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November 23, 2009

So You Need

Help Up the Middle

by Tommy Bennett

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The up-the-middle positions are known as the skill positions for a good reason. Catchers, shortstops, second basemen, and center fielders are hard to find. And the ones who play the positions well defensively? They're even harder yet to find. And if you find one that hits well enough to make you forget he's "just" an up-the-middle guy, I'm sure there are some inquiring minds who would like to know how you found him.

The plural of anecdote is not data, but let's consider the eight playoff teams of 2009. Of those eight, all but one (the Dodgers, whom I'll get to in a minute) developed at least three starters at their up-the-middle positions internally. The Yankees and Phillies, the two World Series teams, both developed all four positions internally (we'll assume for the sake of this exercise that being Rule 5'd twice, as Shane Victorino was, effectively restarts the story of your development). It bears noting that the Twins' center fielder was Carlos Gomez, who was signed and developed by the Mets, so in addition to Orlando Cabrera, there appear to have been two hired guns up their middle. But even Gomez was acquired as an unproven prospect, and his superior alternate, Denard Span, had been a Twin since he was drafted in 2002. The Dodgers are the notable exception, as they acquired both Rafael Furcal via free agency and Joe Torre's Orlando Hudson/Ronnie Belliard Wheel of Arbitrariness™ via a combination of free agency and trade.

Nevertheless, all of these teams essentially built their defensive cores internally. The lesson to be drawn is that if you're looking to add more than one of these players on the open market, you might want to take seriously the possibility that you're not going to be competitive this year. This point holds especially true in this offseason, as the crop of defensive-minded players is thin and old. Add in a GM desperate to impress ownership, and baby, you got a stew goin'. However, as the Dodgers proved by adding Hudson last year, if all you need is a guy to give you a little boost, add a few wins, or perhaps provide extra depth, you can do very well with an up-the-middle free agent. With that in mind, here are the guys that are most likely to help their new teams. They may not be pretty, but they're good.

1. Mike Cameron: By UZR, Cameron has been worth a full win above average defensively in each of the last two seasons. His bat isn't depleted by age, either. If you look past the strikeouts and low batting average, you see a guy who gets on base at a league-average rate (.342 last year), but who adds enough raw power to make him an above-average offensive threat. Any team looking for a right-handed batter to hit in the six hole and track down fly balls would be wise to retain Cameron's services. Perhaps the best part? His low batting average and the fact that much of his value is tied up in his defense means he is only a Type B free agent, meaning that a potential suitor wouldn't be forced to give up any draft picks.

2. Mark DeRosa: He was one of those guys that provided almost no surplus value to the Braves while he was under team control. His stubborn refusal to dance with the one who brought him may make him a bad Sadie Hawkins date, but it has made him a very helpful role player in his 30s. Since leaving Atlanta, DeRosa has put up a .279/.354/.447 line while playing at least 10 games at every infield position plus both corner outfield spots. Though the Indians and Cardinals mostly deployed him at the hot corner in 2009, DeRosa is still at least a fair defender at the keystone. Like Cameron, DeRosa is a Type B free agent, meaning there will be several teams asking him to sign their dance cards.

3. Placido Polanco: Yes, batting average isn't everything. But it sure ain't nothing, either. Polanco has superb bat control: he features a .314 career BABIP and nearly as many walks (314) as strikeouts (391) in his career. Absent other compelling offensive virtues, that kind of bat control will do two things: impress people with your ability to follow a one-pitch at bat with a 12-pitch one, and make you league average at the plate. It'd be nothing more than a neat parlor trick if Polly didn't pair it with superlative defense. By UZR, he's averaged about +8 over the last three years, and last year his Rate2 was 111. Even penalizing him for age, it is unlikely Polanco will be worse than an average defender at second base. His biggest downside is his status as a Type A free agent, so it might make the most sense for a team picking high in the draft to sign him, as they would only lose a second-round pick as compensation.

4. Marco Scutaro: No, he won't have another year like his 2009, especially not at 34, and not when his BABIP was .015 points above his career average. But consider, even as he set a career high in strikeouts, he walked more than he struck out for the first time in his career (90/75). He swung at fewer pitches, hit more of the ones he did swing at, and played 143 games of average-grade shortstop afield. The downside is that, like Polanco, Scutaro is hurt by his status as a Type A free agent.

5. Miguel Tejada: At age 36, what you see is all you'll get with Tejada. But is that really so bad? He's an above-average hitter (albeit one who was helped by hitting righty at Minute Maid), and can do a convincing shortstop impression. He makes good contact and pulls the ball effectively (all but one of his home runs were to left or left-center). It's not a terribly complicated approach at the plate, but it's one worth having around if the price is right. That's the rub. Player salaries are sticky in the downward direction. He made $13 million in the last year of his contract, and though he probably won't sign for that much this offseason, it remains to be seen how far his willingness to settle for substantially less stretches. And as a Type A free agent, his true value may be lower still.

6. Felipe Lopez: Lopez is a league-average hitter who plays average second base. He won't excite fans, but if you have a need at the keystone, he'll make your team better. In 2008, he was released by the Nationals, which as I understand is awfully difficult to have happen to you, but he's proven himself to be about a one-win player. He's a Type B free agent, so he's a likely target for a second division team.

7. Orlando Cabrera: Cabrera still plays good defense, but his bat has lost most of its life. He's got some lingering value, though, and will certainly be given at least a few more chances. At first glance, you might be turned away by his Type A status, but here's where the genius of his agent, Dan Lozano, becomes apparent. Last offseason, when Cabrera signed a one-year deal with the A's, Lozano insisted on a clause that prevented the team holding the contract (which became the Twins) from offering him arbitration. Because the Twins are contractually prohibited from offering Cabrera arbitration, they cannot receive any compensatory draft picks if he signs with another team. Effectively, Cabrera will receive the same treatment as an unranked player, meaning several teams should be interested in his services.

8. Marlon Byrd: Last year, he turned out to be a pretty good hitter. Over the last three years in Arlington, Byrd hit a combined .295/.352/.468. Certainly, his offensive numbers will suffer if he leaves the Rangers, but it's easy to forget that he's a solid defender, too. He played more than 100 games in center this past year, and most metrics rate him about average. You can think of him as a poor man's Mike Cameron, and the price will be similarly discounted.

9. Coco Crisp: If you were to chart a path to obscurity that began with starting center fielder for the Boston Red Sox, it would have to first include a younger player stealing your job (check) and then a trade to the Royals for a middle reliever (check; ouch). But the truth is Crisp can still hit a little and can still play very good center field.

10. Orlando Hudson: The O-Dog is stuck in Type A limbo. He has been signed to one-year deals at a discount because he rates high enough in the esoteric Elias ranking system to qualify as a Type A free agent each year. His defense isn't as good as his reputation, but he's certainly not a liability; UZR says he's slightly below average, while FRAA had him significantly higher at +18. He's a good bet to bat around .290 and sprinkle in just enough on-base and slugging skills to make him worth your draft pick compensation.

The Sleeper: Rocco Baldelli. No, he won't play 162 games. Teams certainly shouldn't expect him to play center field like he did as a rookie. But do you know when the last time was that he put up a negative UZR in center field? The answer is never, and he also managed a solid 101 Rate2 in FRAA last season. He's not a bad hitter, and his on-base skills are better than his .311 OBP with the Red Sox in 2009 would suggest. Next year, he'll be 28, cheap, and better than you might think.

Beware of: Bengie Molina. Here's a story to not tell your kids before bedtime-Bengie Molina had more GIDP than walks in 2009 (14 to 13). His OBP was .285. At that point, it really doesn't matter what his batting average was or how many home runs he hit. He's such a rapacious consumer of outs that he should be kept away from your lineup at all costs. At least his brother Jose's employers had the good sense to sit their Molina on the bench most of the time. Did I mention Bengie made $6 million last year and has Type A status? Terrifying.

Designated Representative from the International Brotherhood of Backup Catchers: Ramon Castro. I know what you're thinking, a 34-year-old catcher who has never logged more than 240 PA in a single season does not sound like an especially brilliant free-agent signing. But put his last three years together and you get .249/.311/.466 with 25 home runs in 485 PA. Reviews of his defense are mixed, but he throws out runners at a good clip and blocks the ball well enough. He doesn't cost you any draft picks, will sign for close to the league minimum, and he can mash lefties. Besides, if you're looking for a star catcher in this market, you're already on a fool's errand.

This Guy Could Make You Look Like a Genius: Jeff Fiorentino. It's always good to have one Hail Mary play tucked in your back pocket. Fiorentino is a deep sleeper, but he has the potential to pay big dividends. A third-round pick in 2004, Fiorentino will be just 27 next year. Though his major league batting line (.270/.341/.324) is a disappointment, he had a breakout year at Triple-A Norfolk last season. He hit .312/.387/.510 with 12 homers in 422 PA in a stadium that typically favors pitchers. He can play center field, so he is a great fourth outfielder candidate.

Tommy Bennett is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.

15 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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3n2sports

You mention Polanco's Type A status, but how likely is it that Dombrowski offers arbitration to a guy who stands to make between 5 and 6 million? I think the chance is very low.

Nov 23, 2009 11:47 AM
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3n2sports

To follow that up, Polanco has "Surprise!" accepted arbitration before on Ed Wade's watch in Philly.

Nov 23, 2009 11:48 AM
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Tommy Bennett

When Polanco surprised Ed Wade in Philly, he did so when the plan was to install Utley, so he essentially became a $5M backup. In Detroit, there is no immediate replacement and I'm not sure Polanco wouldn't be worth what he would make in arbitration. He's been making around $5M a year, and given his age he probably wouldn't get a huge raise. He would probably get more money (or at least more years) on the open market. If I'm Dombrowski, and I don't purport to know his thinking, I offer him arbitration in a heartbeat.

Nov 23, 2009 13:11 PM
rating: 2
 
3n2sports

Sorry for the triple post, I rushed down to post on Polanco after having read him. I have the same concerns over the type A status of Scutaro and Tejada. While is seems possible that Scutaro is offered arb, the idea of Tejada being offered arb is ludicrous to me.

Nov 23, 2009 11:56 AM
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Tommy Bennett

I think most of these players are going to want multiyear deals, and they'll probably get them in such a weak market. Maybe they accept, but the worst that happens is a one year financial commitment. The possibility of two top 50 draft picks has to be sufficient inducement to offer even a risky case like Tejada arbitration.

I think Wade probably re-signs Tejada anyway, in fact.

Nov 23, 2009 13:14 PM
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dconner

I always love any BP article that has a Carl Weathers reference.

Nov 23, 2009 13:50 PM
rating: 1
 
buffum
(458)

I would Post Reply to Tommy Bennett, but it does not actually work. That can be fixed someday, right?

Message: '0.innerHTML' is null or not an object
Line: 68
Char: 2
Code: 0
URI: http://www.baseballprospectus.com/js/comments.js

In any event, I thought Scott Sizemore was likely to play second for the Tigers next season. Perhaps my memory isn't accurate.

Nov 23, 2009 13:54 PM
rating: 0
 
Joe D.

Post Reply seems to be working for me.

I'm hoping they put Sizemore on the Pedroia/Kinsler plan. Stick him in there opening day and let's see what happens. There a good chance he approximates Polanco's value at the low, low price of bubkes. (And a legit shot that he exceeds that threshold.)

Nov 23, 2009 15:00 PM
rating: 0
 
Leitch

The Hiroshima Carp and Jeff Fiorentino look to be working on a deal now
http://www.npbtracker.com/2009/11/hiroshima-movement/#content

Nov 23, 2009 14:10 PM
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Sacramento

Post Reply doesn't work for me in IE8.

Nov 23, 2009 15:33 PM
rating: 1
 
JoshC77

It works fine on Firefox....

Nov 24, 2009 04:50 AM
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Moneyball16

Very enjoyable article.

I never thought of Fiorentino as more than a AAAA player before without knowing much about him. But yeah he seems like great pickup for a team(sucks that it seems to be a Japanese team), an adjusted line of 286/363/485 line in the minors and his career UZR in the majors is very good albeit in a small sample size, but his defensive rep seems alright anyways.

Also after looking at some numbers Crips seems like hes going to be a bargain. If hes healthy I think he can be a very good player. Over small sample size last year if you look past his BABIP that was 62 points lower than his career he actually played pretty well. He had his highest BB% of his career by a decent margin and did a nice job of cutting his K% too while maintaining an ISO 20 points higher than his career. His UZR was also excellent given his playing time.

Nov 24, 2009 05:59 AM
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Moneyball16

One thing that I didn't like about the article is that I feel like it was fine to rag on teams for signing mediocre FAs a couple years ago by saying that they were giving up draft picks as part of your argument, but I think most people are worrying about it too much now. Even very smart baseball writers and fans seem to value the picks too highly. I feel like a lot of the time they almost forget that it still costs money to sign these picks and they look at it like they teams are just giving up or getting whats basically a prospect that will likely be in there top 10 or at least 15 prospects without considering the prospects signing bonus. Obviously it matters whether or not a FA is a Type A or B when deciding to sign them and obviously teams are still going to get better ROIs on average from late 1st and 2nd round picks compared to free agency, but I still feel like people go overboard with worrying about it.

Nov 24, 2009 06:14 AM
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Ira

well, the cost of a first round draft pick lost due to a free agent signee is really no more than $1.5 to $2 million, since that draft pick can't be better than the number 16 pick. the gain from that pick can be immense. (players drafted between the number 16 pick and the number 15 pick in the second round include:


2008 Andrew Cashner
2008 Robbie Ross
2008 Tanner Scheppers (didn't sign)
2007 Blake Beavan
2007 Rick Porcello
2007 Michael Main
2007 J.P. Arencibia
2007 Jordan Zimmerman
2007 Grant Desme
2006 Ian Kennedy
2006 Kyle Drabek
2006 Brett Anderson
2005 Matt Garza
2005 Colby Rasmus
2005 Nolan Reimold

and I could go on, but I won't.)

Nov 24, 2009 09:32 AM
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Richard Bergstrom

Also, prospects right now have a better trade value than veterans and prospects remain under team control for years. Even if the prospect fails to develop, he can still net a decent major league vet in trade based on potential.

Nov 27, 2009 12:40 PM
rating: 0
 
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