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Middle of the road

You say the darndest things...

The worst kept secret in the Midwest this offseason is that the Cards need to make some changes to their middle infield. We know well of Adam Kennedy’s strange, yet fortuitous, demand to be traded. We know that Cesar Izturis and Felipe Lopez are free agents. And we know that Tony loves Aaron Miles (and, oh, btw, he’s arbitration eligible.) The Cards also have Brendan Ryan on hand, who will probably end up as a utility infielder in Memphis.

In trying to sort through the detritus that is our middle infield situation, it’s reasonable to wonder which of these MIFs should be back and which should be allowed to be on their merry way. Tony seemed to have no discernible pattern, for most of the year anyway, with his starters at the keystone and short. Izturis played almost every day – presumably b/c of his outstanding defense. I guess I shouldn’t use the word "presumably" since his offense was so horrendous that it absolutely MUST have been b/c of his defense. At second, Miles got much more playing time than Kennedy. There’s a certain strangeness to this b/c Kennedy was, by far, the better defensive player. It would have been understandable to play the better defensive player at each position w/ the idea that, since they offer very little offensively, you should save as many runs as possible on the defensive end. Yet Miles got considerably more playing time at 2nd for most of the year.

So, ok, you go w/ Miles at 2nd most of the time to compensate for the fact that you’re getting nothing offensively from your SS – at least you’ll get some offense at one of the two positions. And, as critical as I’ve been of Miles, he did have the best offensive season of his career -- highest OBP, highest slugging %, highest OBP and OBP+ (by far), and the highest isolated power of his career. He struck me, for most of the season, as the Cards best middle infielder largely b/c of his defense. It was my belief that Kennedy and Izturis offered less of a difference defensively than Miles offered offensively.

If Miles was, in fact, better than the other 2, and worthy of so much playing time, then where was he after the club’s acquisition of Felipe Lopez? Lopez played his first game w/ the birds on the bat on August 6. As a Cardinal he had 169 PAs in those 7 weeks. In that same time period, Aaron Miles had 107. Cesar Izturis had 153 PAs following Lopez’s arrival. The oddity of these numbers lie in the idea that Lopez arrived w/ the pedigree of a horrendous defensive player. No one’s playing time suffered more than Miles’ after Lopez’s arrival. Lopez’s offense was great as a Cardinal, but don’t you give back any gains w/ his defense? And, if his defense doesn’t matter, why not sit Izturis and his feckless offense and play Miles at SS. Yes, Miles is not a good SS, but Lopez isn’t a good 2B so, if Tony made the decision to go w/ offense over defense – as reasonable a decision as choosing defense over offense if the defense is really good – why is he still sticking Izturis at SS? There seemed to be no consistency or pattern to it. The one thing we could say for certain is that Tony, and likely Mozeliak, wanted to see what Lopez had to offer in light of the fact that he was a free agent this offseason.

Deep down, if I was going to rank the Cards’ middle infielders in terms of their value to the club this year, I would go w: 1. Miles; 2. Lopez; 3. Izturis; 4. Kennedy; 5. Ryan. If you want to compare their values throughout the year, including Lopez’s time w/ the Nationals (where he created a new definition for the term "awful"), he’d probably be between Kennedy and Ryan. If you get released by the Nationals, you’re plenty bad! Let’s see how right I am!

BRAA fielding +/- FRAA TRAA RAA per 560 PAs
Izturis -12 +19 14 2 2.5
Kennedy -5 +19 14 9 13.8
Lopez -2 -12 -9 -11 -11.6
Miles 2 +6 4.5 6.5 8.9
Ryan -9 +1 1 -8 -20.5

BRAA is batting runs above average, as compiled by Baseball Prospectus. +/- is John Dewan’s fielding plays above average and the FRAA, fielding runs above average, is based on their +/-. Then there’s what I call total runs above average and the total runs normalized for 560 PAs. Many, if not most of you won’t believe this, but Adam Kennedy was our BEST middle infielder last year, not our worst (Ryan excepted). His defense at the keystone was that good. Now, his offense was atrocious, but better than Izturis’ and his defense was also better than Izturis’. Miles was solid, and even above average defensively, but he didn’t add enough offensively to keep up w/ what Kennedy brought defensively. Lopez was bad, b/c of his numbers w/ the Nats, despite the fact that his defensive numbers were the best of his last 3 years. Make no mistake, Felipe Lopez is exactly THAT BAD defensively. Ryan sucked.

If you’d rather use BP’s fielding numbers, Miles would be 1, followed by Kennedy, and then Izturis, Lopez, and Ryan. Still, the idea that Kennedy would be one of our best (should I say "least bad?") middle infielders instead of one of our worst would have surprised me a great deal. That doesn’t mean, of course, that he was good. He wasn’t. But I think it does tell us exactly how bad Izturis truly was. If you like him for his defense, you should like Kennedy better b/c Kennedy added as much in fewer innings, and hurt us less at the plate, in fewer PAs, than Izturis.

As for next year, it’s pretty clear to me that Miles will be back and that Kennedy probably won’t. I’d bet that Lopez is back as well. Can we get by w/ some sort of Lopez/Miles combo at 2nd? It could be worse, I guess. The question then becomes which one of them is our backup SS? AZ made the point pretty eloquently last week that it was foolish to keep 4 middle infielders on the roster. Astoundingly, Miles is actually the better SS, which tells you something about Lopez’s defense. The other thing I see is that acquiring a SS should be a higher priority than acquiring a 2B. Yes, Brian Roberts would be nice to have, but SS is clearly the bigger area of need.

So, who may be available?

BRAA fielding +/- FRAA TRAA
Cabrera -5 +1 .7 -4.3
B. Crosby -17 -13 -9.8 -26.8
Furcal ‘07 -9 +6 4.5 -4.5
Renteria -7 -9 -6.7 -13.7
Tulowitzki -7 +4 3 -4
Zobrist 9 -6 -4.5 4.5

I went ahead and used Furcal from ’07 due to a paucity of playing time last season and, b/c Tulowitzki played 101 games last season, I used it instead of ’07. I think we can probably all agree that both are better than the numbers shown above. Tulowitzki was the best defensive SS in the big leagues in ’07 and Furcal has only had 1 bad offensive year in his career – in ’07. Both, as you can see, are above average defensive players. It’s a good question as to whether Furcal will remain so as he ages and considering his back problems but, based on the data we have, he’s still better than most.

As you can see, Crosby, Renteria, and Cabrera should, absolutely, be non-starters. The latter 2 are aging free agents. We should not go there. Crosby would require us to give up something of value. Thank you, no, Billy! There are some others we could consider – the Angels’ Erick Aybar, Brandon Wood or Sean Rodriguez, for example. Tulowitzki is definitely worth having. Is he worth trading what it would cost to get him? I’m not sure about that. I’d trade Ludwick for him, but I doubt that the Rocks would do that trade, even if we threw in Anderson, Jay, or Mortensen.

We could sign Furcal, who’s price tag may be rising w/ every PA he takes this postseason. He’ll cost a pretty penny, and he’s 31 (or will be in 2 weeks) but he’s a plus player offensively AND defensively. It’s not easy to find SS’s like that, and we wouldn’t have to trade for him. He is definitely a player to consider.

My choice, however, is Ben Zobrist of the Rays. He’s blocked in Tampa, now by Bartlett and soon when Reid Brignac is ready. He has 530 major league PAs and would be under the team’s control for 5 years. He was a plus player offensively this year and played 6 different positions for the Rays. He doesn’t seem to be a strong defensive player – he’s been -5, -7, and -8 at SS in his 3 partial seasons in the big leagues but his offense seems to be strong enough to overcome the defense. FWIW, he would have been in the middle of the pack in the AL, according to RZR. Since he’s blocked, there’s no reason the Rays won’t trade him, if we can find a sufficient match.