Veteran outfielder Mark Kotsay announced his retirement earlier this week. A presence on major league rosters for the last 16 years, he was a strong prospect when he was young. Let's take a look at his career with today's Prospect Retrospective (by reader request in this case).
Mark Kotsay played college baseball at Cal State Fullerton, beginning with an impressive .372/.446/.584 line as a freshman in 1994. He showed more power as a sophomore, hitting .442/.492/.776 with 21 homers to go with 15 steals, granted everyone hit for power in the NCAA in those days. His junior year was even better, with a .402/.487/.797 line, 20 homers, 20 steals, extremely good plate discipline (50 walks vs. just 22 strikeouts) and great defensive play.
Although his physical tools were considered more decent than excellent, his work ethic and feel for the game were tremendous. The Marlins drafted him in the first round in 1996, ninth overall, and it was not considered an overdraft by most. He played 17 games for Kane County in the Midwest League after signing, hitting .283/.436/.467 with 16 walks and just eight strikeouts in 60 at-bats.
After a strong spring training in '97, Kotsay opened the season with Double-A Portland in the Eastern League. He was terrific, hitting .306/.405/.514 with 20 homers, 17 steals, 75 walks, and just 65 strikeouts in 438 at-bats. He led the league in outfield fielding percentage and drew good reviews for his range and strong, accurate throwing arm. His across-the-board play earned him honors as the top prospect in the league by Baseball America.
Promoted to the majors in September, he hit .192/.250/.250 in 52 at-bats, but impressed the Marlins enough that he was penciled in for the big league lineup entering '98. I thought he was excellent overall and gave him a Grade A in my 1998 book, writing that although he didn't have the greatest tools in the world, his feel for the game was superb, he did everything well, and there were no holes in his numbers. "There is no doubt in my mind that he will have a long and successful career" I concluded.
Kotsay opened '98 as the regular right fielder; although he didn't have the classic power for that position, his arm was good enough to fit there. As you know, he played regularly for the Marlins from '98 through '00, then settled in as the center fielder for the San Diego Padres ('01 through '03) and Oakland Athletics ('04 through '06). Age and injuries eventually dragged him down to reserve outfielder status.
He never quite lived up to the hitting potential he showed in college and the minor leagues, but Kotsay was an above-average hitter in his best seasons (122 OPS+ at age 26 in 2002, 116 OPS+ in both 2001 and 2004). He had a nice WAR run from 2001 through 2004 (3.4, 4.8, 4.0, 3.8) due to decent hitting with excellent glovework.
Overall, Kotsay finished with a career WAR of 20.0, hitting .276/.332/.405, OPS+ 96, wRC+95. In an age of high-octane offense, he was a throw-back, a line-drive contact hitter who derived much of his value from defense.
Looking at comparable players, Bill James Sim Scores give us the following names: Garry Maddox, Randy Winn, Darin Erstad, Jorge Orta, Jose Cardenal, Jim Piersall, Vic Power, Dave Philley, and Curt Flood. Most of those guys were strong defensive players with bats that were decent enough to keep themselves employed, just like Kotsay. Kotsay’s 20.0 WAR value puts him in company with Cesar Tovar (22.1), Cardenal (21.0), Matty Alou (20.4), Gee Walker (19.4), Stan Javier (19.4), and Dave Martinez (18.1) among center fielders with a similar amount of playing time.
Overall, Kotsay didn’t live up to the Grade A grade; he wasn’t a star. But he was valuable, and he certainly had a “long and successful career.”