As Dodgers fans wait for the second-by-second updates on Masahiro Tanaka Decision 2014, I’m turning our collective attention to a role that could be just as valuable: the utility infielders. Or, the current lack of them.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve said previously that I’d love to snag Tanaka, and he would indeed be an exciting impact acquisition for the team. But he’s still a luxury, because the Dodger rotation projects just fine without him. The same can be said for every other position except second base, but even the questions there tie-in with the utility infielder issue.
No matter what moves are made going forward, the Dodgers are a quality team on paper, and the infield is no different, with Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez, and Juan Uribe all anchored at their positions. But with second base still up in the air, A-Gon aging and having dealt with nagging injuries in 2013, Hanley missing extensive time last year, and Uribe likely requiring regular rest, the utility infielders become increasingly important.
The 2013 utility infield combination of Nick Punto, Dee Gordon, Justin Sellers, Michael Young, Luis Cruz, Skip Schumaker, and Jerry Hairston Jr. combined for 1,281 plate appearances and -2 wins. And the only reason that win total wasn’t -4 or worse was because of Punto’s production, and he’s now wearing an Athletics uniform. Therefore, if the Dodgers can upgrade the bench just by finding solid or average utility guys, that could end up having almost as much value in 2014 as a Tanaka signing.
So now that we’ve established that it’s an important issue to address, what options are even left for the Dodgers?
||2014 Projections (ZiPS/Oliver)
Alexander Guerrero – 2B/SS
The team was hoping to get an extended look at him in the Dominican Winter League, but he was limited to 12 games due to hamstring issues. In 40 plate appearances, he put up a .289/.325/.447/.772 line. Scouting reports on Guerrero thus far range from potential solid MLB regular to terrible bust, so there’s always a possibility he could end up in a utility role long-term.
ZiPS certainly buys into him, but the accuracy of those projections are iffy at best since he didn’t even play the 2013 Cuban season. So much is still unknown about him, but with the significant contract he inked in the off-season, he’ll be in the mix for the job at second base to start the year, regardless.
Justin Sellers – SS/2B/3B
Sellers is somehow right back in the thick of the race to make the roster, this after largely being relegated to organizational depth in 2013. He could never hit much (.199/.278/.301/.578 for his career), but survived by providing ample defensive value, especially with his ability to play short. However, ever since his back surgery, he seems to have lost even some of that luster.
While ZiPS is confident his bat will bounce back, I find that hard to believe given his actual performance to date. So if his defense never returns to previous levels, he could end up leveling off as a replacement level player or slightly worse, which fits best in AAA as organizational depth.
Dee Gordon – 2B/SS/CF
The possibility of him being an impact major-league player broke down rather quickly, but Gordon may get one last chance to establish himself as a regular, this time at second base. Chances are slim he’ll eventually win that job, but he’s setting himself up to carve out a utility role in the bigs with his willingness to move to second and center.
The currently given ZiPS projection would head south if his playing time went to second or center, but if Gordon could shore up his defense a bit, he has the makings of a decent utility guy that can impact the game with his feet.
Brendan Harris – SS/3B/2B
Currently a non-roster invitee, Harris’ situation is looking up as the roster stands now. While he was mediocre with the bat last year and performed poorly defensively, he figures to acquit himself defensively in 2014, and his offensive production is not much different than the other current options.
So if the Dodgers remain static on the utility front, and he impresses in Spring Training, he seems like the type of player to earn a roster spot over a younger player with options remaining. And then after he does, we spend all year complaining about why he has a roster spot as he hits .170.
Miguel Rojas – SS/2B
Why is Miguel Rojas a thing? Because Ned Colletti made it so.
His mention was surprising, primarily because the Dodgers have a payroll of eleventy billion dollars and Rojas has a career slash of .236/.300/.282/.583 … at AA. I’m sure his defense is indeed legit, but if he’s on the roster (much less the starter at second), I’m assuming every other option got vaporized.
Free Agent Options
Justin Turner – SS/2B/1B
Turner hit .280/.319/.385/.704 with the Mets in 2013, and he’s probably the best utility infield bat remaining. Better yet, he’s performed essentially the same since 2011 and is only 29, so he’s a rare utility candidate that seems like a safe bet to produce going forward. His defense isn’t the greatest, but it’s tolerable in a player with his offensive skill and versatility.
Chris Nelson – 3B/2B
Non-tendered by the Angels after a .220/.277/.349/.626 line last year, there wasn’t a whole lot to like from him in 2013. However, the reason he’s worth mentioning is because in 2012 he put up a .301/.352/.458/.810 line with the Rockies, so he’s a year removed from producing like a quality regular with the bat.
Oliver sees the upside as well, and he projects to bounce back offensively. The problem lies in how he’ll handle defensive assignments, but if the Dodgers have utility glove guys already in the fold, Nelson could be an attractive option off the bench.
Placido Polanco – 3B/2B
As the years have gone by, Polanco has stopped hitting, and he posted a .259/.309/.313/.623 line in the 2012-13 seasons. Now, going into his age 38 season, his solid defense is starting to turn downwards as well. Still, ZiPS projects him to be an effective utility man next year.
Of course, the problem isn’t necessarily his skills, but rather whether he’s even going to play. And even if he does, he wants to do it close to home. I’ve seen his name thrown around a bit, but he doesn’t seem likely to land with the Dodgers even if they want him.
Elliot Johnson – 2B/SS/LF
Johnson hit poorly for the Braves in the 2013 NLDS against the Dodgers, and that’s not surprising, because it just matches what he did for all of 2013. He put up a .218/.273/.319/.592 line for the year, but his offensive production should regress back to 2011-12 levels (.225/.287/.346/.633) in his age 30 season. That’s still not great, but his real value lies in his defense, where he has flashed plus at both short and second.
Jeff Baker – 2B/3B/1B/OF
Baker raked in a Rangers uniform in 2013 to the tune of a .279/.360/.545/.905 line, and has always hit very well for a bench guy, as evidenced by his .267/.321/.440/.760 career line. Furthermore, he has a significant platoon split, hitting .298/.353/.522/.875 against lefties and .236/.288/.358/.647 against righties. As a regular, that would be problematic, but as a bench guy, that actually makes him more useful since he can be deployed situationally.
Defensively, he’s decidedly below-average overall, but besides grading out poorly at third base, he handles every other position respectably and even rates as above-average at second. Baker could potentially serve as a platoon partner for the corner outfield spots and second base, also fitting in at third and first if necessary.
Perhaps most importantly though, he possesses the best ‘smirk face‘ in the game. 80 grade.
Ramon Santiago – 2B/SS/3B
Santiago was the longest-tenured member of the Tigers in 2013, and he put up a .215/.290/.279/.570 line with the team in 2012-13. Offensively, there’s basically no upside, as he’s unlikely to rebound to even below-average levels going into his age 34 year. However, despite the odd defensive projection from ZiPS, he has consistently played second, short, and third effectively, thus providing a ton of cover for the team. Additionally, he was one of the few utility possibilities that was actually effective in his role in 2013, along with Johnson and Turner.
Michael Young – 3B/2B/1B
Young’s defense was never his calling card, but it’s his offense that has declined in recent times. Over the past two seasons, he’s put up a respectable .278/.322/.381/.704 line, but that’s a shell of what he used to be. Even still, it’s one of the best offensive projections out of the utility candidates, so why the negative WAR projection?
Quite simply because Young is a DH that hits like a utility guy. I mentioned his defense has always been poor, but it’s only getting worse with age. Young has cost his teams about 128 (!!!) runs defensively over his career, and rates out as a poor defender at all four infield positions. If he was a better hitter, it would be tolerable, but the Dodgers bench doesn’t really have the luxury of taking on a declining DH that has the bat of a utility player.
Chone Figgins – 3B/2B/LF
Chone was last seen batting .185/.249/.253/.502 in 2011-12 for the Mariners. He then latched on with the Marlins but couldn’t make the team. So yeah, he didn’t play in 2013 because he got cut by a team that gutted its entire roster … and now he’s 36. That’s not good.
His Oliver projection of negative WAR is actually rather kind considering his woeful performances and the year off, and I’m honestly not even sure I see the upside here given that he’s three years removed from even being a mediocre player. Maybe scouts will see something they like in his workouts, but other than name recognition, there’s little to indicate he would be worth consideration.
Yuniesky Betancourt – 3B/1B/2B
Why? Why is this a thing? With the Brewers last year he hit .212/.240/.355/.595 and was worth about negative a billion WAR. Yet somehow, through devil magic or something, he still manages to generate a lot of interest. The longer he stays out there on the market, lurking in visible range of Colletti, the more I fear the Dodgers might take a flier on him.
Worse than his hitting though, he’s about a -62 run defender over his career, and he managed to post a negative defensive mark at FIRST BASE last year. He’s going into his age-32 season, but it seems like he’s 39.
So who should occupy the utility roles for the 2014 Dodgers?
There are admittedly limited options left on the market, and I think the oddest decisions were letting Punto and Mark Ellis go despite apparently no immediate plan to replace them. I’m still puzzled about that. But with the choices remaining, I’d want the team to go out and get either Justin Turner or Jeff Baker and one of Ramon Santiago or Elliot Johnson. Whoever loses out on the second base battle would head to the minor leagues, and hopefully Brendan Harris would agree to be sent to AAA.
By signing a quality utility bat and a quality utility glove, not only do the Dodgers project to upgrade on their two most-used 2013 utility options, but they also end up guarding against the problem that plagued them last year: having a ton of below replacement level options in reserve. In comparison to 2013, where every utility guy was replacement level or lower besides Punto, the 2014 potential backups of Guerrero, Harris, Gordon, and Sellers all project as at least serviceable depth.
Whatever direction the team decides to go in, something has to be done to improve the bench, because right now the 2014 utility guys are some combination of Gordon, Sellers, Harris, and Rojas, and if any of them run into some bad luck or get injured, the team would be looking at easily surpassing the -2 wins last year’s group produced.
So even though bench signings are nowhere near as sexy as the Tanaka chase or the Kershaw/Hanley extension talk, all runs and wins still count the same. And though nobody wants to hear a promo with a line hyping ‘improvement through mediocrity’, the Dodgers should do exactly that, because there’s a lot of value to be found in it.