Where Does Jhonny Peralta Fit on the MLB Free-Agent Market?

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Where Does Jhonny Peralta Fit on the MLB Free-Agent Market?
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There's a player on the free-agent market who has a history at a premium position, is coming off a season in which he hit over .300 and is still in multiyear contract territory at 31 years of age.

You'd think that this guy would be one of the biggest no-brainers for a big contract. Instead, he's probably the hardest guy to figure of anybody out there in the free-agent waters.

We can now lift the veil of obscurity and reveal this player to be Jhonny Peralta. Since you read the title of this article, you obviously knew that. I'll also venture a guess that you've stumbled across this article because of all the recent chatter involving Peralta. It seems his name is everywhere all of a sudden.

It helps to be linked to both New York clubs. Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com reported earlier this month that Peralta had met with the Mets. Jon Morosi of FoxSports.com reported the Yankees' interest in Peralta.

Elsewhere, ESPN's Jerry Crasnick has mentioned the Seattle Mariners as a possible fit. According to Morosi, the Baltimore Orioles are the latest team to join the fray, and they're doing so with a twist:

That the Orioles are looking at Peralta as a left fielder is an interesting wrinkle. He's a shortstop by trade, and he only played left field at the end of 2013 because the Detroit Tigers needed third base for the slugging Miguel Cabrera and shortstop for the slick-fielding Jose Iglesias.

But then, maybe Peralta's not a shortstop or a left fielder. Maybe he's a third baseman. He's played 213 career games at the position, and it's his ability to play the hot corner that inspired FoxSports.com to highlight him as a potential stand-in for Alex Rodriguez in The Bronx. If the veteran slugger is lost for 2014 as a result of that ongoing thing he's dealing with, of course.

Another interesting wrinkle? Peralta's price tag. It's pretty big, and there are apparently teams willing to meet it.

ESPN's Buster Olney reported a while back that Peralta was looking for $45 million over three years. The New York Post's Joel Sherman says the actual numbers in Peralta's mind are much bigger:

Seems like a lot doesn't it? Surely nobody out there is going to be willing to come anywhere even close to those numbers, right?

Well, you'd be surprised. Here's Peter Gammons:

Four years at $13 million per year comes out to $52 million. That's pretty close to that four-year, $56 million range that Sherman floated.

Surprised? So was I at first. That does seem like a lot of money for a guy like Peralta, who has the general look and feel of a walking pile of puzzle pieces.

But if you venture to put the pieces together, the interest in Peralta does begin to make sense.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

At first glance, it seems like foolishness to pay $50 million for Peralta. That reeks of paying for his contract-year performance.

He definitely did have a good season offensively, hitting .303/.358/.457 with 11 home runs in 107 games. According to FanGraphs, the only shortstop (minimum 400 plate appearances) with a bigger wRC+ in 2013 was Troy Tulowitzki.

But behind all this is Peralta's track record, which isn't so great.

Per FanGraphs, Peralta owns a 102 wRC+ for his career. Per Baseball-Reference.com, he owns a 101 OPS+ for his career. Since 100 signifies average for both statistics, Peralta's only been a slightly above-average hitter throughout his career.

On top of that complication is Peralta's sheer inconsistency over the past five seasons:

Jhonny Peralta, 2009-2013
Season BB/K BABIP AVG OBP SLG wRC+
2009 0.38 0.309 0.254 0.316 0.375 83
2010 0.51 0.275 0.249 0.311 0.392 91
2011 0.42 0.325 0.299 0.345 0.478 122
2012 0.47 0.275 0.239 0.305 0.384 86
2013 0.36 0.374 0.303 0.358 0.457 123

FanGraphs

In three out of the past five seasons, Peralta has been a below-average hitter. Simple as that. And while he did rebound in 2013, it's hard not to notice that he did it despite his lowest walk-to-strikeout ratio of the past five seasons and with a grossly inflated .374 BABIP.

The strikeouts are concerning. Peralta's 21.9 K% was his highest since 2007, and it was no accident. His swinging-strike percentage in 2013 was 11.0. That was a two-percent increase on 2011 and 2012.

As for that BABIP, well, the conventional wisdom is that what goes up comes down. Peralta's career BABIP is .315, so .374 does look like a mark that can't possibly last.

This, however, is where we find another interesting wrinkle in the curious case of Jhonny Peralta.

Hitters don't have a ton of control over whether or not balls in play find the holes in the defense, but they can control how they hit the ball. And in 2013, Peralta did do one thing better than he had ever done: hit line drives.

Via FanGraphs, here's how Peralta's LD% has progressed since he became a full-time player in 2005.

Data courtesy of FanGraphs.

Line drives are good, see. They're the kind of batted ball that's most likely to go for a hit. The league's top BABIP merchants tend to hit a lot of line drives. That's what Peralta was doing in 2013.

What's equally encouraging is how Peralta was picking up so many line drives. Per Brooks Baseball, he hit both fastballs and breaking balls on a line at a rate he hadn't done in years. Given how hard of a time he'd been having hitting breaking balls on a line in recent seasons, it's clear that some sort of adjustment was made.

So that .374 BABIP of Peralta's? Yeah, it was a bit inflated. And yeah, it will be coming down. But since 2013 wasn't a same-old-same-old kind of year for him, it's fair to doubt if his .315 BABIP really works as a baseline for what his performance should be heading forward. If he keeps producing line drives at the rate he did in 2013, his baseline BABIP will be higher and will serve as a solid floor for his offensive production.

Elephant in the room? Oh, right. Elephant in the room.

Yes, Peralta was suspended for 50 games as a result of the Biogenesis investigation. And yes, that suspension did cast the numbers he was putting up in a negative light.

But it's possible to play devil's advocate here. By the time the Miami New Times introduced everyone to Biogenesis, the clinic was already closed. That was in January. The season began in April. There is a reasonable doubt that Peralta's ties to the clinics had nothing to do with his 2013 season.

So those teams that are apparently willing to pay Peralta over $50 million in a four-year pact? Based on how he succeeded in 2013 and where Biogenesis is in his timeline, their confidence isn't entirely unjustified. 

Now then, about Peralta's glove...

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Peralta doesn't have the look of a guy who should be playing shortstop on a full-time basis. He's listed at 6'2" and 215 pounds, making him 45 pounds heavier than fellow 6'2" shortstop Andrelton Simmons. 

And if we're being honest, Peralta doesn't pass the eye test as a particularly appealing shortstop. Watch him play, and you'll marvel neither at his range, nor his hands, nor his arm strength.

But you know what? Peralta's really not too shabby of a shortstop.

That's the opinion of the defensive metrics, anyway. If we use FanGraphs to take a look at his recent shortstop performances through the eyes of defensive runs saved and ultimate zone rating, we see a defender who, while not necessarily great, is certainly solid.

Jhonny Peralta's Shortstop Defense, 2009-2013
Year DRS UZR UZR/150
2009 2 2.6 9.1
2010 1 -0.1 -0.5
2011 2 10.3 11.2
2012 -1 11.5 13.7
2013 0 3.5 4.8

FanGraphs

How exactly does a guy with no eye-popping physical attributes manage solid defensive numbers?

Good question. The most logical explanation is that Peralta has a knack for positioning, and it's worth noting that he's made more plays outside of his zone over the past three years than Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins. There's something to be said about his instincts.

Given that Peralta is 31-going-on-32, it's likely that he only has so many days left at shortstop either way. But since his performances at short aren't on a clear downward trajectory, a team could conceivably sign him as a shortstop and get one or two more good years out of him there.

As for Peralta serving as a third baseman or a shortstop/third baseman hybrid, that could work too. We know he can still handle short, and he played a decent third base the last time he played there on a regular basis in 2010. His UZR was subpar, but not by much at minus-1.1. His defensive runs saved, however, was on the other side of zero.

As for the idea of Peralta in left field, there's no way to make any sort of definitive call there. He only played left field for a handful of games at the end of 2013 and barely got any practice in before he found himself playing there in games.

There are, however, a couple of positions where teams can stash lugs who can't field and get by OK. Along with first base and right field, left field is one of them. Since Peralta's no lug, he could probably handle left field just fine if given fair enough warning to get some practice in.

So all told, where exactly is Jhonny Peralta's place on this year's free-agent market?

Well, he's a hitter who looks better than his decidedly average track record, which puts him safely in the realm of above-average hitters. He's also a player who could conceivably start at shortstop, third base or left field, or perhaps hold down a job as a rover between all three. 

A good-hitting, solid-fielding shortstop/third baseman/left fielder? That there's a player who has his own place on the free-agent market, and one that teams have every right to be interested in.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

 

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