In the past couple of weeks, we've taken a look at an international free agent and checked out the Nats internal options to fill second base. Now it's time to look at some of the established MLB players who are about to become free agents. Since it's certainly a possibility that Mike Rizzo decides to target a third baseman and moves Anthony Rendon back to second base, we'll look at third basemen separately either later this week or early next week. Today, we're going to focus solely on the middle infielders and see if any of them make sense.
Via MLB Trade Rumors, here's a look at the middle infielders who could hit free agency this offseason. The numbers in parentheses are the age that they will be next season:
*Expiring contract has an option year
**Figures to play third base
I'm also going to reiterate that the Nationals already have Danny Espinosa, who is entering his first year of arbitration and has a career 121 wRC+ against left-handed pitching. In the case that the Nats were to spend big and snag a player who would be the clear starter, this is less of a factor. Most of the players on the above lists aren't guys who would be clear everyday starters over Espinosa, though. Let's trim some of them off the list to narrow things down a bit....
- Mark Ellis is a 37-year-old coming off of a down season (31 wRC+) in which he spent a lot of time platooning with Kolten Wong in St. Louis. He has a career 105 wRC+ against LHP and an 88 wRC+ against RHP. Some team may sign him to a Mark DeRosa type of deal where he's around for his clubhouse presence. He may retire. He's of no use to the Nats.
- Rafael Furcal missed all of 2013 with Tommy John surgery and signed what looked to be an under the radar deal with the Marlins this past offseason. He suffered a hamstring injury in spring training and played in just 30 games (9 in the majors) this season before re-aggravating it. It was eventually determined to be a Grade 3 strain (similar to Ryan Zimmerman's injury) and he was shut down. Retirement wouldn't be surprising.
- Brandon Hicks is an up and down guy who stuck with the Giants for much of the first half before Joe Panik took over. He has a career 64 wRC+ and has been better against LHP than RHP. Pass.
- Josh Wilson, Ramon Santiago, Clint Barmes, and John McDonald are all backup quality guys known more for their glove than their hitting ability. None of them really figure to hit much better than Espinosa against RHP. Mike Aviles could be more than a straight backup, but he's stronger against LHP.
- It's impossible to imagine the Rays not picking up Ben Zobrist's option ($7.5M, $500K buyout). As it seems the Rays may use 2015 to retool, I'm sure there will be a lot of trade talk surrounding him.
- Hanley Ramirez figures to be a 3b moving forward. I'll cover him when I cover the third basemen.
This narrows our list down to:
|Player||Primary Position||Could play 2b?|
This isn't the most inspiring list. Let's break them down one by one. Since there isn't a name on this list that should automatically be starting over Espinosa in all situations, I'll include both their overall numbers and their numbers against right-handed pitching.
Strengths: Bonifacio has always been a plus baserunner, both as a stolen base threat and as a threat to take the extra base on a hit. He's versatile. Though he's a natural second baseman, Bonifacio primarily played center field this season. He's also played more than 100 games at shortstop and third base in his career. While he hasn't been exceptional defensively at any position, he's been slightly above average at every position that he's played outside of shortstop.
Weaknesses: Bonifacio has never shown much in the way of power. He's never had an ISO higher than .097 in his eight year career. He's had just one really good season with the bat, which was way back in 2011. His WAR contributions this season were pretty much all tied into baserunning and defense, and most of that defensive value came from him manning center field. We'll also note with the splits that he hasn't been strong against RHP; In fact, his 73 wRC+ is lower than Danny Espinosa's career 75 wRC+.
Gauging his pricetag: While WAR actually liked him quite a bit this season, it's difficult to picture any team giving Bonifacio more than two or three years. He still profiles more as a super-utility man who can play three or four games a week either in the outfield or at second base. Those just aren't the type of guys that get big long-term deals. At 29, he's still in his prime, and he has that one really useful asset (his speed), so I imagine some team is going to offer him $10 million over two years.
Is he worth targeting?: Probably not. He doesn't hit righties all that well and is inconsistent. He'd upgrade the bench over a guy like Kevin Frandsen, but he wouldn't make for a very good platoon partner for Danny Espinosa.
Strengths: There's a familiarity, as Cabrera spent the final two months of 2014 in D.C. He's expressed a willingness to remain with the Nats as a second baseman despite his preference to play shortstop. His bat is slightly above league average from both sides of the plate. He has enough pop to offset what has been a mediocre batting average and OBP the past two seasons. Even though the 25 HR season in 2011 seems to have been a mirage, he's hit 44 HR the past three years.
Weaknesses: Despite the 2011 "Gold Glove" Cabrera was a below average defensive shortstop. The hope was that he'd be better defensively at second base after the Nats acquired him, but the metrics say he wasn't. Cabrera accounted for -10 DRS in just 432 innings at second base in 2014. While I mentioned above that his bat has been above average for his career from both sides of the plate, he hasn't been nearly as productive as Espinosa has against left-handers.
Gauging his pricetag: We've heard the rumors that Cabrera could probably be had for three years and somewhere between $25-$30 million. It seems like that might be a bit light considering that there are some large market teams that are in the market for a shortstop this offseason.
Is he worth targeting?: I like Cabrera. I thought he was a necessary addition to the club this season at the deadline. I think he's going to land closer to 3/$33 than 3/$27, and that seems like an awfully high price tag for what he brings to the table. It's also too much to pay for a guy who should be sitting a third of the time. That doesn't really work, since Espinosa not only hits left-handers better than Cabrera, but is a superior defender as well.
Strengths: Drew has been a plus defensive shortstop for most of his career. He got his first taste of playing another position at second base in the second half of 2014 with the New York Yankees. He had a miserable 2014, but this was the first time since 2007 that he had a wRC+ of lower than 93 against RHP. He certainly never lit them up like he did in 2013, but has typically hit them well. Much like his brother J.D., Stephen has always shown above average patience at the plate. The rough season in 2014 figures to make him a bit undervalued entering the offseason.
Weaknesses: His strikeout rate has been trending the wrong way since 2009. When Drew was still a rising star from 2007-2010, he was striking out less than 17% of the time. He's struck out in more than 20% of his plate appearances in each of the past four seasons, including 24.8% in 2013 (good year) and 25% in an extremely disappointing 2014 campaign. As for that 2014 season, he's coming off of a year in which he hit just .162/.237/.299 between the Red Sox and Yankees.
Gauging his pricetag: For those who don't remember, Drew was tendered a qualifying offer last year by the Boston Red Sox. He turned it down and entered free agency, only to find that no team was willing to give him the big mutli-year deal he wanted while giving up a draft pick. While he signed in May for what was basically a pro-rated version of the qualifying offer (1 year, $10.1 million [after missing most of the first two months]), Drew ended up costing himself quite a bit of money. While it's safe to assume that a rushed "rehab assignment" type of spring training in May helped to get him ready for the season, he never really hit stride. He's probably going to end up signing a one year incentive laden deal for 2015. It's hard to imagine he gets a base salary of more than $4-$5 million.
Is he worth targeting?: I won't get a lot of support in here, but Drew is who I feel the Nats should target. He never really turned into the great hitter that he was expected to become, but he's a plus defensive middle infielder with some pop, some patience, and the ability to hit for a solid .250+ average. What's more, he's an extreme buy low candidate coming off of a miserable season. I guess a lot depends on how much you believe that the lack of spring training and the first two months kept him from hitting stride this year. I believe it really hurt him and that he'll rebound back towards his 2013 production.
He doesn't figure to be so expensive that the Nats wouldn't feel comfortable having him platoon with Espinosa. He doesn't figure to be so expensive that the Nats wouldn't feel comfortable giving Espinosa the occasional chance to see how Right Side Danny works against right-handed pitching. Offer him a $5 million base salary for 2015 with a mutual option or two (more in the $10 million range) and he could end up sticking around if the Nats are unable to re-sign Ian Desmond.
Strengths: Johnson has above average pop and above average patience for a middle infielder. The converted outfielder also turned into a decent defensive second baseman over the years. Like Drew (who he was traded for this season), Johnson is coming off of a disappointing 2014 campaign. His .215/.296/.362 triple slash line represent the worst figures of his career in all three categories. His 7 HR were a career low as well. This should help to keep his price reasonable.
Weaknesses: While he'd improved defensively throughout his career, Johnson has actually seen a lot more time at the corner infield spots and in the outfield the past two seasons than he did at second base. He's a sinkhole with the batting average, which is partially due to an extremely high strikeout rate throughout his career (22.3% career, 23.9% in 2014). He hasn't hit better than .235 or had an OBP higher than .313 since 2010.
Gauging his pricetag: Johnson spent this past season with the Yankees for $3 million. It's hard to imagine him getting more than that after this year. He probably signs another one year deal in the $3 million range.
Is he worth targeting?: He actually profiles similarly to Drew.... with the bat. While he spent 2013 with a team that had a second baseman (Tampa Bay/Zobrist), the Yankees felt better about moving him to third base and signing Brian Roberts than giving him the second base job. I realize that part of the reason that he was moved to the corner spots in 2014 also had to do with Mark Teixeira's injury, but I worry that it's also because he may profile better as a corner guy (reaction) than a middle infielder (range) at this point in his career. If Drew ends up being as affordable as I think he will be, I'd feel more comfortable paying for Drew's defense... Johnson wouldn't be a bad cheap platoon option, though. He could even become the backup 1b.
Strengths: Lowrie has an above average walk rate and strikes out a lot less frequently than most of the other options we've looked at. He has power, but it's been inconsistent throughout his career and almost completely disappeared this season. Early in his career, Lowrie (a switch hitter) was significantly stronger against LHP. Oddly enough, he's flipped that around and has been better vs. RHP the past few years.
Weaknesses: His defensive RAA are mainly tied to his having played shortstop. Lowrie has -32 DRS at SS over the course of his career. Lowrie has stayed healthy these past two seasons in Oakland, but he's got a reputation for being kind of brittle. He's played in 154 and 136 games in the past two years. Those are the only two seasons in which he's played more than 100 games.
Gauging his pricetag: He'll see a very similar payday to what Cabrera gets. I'd expect for him to sign somewhere in the 3/$30 million range. I feel he's a slightly better player than Cabrera overall, but Cabrera is coming off of a stronger season and doesn't have anywhere near the injury history that Lowrie does.
Is he worth targeting?: Like Cabrera, I think he's probably going to cost more than the Nats should probably be spending. It's my belief that they have 33% of the solution already on the roster in Espinosa. They can either spend a lot for a guy who is going to make 100% of the starts (Cabrera/Lowrie) or spend about half that on a guy who can make 60% of the starts (most of the games against RHP).
Strengths: Weeks may have the best raw power of any of the players that we're covering today. His 29 HR season in 2010 outpaces anything that any of the players we've covered have ever done. He hit 20+ HR in three straight seasons from 2010-2012. His .172 career ISO is higher than any player we've covered outside of Johnson (.173). He was once a power-speed threat, but stopped running the past couple of years.
Weaknesses: He may be the worst defensive second baseman in the league. Part of the reason that Weeks lost his starting job in 2013 was because of his poor batting (.230 in 2012, .209 in 2013). The larger part was because Scooter Gennett (an average defender) was such a huge defensive upgrade that he was more useful than Weeks regardless of how he ended up hitting. Weeks had -30 DRS in 2012 in his last full season as a starter. In 1,265 innings the past two seasons (79.1 fewer innings than he had in that woeful defensive 2012 season), Weeks has a combined -32 DRS. I don't know if he's capable of playing anywhere on the diamond defensively at this point, but he shouldn't be playing the keystone.
Gauging his pricetag: The Brewers will almost certainly decline his $11.5 million option for 2015. When Weeks becomes a free agent, it's difficult to see him signing for more than half that amount. There's no real reason for any National League team to go after him. I'd guess he signs a one year deal for $4-$5 million.
Is he worth targeting?: Not unless the Nats had a place to hide him defensively. I'll confess that the 2014 offensive numbers surprised me a bit, and it wasn't that he was just facing lefties or anything (119 of his 286 PA were vs. RHP). He's a good hitter who will make an AL team pretty happy if they can buy him low and have the DH spot available.
If you feel that the Nats should focus more on the trade market, focus on a third baseman, or make a push for one of the two big international free agents (Kang Jung-Ho or Jose Luis Fernandez), feel free to discuss it in the comments. I'll admit that I'm not particularly enamored with the two players in this group who really warrant starter money. I do like the idea of signing a reasonably priced left-handed hitter to platoon with Espinosa, though. Since I've gone alphabetical until now, I'll list my preferences in closing.....
- Stephen Drew
- Kelly Johnson
- Jed Lowrie
- Asdrubal Cabrera
- Emilio Bonifacio