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December 16, 2013
Reportedly agreed to sign 2B-R Omar Infante to a four-year, $30.25 million contract. [12/13]
It’s no fun to feel pain, but it’s better than the alternative. When you touch a hot stove, pain tells you to pull your finger away before you get badly burned. Statistics serve the same function for baseball teams. A player might look fantastic in a uniform and have a winning smile, but if he makes enough outs, or consistently fails to record them, a smart team can see the damage he's doing. The Royals, as a franchise, suffer from a form of congenital analgesia. The feedback that tells other teams that it’s time to make a change reaches their nerve center slowly, or not at all. Instead, they let their metaphorical finger stay on the stove, blistering and bleeding away runs.
The Royals’ tolerance for failure starts at the top. Despite his inability to take them to October, they’ve extended their general manager not once, but twice, with the best argument in favor of the second extension being that it might stop him from making another move like the Wil Myers trade. (To be fair to Dayton Moore, he never promised results in fewer than 8-10 years.) They let Kyle Davies make 99 mostly miserable starts (on top of the terrible 45 he’d made for the Braves) before they stripped him of a rotation spot, which made him the longest-lasting unsuccessful starter in baseball history. They’ve seen a string of low-OBP batters hamstring their lineup and signed up for more of the same, in some cases reacquiring or extending the worst offenders. And over the past four years, they repeated that pattern with Chris Getz.
If, like Aaron Sorkin’s caricatures of scouts in Moneyball, you evaluate him by the attractiveness of his spouse, Getz looks great. By any other metric, he’s been one of the least-productive players in baseball. Getz is the worst hitter in the last 30 years to get 1500 plate appearances at a position other than shortstop or catcher:
Rk Player OPS+ PA From To Age G 1 Chris Getz 68 1546 2008 2013 24-29 449 2 Willy Taveras 68 2644 2004 2010 22-28 670 3 Billy Ripken 69 3015 1987 1998 22-33 912 4 Doug Strange 69 2069 1989 1998 25-34 707 5 Jose Lind 70 4001 1987 1995 23-31 1044 6 Darwin Barney 71 1799 2010 2013 24-27 470 7 Joe McEwing 71 1964 1998 2006 25-33 754 8 Luis Sojo 71 2773 1990 2003 25-38 848 9 Milt Cuyler 71 1567 1990 1998 21-29 490 10 Mark Lemke 71 3664 1988 1998 22-32 1069
As a result, second base has been a black hole in Kansas City since Alberto Callaspo (one of Moore’s better acquisitions) moved to third, and then to Anaheim, in 2010. Over the last four seasons, Royals second basemen have produced fewer WARP than any other team’s:
Fewest Team WARP by 2B, 2010-13
In fact, over the same span, second base for the Royals has been the least-productive position, period, save for DH in Seattle:
Fewest WARP by Position, 2010-13
Shift focus to the last three seasons, and not even Mariners designated hitters could keep Royals second basemen out of the top spot on that table: Getz & Co. claim the crown with -2.7 WARP from 2011-13. (Royals shortstops (0.3 WARP) and right fielders (0.4 WARP), respectively, would rank seventh and eighth on that list.)
The Royals belatedly came to their senses and non-tendered Getz earlier this month, which left them with Emilio Bonifacio slated to start at second. Bonifacio clears the low bar of being better than Getz, but it’s telling that the team with the second-worst second basemen over the past four years sold him to Kansas City; he’s better suited for a utility role. The only other internal options were Christian Colon, the 24-year-old who didn’t get a call-up during a disappointing Triple-A season, and whom PECOTA projects to hit worse than Getz in 2014; and Johnny Giavotella, who has the same career OPS+ as Getz in more limited major-league playing time. (It’s hard to believe that Giavotella couldn’t have outhit Getz over the past few years had the Royals been more patient with him, but at this point, he projects to be something less than a league-average player.) Standing pat would’ve meant another season of replacement level performance, something the Royals could ill afford with some regression from last season’s league-leading 3.45 team ERA looming.
The obvious and sensible solution was Infante, the best option available this offseason for under $240 million. By WARP, Infante has been one of the best players at the position over the four seasons in which Royals second basemen have struggled:
Highest WARP by 2B, 2010-13
That ranking is highly dependent on defense: FRAA saw Infante as a +35 fielder from 2010-13, while DRS and UZR pegged him at +8 and +16, respectively. Regardless of the metric you use, Infante has rated above average on both sides of the ball, which should improve what was already one of baseball’s best defensive teams.
Infante fits the Royals’ offensive mold. As I noted in my breakdown of the Norichika Aoki trade, Kansas City prefers aggressive, high-contact hitters, perhaps because they believe their ballpark makes it impossible for batters to hit homers or draw walks. Infante wouldn’t walk in any park, but he rarely strikes out and hits a lot of line drives, so for now, at least, the profile plays. Like anyone who puts the ball in play as often as he does, his offensive value is dependent on how and where his batted balls bounce—last season, they fell favorably, but he’s not a true .300 hitter. (PECOTA projects him to bat .288.) He’s not going to hit double digits in homers or steals, so he won’t be worth a big bid in fantasy, but he’ll be a boon to the Royals, who haven’t had anything like him for years.
The risk for the Royals is that Infante’s body breaks down. As his comment in the upcoming annual concludes, “A serious ankle injury in July, caused by a Colby Rasmus takeout slide, reminded everybody why second basemen don’t generally age well, even when they do.” Another reminder: PECOTA’s top comp for Infante, Freddy Sanchez. Sanchez’s similar offensive approach continued to work well when he was on the field at age 32 and 33, but a series of surgeries on his knee, shoulders, and back cost him time and, ultimately, his career, leaving the Giants with 0.2 WARP to show for the $12 million they paid him from 2011-12.
One ankle injury doesn’t signify that Infante is bound for the same fate, but in light of the premature declines that strike many second basemen, four years sounds like a lot to give one who’s about to turn 32. But much as they did with Jason Vargas’ four-year, $32 million deal, the Royals went a little longer than they would’ve liked in exchange for a lower AAV, a decision that makes sense in the context of rising TV revenue and an improving economy. Infante doesn’t cost a draft pick and won’t be paid much more per season than what seems to be the going rate for a win this winter, and he’s almost certain to exceed that value threshold easily over the next couple years, when marginal wins figure to be worth a lot to his new team. And if his performance slips or he’s too banged up to play every day toward the end of the deal, he’ll still have some utility potential; unlike Getz, who spent little time at shortstop even in the minors, Infante used to start there, and he’s appeared at all three outfield positions as well as third base.
With Infante in the fold, the Royals’ projected lineup (barring a cost-cutting Billy Butler trade) looks something like this:
That’s a balanced order with fewer glaring holes than the one with which Kansas City started last season, and even the weak spots have some age-related upside. It’s easy to imagine Hosmer sustaining his second-half performance and topping that .278 TAv, and Moustakas is young enough that he’s not a completely lost cause. And you can live with Escobar’s bat given his defense and the possibility of some fluky BABIP success, especially if he’s up last. When the Royals traded for Aoki, I wrote that the leadoff hitter’s arrival “might just Yost-proof the lineup.” That was probably premature; I’ve been burned by Yost’s batting orders before. But with Aoki and a traditional no. 2 type like Infante on the team, even Yost would be hard-pressed to hit Escobar anywhere other than ninth.
As of today, the Royals’ rotation doesn’t look like a contending team’s. (Remember what we said about them not knowing when they’ve been burned?) But the rest of the roster resembles one. —Ben Lindbergh
The Royals finally get a second baseman who can play baseball, and his fantasy value rises, even though he is going to a slightly worse lineup and a slightly worse ballpark. The biggest difference maker here is that he's much more likely to hit toward the top of the Royals' lineup. Infante got only 20 percent of his plate appearances outside the seventh, eighth or ninth spots last season, but in the second spot, he can make much more of an impact in runs scored. Even with that, Infante is at best a borderline option at second base in medium-sized mixed leagues.
Chris Getz/Johnny Giavotella
This is purely for completeness. If you were still relying on these guys for any fantasy value, then you may want to reconsider some of your other life decisions. —Bret Sayre
Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @ben_lindbergh