Earlier today, in a surprising move, the Dodgers announced that they have designated Erisbel Arruebarrena for assignment in order to make room for the newly-acquired Brett Anderson. The four years and $16MM left on Arruebarrena’s contract, along with questionable offensive value (at best) made it seem like he was a bit of an immovable object, and his great defense up the middle made it seem like he was useful as a backup utility man. It’s certainly a bit unexpected that this move happened now, so long before the season. Let’s look further into the rationale of this roster decision to see if it makes sense.
Arruebarrena certainly didn’t do anything to silence the critics of his bat during his first season in the US. In his 45 major league plate appearances, he hit .195/.244/.220. This wouldn’t really mean much by itself, but his minor league numbers didn’t inspire confidence either. Arruebarrena hit just .259/.304/.417 (87 wRC+) combined between four different levels. He struck out 91 times in 272 plate appearances (33.4%) and didn’t walk much (5.9%) either. More than half of his plate appearances occurred away from the Isotopes (where he had significant BABIP luck and no power), and his only above-average offensive numbers away from the PCL were in 18 plate appearances for the rookie-level AZL Dodgers.
Arruebarrena’s Pitch FX numbers in the majors were also alarming. Last season, 533 non-pitchers took at least 40 plate appearances at the major league level. Here is where Arruebarrena ranked in some of the plate discipline categories:
|Statistic||Value||MLB Average||Rank from worst|
|In-zone contact %||73.6%||87.7%||9|
|Out-of-zone contact %||40.0%||63.3%||18|
|Overall contact %||61.5%||79.5%||5|
|Swinging strike rate||18.1%||9.3%||7|
On top of the poor ratings, a few of the names consistently worse than Arruebarrena (George Springer, Javier Baez) can hit for power and Arruebarrena has not. His swing is too long and slow for his offensive tools, so the poor contact numbers result in a player whose future is seriously questionable. His numbers may have been impacted by injuries, and the samples are small, but everything matches what scouts have said about him since he was in Cuba.
Put everything together, both stats and scouts, and Arruebarrena’s .208/.252/.291 (54 wRC+) Steamer projected batting line for 2015 doesn’t seem too far out of line. That would add up to 31.1 runs below average per 600 plate appearances. With the standard shortstop positional adjustment of +7.5 runs (adjusting for positional scarcity/league-wide shortstop offense), that would put him at 23.6 runs below average before accounting for his defense in relation to other shortstops. Last season, FanGraphs set their replacement level at 20 runs per 600 plate appearances, so Arruebarrena would need to be a +3.6 run shortstop to have zero value. That is doable.
However, even with a 70 grade glove, there is a ceiling. Over the past four years, 27 shortstops have played at least 2500 innings (or, enough for a semi-reliable defensive metric total). Only five have maintained a +10 run rating on average, and only Andrelton Simmons has higher than +13. If Arruebarrena can stay second to Simmons, which is extremely optimistic, his value ceiling with his forecast offensive output is about a win. In reality, the ceiling is probably less than that, and that’s if you think defense can be that valuable in the first place (I do, but that tends to be a controversial topic. See: Matt Kemp). When reducing 600 plate appearances to a more realistic number of 100, Arruebarrena’s optimistic defensive projection would give him a value of around +0.2 wins above replacement level.
Arruebarrena simply has to hit better than the projection to provide value. Even Brendan Ryan averaged a 74 wRC+ during his four peak years and 66 if you exclude his BABIP-fueled 2009. Arruebarrena can still be bad at the plate and provide positive value. However, even for an elite defender, there is a limit to how bad a player can be with the bat before he is no longer a major leaguer.
There’s also this:
During his time w/ the #Topes, I never saw Arruebarrena smile. Always scowling. His teammates didn't seem to like him very much.
— Chris Jackson (@TopesWriter) December 31, 2014
While the tweet doesn’t mean much by itself, the Dodgers have had a year to try to coach Arruebarrena. Adjustment to life in a new country is not trivial, but he needs to be responsive to feedback in order to improve his disastrous swing. It cannot be ignored. I don’t have any inside info on Arruebarrena’s coachability or overall makeup, but it certainly could be a factor.
Arruebarrena being designated for assignment does not necessarily mean that he will leave the organization. There are a few things which can happen now:
- Another team claims Arruebarrena off waivers. The Dodgers would not have to pay his contract.
- The Dodgers trade Arruebarrena after he clears waivers, eating some of the money to improve the return.
- Arruebarrena clears waivers, is optioned to AAA, and stays in the organization.
The delay in making the Anderson deal official was presumably due to sizing up Arruebarrena’s trade market. Something might be in the works already, though option three seems the most likely. Any of these options seem fine, and that’s probably why the Dodgers elected to remove Arruebarrena from the 40 man roster over somebody like Mike Bolsinger.
If Arruebarrena leaves the organization, the Dodgers will have to look elsewhere for a backup shortstop. Darwin Barney played there last year before he was platooned with Dee Gordon. His defense at short is a question mark; he doesn’t have a lot of major league experience there. Barney’s bat is weak, but it takes a pretty big extension of the imagination to think Arruebarrena can reach the same level of “weak bat” that Barney possesses. Enrique Hernandez can also play short, though it is not his strongest position. Both are probably better options than Justin Turner, who really shouldn’t play there except in an emergency. The important thing is that there are options, and both don’t seem like huge value changes unless you see a lot more upside in Arruebarrena’s bat than what he has shown so far.
This move came out of nowhere, but after looking further into it, it’s not a bad one. Arruebarrena is relatively likely to stay in the organization, and if he departs it’ll likely save the Dodgers money. It also doesn’t mean that his initial contract was a terrible one; a 70-grade defensive shortstop isn’t a bad gamble to take when the Dodgers have a high payroll ceiling (and $25MM is not a lot in the baseball economy these days). It’s just that after a year, the odds of the gamble paying off seem long, and that’s what prompted this move.