San Francisco Giants: Breaking Down Their Free-Agent Second Base Options

Mark Reynolds@@markreynolds33Correspondent IINovember 9, 2012

San Francisco Giants: Breaking Down Their Free-Agent Second Base Options

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    The San Francisco Giants went through the first half of last season with a platoon at second base that consisted of the light-hitting Ryan Theriot and the non-hitting Emmanuel Burriss.

    Theriot hit .270/.316/.321 in 384 plate appearances, and Burriss hit .213/.270/.221 in 150 plate appearances. They combined for just 17 doubles, one triple and no home runs.

    The midseason acquisition of Marco Scutaro turned the position from a weakness into a giant strength. Scutaro hit .362/.385/.473 in 61 regular-season games after the trade, and .328/.377/.391 during the postseason. He earned NLCS MVP honors and delivered the game-winning hit during the clinching game of the World Series.

    Burriss has been outrighted to Triple-A, while Scutaro and Theriot are both free agents. The Giants want to bring Scutaro back, but if he does get away, they'll have some other options in the free-agent market this winter. However, unlike the robust outfield market, the pickings are slim at second base.

    If Scutaro leaves, the Giants can turn their attention to Japanese free agent Hiroyuki Nakajima, former Giant Jeff Keppinger or Kelly Johnson. Macier Izturis would have been a nice alternative, but he recently took himself off the market by signing with the Toronto Blue Jays.

    Let's examine four of the remaining free-agent options at second base.

Marco Scutaro

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    Scutaro is the best option available on the free-agent market, so it makes sense that the Giants want to bring one of their postseason heroes back.

    Scutaro is a patient hitter who isn't afraid to hit with two strikes. He doesn't have much power left in his 37-year-old body, so pitchers have become more willing to challenge him. His walk rate dipped down to 5.9 percent last year because pitchers were more willing to attack him, not because he lost patience.

    However, he was nearly impossible to strike out because he rarely swings and misses.

    He's a line-drive hitter to all fields. His ability to stay patient, make contact and square up line drives all over the diamond makes him a good bet to remain a .300 hitter, even as he gets closer to 40 years old.

    The risk with Scutaro is that his declining walk and power rates will sap his value as he ages.

    A two-year contract for $6-8 million per year would make a lot of sense.

    There's risk inherent in any contract with a player as old as Scutaro. However, his high contact, line-drive approach should help him maintain value over the next two seasons.

    If another team wants to blow the Giants out of the water for Scutaro, they'll have to turn elsewhere in the free-agent market or make a trade because they have no in-house alternatives. Their best middle infield prospect is 2011 first-round pick Joe Panik, and he's at least another year away from contributing in the big leagues.

Hiroyuki Nakajima

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    Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports reported that Nakajima could be an alternative for the Giants at second base if Scutaro bolts.

    Nakajima, 30, hit .311/.382/.451 for the Seibu Lions last season. The New York Yankees won the bidding war for his services last season, but they failed to work out a contract with him.

    He's hit .310/.381/.474 during his professional career in Japan. He's been an excellent defensive shortstop there, which should allow him to be a plus with the glove at second base in the big leagues.

    He's a true free agent this time around, so the team that picks him up will not have to spend money on a posting fee in order to sign him.

    Last year, Rosenthal spoke with a scout who projected that Nakajima would hit .270 or .280 in the big leagues while providing good range at shortstop, though without great arm strength. That gives further credence to the likelihood of him becoming an asset with the glove at second base.

    The risk with signing Nakajima is that he could fail to transition to American professional baseball in the same way that Twins infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka did. Nishioka hit .297/.370/.424 in Japan, but only .215/.267/.236 over two injury-plagued seasons with the Twins.

    On the other side of the spectrum, Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Norichika Aoki hit .288/.355/.433 last season after hitting .329/.408/.467 in his career in Japan.

    Will Nakajima be a bust like Nishioka, or will he find success stateside like Aoki? The numbers are inconclusive, so the Giants will have to rely on their scouts to determine if Nakajima is worth the gamble.

    With Scutaro, the risk is his advancing age. With Nakajima, the risk is in how well he can transition from Japan to the big leagues.

Jeff Keppinger

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    Keppinger is a very similar hitter to Scutaro.

    He's only struck out in six percent of his career plate appearances, which is an ever better ratio than Scutaro's. He doesn't walk or hit for power, making his value entirely dependent on his batting average.

    Keppinger will turn 33 next season, so he has the advantage over Scutaro in terms of age. However, despite Keppinger's relative youth, injuries have always dogged him. He's never been healthy enough to play in 140 games in a single season throughout his career.

    When the Giants acquired him at the trading deadline in 2011, he subsequently battled a wrist injury that sapped his production. He bounced back to hit .325/.367/.439 for the Tampa Bay Rays last year.

    Besides health, defense is a big problem for Keppinger. He just doesn't have the range to be a legitimate starting second baseman at this point in his career. He could be an asset as a starting third baseman, but the Giants have Pablo Sandoval there.

    Given his health and defensive limitations, Keppinger would be best served as a utility infielder who could start at third, first and occasionally second, particularly against lefties. He has a career .864 OPS against lefties, compared to .680 against righties.

    If the Giants were willing to live with a bad defender at second, Keppinger would be an option because he certainly has the bat for the position. However, considering that the Giants non-tendered him last winter, it's hard to imagine that they'll suddenly be able to live with his defensive limitations.

Kelly Johnson

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    Johnson, 30, is younger than Scutaro and Keppinger. He also provides more patience and power, though AT&T Park wouldn't be a great fit for him as a left-handed pull hitter.

    Unlike Scutaro and Keppinger, who never strike out, all Johnson does these days is whiff. His strikeout rate has ballooned from an above-average 15.6 percent in 2009 to 27.4 percent last year, which was ninth-worst in all of baseball.

    That sort of strikeout rate is acceptable when you're blasting 30 home runs, but less so when you hit only 16.

    Who is the real Kelly Johnson? In his six-year big league career, he has three good seasons (2007, 2008, 2010) and three bad ones (2009, 2011, 2012). Unfortunately, two of his worst seasons were his last two, in which he combined to hit just .223/.308/.390 while striking out about 27 percent of the time.

    He's a below-average defender and an average runner, so his value is completely tied to his bat. If he can get his strikeout rate under control, he's a good buy-low candidate for next season. He's relatively young and he still has above-average power and patience, particularly for a second baseman.

    However, the Giants have acquired high-contact players like Keppinger, Theriot, Scutaro, Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan in recent seasons, making Johnson an unlikely fit.

    In the end, the Giants are reportedly eager to bring Scutaro back, and that makes the most sense. His age creates risk, but there are no alternatives that come with less risk.

    Nakajima might have the most tools, but it's unclear how well he can transition to the big leagues. Keppinger can hit, but can he stay healthy and handle the position defensively? Johnson has had some big years, but those seasons are getting further into the past, and his ability to make contact has become a huge liability.

    If Scutaro does bolt, the Giants can take a gamble on one of the other free agents, or try to make a trade for a second baseman.

    It doesn't have to be Scutaro-or-bust this winter. They got by with Burriss and Theriot at the keystone for half of the season last year, and still were in a solid position at the trade deadline.

    Alas, if they get sub-par production out of the position to begin next year, they aren't likely to acquire a .360 hitter again at next season's trade deadline. At the same time, Scutaro isn't likely to ever hit .360 again, either.