Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and Jose Reyes get all the hype, but for teams willing to compromise on certain points in the name of finding players with major strengths, there are a lot of infielders out there in MLB free agency for this coming winter.
From glove-first shortstops to third basemen with 30-homer pop, there are a plethora of talented players who man the dirt and are looking for jobs this offseason. As usual, the homer-happy third basemen (Aramis Ramirez and Michael Cuddyer) will get overpaid, and the defensive-minded middle men (Jamey Carroll and Clint Barmes spring to mind) will be underpaid.
Still, each kind of player has utility, and the depth of this infield market is remarkable, even if each of the players who comprise it have certain substantial shortcomings. Here's how the top 25 available infielders stack up, catchers included.
Blanco is no more than a utility infielder. The Texas Rangers showed they are not confident he can be even that, out-righting and then releasing him last week. Blanco does not hit much, and statistically, he's been just average defensively over the years, but he's young, athletic and improving at shortstop. He can fill in at least as well as Wilson Valdez or John McDonald when a team's shortstop is temporarily shelved.
Shoppach has one great, glaring flaw in his game. He does not hit right-handed pitching. For his career, the righty batter has a .289 wOBA against them (wOBA provides as complete a picture of offensive productivity as any single stat we have; it is scaled to OBP), which is 26 percent worse than league average.
When facing lefties, though, Shoppach's wOBA is a stout .389, 44 percent above average. He's a spectacular back-up backstop, because in addition to his slugging against left-handed hurlers, he handles pitchers well and has thrown out over 28 percent of base-stealers in his career.
Hairston has played at least 100 games at five different positions in his big league career, and 80 in right field. He has some bat speed, good bloodlines, a track record of being in the right place at the right time and a very thick layer of mystique based on his intangible contributions to his teams.
There are basically two reasons a player plays all over the diamond:
- His bat is too good to leave on the bench, or
- He is athletic, drips with baseball instincts and charisma and/or has compromising photos of his manager, so he plays despite not being especially good
Hairston is a Category II utility player. He has a .326 career OBP, and getting on base is his chief offensive skill. Base-running savvy, solid glove work and a reputation as a great veteran for the clubhouse keep him in the league.
It's not wrong that he gets those opportunities, though. Playing all those positions solidly is worth a lot to a team in need of depth.
It's funny how being old and getting hurt can make a good player a total pariah. Blake underwent neck surgery in early September, and though he could be ready by Opening Day, the feeling seems to be that he will retire, either of his own accord or out of frustration after finding no one willing to take the leap.
It's true that Blake will be 38 for the bulk of next season, and that he played just 69 games due to four separate injuries in 2011. When healthy, though, he has been one of the game's most underrated corner infielders. His career OBP is .336. Prior to missing the majority of this year, he had clubbed at least 17 home runs in eight straight seasons.
More important, perhaps, is his fielding. Blake remains a defensive asset at third base, and indeed, had his best years with the glove while playing for the Dodgers in his mid-30s. He can still help someone. The Cubs are an excellent candidate to scoop him off the scrap heap.
The "happy flight" thing took on a life of its own. Furcal hit a critical late-September homer to help vault St. Louis to the playoffs. And winning a World Series ring capped a lovely narrative about Rafael Furcal, resurgent son of a gun.
Except none of it is really true. Furcal managed two months of above-average offense to finish the season after being dealt to the Cards, but in the playoffs, he reached base 20 times in 85 plate appearances. Meanwhile, while that spit-fire arm is still spitting fire, the economy of motion Furcal once used to load the weapon—plant, shift, whip—is gone.
He needs a crow hop to set up his long-levered delivery these days, and since his range is greatly diminished by age, he can ill-afford that lost moment. His speed on the bases is gone. His on-base skills are gone. Furcal is an overrated, soon to be overpaid, utility man in shortstop's clothing.
No matter how badly everyone wants him to do so, Lee refuses to fade into irrelevance. Saved by rejuvenating trades the past two years, he has slugged his way to wOBA figures 10 and 12 percent better than league average, respectively. He was last a below-average hitter in 1999.
Lee is not as magical with the glove as he once was, and his feet have turned from plus to minus on his run ledger. He can still hit and hit for power, though, and he might have one last season as a regular first baseman in him if the Pirates, Indians or some similar team give him the chance.
The offensive skills, not to mention the durability to play every day, are gone. Renteria is no longer a steady, consistent everyday shortstop.
He is, however, a shortstop, and he actually fields that position fairly well. That alone has value. If he never starts 80 games again—he won't—he can still help a team in need of depth and a bench mentor. Here again, the Cubs would make sense.
Remember the good old, sepia-toned days when you could say "Ramon Hernandez is Kelly Shoppach on steroids" without people getting worked up about it? Yeah, me neither.
Anyway, Hernandez really is just a slightly better version of Shoppach, a bit more athletic behind the plate and a bit less vulnerable to the loss of the platoon advantage. He's also getting old, but is still a solid part-time catching option.
If Hernandez is Shoppach plus, Gonzalez is Renteria plus. He's better with the leather, about a wash with the bat (though his value is concentrated in power, he needs to sign on with a team whose left field is eminently reachable in order to succeed) and a tad more spry and durable. When it comes to shortstops, his all-glove value base is still valuable, because many players of that position today can't field or hit the ball. I'm looking at you, Yuniesky Betancourt.
Mark Ellis is not a good defender. He's a great defender. He plays second base, which is hardly ideal for a guy with Ellis's lack of offensive punch. He gets by, though, because he is preposterously solid at the position. His range is great. His hands are soft. He even turns an above-average double play.
Ellis also has a .331 OBP, which has allowed him to be a quietly valuable piece for the A's for a full decade. His offense so disappeared in 2011 that he had his second-worst season in the big leagues and was dealt to Colorado. Yet, thanks to his glove work, he was still worth 1.2 wins above replacement. Wherever Ellis signs, they should expect a bit of recovery from that offensive ineffectiveness and about two wins' worth of overall value.
Take everything true about Mark Ellis, reverse it, and you'll have Wilson Betemit.
Betemit frequently patrols the area near third base, though to say he plays the position would be too strong. He has been tried for substantial periods at second and third base, with utterly no success. All that Betemit does well is to hit.
Honestly, he's not even special as a pure hitter. He strikes out over a quarter of the time. However, he also walks a fair bit, and his power is a plus. He is a switch hitter, much better from the left side than the right, but a switch hitter nonetheless. A stick like his can find a part-time home on any big-league roster, even if his glove makes him untenable as an everyday player.
Doumit was not fit for the Pirates at his hefty 2012 price tag, but he could sign for less this winter and make a neat addition.
Doumit is no defensive stud at catcher, but he can stick there. He bats from both sides and is not a total waste from either side. He provides a certain flexibility off the bench, or in a platoon role. He probably cannot catch every day, if for no other reason than durability, but he is an asset nonetheless.
Here we find, at last, the first player with a chance to be an everyday starter, if only an average one. Santiago is a slick-fielding shortstop, but he's also semi-competent offensively. He generally comes in about 20 percent below average in terms of overall production, but that has been in spotty playing time, including pinch-hitting roles, and he occasionally flashes the ability to hit for gap power and/or slap singles through the infield.
Kotchman is a professional. He's a great fielder, a smooth hitter by aesthetics and a cheap option.
He is not, however, as good a hitter as he seemed to be in 2011. His batting average on balls in play was 50 points higher than his career mark in that category. He chopped the ball into the ground over and over, but many of those grounders found holes.
He might not be so lucky in the future. Kotchman is a regular first baseman only on a second-division team. He is the new Doug Mientkiewicz, only dreaming of being Mark Grace.
To pursue Hill is to buy low on a player with big upside. He has seasons of 36, 26 and 17 home runs on his resume, and when he chooses his pitch wisely, he's a threat at the plate. He's also a solid defensive second baseman, and would probably be an even better one at third base.
Hill also has demons. He tends to lash out early in counts, and he's too good at making contact, so he ends up hitting balls very weakly. He has an injury history that gives all suitors pause. Still, he should be starting for someone, somewhere, in 2012.
Good gloves at second base are not a scarce commodity in this market. Ellis has one. Hairston has one. Hill has one, too.
Therefore, let's not dwell on the fact that Carroll has one, too. It's not a substantial advantage. Instead, let's look at Carroll's record of on-base prowess. His career OBP is .356. Over the last four years, he has nearly 1,700 plate appearances, and his OBP is .362. Carroll has no power, but on many teams, he could easily bat leadoff most days.
When Johnson hits more ground balls than fly balls in a season, he has a .357 career on-base percentage. When he puts more in the air than on the ground, his OBP in two seasons is .303.
That pretty well sums it up: Kelly Johnson is a Jekyll-and-Hyde hitter, one who could add five wins or five runs to his team with the bat. The upside risk, though, is worth an investment, because there exists a greater chance for return thereupon with Johnson than with the other available second basemen.
Recall the two reasons, given on Hairston's page, for which players usually drift all over the diamond. One of them was that the player's bat is too good to leave on the bench despite the player's defensive ineptitude.
When it comes to the infield, that's Cuddyer. He has a very strong arm, one that serves him well in right field. Even there, his lack of range prevents him from being a solid defender, but at least there, he is a non-liability. At first base, Cuddyer is out of place and overwhelmed. At second base, he is slow and limited. At third, he is overeager and too stiff-handed.
He hurts his team at a rate of about six runs per 150 games in the outfield and at first base; eight runs at second base; and nine runs at third base. His bat is very useful, but his glove cancels some of that value when he plays in the dirt.
Clint Barmes is an enigma. It seems like he should be a better hitter. He has gotten better at drawing walks, has some power and just looks like a hitter. He remains a below-average batter in his career, but he was close to that for Houston in 2011. He figures to hover near there for Milwaukee (or someone else, but it says here Milwaukee) in 2012.
With the glove, there is no mystery. Barmes is an athlete and a very sharp defensive shortstop. He has the tools, and he uses them. He is a solidly above-average shortstop with the glove, and by far the best hitting shortstop on the second tier.
Pena is a true power hitter. He is a graceful defensive first baseman. He is an 80 clubhouse guy, and as unselfish a player as there is in the game today—to wit, his eight bunt hits in 2011 when faced with a defensive shift.
He is an underrated player, a first-division first baseman whose best skills (defense, a 16.9 percent walk rate) don't reach the newspaper box scores. He should get $25 million this winter somewhere, but he likely will not.
It's clear Aramis Ramirez played through injuries a lot of players would never have played through in 2010. He completely changed his approach to compensate for a shoulder and thumb that stole his usual bat speed and forced a change in swing plane.
Throw that one season out. Look at everything else Ramirez has done since 2004. He's been stunningly consistent. His batting average over those seven seasons (remember, 2010 not included) fluctuated between .289 and .318. His on-base percentage floated between .352 and .389. His slugging average fell from .578 to .510. Overall, he was between 24 and 38 percent better than an average hitter in all seven years.
That said, there are mitigating factors. Ramirez is a statue at third base. He plays near the bag, and doesn't have the mobility to go to his left sufficiently. Starlin Castro nearly invented a new position (Third-stop? Left-side rover?) as Cubs shortstop last season playing alongside Ramirez. If a team could sign Ramirez to play first base or be their DH, they would be in a terrific position.
Rollins wants five years on a new contract. The Phillies, who have to be the leaders in the clubhouse to retain him, want to get him for three years. Sooner or later, that smells like a compromise. Four years would be an easy one.
Rollins is worth it. He has weathered a couple years of nagging injury well, and remains an effective shortstop both afield and in the batter's box. He has made some concessions to his slightly dampened athleticism, most notably by making more contact and drawing more walks over the past two years. That new approach makes him a very viable long-term investment, even at age 33.
Jose Reyes is ripped. He's fast, agile and strong. He is an athlete who just happens to play baseball, but he also has some concrete baseball skills. He's only slightly worse defensively than is Rollins, and he's a better, more dynamic hitter. Reyes provides more upside risk than any other top-tier free agent at any position.
On a ranking based on value, Fielder would come in ahead of Albert Pujols. He is younger, had a better year in 2011 and yet will cost much less than Pujols.
Fielder, though, is not as good a player as Pujols. He's a far inferior baserunner. He's a far inferior fielder. Though he's been more durable than Pujols to this point in their respective careers, his build presents an apparent risk. He's a great slugger, but not as great a player as Pujols is.
Pujols had his worst season in 2011, by a long shot. And in a word, he was still dominant.
Pujols is five wins in the bank, with an extra four possible when he has a good year. He's a great defender, a fair baserunner and a very consistent worker. He walks a lot, though less last year than ever, and strikes out less than any slugger has since the 1970s.
There are risk elements. Pujols has had back, wrist and elbow injuries. He will be 32 in January, and that's if he's telling the truth about his age—which I doubt. Still, he is the safest bet on the market, even at $200 million.