The Nats Utility Infielder Question

By definition, nobody is ever happy with their utility infielder except maybe the GM.  He's happy if the guy he has to pay almost nothing performs decently well.  The rest of us have to live with the fact that most likely at least one spot on the roster will be given to a replacement level player who is valued for his versatility and grit.

The Nationals have been using former Yankee Alberto "The Attorney General" Gonzales with his sweet glove, and they recently signed Jerry Hairston, Jr., another very versatile utility player.

The first question to ask (and answer) is what do the Nationals want from their utility infielders?

Utility infielders are known for doing four things: 

#1 - They fill in when infielders get injured.
#2 - They give infielders an extra day off here and there.
#3 - They come in as late inning defensive substitutes to help preserve a lead.
#4 - They pinch hit.

Gonzales did all of these things.  He played in 114 games in 2010.  He started in 37 of those to fill in for injured or resting players.  He played in another 77 games, including 44 pinch hit appearances.  In all, he spent the equivalent of about 43 games on the field, with a couple more games' worth of plate appearances tossed in.

[paragraph of useless statistics] Craig Stammen in 43 plate appearances had more RBIs than Gonzales did in 198.  Justin Maxwell contributed as much (0.4 fWAR) to the team as Gonzales did, with only two thirds of the playing time.  Pudge Rodriguez is more likely to walk than Gonzales is.  [/paragraph of useless statistics]

If one were to assume that it would be advantageous for the Nationals to have the best set of utility infielders available, it would be worth looking to see if there are any players on the market who might fit the needs of the Nationals even better than, for example, Gonzales.

Here is a chart with a number of such options, listing their defensive experience and their offensive lines as well:

Innings played are lifetime.  Offensive numbers are a two year average.

Inn 2nd
UZR/150 Inn SS
UZR/150 Inn 3rd UZR/150 AVG OBP SLG
Alberto Gonzales 511 0.8 554 -0.7 251 13.8 .258 .291 .331
Jerry Hairston, Jr. 4902 6.1 1023 2.1 428 -5.1 .247 .307 .373
Alex Cora 3701 3.3 4279 4.4 77 -78.4 .235 .299 .298
Willy Aybar 347 -6.3 18 83.0 1127 -1.8 .242 .321 .382
Bobby Crosby 127 16.1 5229 2.5 361 -21.7 .222 .295 .333
Julio Lugo 1160 -7.2 9159 -0.4 133 -17.5 .265 .327 .345
Mike Morse 453 -20.9 33 -26.2 .283 .342 .513


Morse was tossed in free of charge for being discussed at 3rd base.  Ignore him for now.

A few thoughts, in order of conception:

1st Thought - Of the options currently with the team, Jerry Hairston is the best, especially playing up the middle.

2nd Thought - Despite his reputation for a smooth glove, Alberto Gonzales is the weakest option at SS, and he also the fewest innings under his belt.

3rd Thought - Willy Aybar would be the best option to back up Zimmerman, combining an average but experienced glove with an excellent bat.

4th Thought - Alex Cora is Hairston Lite, and probably does not belong on the major league roster.

5th Thought - Julio Lugo has a very nice bat, but his only strength defensively is at SS, where the Nats don't need him.

6th Thought - Bobby Crosby is Gonzales with a defensive focus at 2nd instead of 3rd.

Having thought this through, it appears that replacing Alberto Gonzales with Willy Aybar, with Jerry Hairston taking most of the playing time at 2B and SS, would make the Nationals bench deeper offensively without giving much up too much defensively.

This brings up a new question: Who is Willy Aybar?

Willy Aybar (27 yo) played the past three years with the Rays, who used him at 3rd, 2nd, 1st and in the DH slot.  He was their starting 3rd baseman until Longoria got called up, and has filled a utility role ever since.  He was with the Rays for their drive to the World Series (.325/.333/.550 postseason), but struggled offensively in 2010 after dealing with a hamstring injury and the Rays declined his option($2.2 million) and non-tendered him.  He has a career line of .258/..341/.399 over five years.  He has had mixed luck offensively, with a BABIP no higher than .271 in the past three seasons. 

In 2010, he saw most of his at bats in the DH slot, and was also used thirty times as a pinch hitter.  He clearly has experience producing with his bat coming off the bench, making his bat that much more valuable.

Here is an article examining Aybar's 2011 value from the Mariners' perspective.

From the Rays perspective, an article on Aybar with a focus on his pinch hitting.

Way back in 2008, the NY Times did a piece on Aybar.

Is Rizzo willing to pay out money for this kind of bench upgrade gamble?

Alberto Gonzales costs $600k in 2011.  Hairston is being paid $2 million.  Aybar may come cheap this year, but he would certainly not be as cheap as Gonzales.  Would it be worth adding as much as $1 million to the payroll to add some pop to the bench at the expense of some defense at 3rd base when Zimmerman isn't playing?

In Rizzo We Trust(TM)

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