Felipe Lopez has probably never felt so much internet-love, and all he had to give in return for it was most of the money he'd probably earned with his excellent 2009.
It is almost a boring transaction to talk about, and I say almost only because no transaction is less boring than a replacement offseason news-item; the money is so inconsequential that if he flops it is a pox not on the payroll but on our memories of the giddy days in February when Felipe Lopez was curing lineup cancer and fighting lineup deflation, etc. Nearly everyone's happy about it, and some people are ecstatic about it.
But there's one more angle to take before we finish the last verse of "Felipe, Row the Boat Ashore." Presenting: all the areas Felipe Lopez might plausibly play—though even Felipe Lopez won't be able to play them all at once, so far as I can tell.
1. Platoon Second Baseman
I got angrier about Skip Schumaker playing second base against left-handers than the average blogger—and we get angry on far less provocation than that—so I might be overstating the case by placing this first among Lopez's presumable positions, though I think that he absolutely must play there.
Last year Skip Schumaker, who until Lugo came around was mostly on his own, hit .220/.278/.240 against left-handers in 100 plate-appearances. If you're wondering where Felipe Lopez will get the plate appearances that might eventually trip his plate appearance incentives, start with all of those. (I realize that current best-practices dictate that I regress platoon splits such as Skip's, given that he has only 250 at-bats against left-handers to this point; but since he is a minus fielder, and the Cardinals are now swimming in right-handed minus fielders, why bother? Now I can just dismiss him entirely!)
Lopez is closer to being a "true" switch hitter than most—my favorite fake switch-hitter was always Jose Valentin, who had a split (.817 vs. .593) that would be enormous for a left-handed batter—but if the difference is real it is, so far, slightly biased in favor of hitting righties. But given the Cardinals' other options (unless they plan on using this one situation as reason to keep Lugo around), he's the one. He's somewhere around average on defense, and will be a serious upgrade on the numbers Schumaker put up this year, if not the ones he might in the future. I like it!
2. Contingency Third Baseman
I also like this! As a third baseman Felipe Lopez reminds me of the alien version of Abraham Nunez from the first half of 2005, who hit .295/.354/.399 and extended his career by two years. This split has been just about worn out by now, but one last time—Cardinals third basemen hit .229/.292/.369, against an NL average of .261/.333/.419. Having Felipe Lopez around gives them two plausibly average third baseman and an excuse—Lopez's versatility—to hang on to both of them.
In the ideal version of the 2010 Cardinals David Freese hits early and consistently, showing 20 home run power and hitting for a fair average. But even then Lopez will play at third—more, possibly, than he does at any other position. If Freese starts slowly we'll probably hear, from La Russa, about how mentally perfect he is for pinch hitting, and Lopez could end up with the fat side of the third base platoon.
3. Fill-in Shortstop
The position of fill-in shortstop, unlike the others on the Felipe Lopez list, was filled quite adequately last year; if it hadn't been he might be starting this year. On the provisional 2010 roster this is where it becomes clear that Felipe Lopez duplicates Julio Lugo functionality in every meaningful way. Lopez, like Lugo, is a terrible defensive shortstop, but he's a different kind of bad; his is a known quantity. Lugo hovered around average for a long time, had leg problems, and then, in 2009, became a special kind of bad shortstop, visible to both the eyes and the play-by-play metrics.
It's good to know that Lopez can play shortstop, however badly, but a gambling man might be ready to see if another year away from surgery has returned to Lugo his capacity for mediocrity. Whatever the Cardinals end up doing with Lugo, Lopez allows us a better guess at what the Cardinals would look like should Brendan Ryan miss any time. The pitchers probably don't like this, but I do! Three for three!
4. Left fielder I guess?
This is the one I don't like! The Cardinals spent a hundred million dollars on one corner outfielder and are more or less settled with the other. Playing a guy who just barely had the bat for corner outfield in his career year out of position makes so little sense that it probably won't happen to any appreciable degree, even if La Russa continues to talk about it.
But a team that's brought Allen Craig and Joe Mather to camp, and one that needs to sort out its cost-controlled players as well as it can for the austere payrolls of the next few years, any at-bats for Felipe Lopez in the outfield are too many. I give Tony La Russa a lot of credit for the lengths to which he'll go to ensure that useful players keep playing, but Lopez is in no danger of sitting for more than a day or two in a row; a guy who's in two platoons already needn't play additional games in left to stay fresh.
What's so great about the Felipe Lopez signing is that he mitigates several potential issues at once; it's like the Mark DeRosa trade in those few golden games before he became damaged goods and his ability to platoon with Ankiel in the outfield became a moot point. They're now shielded pretty well from any one of those first three positions going awry.