Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Interesting 2011 Free Agents, Part 1 - Infielders

You can read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of my series on non-tendered players by clicking the links. Below, I'll profile a few regular free agents that I think would help out the Mets this year.

Seeing as the Mets are, for all intents and purposes, out of contention this year already, they should focus on acquiring younger players who for whatever reason may be entering this off-season as undervalued. The Mets should sweep up as many of these players as possible, and hope they find some success and a niche on the existing roster around our existing stars. We're not looking for a third baseman or shortstop. But we are looking for a second baseman, or a strong right-handed platoon partner or pinch-hitter to play behind Davis.

My favorites from this group include Casey Kotchman, Bill Hall, and Andy LaRoche.

The player's salary from last season is in parentheses next to their names. All information on salaries is courtesy of the invaluable Cot's Contracts.

1B Garrett Atkins (4.5M)
Last year we advocated against picking up Garrett Atkins, and were proven correct as he tanked on a big contract, hitting .214/.276/.286 and playing negative defense. However, Atkins can play 1B and 3B, and posted an OPS of 780 as recently as 2008. He also has an interesting platoon split in his batting based on the position on the field he plays - one which continued last season (albeit small sample size).

Verdict: Would be an excellent minor league contract offer candidate - if he makes the team, backing up at 1B/3B. Unfortunately, despite his right-handedness, he has a reverse platoon split.

1B Willy Aybar (2.6M) (We covered Aybar in a non-tender article)

1B Russell Branyan (2M)
We figured that 2009's second-half swoon for Russell Branyan would keep his value as a free agent down, and it did, as he earned only $2 million despite 31 home runs and an 867 OPS. He returned to earth somewhat but was still pretty good last season, hitting 25 home runs and posting an OPS of 810 between Seattle and Cleveland. According to fangraphs, Branyan has been worth over $20 million to his teams over the last two seasons. Although he hasn't been an atrocious fielder in limited playing time, Branyan is probably tethered to the American League. Even if he weren't, he would not be a fit for a team in the Mets' position, despite being undervalued.

Verdict: Would love to capitalize on the fact he appears to be undervalued, but there doesn't seem to be a spot for him on the Mets unless he is a much better fielder than we realize. If he could play a competent corner outfield, he would be a good complement to Lucas Duda for a spot on the Mets bench.

1B Casey Kotchman (3.51M)
Kotchman is just one of those players that I ALWAYS expect to have a breakout year. He had a promising 2007, followed it up with a lukewarmly encouraging 2008, before cratering in 2009. The 2010 season looked better for Casey early on, but he just cratered in May and June. For the season, his BABIP was .229.


That number is third-worst among all batters in the majors with at least 450 at bats last season. To be fair, of course, Kotchman's career BABIP is pretty low - only .268. This is because (without any fact-checking or independent research of my own) I expect that BABIP is more of a skill for hitters than people would imagine. For a left-handed hitter, who puts the ball on the ground a lot, and who is slow -- your BABIP is going to stink.

But even in that context, .229 is almost impossibly low. Dan Szymborski recently commented that .210-.230 are the lowest BABIP numbers that we typically see, and those are by weak-hitting pitchers. But when the offense-starved Mariners release you, you know you're pretty bad.

Despite being lefthanded, I'd be interested in taking a flyer on Kotchman. He has graded out as an excellent first baseman over his career (+8.8 UZR/150) and I'd love to have him as a pinch-hitter or an option in Triple-A, where I predict he'd do well.

Verdict: Less valuable than Branyan with the bat and also lefthanded, Kotchman would be hard pressed to find playing time on the Mets with Ike Davis entrenched at first. However, I'd be interested because he may be available on a minor league contract, unlike Branyan.

2B Ronnie Belliard (0.8M) and 2B David Eckstein (1M)
The tongue thing must really weird everyone out, because Ronnie Belliard can't hold a job despite having an OPS+ of 103 over the last four seasons (even including last year's clunker). For his career, he's a -1.3 UZR/150 at second base and would not be a bad option to bring in to challenge for that position.

On the exact opposite end of the spectrum we have Eckstein, who constantly gets paid despite having less value to his teams over the last four years than Belliard. Last season was actually Eckstein's best since 2005, as his career-best defense pushed him to 2 WAR according to fangraphs. Eckstein only started playing second base in 2008, and has made marked improvements each year. If his defensive improvement is for real, he'd be a huge upgrade over our in-house options despite hitting .267/.321/.326 last season.

Verdict: Belliard is older than I realized, so a pass on him. As for Eckstein, if the scouts/videotape agree with the fangraphs assessment of his excellent defense, Eckstein might be the perfect player to pair with Daniel Murphy or Brad Emaus at second base for the Mets while Ruben Tejada begins in Triple-A.

2B Mark Grudzielanek (.6M)
Slugged .273 -- toast.

2B Cristian Guzman (8M)
Can't field, never walks -- pass.

2B Felipe Lopez (1M)
Lopez is another guy we advocated the Mets grabbing last season. It turns out, the Mets were wise to avoid the advice -- Lopez hit .233/.311/.345. He was still worth positive WAR last season, just barely, but this was on the heels of a year where he put up an 810 OPS and was worth over $17 million as per fangraphs. For whatever reason, Lopez hit only .190 after the break, after putting up a first half which was mostly in line with his career. Was he hurt?

Verdict: Depends entirely on the reason for his second half swoon. If he's healthy and obtainable on a contract of less than a million dollars, I'd be comfortable making that move despite the Mets glut of second base options.

2B Orlando Hudson (5M)
If you are a Mets fan and you don't know who Orlando Hudson is by now, don't bother.

SS Bobby Crosby (1M)
Crosby is another guy I always wanted to see succeed. Unfortunately, he's struggled with injuries his whole career. I appears his days of playing adequate shortstop are over, but Crosby has slotted in (very) briefly at 1B, 2B, and 3B with good success in a limited sample size. I'd be interested in bringing in Crosby on a minor league deal to see if he can a) stay healthy and b) convert himself into a utility man.

Verdict: It's unlikely that Crosby will have any value to the Mets this year, but if he can be stashed in the minors, he may be worth a look.

3B Edwin Encarnacion (4.75M) (we covered Encarnacion in a non-tender article)

3B Josh Fields (.42M) (we covered Fields in a non-tender article)

3B Bill Hall (8.4M)
If there was a worse contract than Bill Hall's contract in the last decade, I would love to see it. At the time Hall was extended, he was not yet a free agent, but had put up two very good years in a row, cracking 52 home runs over 1038 at bats and posting a 869 OPS. But from what I remember at the time, nobody saw Hall as an elite player. He struck out 162 times in 2006, and was a good but not great fielder. A good player to have, but not the kind of guy you give $15.2 million in his first two free agent years when they were still two years away.

In any event, fast forward to today and Hall has already 1) crashed and burned by putting up wOBA's of .317, .297 and .261 in his next three seasons before 2) resurrecting his career by rebounding to a .342 wOBA. For reference, wOBA is weighted generally like OBP - a mark above .330 is considered average.

Hall still strikes out at an alarming rate, but he stroked 18 home runs last year for the Red Sox, had an 772 OPS, and accounted for 1 Win Above Replacement. Additionally, Hall played 2B, 3B, SS, and every OF position last season, to varying degrees of success (good infielder, bad outfielder). He has a slight platoon split where he is more successful against lefties than he is righties.

Verdict: Hall would make for a good fit as a super-utility player, provided he isn't offered the opportunity to play somewhere every day (as he may be in Los Angeles). If Hall doesn't get an offer like that, he'd definitely be worth $1-$2 million guaranteed to super-sub.

3B Andy LaRoche (.45M)
What ever happened to Andy LaRoche? Fangraphs has a great write-up here of LaRoche and his fall from prospectdom following his trade to Pittsburgh: mostly his lack of power and terminally low BABIP. His defense has proven to be above average at third, but overall, LaRoche has been worth only 1.2 WAR over his four major league seasons.

LaRoche had an OPS north of 900 in each of his last three minor league stops, but that was 2007 -- his line from the last two seasons in the Show has only been .241/.311/.364. Is there room on the Mets for a good-glove post-hype sleeper prospect? He'll be 27 this year, so it's make or break time for the younger LaRoche.

Verdict: If he can be had on a minor league deal, I would love to sign him. A hand injury sapped his power when he was first breaking into the major leagues, so there is no knowing if he altered his swing or has another kind of ailment which prevented him from reaching his potential. He certainly wasn't helped by being buried on the bench for the Pirates last year. LaRoche needs at least two or three months in Triple-A to see if he'll ever regain his promise.

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