive in their context than Trumbo's line. However, his 128/33 strikeout/walk ratio nearly matches Trumbo's 120/25 mark. Williams never did walk much (season high of 43), but eventually cut his 1991 K:BB rate from 3.88 to a career mark of 2.91.
Of course, four players is a small sample. Let's expand the parameters to since 1990, 24 or 25 years old, first or second year in the majors, 300 PAs, OBP of .310 or less and OPS+ of at least 90, we get this list: Trevor Plouffe (2011), J.P. Arencibia (2011), Josh Fields (2007), Jared Sandberg (2007), Tony Clark (1996), Bret Boone (1993), Ryan Thompson (1993), Eric Karros (1992), Leo Gomez (1991), Ray Lankford (1991), Wes Chamberlain (1991), Jeff King (1990), Greg Vaughn (1990).
Obviously, it was hard to post a low OBP and maintain an OPS close to league average during the high-offense era of the mid-1990s to mid-2000s. If you stick to raw numbers (let's say at least 25 home runs, but fewer than 35 walks at age 25), a couple of interesting names pop up: Juan Gonzalez and Sammy Sosa. (But also Chad Tracy, Brad Fullmer, Geoff Jenkins and Rondell White.) There's a big difference with Gonzalez and Sosa, however: Gonzalez had a .324 OBP and Sosa .339 in the years in question. Those a sizable increases from .291.
Basically, I still like the Williams comparison as a best-case scenario. Realistically, that probably won't happen. Even though Trumbo was a rookie, you have to remember he's 25 years old. He's essentially a mature hitter, which is why the projections for him predict similar numbers: ESPN contributor Dan Szymborksi's ZIPS system has Trumbo at .253/.295/.437 and the Bill James system a slightly more optimistic .269/.313/.493.
Even that second line looks more like a third baseman than a first baseman. As far as that possible conversion, for a franchise that has long emphasized defense, it seems a long-shot opportunity considering Trumbo never played a game there in the minor leagues.
The Angels already have a projected payroll of $128 million according to Baseball-Reference.com (thank you, Vernon Wells), but investing in Fielder or Pujols makes sense. If they want to compete with the Angels, this team needs a big bat; Trumbo is not that big bat. If they can suck up the budget for one season, Hunter comes off the payroll after 2012, so that could open up right field for Trumbo (he's played a bit in the minors). With Peter Bourjos and Mike Trout, the Angels could survive with one subpar defensive outfielder.
And a lineup with Trout, Trumbo, Fielder, Bourjos, Morales, Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar suddenly looks like one that can win a division title.