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December 1, 2010

Prospectus Perspective

Short Shrift?

by Christina Kahrl

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The shortstop market is probably the most dynamic component of the Hot Stove position-player market. Lots of teams are looking for help, especially where dire need has sucked unlikely candidates like Jerry Hairston Jr. or Miguel Tejada into the breach on one club last season—a contender, no less! And then there's the perpetuation of players like Yuniesky Betancourt, Cesar Izturis, or Tommy Manzella, easy fodder for die-hard contractionistas dug into Bud's bunker, as well as those grognards terminally committed to bellyaching about something about the game itself—why not the shortage of shortstops as the latest evidence that 30 teams is simply too much of a good thing?

But if teams are thirsting for a better shortstop, this is the winter that rewards such discontent, because beyond the big-name free agents like Derek Jeter, there are post-season heroes like Edgar Renteria and Juan Uribe, or the more decidedly ex-famous like Orlando Cabrera. But then there's also the stack of short-time alternatives, 2012 free agents-to-be like the Red Sox' Marco Scutaro, the Twins' J.J. Hardy, and, perhaps most prominently, the Rays' Jason Bartlett. And for you conspiracy theorists, we can also toss Jose Reyes into that pile of one-year mercs, because between Sandy Alderson's new management team and a messy picture for what the Mets' immediate future might be, we shouldn't rule anything out when Reyes' $11 million pay package for 2011 doesn't seem impossibly unaffordable when Jeter just turned up his nose at $15 million per.

For any number of reasons, it seems as if Bartlett's Q-score is the one that's skyrocketing, but let's toss the lot in a table so that we can get a broad sense of what the availables have on tap. Let's toss Reyes and Tejada in there for good measure, not that I seriously expect Reyes' name to come up or for Tejada to get a full-season shot at short, even after signing with the World Champs yesterday:

Shortstop CareerTAv 2010 TAv 2010 WARP2 2008-10 WARP2 2011 Pay
Jeter .290 .261 3.1 11.7 FA
Reyes .277 .276 3.2 10.3 $11M
Bartlett .267 .257 3.2 10.1 ARB (2010: $4M)
Scutaro .257 .259 2.9 14.9 $5M
Hardy .262 .262 1.8 9.6 ARB (2010: $5.1M)
Renteria .263 .261 1.4 3.1 FA
Uribe .245 .266 2.8 7.8 $5M
Cabrera .251 .247 0.6 1.7 FA
Tejada .273 .254 2.4 12.1 $6.5M
Barmes .239 .232 0.9 6.3 ARB (2010: $3.3M)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With that, I think we can safely suggest Cabrera is the guy who doesn't really belong in this conversation. Some unhappy shopper might wind up with him in the first week of February, but there's no reason to look forward to that, and you can see how it will motivate some more aggressive activity in the meantime.

So far, the Hot Stove's been roaring. Two weeks ago, the Astros traded frustrating flamethrower Felipe Paulino to get Clint Barmes' walk year. Since this comes after Jeff Keppinger's fine little season as one of the better regulars the team had going for it—especially on defense at the keystone, leaning on a broad spectrum of those defensive metrics to say as much—adding Barmes represents a low-cost dip into the rental market to shore themselves up at shortstop. If we see a campaign that vaguely resembles Adam Everett's better years, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised: a TAv in the .230s, and some kind comments from defensive metrics. This doesn't make Barmes a great player, but this might prove an effective one-year pickup—albeit one that'll turn out ugly as far as total value exchanged if the Rockies get Paulino turned around.

Two NL teams cleared the decks by addressing their middle-infield needs yesterday, with the Dodgers being involved in both outcomes. First, there was their trading Ryan Theriot to the Cardinals for utility changeup artist Blake Hawksworth, a fairly straightforward salary dump, since Theriot has two seasons of arbitration eligibility coming to him. That gives the Birds a two-year alternative to both halves of their current keystone combo. If Theriot ends up playing a lot of shortstop in a loose, three-way, two-position platoon that cuts into Skip Schumaker's defensive opportunities and Brendan Ryan's at-bats, that sounds a lot like a healthy adaptation to the limitations of their talent on hand, and not a 72-point, bold-type declaration, “choke on this, statheads!” Theriot isn't an outright liability at short, and if he pushes Brendan Ryan into a more oft-used D-rep role, that's a good thing, not a repudiation of the value of defense.

The Dodgers replaced Theriot in the lineup and on the payroll by signing Juan Uribe to a three-year, $21 million deal that he certainly ought to feel great about, having been settling for deals in the $1-3 million range the last two seasons. Dodgers fans can cringe over the price of Ned Colletti acting early and overpaying, because that's far more than anyone might have expected Uribe to get in the open market. However, Uribe's positional flexibility helps provide the team with flexibility they've needed in the last three years, where they've had to witness Rafael Furcal miss significant chunks of time in two years, and different second basemen (Jeff Kent in '08, and then Orlando Hudson in '09) miss big portions of two more. If this basically leaves them with Jamey Carroll as their primary backup at second, and Uribe their main answer for replacing Furcal or Casey Blake, you can see how that sort of utility might command a big price tag. Well, no, not really, but whatever Ned doesn't spend is just going to the lawyers anyway, right?

The major upshot for the shortstop market from all of this early activity plus Tejada's signing up with the Giants to replace Uribe as a left-side floater is that it subtracts significant components from the range of options, driving up the leverage that the GMs holding Hardy and Scutaro and Bartlett command, because nobody's in a hurry to waste Derek Jeter's valuable time.

So why is it that Bartlett seems to be the one most in demand? Partially, it's a matter of money. While Bartlett is going to make more than last year's $4 million through this winter's arbitration case to come, that's the lowest starting point any of the alternatives are working from, and it's cheaper than what Uribe just got. In contrast, Hardy made $5.1 million last year, and stands to get another raise from the panel-driven process, while Scutaro is going to cost either $6.5 million for 2011 (for his salary plus buying out his subsequent option) or $11 million through 2012. In all three cases, that's significantly less than Jeter will command, and for better defense than Renteria is seen as capable of contributing.

I'd suggest that Bartlett has a couple of extraneous factors recommending him. First off, he was strongly identified with the Rays' much-discussed 2008 defensive turnaround, to the point that some people put him on their MVP ballots; he finished 18th overall in the voting. Taking a look at his performance via Colin Wyers' nFRAA, he was fairly consistent between 2008 and 2010, around 11 Runs Above Average.

Now, maybe this is more media fascination than inside interest, but GMs will already respond to the price tag. And then there's the bat. While his 2008 and 2010 seasons were shortstop-standard dinking at the plate, Bartlett's slugging .490 in 2009 spliced with those seasons of 20 and 30 steals could encourage people to think about what would happen if they got all of those things at once: the power, the steals, the defense, and possibly for less money than Clint Barmes might get through arbitration? Who doesn't want that sort of instant ticket to geniusdom, on a ticket already pre-punched by the widely admired Andrew Friedman? And liberated from the AL East, wouldn't it be easier for him to do all of that?

Certainly, there's more upside potential, but the overlapping considerations of controllable expense set against a range of outcomes that spread from useful to outstanding make him a fascinating one-year target. In contrast, Hardy represents a slightly more expensive, but also slightly less certain alternative, with the question of whether the Twins will tender him a contract on Thursday, and whether they'd want him at short with Tsuyoshi Nishioka at second should they come to terms with the Japanese leaguer. To Hardy's credit if he were to get shopped around, Target Field killed him—his .282/.326/.442 road line would be touted as star stuff on some teams.

In contrast, Scutaro might be the sure thing. Excepting the 2009 breakout (.284 TAv) that got him his deal with Boston, he's been a hitter with production around the position's average (.255). The major surprise from that 2009 campaign was a career-high walk rate that topped 13 percent. His fielding seemed to suffer as his shoulder got sore during the season, exacerbated by a career-high volume of playing time, and contributing to his career-high 10 throwing errors. In some ways, the presence of his 2012 club option for $6 million might make him even more interesting, since it keeps his acquirer from having to revisit this same problem next winter.

So how is that going to play out next week, if at all? We'll talk a little bit about the Winter Meetings tomorrow, but I'd be surprised if at least one of the rental shortstops doesn't get moved in Orlando. Figuring that the Rays will play a deeper game, turning wheels within wheels, I'm inclined to think it'll be Scooter who scoots to some new employer to simplify things in Boston. The Reds would be a particularly good match, but we'll see if somebody else makes Theo Epstein an offer he can't refuse.

---

If there's one thing you'll notice I haven't done here, it's getting into a broad comparison of the players' defensive virtues. Partially, that's a response to the heaping helping of irrational exuberance devoted to the by-now-overstated cult of the defensive, which given its getting blabbed about in mainstream media outlets, is perhaps evidence of a sport-related corollary of William Gibson's observation that the media catches up with trends about two years too late—in sports, perhaps it's perhaps more like five or six years behind the curve. After all, who wants to keep talking about Boston's dumping Nomar to add defense en route to a title back in 2004, anyway?

The problem is that, substantively, where defense is concerned we're really no better off than we were a decade ago. As entertaining as it might be that we've added a lot of additional tools to the defensive arsenal, they remain a crude lot, and we're still left with broad-swipe metrics that haven't really significantly advanced our understanding from where we were almost 20 years ago with Sherri Nichols' Defensive Average or Clay Davenport's Fielding Runs. In the '90s, we saw horribly flawed, yet inevitably interesting tools like Zone Rating and then Revised Zone Rating get touted because they numericized worthy ambitions, only to get quietly, deservingly chucked under the bus by many statheads (including Bill James, among others) more than a decade ago.

In the years since, variety, in the form of UZR and Total Zone and Plus/Minus, of Dan Fox's SFR and Dave Pinto's Probabilistic Model, and more besides, have not delivered conclusive answers. They are all interesting cracks at the problem, each entertaining and worthy of consideration as we seek to expand what we think we know and what we want to know. But because we're still at the point where some researchers say in so many words, “I don't know if +10 is actually better or worse than -10” in describing one defensive stat's output—something we need to say about all of them, albeit without chucking any of them—we're still essentially left looking at the full spread of fielding statistics and hoping that the answers are consistent enough about any individual player across time and multiple metrics that it suggests something like the truth. Even if Derek Jeter is consistently lousy across every metric, year after year, it doesn't prove he's lousy, but it does constitute a fairly unsubtle hint. To get overly hung up on the numeric values themselves is to accord them greater accuracy than they deserve when it comes to picking between players.

People tend to see what they want to see, and invest meaning and invent patterns—that's in our nature, clever monkeys that we are. That said, I don't think I'd argue there is a real pattern across the industry, beyond the more basic drive to improve. Yes, Barmes gets good marks at short, from metrics and scouts alike, and yes, he'll be a better choice for the Astros than Manzella. Then again, the Tigers' multi-year investment in retaining Jhonny Peralta isn't exactly a defense-minded move, any more than adding Theriot if he plays a lot of short can be said to be.

Any broad guesses about rosters being stocked with better defenders runs up against plenty of examples of teams going directly against that “trend,” like the Padres' trading for Tejada and exploiting a number of external factors—a strikeout-driven staff on top of pitcher-friendly Petco. Indeed, the Marlins' investment in hiring infield coach Perry Hill to help Hanley Ramirez (in particular) and the other Fishy infielders suggests there's more than one way to skin this particular cat. That, or that the Fish are cheap, but that's the one thing we can be sure of, right?

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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