Saturday, November 1, 2014

Free Agent Review: Second Base

The Nationals officially declined the option for 2015 on Adam Laroche this week, which means they are set in moving Ryan Zimmerman to first base. That leaves a hole on the infield that Mike Rizzo will be looking to fill this offseason via free agency or trade, and that decision hinges on where Rendon will play in 2015. If that Nationals choose to move Rendon back to second base in 2015, there are several quality free agents at the hot corner the Nationals could pursue, including World Series champ Pablo Sandoval and the resurgent Chase Headley. The downside to this option is two-fold. First, none of the quality third base options will come on a cheap or short term contract. For an ownership group that has dropped the phrase “topped out” in regards to payroll, this may not be a real option. Secondly, moving Rendon back to the keystone position could be risky. He has a long history of injuries. In fact, the only reason he fell to the Nationals in the draft in the first place was due to an injury in college that limited him to DH duties. Second base is notoriously tougher on players’ bodies, especially the knees and ankles. Moving Rendon to third would likely prolong his career.

The simplest move for the Nationals this offseason, then, would be to keep Rendon at third and find a replacement at second. Danny Espinosa is still on the roster and has a cheap contract. For all his struggles from the left side of the plate, he is a great defender and a quality right handed hitter. The Nationals could look to sign a new, full time second baseman and keep Espinosa around as a utility/defense guy. As teams are ever quicker to lock up their young stars early, the quality free agent pool shrinks each year and is filled with players mostly past their prime. The other option would be to find a platoon partner for Espinosa, someone who offers quality defense and more pop against right handed hitters. Here are Espinosa’s career splits, via Fangraphs:

vs L
vs R

Against left handed pitchers, Espinosa puts up a career wRC+ of 121, meaning he is 21% above average from the right side of the plate. He walks more, strikes out significantly less, and has more pop as a right handed hitter. If he only faced left handed pitchers, Espinosa would be an all-star. With that in mind, I scanned through Fangraph’s crowd sourced contract estimates of the top 55 free agents this offseason for possible second base targets. Keep in mind that historically, these crowd sourced contract numbers underestimate the actual contracts received, but it makes for a good proxy.

Asdrubal Cabrera

The Nationals’ late season pickup from the Indians is only 28 years old, making him the youngest of the free agents we will look at. He is a switch hitter who converted from shortstop to second base after coming over to the Nationals. Fangraphs pegs him to get a 3 year, $33 million contract. Cabrera is known to have some pop, although is ISO numbers have been on the decline and he dropped under .150 in 2014. He only put up a .241 average in 2014. His average was dragged down by a BABIP of .272, well below his career rate of a .300 BABIP. He had a solid walk rate of 8% and strike out rate of 17.5%. The advanced metrics have never liked his defense, but that was while playing the more challenging shortstop position. Small sample size caveat aside, neither DRS or UZR liked his defense at second base. On the basepaths, Cabrera has good speed and is an above average to good baserunner. His career numbers hitting right handed versus hitting left handed are about even, but over the last 2 years, he has fared better versus left handed pitchers. His 2015 Steamer projection pegs him for some improvement as it regresses his BABIP up to .295 resulting in a triple slash of .258/.321/.402. Cabrera would be a safe choice, as you pretty much know what you are going to get out of him. His equal results batting left handed versus right handed wouldn’t make him a great platoon partner for Espinosa.

Jed Lowrie

Lowrie is another shortstop free agent who the Nats could look to convert to second. He is a 30 year old (will be 31 at the start of the 2015 season) switch hitter who Fangraphs estimates will earn a 3 year, $30 million contract. He is coming off of a mildly disappointing 2014 season with the A’s. Lowrie, like most Billy Beane pickups, is a power and on base hitter. He hit only .249 in 2014, but had an OBP of .321. His power was down with only 6 home runs and an ISO of .106. His HR/FB ratio was a measly 3.2% when he has put up a career rate of 6.4%. Part of that can be attributed to playing in the cavernous Coliseum, but his general power numbers have been trending down. He is basically a non-factor on the basepaths, with zero stolen bases in 2014. For his career, he is a better right handed hitter with a wRC+ of 113 versus lefties compared to a wRC+ of 98 versus righties. Looking at his Steamer 600 projections (the same Steamer projections, but prorated out to 600 at bats to eliminate any playing time assumptions), he’s pegged for a higher average, another stellar OBP, and a resurgence in power. Signing Lowrie would be a bet that his drop in power numbers of late is only a blip and that he will bounce back in 2015. He would be a little cheaper than Cabrera, but he is also older so there’s a better chance you are picking him up for his declining years.

Rickie Weeks

The former Brewer, Weeks is a right handed, natural second baseman who is 32 years old and is projected to get only a 2 year deal at $12 million. Weeks is a guy who relies on his power for his value, but that has gone missing for him recently. He put up surprisingly good numbers in 2014, mostly due to a BABIP of .355 which is a full 50 points higher than his career average. He also received only limited playing time as he lost his full time gig to Scooter Gennett during the year. His defense is so bad that the Brewers tried to move him to the outfield, but he straight up refused to do so. For a power hitter, Weeks’ FB% is dropping and his GB% is rising, meaning he is hitting fewer balls in the air and giving himself less opportunities to hit for power. For his career, he is a much better hitter versus left handed pitchers (wRC+ of 128 versus 101). At this point in his career, he seems like a bench type of player and, given his lack of success against right handed hitting, we can eliminate him as a platoon partner for Espinosa.

Stephen Drew

Drew has had an interesting career. He got a qualifying offer from the Red Sox after a solid 2013 season, but turned it down. He sat in limbo for what felt like an eternity, until getting resigned by the Red Sox mid-season, only to be traded over to the Yankees. After missing spring training and the start of the season, Drew really struggled at the plate. As a result, he should come pretty cheaply in 2015 with Fangraphs estimating a 1 year, $7 million contract. He is a left handed hitter and has hit well against right handers his whole career. While he has been primarily a shortstop, the Yankees did move him over to second to let Jeter finish out his swan song season at shortstop. Steamer 600 projects another down year batting average wise, but solid walk rates and power that would result in a .221/.297/.364 year. Drew would be a wild card for the Nationals. If he can regain his 2013 form at the plate, he would make a great platoon partner for Espinosa. Plus he can probably come cheap on a one or two year deal.

Ben Zobrist

Unlike the rest of the players we have reviewed, Zobrist will not be a free agent. The Rays held an option for his 2015 season that they just recently exercised, so he will have to come via trade. The Rays are in a strange position this offseason, having traded away their ace David Price during the year and losing their GM and manager before the off season really began. If the new front office in Tampa decides it’s time to rebuild, Zobrist could be available as a one year rental. He is 33 years old and a switch hitter who has played practically every position defensively. He has experience at second and the advanced metrics like him there. That versatility could be a plus for the Nationals as he could play second base and also fill in at third or in the outfield should any injuries come up. He has been a model of consistency offensively as a guy with a high walk rate and a strike out rate that is actually decreasing. His power numbers have bounced around like crazy, though. Tropicana Field is not a great hitter’s park, but his HR/FB rate has gone from 12% in 2011-2012 to 6% in 2013-2014. His splits show him to be a better hitter over his career versus left handed pitchers than right handed pitchers, although the split is not that large. His Steamer projection gives him a .262/.349/.400 year where he sees his power numbers jump back up.

Who’s it going to be?

If I were in Mike Rizzo’s shoes, I’m resigning Cabrera. The Nationals are in the middle of their window of opportunity and should be in win now mode. Cabrera is the safe bet and seemed to be a good fit in the clubhouse at the end of 2014. The downside is Cabrera is going to demand a three year deal. The Nationals have a promising prospect in the minors in Wilmer Difo who is likely to be in double-A in 2015 who could be blocked by Cabrera on the tail end of his contract. If you want to take a risk, Drew is the lottery ticket. He will come cheap due to his terrible 2014, but he can platoon with Espinosa against right handed pitchers which should put him in a better position to succeed. If Drew can’t pull it together, though, you are stuck with a full season of Espinosa. Zobrist is probably the best bet, but is going to cost some prospects and the Nationals may not be able to wait out the Rays as they decide how to approach next year.

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