Not Many Infield Improvements to Be Made in Free Agency This Offseason

If you are a general manager looking to make major upgrades to your infield this offseason, one thing is abundantly clear: it’s not going to happen via free agency.

Of the 136 players currently listed on our handy dandy Baseball Essential Free Agent Tracker, just 29 of them are infielders. And according to Baseball Reference, those 29 infielders put up a combined WAR last season of 13.1, for an average of 0.45 WAR per player. BRef’s little WAR guide says that roughly 2.0 WAR or higher is good enough to be a starter; by those standards, only three of the 29 free-agent infielders are worthy starters, with three others relatively close.

More alarming is the fact that nearly half of the available infielders — 14 out of 29 — finished with a WAR at or below 0.0. That means that based on last year’s performance, teams would be better off calling up a mediocre prospect to fill an infield slot than signing half of these available free agents.

Here are all 29 available infielders, broken into four categories: Worth Signing, Probably Worth Signing on Merit, Possibly Worth Signing (Extenuating Circumstances), and Not Worth Signing. I’ll do them in reverse order, though, in the spirit of saving the best for last.

Not Worth Signing

There are 15 players who, in my opinion, are not worth signing to a free agent contract. They are, in alphabetical order:

Joaquin Arias (0.0 WAR), Mike Aviles (-1.3), Jeff Baker (-0.1), Gordon Beckham (0.7), Willie Bloomquist (-0.3), Emilio Bonifacio (-0.8), Conor Gillaspie (-1.0), Corey Hart (-0.5), Jonathan Herrera (-0.4), Kelly Johnson (0.3), Garrett Jones (-0.6), Casey McGehee (-1.2), Mark Reynolds (-0.6), Sean Rodriguez (-0.1), and Jimmy Rollins (-0.1).

The nature of free agency is that most players are past their primes by the time they become available on the open market. Guys like Aviles, Hart, Johnson, and Rodriguez were once reasonable options as either starters or utility players, but none of them has played at that level in years.

Hart is a two-time All-Star who was a good, solid player as recently as 2011 or 2012. But he missed all of 2013, and in 2014 and 2015 combined, he has hit .206/.266/.325 (OPS+ of 69) in 312 plate appearances. He only plays two positions (first base and right field); both place a premium on offensive production, which he does not provide, and he does not play either of them particularly well.

I considered putting Aviles on the “Extenuating Circumstances” list because he played this season under the cloud of his young daughter fighting cancer, but he has been between -0.7 and 0.5 in five of the past seven years, so even if he bounces back from his -1.3 WAR performance in 2015, the bounce is not likely to be enough to make it worth it.

Then there is Jimmy Rollins, a former National League Most Valuable Player who will get some consideration for the Hall of Fame when his career is over. Unfortunately for him, his performance this past season seemed to indicate that his career might have lasted a bit longer than his skills. Other than his MVP season of 2007, his offense was always more “good for a shortstop” than “good,” and in 2015 is was just “bad.” On top of that, the four-time Gold Glove winner was just adequate on defense. Basically, if a team is going to sign Rollins, it will be for a veteran presence on the bench; unfortunately, he does not provide any positional versatility, so he doesn’t really fit as a utility player. Some team will sign him, but they might regret it.

Possibly Worth Signing (Extenuating Circumstances)

There are five players who, based on their 2015 seasons, do not merit a free-agent contract, but who I believe might be worth signing due to extenuating circumstances. These players are:

Stephen Drew (0.4 WAR), Justin Morneau (0.4), Steve Pearce (-0.4), Cliff Pennington (0.2), and Chase Utley (0.4).

Drew is a tough one. He has been very good at times in his career, and he has been very bad at other times. (Come on back for more hard-hitting analysis — I’m here all week!) It’s just hard to give up on someone as talented as Drew. In the past two seasons, he has hit just .185/.257/.347 in 728 plate appearances. That is ugly, but if he could bump his batting average back up around the .264 career mark he had through 2013, the corresponding bumps in OBP and SLG would make for a pretty solid line for a middle infielder. Add .079 to both OBP and SLG, and you have a line of .264/.336/.426. Is it likely? Probably not. But even if he splits the difference, he could provide some value to a team on a reasonable contract. If he’s lousy again in 2016, though, it’s probably the end of the line; fool me three times, shame on me.

Morneau won the American League MVP Award in 2006 and finished second in 2008. He is not that same player, but he won the NL batting title and had a 125 OPS+ just last year. In 2015, he was decent when he played, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t continue to be a solid hitter if he stays healthy. But he will be 35 next season, and 35-year-olds with extensive injury histories are generally not the safest bets to stay healthy. It would be foolish for a team to sign Morneau to a big contract with the expectation that he will be the starting first baseman, but it seems like someone will find a place for a hitter as good as him.

Pearce is the toughest call of these five. Is he the journeyman who hit .238/.318/.377 (0.7 WAR total) in parts of seven seasons through age 30, or is he the guy who hit .293/.373/.556 with 21 homers and 5.9 WAR in just 383 plate appearances in 2014? He definitely took a step back in 2015, but it’s tough to tell how much of that was due to injury. Pearce is not a guy who will command a huge free-agent contract, so it’s worth a team taking a flyer on him to see if he can regain the magic at age 33.

Pennington will never be an All-Star, and the best he will ever do offensively is “just below average.” But he can play good defense all over the infield, which makes him valuable on its own. And before 2015, he had averaged about 2.1 WAR per season over the past five years. His 2015 season does not merit a contract, probably, but his overall body of work and the fact that he will only be 32 next year means that someone should find a place on their bench for the useful veteran.

Utley had a miserable 2014. He spent a lot of time on the disabled list and compiling a -0.5 WAR in 73 games for the Philadelphia Phillies. Then the Phillies traded him to the Los Angeles Dodgers, and while he was not vintage Chase Utley, he put up 0.9 WAR in his six weeks in Los Angeles. He also branched out defensively, putting in time at both first and third base; positional versatility gives him more value to a team looking for a utility player off the bench. Add in his veteran presence and attitude, and it’s not hard to see a team signing Utley for one year for his intangibles, if nothing else. That team will probably not be the New York Mets, though.

Probably Worth Signing on Merit

There are five infielders who, based on their play in 2015, are possibly worth signing to a free-agent contract. They are:

Asdrubal Cabrera (1.7 WAR), Howie Kendrick (1.1), Daniel Murphy (1.4), Mike Napoli (1.0), and Juan Uribe (1.7).

Cabrera is not great offensively, and he is not great defensively. But he is not bad on either side, and for a middle infielder he is actually a reasonably good hitter. He can play either middle-infield position and hit from either side of the plate, so he provides quite a bit of flexibility off the bench. He might not be the best choice as a starting infielder, but a team could do much worse. And if someone signs him to be a backup, he would fill in quite nicely in the event of an injury.

Kendrick should be a starting second baseman for some team next season. It might be the Dodgers — they are likely to make a qualifying offer, and while no one ever accepts QOs, it might actually make sense in his case. He is coming off a career-low WAR and his fewest games played since 2009, so a one-year deal to regain some value might make sense for him. On the other hand, he will be 33 by the end of next season, which might be too late to fully capitalize on the free-agent market. But when Kendrick is healthy, he is still an excellent hitter for a second baseman. He may never be an All-Star again, but he should provide solid value to some team next year.

Murphy’s Babe Ruth impression in the NLDS and NLCS had all the makings of some team overpaying for his services next season; unfortunately for him, his Brooks Conrad impression probably brought his free agent value back down about to where it belongs. Murphy is a solid-hitting, poor-fielding second baseman. He doesn’t get on base a ton, but he makes good contact and hits a lot of doubles. He generally isn’t a huge liability in the field, but he is definitely a liability.

Napoli is a hitter. Once upon a time he was a catcher, and then later he was a first baseman. He is still a good enough first baseman to get some time in the field in interleague play, but he is a designated hitter, really. He is a really good hitter, though. From 2008 to 2014, he hit .261/.359/.499, good for an OPS+ of 130. Even with his defensive issues, he put up a WAR of 21.9 in those seven seasons. He just turned 34 years old, so he should have a few years left in his bat. His 2015 was a down year, but he should be someone’s DH next season.

Finally, we have Uribe. Uribe is a streaky hitter, but he is still an excellent defensive third baseman. The Dodgers traded him when Justin Turner won the starting third base job, but everyone who has played with him has raved about him as a teammate. (If you want to learn how to love Uribe, read Molly Knight’s book “The Best Team Money Can Buy.”) It is commonly understood that Uribe has a future in coaching once his playing career is done, and he is a good enough player to serve as sort of a player/coach right now. He probably doesn’t have the bat to play every day, and at 37 years old next year, his 245-pound frame probably can’t handle the daily grind, anyway. But he can still play a great third base and provide a solid bat off the bench, and he can even fill in at other infield spots in a pinch. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Uribe sign somewhere he has played in the past, with the end-goal of transitioning into a coaching position when he is done playing.

Worth Signing

Finally, we’ve reached the (relative) cream of the (weak) crop. There are four infielders who, based on their performance in 2015 and their underlying skills, definitely deserve a free agent contract this offseason. They are (in order of WAR, worst to best):

Ben Zobrist (1.9 WAR), Ian Desmond (2.0), David Freese (2.3), and Chris Davis (5.2).

Zobrist’s WAR was the lowest he’s ever had in a full season. Not coincidentally, it is also the first time in his career as a regular that he had a negative defensive WAR. His 3.1 offensive WAR was lower than he usually posts, but still very good; it was the -1.3 dWAR that dragged his overall number down. Defensive numbers generally need a grain of salt, and that is even more true when we’re looking at just one season, and it is even more more true when we’re talking about a player who plays all over the field. Simply put, Zobrist is still an excellent hitter who walks almost as much as he strikes out, hits a lot of doubles, and has played every defensive position except pitcher and catcher. The only strike against him is his age: he will turn 35 early next season. But someone will sign Zobrist, and they won’t regret that decision — at least not in 2016.

Desmond had the worst offensive season of his career in 2015, which is a pretty poor strategy for a guy entering free agency. He strikes out too much and doesn’t walk enough, but he plays solid defense at shortstop and hit a lot of homers for a middle infielder. He just turned 30, so it is reasonable to assume that his poor 2015 was more a fluke than a steep decline from which he can’t recover. It is reasonably to expect 3.0-3.5 WAR per season for the next couple seasons, and his lousy season might keep his contract demands reasonable.

Freese became a postseason legend in 2011 and then had his best season in 2012 at age 29, and he looked like a star. He hasn’t lived up to those expectations the last few years, but he is still a solid offensive third baseman who can be an asset for a number of teams. He is not going to excite a fan base that is looking for a big splash in free agency, but a team looking for a solid third baseman could do a lot worse than David Freese.

Finally, we have Chris Davis. Davis will turn 30 during Spring Training, and he has led the big leagues in home runs two of the past three seasons. Of course, sandwiched between those two seasons was his .196/.300/.404 clunker of a line in 2014, good for a 96 OPS+ and 1.8 WAR. Davis strikes out a lot, including a career-high 208 Ks in 2015. (The late, great Yogi Berra had won three MVPs and received MVP votes in seven other seasons before he recorded his 208th career strikeout.) Davis is best suited for designated hitter, but he is passable at first base and even played a bit of right field this year. It’s a scary proposition to sign a guy who has had such notable struggles, but the upside is there, especially for a team looking for a DH.

So there you have it. If you are hoping your team makes a big splash in free agency, don’t look for it to happen in the infield. I’ll be back soon with a similar preview on the overall state of the free-agent markets for starting pitchers, relief pitchers, catchers, and outfielders.

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