The free-agent market officially opened last week, ushered in by a flurry of important signings that could truly change the game. Or a general malaise, one of the two, I forget which.
Anyone who studies market trends in baseball can tell you that a high volume of deals get done as the windows are closing, not opening.
Deals will get done between now and well into spring training as teams try to patch holes without creating new ones and without taking on ungodly salaries. The same is true with the trade deadline; sure, players get moved early in the season, but the last week of July is lousy with players flying from one team to the other.
Perhaps if the windows were smaller there would be more action. GMs bidding like floor traders, elbowing each other out of the way to talk to key agents, eventually a huge fight breaks out in the lobby of the Indianapolis Omni hotel with the winner getting the rights to sign Jason Bay for too much money.
As much as I’d like to see the Minnesota Twins go after a pitcher next, the rumblings I’ve heard are that they are still interested in an infielder. I certainly can’t blame them, as there are questions aplenty in there, so with one of the seasons’ hot trade targets already in the fold, let’s check out the other.
Dan Uggla may best remembered for his 2008 All-Star Game appearance in which he committed three errors and went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts and a GIDP, but that’s certainly a far cry from his usual performance.
A career .243/.344/.482 hitter, the soon-to-be 30-year-old second baseman has been largely overshadowed by his double-play mate, one Hanley Ramirez.
Still, Uggla has been an above-average hitter in each of the last four seasons, hitting more than 25 home runs every season he’s been in the majors and never posting an OPS below .800. His EqA—a measure of his total offensive contribution, prorated by league difficulty, home park, and opposing pitching—has never dipped below the league average mark of .260, meaning he’s always been an offensive asset irrespective of position. When positional factors are taken into account, he’s worth about the same number of wins as Orlando Hudson, Nelson Cruz, and Aramis Ramirez, not at all a bad company to be in.
Last season, Uggla’s numbers fell off a little bit, dropping from .260/.360/.514 to 243/.354/.459 due in no small part to a regression in his batting average on balls in play–from .320 in 2008 to .274 last year. That figure was never going to stay that high, so a drop in batting average should have been expected.
One thing that bodes well for Uggla is that he kept his on-base percentage at almost the same level even with the drop in BA. His strikeouts were down both in relative (27.6% to 22.5%) and absolute terms (171 to 150) and his walk rate jumped from 12.4% to 13.8%.
One major concern I have about Uggla is his home/road split. His home park is a bit of a launching pad, one of the most hitter friendly in the majors in fact, and Uggla is a bit of a product of that. His home line—.251/.386/.513—is good for an OPS+ 21 points above average, or loosely as good as Matt Kemp and Denard Span were over the full season.
His away numbers—.235/.321/.408—turned him into Pedro Feliz or Miguel Cairo, 20 points below average. Over his career, the same split exists, though it’s narrower—just 10 points.
I would be more concerned about that split if it were lower across the board, that is, if his away line was .200/.291/.360, I’d be prepared to pass no matter the price.
As it stands, even if his away line becomes his overall stats, he’d still be better than any of the hitters the Twins had batting second last season. Additionally, with the addition of JJ Hardy (who has batted second in the order for almost his entire career), Uggla will probably bat seventh or eighth in the order. His power is legitimate wherever he’s playing: he hit 13 no-doubt home runs this season, good for 3rd in the NL.
If the Twins aren’t really in need of a marquee hitter, which since the next hitter they acquire will be their 6th hitter at best, then they need to be looking at defense as much as offense. Uggla’s is…enigmatic.
According to UZR, Uggla’s four full seasons have produced lines of 6.9, -9.3, 1.6, and -10.1; Baseball Prospectus’ FRAA (Fielding Runs Above Average) is a little more stable: 5, -19,-2,-1, at least stable enough to draw conclusions from. Uggla is well above replacement level, but below average overall. While he isn’t the guy who made three errors in the All-Star Game, he’s not making anyone forget Joe Morgan. He was close to Alexi Casilla’s level this year, but he is clearly a much better hitter, and thus has a much higher overall value.
If the Twins do bring in Uggla, it will be with the knowledge that he’s a passable defender at second, but hoping that he hits well enough to justify being in there (and having Nick Punto at third base, another consequence of adding a player at second.)
So what we have is a great offensive player whose production will decline because of a switch to the AL and may decline even more if his home/road splits hold up, and whose defense isn’t going to be there to help cushion the fall. Does that mean the Twins shouldn’t look at Uggla?
Not necessarily, but they need to understand that they won’t be getting the player who hit .243/.354/.482, and while he may not fall off precipitously, it’s much more likely that he’ll stay on the low side of his career numbers rather than rebound. This is why the increase in walk rate is so critical—plate discipline isn’t something that varies by league.
If he were a free agent, looking only for money and a place to play, I’d be a lot more eager to acquire him. However, not only will Florida be looking for a good return for their two-time All-Star, Uggla will also be looking for a raise during arbitration. He made $5.35 million in his first year of arbitration and will almost certainly make $1-2 million more this season, which would put the Twins to around $80 Million (assuming, perhaps unfairly, that Uggla is acquired and no one from the 25 man roster heads the other way).
I can’t imagine payroll going too much higher than that, and, as I’ve noted before, the Twins need to address their rotation.
If they feel they can get Carl Pavano back for $2-3 million plus incentives (unlikely), perhaps they could add both he and Uggla.
But if they want to pursue Rich Harden, Ben Sheets, or even (heaven forbid it) Jarrod Washburn, they probably will not have the flexibility to accommodate Uggla’s arbitration raise. As previously mentioned, removing one or more members from the 25-man roster would change these numbers a bit, but if, say Glen Perkins and Casilla, were to head to South Florida, the money saved wouldn’t even cover the raise Uggla was due, let alone his entire contract.
I’m not opposed to Uggla as a player, and for a team like the Cubs, he could make a lot of sense. However, given that Uggla’s arrival would signal not only a jettisoning of a possibly useful player or two in a trade, but also an inability to bring in a high quality pitcher or third baseman, I just don’t see it being the best move for the Twins right now.
Should a pitcher join Uggla on his trip north, however, that would change the calculus of this deal substantially.