Thursday, November 04, 2004

Position by Position: the 2005 Free Agent Market


Moving on left in the defensive spectrum, we’ll analyze the shortstop free agent class now.

At first glance, the shortstops look extremely weak, and any team looking to fill a gaping hole will need to shell out some serious dollars to land one of the top 3 prized shortstops.

In reality, however, the shortstop group is extraordinarily deep, with the 2nd-tier players having exceptional glovework, more than making up for their offensive ineptitude.

1. Nomar Garciaparra, age 31 in 2005 – Clearly the best of his class, Garciaparra turned down a 4-year, 48-million dollar contract extension from the Red Sox last winter, and the Red Sox are sure glad he did. Five or six years ago, Garciaparra had tremendous potential, and could have developed into one of the game’s top 3 shortstops ever. At age 23 he hit 30 HRs, at age 24 he hit 35 HRs. Then, at ages 25 and 26 he took aim at the batting titles, hitting .357 and .372 respectively. And from ages 23 to 26, his OBP increased each year: .342, .362, .418, .434. Garciaparra was a master of the strike zone at age 26, taking 61 walks while only striking out 50 times. And then all of a sudden, Nomar hurt his wrist, and just as fast as his numbers peaked, they soon started declining.

While Nomar has the ability to work counts, as pitchers respect his power, he’s become a contact-first hitter, as evidenced by his low walk and strikeout totals. Because he swings early in the count, or is unwilling to take a walk, Garciaparra limits his on-base abilities, and must rely on a high batting average and slugging percentage to generate performance. The major problem with this approach is that as Garciaparra ages, it will be extremely likely that his batting average will slowly fall as will his power – just like most aging players. However, most power hitters, as they age, tend to draw more walks – not because their eye has gotten better, but because pitchers don’t throw as many strikes, and the hitters have the option of not swinging at balls outside of the zone. A few examples of this phenomenon are players like Sammy Sosa or Carlos Beltran – players who adjusted their approach at the plate to take more walks after they became feared by pitchers. Garciaparra, however, is more like Garrett Anderson – although he’s experienced a power spike, the resulting walk spike doesn’t go along with it – and as he gets older, both his average and power will drop, and they won’t be offset by a high OBP.

That being said, Garciaparra is still a very good hitter. Once a slightly above-average fielder, his range has declined – in part because of his Achilles injury – and now he’s around average. Four seasons with a .300/.360/.480 is about what you’d expect in a neutral ballpark for Garciaparra, and for a shortstop, that’s pretty awesome. And with that, you’d expect a 4-year, 45-million dollar contract. Still, I wonder what could have been had Nomar not missed almost all of his age 27 season because of that wrist injury.

2. Edgar Renteria, age 29 in 2005 – Solid defensively and extremely durable, Renteria is two years younger than Nomar, but unspectacular with the bat. Good doubles power and a couple home runs, Renteria makes a good 6 or 7 hitter on most teams. Not good enough to bat leadoff on most teams because of his low OBP and cruddy stealing percentage, you could make a case for Renteria as a top 5 shortstop. He deserves perhaps 4-5 million dollars a year, but will probably garner upwards of 7-8 million dollars in a multi-year deal. His true talent level for the next few years lies around .290/.335/.420.

3. Orlando Cabrera, age 30 in 2005 – A poor-man’s Renteria. Cabrera possesses about the same power, but hits for a lot less average, with the same unspectacular ability to take a walk. Cabrera’s defense is marginally better, as he’s a stud going back on pop-ups, but a back injury raises question marks about his durability in the future. He could make 5-6 million dollars a year as some team will look to sign him to a 3-year contract, but he’ll probably only hit .270/.320/.410 over the next few years in a neutral ballpark.

4. Jose Hernandez, age 35 in 2005 – A great short-term stopgap for many teams, Hernandez is coming off a career year as a Dodger’s utilityman, hitting .289/.370/.540 in 211 ABs. Another above-average defender, right up there with Renteria and Cabrera, Hernandez is a viable option for the Red Sox, who are looking for a shortstop to fill-in for 1 to 2 years before Hanley Ramirez Hernandez’s strikeouts aren’t that big of a deal in the big picture - a one-year contract for 1-1.5 million would be a good bargain for a solid defensive shortstop whose true talent level lies around .260/.320/.440.

5. Omar Vizquel, age 38 in 2005 – Still a good defensive shortstop, Omar can still get on base, and has all right speed. A cheap, quick 1-2 year plug-in at the leadoff spot, Vizquel is also in the running to take over Boston’s shortstop job. He’ll get 2-3 million dollars a year for 2 years and will post numbers around .280/.340/.390.

Rounding out the rest of the group are two aging veterans who can play excellent defense. Jose Valentin (35) and Mike Bordick (38) were ranked as the best and second-best defensive shortstops respectively coming into the 2004 season. Valentin saved upwards of 26 runs a game with his glove while Bordick saved 18. Their hitting is terrible, however, and both might be better served as backup infielders. Also on the list of free agent shortstops are Barry Larkin, Cristian Guzman (sucks), Jose Vizcaino, Ramon Martinez, Deivi Cruz, Desi Relaford, Craig Counsell, and our favorite, Neifi Perez (who looks to be re-signing with the Cubs).

A Fit With the Royals?: Angel Berroa is locked up for the next 3 years, so we’re stuck with him. The only fit for any shortstop on the team would be one as a utilityman.

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