It’s Jan. 18 and the Dodgers still don’t have a firm grasp on who is going to play second base. Brian Dozier rumors have reached the eye-roll/heavy-sigh stage, and a team with a $200-plus million payroll certainly won’t go into the season with the likes of Enrique Hernandez, Chris Taylor and/or Charlie Culberson manning the position.
Dave Cameron at FanGraphs wrote on Tuesday about a few options, including one I had wondered about to myself but had never written about (aside from a comment or two in our community).
“All of that to say that the Cubs need another starting pitcher, and since the Dodgers seem willing to move De Leon for a second base upgrade, there’s a fit here. De Leon would be perfect for the Cubs, as they’ve talked openly about their desire to acquire young controllable starting pitching, and his skillset and minor league track record make him a Chicago kind of pitcher. As a guy who could step into the rotation in 2017 and fill a hole, but also could be a core member of their pitching staff after Arrieta and Lackey leave, De Leon offers the blend of short-term and long-term value that the Cubs covet. Now, given his health question marks, I don’t know that a De Leon for Baez deal works straight up; Baez certainly has his own risks, but as a guy with power and elite defensive skills, his floor is a lot higher. In order to make a deal work, I’m guessing the Dodgers would have to potentially add on to De Leon a bit, and they refused to do that in order to land Dozier, a better player who would help them more in 2017.”
That Baez would be Javier Baez. The 24-year-old made a name for himself in the postseason with his glove, but got into the lineup more with Kyle Schwarber out for virtually all of the regular season. Still, he played in 142 games and compiled a 2.7 fWAR. He did that while having a below-average wRC+ of 94, which speaks volumes about his defensive mastery. Baez had 11 defensive runs saved at second base, which tied Robinson Cano for third-best in baseball. The rub is, he did it in 383 defensive innings (Cano had 1,376 1/3 innings). He was also a plus-defender at shortstop and third base, but those positions are, understandably, filled.
The versatility of Baez is an attribute the Dodgers are always looking for, but if they acquired him, it’d likely to be the primary starter at second base. He did struggle against right-handed pitching (82 wRC+), but the Dodgers have plenty of other left-handed hitters who could neutralize Baez’s offensive deficiencies.
And let’s talk about the rest of Baez’s offensive profile. He has some of the best bat speed in the game and doesn’t get cheated at the plate, but that leads to some problems. Baez had just a 3.3 percent walk rate (and was just 6.5 percent in the minors) and a 24 percent strikeout rate (25.4 in MiLB). His swinging strike rate was 14.4 percent — 18th-worst in baseball (minimum 450 plate appearances). To go along with that, his O-Swing% (swings on pitches outside the strike zone) was the 5th-highest at 42.9 percent Unsurprisingly, his contact rate was also low at 72.1 percent — 21st-worst in baseball.
If you break it down by pitches, it’s clear where Baez struggles: with off-speed pitches. Here’s how he fared in 2016.
As you can see, Baez hammers fastballs and sinkers and struggles to make contact with pitches that are offspeed and have a bend. His production on the the slider was mildly surprising, considering it carries the highest whiff rate (not counting the splitter or slow curve, of course).
I’ll admit, the free-swinging isn’t terribly appealing, but he has immense power and is probably the best defensive second baseman in the game. He is also a pull-heavy hitter (45.6 percent in 2016), which is good. Where he needs improvement to tap into his true power potential is in elevating the ball with more frequency, as Baez hit just 36.4 percent of his batted balls in the air. For a guy with as much power as Baez has, that number needs to increase. If he does, despite the strikeouts and lack of walks, he could be an All-Star caliber player.
Here’s the close to Cameron’s piece.
“Like I said, it’s not happening. I’m sure the Cubs and Dodgers would prefer to not make each other better, and sending this kind of upside young player to the team most directly in your path back to the World Series is a scary proposition. But in reality, there’s no better fit out there. The Cubs have one too many good middle infielders, and are short on starting pitching. The Dodgers have been emphasizing defense since Friedman got to town, and are also looking for right-handed power, which Baez certainly has. De Leon is much more valuable to the Cubs than the Dodgers, and swapping Baez is probably the best way for Chicago to get the young arm they need.
The fact that they’re potential playoff foes probably makes a deal unlikely, but if the two sides can get over that hurdle, a Baez for De Leon (and stuff) deal makes more sense than anything else out there.”
He’s spot-on. Not only would it take a little more than Jose De Leon to land Baez, it doesn’t seem likely that either side would want to risk improving the other. Both franchise are set to face off in the playoffs for many years to come. I’m not sure the Dodgers want to be facing De Leon striking out 10 in six innings of an elimination game, nor do the Cubs want to be facing the possibility of Baez hitting a 450-foot walk-off homer in the NLCS.
It’s a trade where a real-world application of it seems highly unlikely, but it’s still a transaction worth pondering because it makes a lot of sense on paper. Plus, if any front offices around the league would surprise the baseball world with a deal like this, it would be these two.