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November 10, 2010

So You Need

Corner Infielders

by Marc Normandin

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The winter of 2011-12 may have such elite free agents as first basemen Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, and Adrian Gonzalez, but this offseason is much less exciting when it comes to corner infielders. That is great news for the few standouts of the free-agent class at the corners, as they will get paid what they deserve and probably a lot more due to there being more demand than supply. The others are average performers or utility players.

First Basemen

Lance Berkman looked old in 2010. The 34-year-old's on-base percentage in Houston kept his line productive (.245/.372/.436) but New York was a different story, with Berkman looking a lot like a singles hitter who was barely average at the plate, never mind for someone who, on a team after Mark Teixeira was hurt in the American League Championship Series, would have been starting at first base if New York had advanced to the World Series. That plate patience was his saving grace; Berkman's OBP plus his three-year line of .281/.398/.504 will get him some phone calls. He may not be an impact bat anymore, so he won't be paid like one, but it's hard to see all of baseball giving up on Berkman after 100 some odd plate appearances of poor production, especially considering he was dealing with injuries throughout the year.

Russell Branyan went off to Cleveland last winter when the Mariners wouldn't re-sign him due to his balky back. Yet the Mariners ended up dealing for him in order to shore up their anemic lineup at midseason. He was classic Branyan, with an Isolated Power higher than his batting average, strikeouts in 31 percent of his plate appearances, and a True Average with both Cleveland and Seattle that was a little better than average for a first baseman. Like almost every first sacker available, he probably makes a better DH. His inability to hit southpaws coupled with the back problems and lack of defensive ability would seemingly make it tougher for him to find a suitor, but he can point to the 56 homers he has hit over the past two years despite spending most of his time in a pitcher's park like Safeco Field in order to score some points in negotiations.

Adam Dunn the first baseman is a much more appealing player than Adam Dunn the left fielder, and though he is still not a good defensive player, he is no longer hyperbolically awful, either. His bat puts him well above the average production at first base, and while he has improved his range, the finer points of defensive play, such as scoops, are still an adventure. A team would be signing him for his presence in the middle of an order, though, and even with Dunn's walk rate slipping (which in turn caused his OBP to drop into the .350s for the first time since 2003 when he hit .215), he's still a dangerous slugger. Earlier in the year I wrote a piece about how Dunn could be an effective hitter for years to come, and that view hasn't changed in the last two months. His new team may want to move him to DH, but another year at first wouldn't kill their infield defense.

Aubrey Huff having a great season shouldn't be a huge shock—this is his third year with a TAv over .300 in a career that spans 10 years. Huff's three-year line in 1,926 plate appearances is .280/.353/.484, and all 2010 did was make 2009 look like the recent outlier. Huff's career TAv is .279, which translates to a line of .284/.350/.477. That is right around average offensively for a corner outfield spot, and a little below expectations for first base. His glove may not be as reliable as his bat, but first base and left field are made for hiding sub-par defensive players. Huff may never be as good as he was in 2010 again, though the increased focus on plate discipline is certainly a positive. A team with a home park that favors lefty power hitters—the Cubs, for instance—should look into Huff, as he would have a better chance of repeating his 2010 success in an environment suited for him.

Adam LaRoche is the kind of player a team signs when it knows it has a hole at first base and doesn't want to commit for more than a year, but also doesn't want to do something like trade for Casey Kotchman in the hopes that he'll do something productive at the plate. The 2010 season was a disappointment for LaRoche, though, as there were none of his patented second-half surges like in 2009, when he had a .327 TAv for the Braves. He finished with a .274 TAv (.261/.320/.468) this year for the Diamondbacks despite playing in a park that favors left-handed power hitters, which may lessen the interest in him this winter. His production against right-handers was the only real issue, as his production against lefties was a bit better than normal, so this could have been a single-season blip (or just LaRoche's way of saying that he misses Atlanta as much as it missed him this year). Always considered a backup plan before 2010, LaRoche may have trouble securing a starting role given the other first basemen available.

Carlos Pena played around his 20th-percentile PECOTA forecast, hitting just .196/.325/.407 this year. His .222 BABIP is partially to blame, but a down year like that that shouldn't be a surprise given his tendency to either whiff or send the ball into orbit. His .211 ISO was his lowest since his 2003 season with the Detroit Tigers—again, this is partially due to a low batting average cutting into his extra-base hit totals, but not all of it. He is a good candidate for a rebound season due to the BABIP factor, as a 40-50 point bump in his favor would bring him closer to the average and his career rate, and his 2010 season qualifies him for an incentive-laden deal, or a one-year contract with an option for 2012. It's hard to resist talking to Pena over the winter with his ability to get on base—his OBP was around the league average despite a batting average below the Mendoza Line—and he is still capable of putting balls in the seats, even if signing him might not exactly put fans in them.

Third Basemen

Adrian Beltre may be the only elite corner infielder on the market, and with good reason. His bat never disappeared while playing for the Mariners, despite Safeco's best efforts to hide his ability to hit, and he remains one of the finest fielders at the position. He will command a great deal of money over, most likely, a four-year contract, and should draw interest from teams like the Angels and his most recent club, the Red Sox. It is rare that you get what you pay for in a free agent (unless you take that to mean, "teams get what they deserve when they invest too heavily in aging, improperly-priced veterans"), but if Beltre ends up with a four-year deal with an average annual value of $15 million or so, he will be a bargain.

Miguel Tejada was awful as a third baseman with the Orioles this year, but responded well in a playoff race in San Diego. He was also an acceptable shortstop—he made plays on the balls he got to, and hit well above the position average to compensate for some of the balls he didn't reach. Given the state of shortstops league-wide, Tejada has value as someone who can handle the left side of the infield, and in this thin market he will garner interest. The one snag, outside of being 37 years old in 2011, will be his Type-A status, which means a club signing him would have to give up a draft pick as compensation to the Padres for signing him. The Padres may not offer arbitration, as they want to bring him back but at a much lower salary than he made in 2010. Tejada's most marketable point this winter may be the fact that he's available—as you will notice, the other third basemen on the market aren't quite everyday material.

Juan Uribe can slide in at either third base or shortstop. His bat fits in much better at short, but his body fits in more at third base, and the Giants used him at both on their way to becoming World Series champions. Besides 2009, he hasn't been impressive of late—his three-year line is .261/.312/.443—but given the market and his ability to play more than one position, he will get attention. It may seem odd that someone like Uribe would have value, but given the lack of talent across the board at shortstop and the shallow pool of third basemen, it's not a surprise that he can remain employed and have merit with the right contract.

It looks as if Ty Wigginton's best days are behind him, as he has hit just .258/.313/.409 the past two years with Baltimore. He will be 33 in 2011, but if he can get his BABIP back around his career rate of .293 (rather than the .270 mark he posted in 2010) he may have some value as a utility player on the corners—his ISO was .167, which isn't great, but is good off of the bench. His career numbers against left-handers are better than against righties, but over the past two years he has shown a reverse split (.244/.320/.344 against lefties, .264/.309/.436 against righties). Wigginton can slot in at multiple positions, but plays defense at most of them like a player better suited to DH. That won't stop someone from signing him due to his ability to stand at any position outside of shortstop and catcher, though, and if he can bring up those numbers against lefties, his new club might have something. That may be a big if though, with Wigginton heading into his mid-30s.

Related Content:  A's,  Defensive First Basemen

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