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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.

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