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January 20, 2011

Free Agent Bargain Bin

Infielders

by Dan Wade

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As we shift our attention from pitchers to hitters, it’s worth taking a quick look at someone who isn’t here. Orlando Hudson, in stark contrast to the two previous offseasons, was able not only to find a contract before the month of February, but also found someone willing to give him more than a one-year deal. The Padres may be Hudson’s fourth team in four years, but he can take solace in the fact that—unless he’s traded—there won’t be a fifth team in five.

The rest of this motley crew has yet to find a home, but don’t expect any of them to be the 2011 version of Jermaine Dye

Russell Branyan (.237/.323/.487, 810 OPS, 25 HR, .290 TAv, 3.1 WARP)
Jim Thome was the darling of the DH market and the lefty masher du jour—that is, a left-handed batter who mashes, not one who mashes lefties—but he has been retained by the Twins on a very reasonable deal. Branyan may not strike the same fear into pitchers, but he has hit at least 25 homers in both of the last two seasons, despite playing most of his games in Safeco Field without the benefit of getting to face Mariner pitching. To wit, Branyan slugged 155 points higher on the road in 2010 than he did at either of his home parks.

He may not be one of the canonical Three True Outcomes kings—current monarchs Mark Reynolds, Adam Dunn, Jack Cust, Carlos Pena, and Thome being a fairly standard top five—but he deserves the moniker as much as any of the others. Branyan walked, struck out, or hit a home run in over 47 percent of his at-bats in 2010, which actually placed him fifth on the TTO list, just a hair ahead of Pena. He lacks the walk rate of a Dunn or Thome, but also isn’t likely to cost as much. For teams still looking for a DH in the traditional mold, Branyan could be a steal.

Clubs may see Branyan as a more of a DH at this point in his career, but he can hold his own at first base. He’s not going to push Mark Teixeira for fielding accolades anytime soon, but he’s a much better option there than other DHs might be in the field. He’s still likely to end up in the AL, but he won’t put the team in a bind come interleague play.

Orlando Cabrera (.263/.303/.354, 657 OPS, 4 HR, .247 TAv, 0.6 WARP)
The book on Cabrera has been largely written at this point: He’s a good defender who brings an adequate bat, and is one of the more durable players in baseball. The trouble is, that’s becoming less and less the case as he ages.

His defense has slipped over the last two years, which isn’t terribly surprising given that he’s heading into his age-36 season. He’s still an average defender at worst, making his glove an asset, but one with declining value. His bat is below average, though not completely dead, as his .247 TAv shows, but it isn’t nearly good enough to carry an average or worse glove. Even Cabrera’s reputation for durability took a knock in 2010 as the shortstop missed 31 days in 2010 due to an oblique strain, the first time he had been placed on the disabled list since 2005. 

Cabrera will find work harder and harder to come by if he can’t stop the regression of his glove, though teams may be willing to put up with average defense if he picks up his offensive contribution. While that may seem like a tall order for a 36-year-old, a slight increase in his walk rate—which has been around just five percent over the last two seasons—would help his OBP immensely.

Even with a declining trend, it’s possible a team could view Cabrera as a full-time starter. It is perhaps more likely at this point in his career that he’ll either be signed as a starter to keep a spot warm for a prospect who will begin the year in Triple-A—a Molina/Posey arrangement, if you will—or as one of the better bench options remaining on the market.

Troy Glaus (.240/.344/.400, 744 OPS, 16 HR, .275 TAv, 0.7 WARP)
Prior to his shoulder surgery in 2009, Glaus had never failed to post a full-season OPS below 780, and he averaged a line of .257/.362/.505 with 30 homers from 1999 to 2008. While 2009 was obviously a lost year, as Glaus recovered from a second major surgery on his right shoulder, it’s safe to say the Braves weren’t expecting the kind of production Glaus gave them in 2010. After a slow April, he was the National League’s player of the month in May on the back of a .330/.408/.534 line with six home runs. His OPS hit a season high two weeks later on June 13 and from there, it was a long, slow march to statistical oblivion.

Glaus slumped badly in the second half, posting a .205/.299/.299 line after the break, and while he insisted the decrease in numbers was not related to an injury, he did miss part of August with knee soreness. Glaus may be better off now if his slump had been due to an injury, especially if he could prove that he was past it. Instead, teams are left wondering if the soon-to-be 34-year-old is capable of sustaining a full season’s worth of production or if he has rather rapidly reached the decline phase of his career.

One thing working in Glaus’ favor here is his moderate versatility; the market for him is liable to be larger than for someone with relative positional inflexibility like Branyan. He isn’t much of a third baseman anymore, though he was preferred there to poor Brooks Conrad in the Braves’ final playoff game. He can play first base, though if his bat is what’s causing concerns, it’s hard to believe teams would risk playing him there.

Alternatively, he could be utilized as part of a platoon DH. For his career, Glaus posted a .273/.396/.542 line against lefties and still hit reasonably well against them even in his down year. If he’s added to a roster with this situation in mind, it will cost him in terms of salary, but proving he can succeed in that role and that he can stay healthy makes him less likely to be sweating his employment come February 2012.

Felipe Lopez (.233/.311/.345, 656 OPS, 8 HR, .259 TAv, 0.1 WARP)
Unsurprisingly, the number of Type-A or -B free agents has dwindled to just a few, and most of the ones remaining have pledged their loyalties somewhere and lack only the official contract to prove it. That’s not so for Felipe Lopez, who is a Type-B free agent, and who is well on his way to becoming the new Hudson, having waited until February 27 last year before finding a home. While his late signing date was somewhat puzzling last time around considering he was coming off a 4.5 WARP season for the Brewers and Diamondbacks, it’s less surprising this time around that Lopez hasn’t attracted many suitors.

Rather than capitalize on his strong 2009 campaign, Lopez took a huge step back, posting a .233/.311/.345 year for the Cardinals and Red Sox; he was even sent home by the Cards before landing in Boston. He may not have Manny Ramirez’s reputation in terms of being a distraction, but he also lacks Ramirez’s production, which makes his leash shorter.

If he can find a team that’s willing to put up with a certain amount of self-centeredness, he has the tools to be a solid addition. He played six positions last year, including pitching a scoreless 18th inning against the Mets, and hit .269/.336/.401 before the All-Star break before slumping to .190/.281/.279 in decreased playing time in the second half. If you take his second half of 2009 and first half of 2010, Lopez’s full-year production would have been a very solid .294/.371/.421, but getting that production in a single season requires serious dreaming.

Lopez is just headed into his age-31 season, so teams don’t necessarily have to make him a year-to-year player just yet, but his inconsistent production and actions make him a risk. A stable, full-time job in someone’s infield would be ideal, but there aren’t many of those jobs out there, and Lopez hasn’t exactly won the hearts and minds of front offices with his performance and behavior since leaving Milwaukee.

Nick Punto (.238/.313/.302, 615 OPS, 1 HR, .238 TAv, 1.6 WARP)
Punto is a bad offensive player, it ought to be said as plainly as possible. Even in his career-best season of 2008, he posted a TAv of .266—just a hair over league average—but the year before, he flirted with the True Average Mendoza line.

Since 1954, there have been just 146 players who have posted a TAv below .200 (minimum 300 PAs), so it’s a rare feat. But Punto posted his .211 over 536 PAs, so if we increase the minimum to 500, that leaves Punto’s 2007 campaign as the 58th-worst offensive season since 1954. His 2010 season wasn’t quite so bad, though he was limited to just 88 games by thigh and hamstring issues. If his bat is as bad as it seems, does he have any value? The answer is yes, for two reasons.

First, Punto’s walk rate is well above league average, 9.7 percent last year and nearly 14 percent in his last full season. He’ll never slug enough to have even a league-average OPS, but he gets on base at about an average rate. He’s also a solid enough baserunner, so you can add that to the list of qualities that work against his offensive reputation.

Second, and far more importantly, Punto is a plus defender at any infield position. He spent most of 2010 keeping third base warm for Danny Valencia, but played second base in 2009, and was primarily a shortstop in 2008. Whatever your defensive metric of choice, or if you only want to believe your eyes, he was a defensive asset irrespective of his position.

Punto hasn’t attracted much interest, and while that’s not a surprise per se, it doesn’t mean he can’t help the right team. As a defensive replacement or even as the ninth-spot hitter in a good offensive order, his deficiencies could be hidden well enough to make his glove worth having.

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 The talent pool that Christina started with in December is thinning rapidly, as evidenced by the fact that Joe Crede was signed to a minor-league deal on Wednesday despite being out of baseball in 2010. Each of the previously discussed five could provide value in the right situation, but the hour is getting late and they may simply be forced to accept the first offer that comes along.

Related Content:  A's,  The Who,  Nick Punto,  Year Of The Injury

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