Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Free Agent Options - Middle Infield

Let's recap the last few weeks worth of articles.

  1. The Cardinals have - by my back of the envelope calculations - approximately $21 million to spend on free agents this off-season.
  2. They need to sign starters at 2nd base and shortstop.
  3. A starting pitcher is needed to go with the current rotation.
  4. Four bench slots need to be filled.

Obviously, there are a lot of assumptions going into those statements. If you want the background behind them....well, read all of my articles since the end of the World Series.

The Cardinals can fill these holes by various means. Calling up prospects is one method, which we talked about last week. That leaves two other options - free agency and trades. I'll discuss players being bandied about in trade talks another time. For now, let's take a look at the free agents available for the Cardinals to use to address their needs. And rather than looking into every open slot from a free agent perspective, let's focus on 2nd base, shortstop, and a starting pitcher. Today, we'll just deal with position players.

Second Base

This is a position in which the Cardinals got a decent amount of production for very little money in 2004. I suspect that the amount of money they spend at this position in the 2005 season will have a lot to do with who they can sign to play shortstop. Here are a few of the players that are available this off-season that the Cardinals could look at to address 2nd base.

Jeff Kent

Kent made $10 million last year for the Houston Astros, posting a 124 OPS+, 23 win shares, and 7 win shares above average. Based on win shares and WSAA, Kent was behind only Mark Loretta in the majors among all 2nd basemen. And oddly enough, he had more defensive win shares at the position than anyone else in the NL. In fact, his 7.4 defensive win shares made him more valuable with the glove than either Rolen or Edmonds. Which makes me wonder if there is an error with his calculation. I mean - come on! How many ground balls up the middle did the Cardinals have in the NLCS that should have been outs, but were instead singles? But I digress.

Kent turns 37 in March, and has spoken of retirement in recent years. While I wouldn't mind him becoming a member of the Cardinals, the only way it would happen would be if he were willing to play for about half of his 2004 salary. And regardless of what The Hardball Times says about his defense, the Cardinals would have to have a defensive replacement available for him. I'll say Kent is a long shot, and not really a good fit for the team.

Placido Polanco

Mr. Polanco has played some solid baseball since being traded to the Phillies in the Scott Rolen trade back in 2002. In 2004, he posted a 101 OPS+ with 17 win shares, 2 WSAA. He made $3.95 million last year, and will turn 30 in October.

Personally, I think Polanco would be a great signing for the Cardinals for many reasons. He is a great defensive player at 2nd, short, and 3rd base. His offense over the last two years has been very solid - in fact he's been better with the Phillies than he was with the Cardinals. And what's more, Polanco and Pujols were good friends when they were teammates back in the day. You have to think that he is still close with the big guy.

In my opinion, the Cardinals should be focusing a lot of effort on signing Polanco as we speak. In bringing him back to St. Louis, the Cardinals would have more flexibility in addressing their team needs as he could be counted on as the opening day starter at either middle infield position. What's more, he would provide an offensive upgrade over the 2004 production of either Renteria or Womack, and would further provide a defensive upgrade if he were to end up starting at 2nd base. What would it cost to bring in Polanco? I'm not at all certain. I would like to think, however, that he would garner something in the neighborhood of $5 million per season.

Todd Walker

A more cost effective option at 2nd base could be in Todd Walker, who made $1.75 million for the Cubs last season. On the year he posted a 105 OPS+ with 14 win shares, 3 WSAA. He'll turn 32 in May.

Walker, a left handed bat, was supposedly given up on by the Cubs in order to address defense at 2nd base. Walker's defense, however, is very similar to that the Cardinals received from Tony Womack last season. (Which is interesting, since rumors have the Cubs interested in Womack - go figure). And Walker, unlike Womack, has a history of getting on base, having a career OBP of .347.

If the Cardinals are able to bring back Edgar Renteria, signing someone like Todd Walker would likely be a great move. He should be affordable, and would give the team an upgrade at the position.

Mark Bellhorn

This guy got plenty of publicity during the playoffs, and for good reason. Interestingly enough, he's a free agent this off-season. In 2004, Bellhorn posted a 107 OPS+ with 21 wins shares, 5 WSAA. His 21 win shares made him the best 2nd baseman in the AL, 3rd best in the majors. Bellhorn, a switch hitter, made just $490,000 last season, and will turn 31 in August.

Boston gave Bellhorn a chance to play every day in 2004, which no team would do during the 2003 season - and it paid off. Theo Epstien was willing to look past the large number of strikeouts and accept the good OBP and above average power that Bellhorn brings to the table. His defense this year was average at worst.

If you look at Bellhorn and Walker, you'll see essentially the same player. The biggest difference, of course, is that Bellhorn got a lot of spotlight time in October this year. I suspect that Bellhorn will get a decent payday this off-season, whereas Walker likely won't. It's unlikely the Cardinals will be in the market for Bellhorn.

Shortstop

Orlando Cabrera

Cabrera is another player who is looking at cashing in after playing for a World Series winner. In 2004, he split regular season time between the Expos and the Red Sox, posting a 79 OPS+ with 12 win shares, and -6 WSAA. In other words, in his playing time he created 6 fewer win shares than an average shortstop. He made $6 million last year, and just turned 30 this month.

Cabrera's career high for OPS+ was 97, which he did in the 1998 season. In fact, he's only posted an OPS+ in the 90's twice in his 8 season career. Cabrera's career OBP is .316. Tony Womack's, for a comparison, is .319. His perceived value is deemed to be his glove more so than his bat, and he did in fact win a gold glove in 2001.

Some rumors have the Cardinals interested in Cabrera as a low cost alternative to Edgar Renteria. I'm not convinced, however, that he's low cost enough to make him a worthwhile signing. As far as I'm concerned, Polanco would be a better signing at shortstop.

Nomar Garciaparra

As Orlando Cabrera was joining the Red Sox, Nomar Garciaparra was leaving. Splitting time with the Red Sox and Cubs, the two time batting champion posted a 112 OPS+ this season with 11 total win shares, 2 WSAA. Nomar will turn 32 in July, and made $11.5 million last season.

Nomar was a complete monster during the 1999 and 2000 seasons, posting OPS' over 1000 out of the shortstop position. Ted Williams was so impressed that he stated that Nomar was going to be the next player to hit .400 in a season. Then Nomar only played 21 games in 2001, and has never been the same.

And while his offense has been trending down, his defense is in question as well. In fact, the moves the Red Sox made at the trade deadline were all intended to improve defense, which included the dumping of Nomar and the acquisition of Cabrera. After July 31st, the Red Sox saw their unearned runs allowed plummet, while the Cubs' skyrocketed.

Nomar is likely looking for a one year deal in which to prove himself. And supposedly, he would like for his chance to take place on the West Coast. The Cardinals probably are not going to be a good fit for Nomar this season for multiple reasons. One, barring a major earthquake St. Louis is not on a coast. Two, the Cardinals don't need a one year solution at this position. But if the market for shortstops dries up and Nomar is looking for a home, St. Louis could end up with a 1 year bargain with a large upside.

Jose Valentin

Valentin had an off season in 2004, posting an OPS+ of 88 with 14 win shares, 1 WSAA. He did, however, hit 30 home runs over just 125 games played. Not bad for a shortstop. Valentin, just turned 35, made $5 million last year.

For the first time, Valentin was made into a full time left handed batter rather than switch hitting - which was a good move. As a right handed batter in 2002 and 2003, he only posted a 410 OPS. This season, against left handed pitchers, he had a 666 OPS. With the glove, Valentin has always been underrated. He tends to make a lot of errors, but at the same time he has great range.

The biggest concern with Valentin is his declining hitting numbers, as his OPS+ has now declined 4 consecutive years. What's more, giving a regular lineup spot to a player who posted an OBP under .300 in 2004 would make me nervous. But if the Cardinals were to sign a solid player at 2nd and were able to sign Valentin cheap, he could provide a solid glove with some serious pop out of the bottom of the lineup.

Conclusions

This year there are several options available in the middle infield for Walt to consider. The Cardinals say - and I have no reason to doubt them - that Edgar Renteria is the #1 target this off-season. Of course, supposedly the Red Sox and Cubs are also interested in Edgar, which doesn't bode well. Those teams do, of course, have a little more cash to work with than the Cardinals do.

If the Cardinals are able to sign Renteria, it will likely cost them somewhere in the $8 to $10 million per season range. Can the Cardinals afford to pay him that much at the same time they shell out big bucks to Pujols, Rolen, and Edmonds? I'm not certain. Especially when you factor in their desire to bring in an "ace" starting pitcher this off-season. If they do in fact bring back Renteria, you will likely see someone like Bo Hart, or another re-tread like Womack in 2004 starting at 2nd base next year. Someone that is cheap and that management hopes can not hurt the team.

If it were up to me? I'd be attempting to lock up Placido Polanco and Todd Walker. I think it's extremely likely that the pair of them could be had for less than what it's going to cost to get Renteria alone. On top of that, I think it's possible that Polanco and Walker could both hit better than Renteria in 2005 anyway, with Polanco's glove not much of a downgrade from Edgar. If the market were to dry up on Renteria after those signings, he could still be brought in, with Walker relegated to a utility role and Polanco being made the starter at 2nd.

The other great part of signing Polanco and Walker is the extra flexibility it would afford Walt to address the other needs of the team. If Polanco would sign for $5 million a year and Walker $2 million, that would leave the Cardinals roughly $14 million of payroll to lock up a starting pitcher, as well as 4 more bench players. That should be more than enough room to work with. As a result of my theoretical free agent signings, the Cardinals lineup would look something like this next year (with 2004 statistics listed).

1. Polanco (SS) .298/.345/.441

2. Walker (RF) .280/.393/.560

3. Pujols (1B) .331/.415/.657

4. Rolen (3B) .314/.409/.598

5. Edmonds (CF) .301/.418/.643

6. Sanders (LF) .260/.315/.482

7. Walker (2B) .274/.352/.468

8. Molina (C) .267/.329/.356

That lineup would be an upgrade over 2004, with Walker, Polanco, and Molina providing more offense than Womack, Renteria, and Matheny. Additionally, it would be a similar team from a defensive standpoint and would not tie up a large portion of the team's payroll with just 4 players.


3 Comments:

At 3:16 PM, Blogger Will said...

As you go through this, it would be interesting to see some potential players acquired via trades. David Eckstein has popped up in a couple of different forums as a possible SS to acquire, particularly if Anaheim wants Nomar. I'd like us to try to keep a strong middle-infield defense, even if the bat has to be sacrificed. It will help us get mileage out of our GB pitchers.

 
At 3:44 PM, Blogger Robb said...

Hello Will,

I will probably cover players that could be had via trade next week. I've been dragging my feet, since the market is hard to read this early in the season.

As far as middle infielders go - there are so many shortstops available on the FA market that it's hard to imagine the Cardinals getting one via trade, unless he was a throw-in for a pitcher. Other than the guys I listed there is Barry Larkin, Rich Aurilia, Jose Hernandez, Craig Counsel, Royce Clayton - and some other guys not coming to mind.

As far as the Angels and Nomar - I've read speculation that the trade the Angels made last week to "dump" Jose Guillen was actually a move to get Maicer Izturis and insert him at shortstop and move Eckstien to 2nd, thus not even needing Garciaparra. We'll see....

 
At 3:46 PM, Blogger Robb said...

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