Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Giants' expiring middle infield

Andy Baggarly's indispensable "Extra Baggs" blog went up yesterday, as usual. A nugget from the 941 word missive to "us"...
Freddy Sanchez will be cleared to swing a bat on Friday, Bochy said. Sanchez is just tracking pitches for now, but he’s swinging against coaches and in the cage. Bochy said if you saw Sanchez swing, you’d never think he had another left shoulder surgery in the offseason. I’d expect Sanchez will miss perhaps a handful of Cactus League games until he’s cleared to participate in those. There’s still optimism from all sides that he’ll be 100 percent and ready to be the Giants’ second baseman on opening day.
It reminds me of something. I say me because it probably won't remind you of the same thing, and that's assuming it'll remind you of anything. It just so happens to remind me of second base. 

The position is of particular interest to me because Sanchez's contract is expring at seasons end and I don't particularly expect management to bring him back. I mean, he's a good little player and he sure was a key to the 2010 World Series with his solid defense. That being said, he's not exactly the second baseman you're going to dream on. He's not Dustin Ackley who the Mariners have on the cusp. He's no Chase Utley, that's for sure. Also, Giants fans, he's no Jeff Kent.

Freddy will be 33 in 2011 and, if re-signed, would make the Giants the culprits of signing another over-the-hill middle infielder next offseason should they choose to go in that direction. I hope they don't, and don't forget they'll be in the exact same position at shortstop as they will be at second come December. Tejada will be a free agent too and surely won't be retained for everyday duties at the position. He'll be no more equipped than Freddie Prinze Jr. or Keanu Reeves to man a critical Martin Scorsese role -- he's not well equipped to play the position today as it is. But I've digressed from second base.

Sanchez was worth 2.7 Wins above Replacement (WAR) in 2010 according to FanGraphs. Unfortunately, his three-year average is just 1.8 wins. What's more, his ability to play solid defense has always been a significant factor in keeping him a solid player given the fact that other than 2006, in which he won a batting title, he's never carried a huge stick. As his defense slips, so will his utility, and it might not be particularly pretty.

Sanchez had a .327 weighted on-base average (wOBA) in 2010 which was very nearly, exactly in line with his career mark of .326. As I said, he's not much of a hitter. His career .335 on-base percentage (OBP) and .414 slugging percentage (SLG) won't get anyone excited. So we're really looking at about a two win player at best in 2011 with a swing of more than a win either way pretty unlikely.

Recently over at MLB Trade Rumors our friend Ben Nicholson-Smith went over next seasons crop of free agent second basemen:
Robinson Cano ($14MM club option), Brandon Phillips ($12MM club option) and Aaron Hill (series of club options) could all hit the open market, though it seems likely that their current clubs will retain them, at least through 2012.

Two Bay Area second basemen, Mark Ellis and Freddy Sanchez, are set to hit free agency after the 2011 season. So are Kelly Johnson, who just avoided arbitration, and Rickie Weeks... Clint Barmes, Omar Infante and Jose Lopez are on track to hit free agency after the season and early non-tender candidate Ryan Theriot could also hit the open market.

Some of the players above will sign extensions or see their options exercised, but teams looking to add proven players should have a deeper than usual class of second basemen to choose from next offseason.
As Ben points out, Phillips, Cano and Hill are all but off limits. Weeks already signed an extension and is now scratched from the once seemingly fruitful basket of options. That leaves Ellis and Johnson -- becacuse I want nothing to do with any of Theriot, Infante, Barmes or Lopez for what I feel should be obvious reasons -- both of whom I actually wouldn't mind on shorter deals.

I like Ellis a lot. He's an extremely similar hitter to Sanchez but there's reason to like him a bit more. For one, he's been playing in the tougher American League and playing half his contests in a serious pitchers park at that. But, even more than that, Ellis is the better defender of the two. Truth be told, he's an excellent defender that's deserved a whole heck of a lot more Gold Glove consideration than he's ever gotten. When you consider the fact that he's actually older than Sanchez, though, my interest in him comes close to disintegrating.

That leaves... just Johnson. If choosing the free agent route, he's my instant favorite. It's actually pretty wild when you consider he was non-tendered by the Braves in December of 2009. In hindsight, which is always 20/20, that looks like a pretty significant blunder.

He posted a 3.4 WAR in 2007 and a 2.6 WAR in 2008 for the Braves. He had a terrible 2009 which produced a WAR of just 0.6 but perhaps the Braves' brass didn't pay close attention to his .247 batting average on balls in play (BABiP), which appears to have punished his value that season. His walk rate was still solid and near 10% and his isolated power remained within career norms at .165. So, when he arrived in Arizona at a real hitters park, he flourished. It could have been predicted. No, it was.

I suppose the Giants have an interesting prospect or two that might push his way into the picture. Charlie Culberson in particular comes to mind. The Giants liked him enough to send him to the Arizona Fall League where he hit 366/.394/.591 after his 2010 breakout campaign in Single-A Advanced, San Jose. Keith Law ranked him the Giants' fifth best prospect (ESPN Insider). FanGraphs had him ranked seventh. He stole 25 bags there with 16 home runs and a .355 wOBA in his first season in San Jose. There are reasons to like him, including the fact that he'll be just 22 next season when he'll face a serious test in Double-A, Richmond.

Other than he, I don't see a middle-infield prospect ready to contribute at second. Plus, the fact that his glove remains very much a work in progress may gum up the works even further.

I hate to say it already, but the only real attractive option at second next offseason is Johnson. We also know the Giants will be looking for a serviceable shortstop -- I have not yet looked, but the pickings are usually pretty slim on that front. Needless to say, the Giants could use a kid or two from the minors to break out and join the ranks of "solid average regular" at the middle infield position. Because we know the Giants' front office has a flare for the geriatric... I mean dramtatic.

Anyway, I suppose this discussion is a bit premature but it's already stirring about in my brain which is always bouncing around baseball, especially as it pertains to the Giants. 2012 is a long ways away, but it'll be here before we even know it. And I'll bet Sabean is thinking about this already too.

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