The D-backs 2012 Roster: The Infield Conundrum

My previous post on this topic - the outlook of the D-backs 2012 roster - attempted to provide a broad overview of the holes that need to be addressed for the D-backs this upcoming off-season so that we can attempt to remain as competitive in 2012 as we have been in 2011. Perhaps surprisingly, that post revealed an overall lack of major holes on the club, with most of the major contributors currently on the roster locked up in one way or another through the 2012 season. The lone glaring exception to this rule is the pending free agency of second baseman Kelly Johnson, and the roster ramifications of KJ's possible impending departure. So, in this follow-up post, I've decided to take a look at the hole left by KJ, the complicating factors presented by the status of other players currently on the roster, and, hopefully, all of the possible ways that GM Kevin Towers might consider filling the hole left by Johnson on the roster.

NOTE: All statistics correct through games of July 31 or August 1 (sorry, this took me through the day's games to write).

First, let's take a look at at what kind of production the D-backs would be losing with the departure of Kelly Johnson, looking to see if a reunion between Johnson and the club is a reasonable possibility. When I first looked at KJ's two years in Sedona Red, one thing stood out: his BABIP fluctuations in 2010 and 2011 have been basically mirror-images of one another. In 2010, KJ posted an undoubtedly-inflated .339 BABIP in 671 plate appearances, a sure sign that regression was in the works in 2011. However, Kelly's grand luck from a year ago turned sour in 2011, as a .269 BABIP has weighed down Kelly's otherwise-solid numbers in his sophomore season with the Snakes.

Although Kelly's walk rate has dipped and strikeout rate has risen compared to 2010, his ISO has remained almost completely stable, rising just two points from .212 in 2010 to .214 in 2011. Honestly, there isn't nearly as much of a difference between 2010 KJ and 2011 KJ as many might think. Since KJ probably won't perform up to 2010 standards going forward, but will probably perform above 2011 standards going forward, I did the obvious thing and simply combined the nearly two seasons' worth of batting lines. Between 2010 and 2011, Johnson combined to post a .259/.343/.472 line in 1091 plate appearance, notching 43 home runs and posting a K:BB of 262:119, all with a fairly reasonable .313 BABIP. Chase Field is undoubtedly partially responsible for that .815 OPS, but KJ's end line results in a very impressive combined park-adjusted 117 OPS+ over the last two seasons.

Even though Kelly went through some epic struggles earlier in 2010, he's still notched 1.8 fWAR through 98 games, a pace of about 3 fWAR over the course of a full season of about 150-155 games, while assuming that he continues his deflated pace for the remainder of the year. Since even that .313 BABIP is a tad inflated, I think it's reasonable to simply project Kelly 2011 production out for a full season and average it out with his 2010 production to gain some sort of idea of what kind of player Kelly Johnson really is. The result is certainly impressive: averaging the approximately 6 fWAR KJ notched in 2010 with the 3 fWAR estimate for 2011 gives us a very rough estimate of 4.5 fWAR. That's one heck of a ballplayer.

Another consideration needs to be made: Kelly's age. These two years with the D-backs have been Kelly's prime seasons, ages 28-29. I don't think the "standard" -0.5 WAR per year after 30 aging scale is particularly useful (I think it's too aggressive of a decline, particularly in the early-30's), but I certainly would agree that KJ won't remain a 4.5-fWAR player through the course of, say, a five-year contract. I would expect Kelly to be paid like a 4-win player over the life of a four-year deal, something in the four-years, $60-70MM range or five-years, $75-85MM range.

Think that's absurd for Kelly? Perhaps it is, it is a very rough estimate based more on feel and a guess of expected value than on deep research into contract value for market comps. However, may I remind you that Jayson Werthgot a seven-year, $126MM contract after putting up three straight five-fWAR years for the Phillies? I think someone who has demonstrated himself to be about a 4.5-win player in two straight seasons could get a deal for at least half of the money that Werth got, despite the rarity of a second baseman getting that much coin in free agency. $15MM per season for Kelly Johnson is a reasonable market value, even in a contract that ends at age 35.

 

This brings us to the first, and most obvious, option for Arizona's middle infield hole: retain Kelly Johnson. If Arizona is going to lock up Kelly, the terms are, in my eyes, going to have to be heavily tilted towards the lower end of that contract spectrum, perhaps even to the point of being a significant hometown discount. Would Kelly take $10MM per year for three or four years? If so, that's the type of contract that Arizona would have to absolutely pounce on in my opinion - even if Kelly repeats his under-performing 2011 projection season, which would be unlikely with BABIP regression, that's $3.33MM per fWAR. Not only would that actually be a market bargain with baseball inflating the value of a win closer to $5MM than $4MM, but KJ would fill a hole that there are no immediate options available for in the minor leagues.

If Kelly settles for no less than $15MM per year, though, things could get interesting. Can Arizona really afford to dedicate $60MM to one player for the next four years with its limited payroll? Our payroll is considerably lower this year than it has been in years past, but several players on the roster are due raises. Can we afford to dedicate an extra $9MM+ per year to Kelly above his 2011 salary with Justin Upton's and Chris Young's contract extensions seeing significant salary jumps over the next few years, not to mention guys like Ian Kennedy and Miguel Monterodue for raises in arbitration? At that price, it would probably be wise at least look at alternate options to fill that slot on the roster.

 

Now, for the second option to replace Kelly: looking internally for a replacement infielder. Here's a list of prospects in the D-backs system who grade above a C on John Sickels' scale, are capable of playing an infield spot other than first base, and are above A-ball: Ryan Wheeler. .... Yep, that's it. Wheeler's a nice prospect, putting up impressive ARL numbers in the Southern League at 22 years old, but the corner infielder could use some additional seasoning in the minors to develop some additional consistency at the plate before being ready to hold down a big-league gig. He might be ready sometime in 2012, but the odds of him being truly ready for a big-league job on Opening Day 2012 is slim to none. In other words, we'll need to look to the third option.

 

Option three: acquire an infielder from outside of the organization. Now, this isn't as cut-and-dry as the previous options were, because there's a lot the D-backs could do here. Arizona could acquire a second baseman to step right into the place of Johnson, keeping Stephen Drew at shortstop and Ryan Roberts (and Geoff Blum, I guess) at third base. If Stephen Drew's ankle injury leads the team to worry about his lateral mobility being sufficient for shortstop, Drew could be moved to second base and Roberts kept at third, with the team acquiring a shortstop through free agency. Finally, the team could go get a third baseman in free agency and move Roberts to second base, where he's plenty good defensively. This flexibility gives us the ability to thoroughly scour the market to find the position at which we can find the best value, and leads us to the bulk of the article, where all the fun speculation can take place.

(For free agents, I'll be using MLBTR's 2012 Free Agents guide. Cot's Baseball Contracts is also heavily used for contract details. Man, the internet is awesome.)

 

First, a look at the second baseman market. The free agent crop isn't particularly inspiring. The two big names on the list,Robinson Cano and Brandon Phillips, are mortal locks to have their club options exercised, while the other option guy,Aaron Hill, has posted a sub-.300 OBP over the last two years. Most of the names on the list that are intriguing are guys who are combo shortstop/second baseman types, which could be a perfect fit for Arizona with Drew's tenuous status. Guys in that category include Jamey CarrollJeff Keppinger, Jerry Hairston Jr., and Clint Barmes - nice guys to have on a roster, but none of them as talented as Kelly. The guys who are more of pure second basemen in the group of free agents includeAdam KennedyOmar Infante, and Mark Ellis - another group of mostly underwhelming talents.

As for second basemen blocked in the minor-leagues that could be scrounged up on the cheap, the outlook isn't particularly bright. Most of the top performing second basemen in Triple-A are either top prospects that teams won't surrender or washed-up minor-league soldiers. One legitimate possibility is Cleveland's Cord Phelps, a 24-year-old with all of 55 plate appearances at the big-league level, despite his .294/.387/.462 this year at Triple-A Columbus, a non-PCL Triple-A club (a hugely important detail). Unfortunately for Phelps, some kid named Kipnis is blocking him in Cleveland for the foreseeable future, so Phelps could be moved to fill another hole the Indiansmight have. If they're looking for relievers who have fallen out of favor with GM Kevin Towers, it seems that we have plenty of those to offer - Esmerling Vasquezand/or Sam Demel come to mind. We'd have to be certain that Drew could man shortstop for a Phelps acquisition to make sense, but it wouldn't cost a ton to get the infielder from the Indians. Another piece that could make sense to send Cleveland's way is Marc Krauss, who could possibly have a future as the heir apparent to Travis Hafner for the Indians' DH spot.

 

If Arizona isn't willing to hand the keys to their everyday second base job to a rookie, it looks likely that they'd shy away from finding a replacement second baseman due to the options at the position consisting of a plethora of equally-mediocre veterans (with the possible lone exception of Carroll, and perhaps Barmes as well if you're feeling generous). Thus, let's keep going down the MLBTR list to the free agent shortstops available around the league. I went into brief detail on this list in my first 2012 roster post, but the free agent shortstop class has some surprising star power and depth. At the top of the list is Jose Reyes, who will be perhaps the most sought-after free agent in the entire 2012 class. As enticing as a Reyes signing would be, I can't see Arizona committing upwards of $150MM to one player, and Reyes is the type of guy who will command that sort of price tag. As drool-inducing as a middle infield of Drew at second and Reyes at short would be, I imagine Arizona will look for a more responsible way to fill their shortstop gap.

Next on the list is Jimmy Rollins, who is an awfully enticing player in his own right. Rollins hasn't had anything close to the year that Reyes has, but at the same time, only four hitters have equaled Reyes' fWAR total, so that's hardly a strike on Rollins. Instead, Rollins has posted a superb 3.5 fWAR in 103 games, an absolutely phenomenal pace after putting up 2.9 fWAR in '09 and 2.5 fWAR in '10. However, that 2010 year was just 88 games long, and Rollins' BABIPs in those years were .251 and .246, respectively. The chances of the Phillies letting Rollins go are extremely slim, but it's worth noting that the Phillies have an extremely bloated payroll, nearly $164MMin 2011, up from ~$138MM in 2010 and ~$113MM in 2009.

Cot's tells us that the Phillies have $112.9MM dedicated to the 2012 roster in salaries and buyouts despite having only nine players locked up, with pending club options for Roy Oswalt ($14MM in excess of buyout) and Brad Lidge($11MM in excess of buyout). Add in a fourth arb year for Cole Hamels, money to buy almost an entirely new bullpen due to the fact that the only reliever the Phillies have under contract for 2012 - assuming Lidge's horrible option is declined - is Jose Contreras, and it's entirely possible that the Phillies' payroll won't have room for a $16-18MM per year contract for the 32-year-old Rollins. Now, if I were Arizona, I wouldn't give Rollins anything longer than three years, but Rollins for 3/$50MM or 2/$35MM? Sign me up, please.

However, the odds of us landing Rollins for a contract that short are, admittedly, slimmer than Ally McBeal. This brings us to the rest of the free agent shortstop crowd. Aside from the quartet of versatile 2B/SS guys listed above, there are some guys who have played up as solid regulars this year like Ronny Cedeno and Marco Scutaro (although I would argue that Cedeno is a massive candidate to disappoint in 2012), high-risk, high-upside regression candidates in Alex Gonzalez and Rafael Furcal, and a bevy of below-replacement-level types likeYuniesky BetancourtJack Wilson, and Miguel Tejada.

Finally, we could also try to swing a trade for a shortstop, perhaps leading Towers back to familiar territory to nab an under-utilized Yankee like Eduardo Nunez, although the under-utilized Yankee theory didn't exactly work out well last time... The first name that bears discussing at the major-league level as a shortstop trade candidate is none other than Hanley Ramirez, quite possibly the most talented shortstop in the game. Without a doubt, Hanley has disappointed the Marlins in 2011, posting a mere 1.4 fWAR through 90 games with the Fish, sporting an immensely disappointing .242/.335/.379 line. While it's certain that Ramirez's ISO has fallen substantially in 2011, as his .136 mark this year is by far the lowest of his career, a full 39 points lower than his previous low, from 2010, it's hard to imagine that Ramirez couldn't easily turn it around next year. Throw him on a playoff contender with a manager who could strike the fear of God into a marine, and you just might find yourself buying low on an MVP.

Now, acquiring Hanley would be one of the riskiest moves a GM could make, right up with Chris Antonetti's decision to acquire the ghost of Ubaldo Jimenez from the Rockies at this year's deadline. After all, there is a chance that Hanley really has simply lost something that was a key to his former greatness. However, it's necessary to note that Ramirez's 2011 BABIP, .273, is a full 66 points lower than his career average of .339. Ramirez might not be the best shortstop in the game, but with Stephen Drew - who would undoubtedly be an excellent second baseman, even post-surgery - as his middle-infield mate, some of Ramirez's defensive flaws could be accounted for. I imagine someone as special as Hanley Ramirez would at least be worth checking in on for GM Kevin Towers. It could cost a few good prospects, but with Ramirez owed $46.5MM over the next three years I honestly don't think that the price would need to include one of our top five prospects, considering how good our 6-10 ranked prospects are. Could something like Matt Davidson/Bobby BorcheringPatrick Corbin/David Holmberg, and Wade Mileypossibly get a deal done? If a fourth prospect in the mid-tier range would help get the deal done, then so be it. Should be interesting to follow, at the very least.

 

Arizona has a third option should they choose to acquire a player from outside the organization to fill the club's infield hole. The D-backs could sign a third baseman, moving Ryan Roberts to second base and assuming that Drew is capable of playing shortstop. Should this be the team's preferred choice, the available options include a brand new set of free agents, although the only guy that really stand out as possible everyday candidate is Aramis Ramirez, unless for some reason you're a Wilson Betemit fan. However, in spite of the numerous times that Ramirez's name has been bandied about as a potential acquisition target, caveat emptor. Ramirez is already 33 years old, registered just 0.3 fWAR in 2010 while dealing with injury and BABIP issues, hasn't exactly been an on-base machine in 2011, and consistently takes value away from himself with a combination of consistently below-average defense and baserunning.

Just how bad is he defensively and on the basepaths? Glad you asked. Since 2002, here is Ramirez's combined (UZR+Bsr), according to FanGraphs, by year: -7.6, -4.3, -9.6, -7.7, -4.9, 9.7 (outlier much?), -2.2, -6.4, -12.3, and, finally, -6.4 through 102 games in 2011. The grand total of these figures is a staggering -51.7 in nearly ten years, or just a bit above half a win per season. With Ramirez well past his physical prime, I think it's rather safe to assume that he'd be a good deal worse than his career averages (as he is on pace to be this year), right? Isn't this exactly the kind of player that would infuriate us all? Additionally, is that the kind of defender we want to be putting next to Drew immediately after he recovers from a broken ankle?

Considering that Ramirez's walk rate so far this year - 4.9% - is the lowest it's been since just after the Y2K scare, I think that handing Ramirez $8-10MM to be our everyday third baseman in 2012 is an immense risk that the team simply shouldn't make. Ramirez's contact and power tools have to be pristine in order for him to even provide break-even value for that kind of money, and at this point in his career, it's hard to know if next year is going to bethat year. You know what I'm talking about - the year that so many non-'roiding aging sluggers have where they lose that particularly-important bit of bat speed, transforming them from a balanced hitter into a hitter who has to cheat on good fastballs and adjust on the fly to anything off-speed. I'm not saying it'll happen in 2012, but don't be surprised if it does.

Assuming we pass on Ramirez, as I think we should, let's now look at who might be available in a trade to cover the hot corner position. The big name here that has also been regularly thrown into the fray at the 'Pit is David Wright, who is undoubtedly a better option than Ramirez, though he's hardly my first choice for Arizona's infield woes. To begin, Wright is perhaps even worse defensively than Ramirez, despite being in the midst of his physical prime years, and has spent much of 2011 recovering from an injury that could be viewed as a major red flag from a durability perspective - a stress fracture in his back. In 301 games between 2009 and 2010, Wright put up a combined -20.6 UZR at third base, and has followed it up with a staggeringly-bad -8.1 UZR in just 49 games in 2010 - a pace of about -24 UZR in a full season.

Now, I don't think he's that bad of a defender, but you have to wonder if the back injury has indeed made him an even worse defender than those -10 UZR seasons would suggest. At this point, Wright is probably best-suited as a left fielder or first baseman, and not the type of defender we'd want next to a recovering Drew, as was the case with Ramirez above. Trading for Wright and putting him in our everyday third base slot would require a lot of faith in Drew or could perhaps be a second infield move that follows the signing of a legitimate defensive shortstop and a selling-high on Roberts.

However, if Arizona a) is willing to take some lumps defensively, and b) believes that Wright's back is fully healthy and capable of handling a full season workload, even I would have to admit that the idea of putting his bat at Chase Field is extremely tempting. Wright will be just 29 years old in 2012, so there's little reason to expect his bat to significantly diminish, and his offensive production has hardly suffered as a result of his injury. In fact, Wright's .372 wOBA and 138 wRC+ in his shortened 2011 season are his best totals since his 7.1-fWAR 2008 season. If he could put up that kind of offensive production over 300 games in the next two years, he'll be more than worth the $31MM he's owed in that period ($15MM due in 2012, $16MM club option for 2013 w/$1MM buyout), even if his defense costs the team three wins in those two years.

The next question, of course, is what kind of package New York would require for Wright. Given the risk of his injury history, the price is certainly not going to be farm-crippling, and the return would almost certainly include whichever of the D-backs' three third base prospects - Matt Davidson, Bobby Borchering, and Ryan Wheeler - the Mets prefer most. As with Ramirez, I'm at least slightly optimistic that we could make a move happen without including one ofTrevor BauerJarrod ParkerTyler Skaggs, Archie Bradley, or Paul Goldschmidt, but would be willing to move a similar package of prospects to what was listed above to get Hanley in order to snag Wright... so long as we're at least fairly confident that he's healthy and will be durable.

If looking elsewhere for a third baseman via trade, perhaps the most obvious place to look is the San Diego Padres, provided that Towers has a workable enough relationship with the Pads' front office to make a deal happen. It's a shockingly-good fit. San Diego has a pair of upper-level third base prospects in James Darnell andJedd Gyorko who are banging on the door of the major leagues, but yet have incumbent Chase Headley entering his second of four arbitration years. With those hot corner prospects - who are considered to have a better chance of sticking at the position than those in the D-backs' system, I might add - approaching the majors and the Padres' typical cost-cutting ways, now might be the best time for San Diego to cash out on Headley, who owns a solid career UZR/150 of 8.0 at third base while sporting a 108 career wRC+.

Headley would solve the D-backs' third base problems for quite a while, as he's controlled for another three seasons. The cost to acquire Headley would probably be significant because of those control years, though, and Headley's UZR-boosted 4.9-fWAR 2010 season is undoubtedly going to be pointed to try to inflate his value along with the 130 wRC+ he's sporting in 2011 with the help of a .375 BABIP. In all likelihood, Headley is probably an 8 UZR, 105 wRC+ guy, which would put him somewhere in the 3.5 fWAR territory. With a current salary of just $2.325MM, the 27-year-old looks to be a tremendous value for the next three seasons, and is likely a much safer investment than paying the high price of grabbing a risky asset like Ramirez or Wright, while providing defense that could help out Drew if needed. The trickiest thing here, in my mind, is figuring out what kind of prospect value it would require to nab Headley from the Padres, particularly if there's still a strained relationship between those front offices.

 

Quite a bit to digest, eh? Without a doubt, this infield situation will be Kevin Towers' biggest challenge in the 2011-2012 off-season, and the choice he makes could have severe consequences. Too conservative of a move would likely result in a severe downgrade at the position, setting the team back in their efforts to be contenders for the 2012 division title. Too aggressive of a move, however, could burden the team with an unmotivated or injury-prone player signed to an expensive contract, while also costing the team a handful of quality prospects from its deep system.

What would be my preference (as if anybody would actually ask this...)? Assuming that his options aren't picked up (I think they'll turn to Jose Iglesias at short), I would first look into signing Marco Scutaro to a contract similar to the one he received a couple years ago from the Red Sox, perhaps being willing to give him up to around two years and $14MM, rather than the $12.5MM he received from the Sox, as added incentive. Failing that, a Wright acquisition would certainly be exciting, as I think he'd be a better fit with the club - particularly its manager - than either of the Ramirez's would, despite the poor defensive numbers.

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