A Log for the Hot Stove: Felipe Lopez
The announcements of players offered arbitration made Twins fans happy last weekend as three names being bandied about—Placido Polanco, Orlando Hudson, and Felipe Lopez—were all set free by their respective teams. This was particularly important for Hudson and Polanco, since due to their Type-A status they would have cost a first-round pick to sign. In the past, the Twins have been reticent to sign players and give up their pick, so this was indeed a prime development.
All in all, these decisions expanded the pool of players that might fit the Twins' needs. Adrian Beltre, Marco Scutaro, Chone Figgins, Polanco, Lopez, and Hudson have all been named in connection with the Twins, and each of them makes a certain amount of sense given the team's needs.
However, as soon as that pool open, it got significantly shallower. Scutaro, Figgins, and Polanco lasted less than a week before Boston, Seattle, and Philly snapped them up. While this may be seen as a bad thing for the Twins, it's actually quite good. Of the three players signed, only Polanco was a serious target for the Twins, and, as many people have noted, his three-year deal will take him into his age-37 season. To say that by that point he'll likely be in the decline phase of his career is a gross understatement.
Not only were the players signed not Twins targets, the teams that signed them were those notorious for disrupting the market for the other players. Had the Red Sox decided to pursue Orlando Hudson, for example, they could have offered more in terms of both money and years than the Twins were likely to offer, making signing him extremely difficult. With the Mariners, Phillies, and Sawx now sated, the Twins will be dueling teams more in the tax bracket for the services of the rest of their trade targets.
With a level playing field, the Twins now have a chance to go after the player they think will best help their team, which makes correctly identifying their weaknesses that much more critical. If you can have what you want, you'd better be sure of your choice.
As I noted previously, the Twins were a poor defensive team and a pretty adept offensive one. They were the fifth best offensive team in baseball in terms of runs scored per game, but average or worse depending on your choice of defensive metrics. While the addition of JJ Hardy will help, they could use another sure glove. Another consideration is the extremely poor performance the Twins got out of the no. 2 spot in their order. Orlando Cabrera's .314 OBP ahead of Joe Mauer was a great improvement over what the Twins had gotten before his arrival, but still brought the team line up to just .262/.306/.394, and even that was inflated by Mauer's 123 ABs at a .398/.451/.707 clip.
While J.J. Hardy could be slotted into the second spot, which would leave the Twins looking for someone to hit 6th or 7th, his .218/.281/.323 line last year would have been part of the problem, not a solution. His career line as a second hitter is certainly hopeful enough, .272/.322/.467, but there are serious concerns to be had about Hardy producing that line in a harder league, especially when he failed to do so last year.
This brings us to a player I feel is the best fit for the Twins: Felipe Lopez.
2009 was very, very kind to Lopez, as he had his best season as a professional. His 2005 season in Cincinnati was a little better offensively, but his defense was much better in 2009. Still, his .310/.383/.427 line was well above average, as evidenced by his OPS+ of 111 and his EqA of .286. His move away from Arizona, paradoxically, improved his offensive output as he hit much better in the second half, .301/.364/.412 vs. .320/.407/.448. Having that kind of player ahead of Joe Mauer would create a many more run scoring opportunities for the offense. So it's an open-and-shut case, right? Lock him up!
Well, not quite.
Much like Adrian Beltre circa 2004, Lopez had an uncharacteristically good year just in time to hit the free agent market. His career line isn't much to crow about:.269/.338/.400, better than Brendan Harris', but not necessarily the line you want to add for 7-8 million a year, especially when you factor in a career strikeout percentage of nearly 19%. His defense, too, hasn't been the stuff of legends. His career UZR at short (where he played from 2001-2007) is a reprehensible -42.3, he's never posted a positive figure at the position in his career.
But the Twins aren't buying his career, they're buying his future, and while career numbers are useful for sniffing out one-year wonders, players can and do improve over time and Lopez is one of those players.
He broke into the bigs at age 21 with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2001, but didn't play a full season until he was traded to the Reds in 2005. Since that point, he's hit .280/.349/.407, which is close to the line he posted this season, and which makes it look much less like an aberration. If he posts that type of season ahead of Mauer and a healthy Justin Morneau, he'll provide a very similar offensive boost to what Orlando Cabrera gave the Twins at the end of 2009.
But, if you've been tracking with me, you'll notice that I've made two defensive notes so far. First, the Twins need to improve it, and second Lopez is bad at it. Only that's not quite right. Lopez is bad at shortstop, true, but he no longer plays there, nor would the Twins want him to. Lopez was moved to second base for 1/3rd of his games in 2007, and was clearly much better there than he was at short. His full time debut was less inspiring in 2008, back to 5.3 runs below average, but he rebounded in 2009 to 7.8 runs above average.
If his entire career had been played there, I'd be worried this was unusual, but as far as second base is concerned, he's spent more time above average than below it. He was the fifth best defender at second base in 2009, while he may regress, I don't think he'll all of a sudden become a defensive ditch.
I understand the reasons for being wary of Lopez, but if he puts together a season like the one that seems within his grasp, 2009 won't look like an aberration, and whoever signs him will get a tremendous return on what seems like it will be a fair investment.
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