When fans get excited for the Winter Meetings, I’m guessing the Patrick Wisdom-Drew Robinson swap is not what they had in mind. It is trading a player unlikely to do anything significant for another player unlikely to do anything significant. Two guys who are too old to be prospects, that would consider themselves lucky to be a part of the MLB bench. If we’re being generous, the Cardinals traded their 25th man for the Texas Rangers’ 25th man.
As uninspiring as this deal sounds, it’s a rather shrewd baseball move. It’s a smart move. It’s not too terribly likely to pay any dividends for the Cardinals, but it’s also very easy to see how this deal could work out favorably. The 2018 MLB stats of both Robinson and Wisdom are likely to cloud this issue. Wisdom played just about the best 58 plate appearances I think he’s physically capable of while Robinson struggled mightily to even make contact in double the plate appearances.
Fortunately, we judge deals not based off a limited number of MLB plate appearances, but the entire professional baseball career. Despite the overwhelmingly better stats by Wisdom in the MLB, Robinson has the better projection. Steamer thinks Wisdom will hit to the tune of a 76 wRC+ while Robinson has an 82 wRC+ projection from Steamer. So who is Drew Robinson?
Robinson was drafted in the 4th round of the 2010 draft out of Silverado High School in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Rangers sent him to the AZL immediately upon the signing him, where he walked a lot, struck out a lot and showed little power, with a 126 wRC+, boosted by a .400 BABIP. They started him there again in 2011, but after just 6 games of comically good numbers (262 wRC+), they promoted him to the Spokane Indians, the Low A team for the Rangers. He was terrible, with a 54 wRC+, partially due to a .206 BABIP.
The Rangers wanted him to play full season ball for 2012, so they sent him to the Single A Hickory Crawdads (minor league names are fun). He rewarded them big time. Robinson displayed extreme patience for his age - 20 at this point - walking at a 17% clip while striking out 24% of the time. He had marginally above average power with a .171 ISO, but the collection of parts, along with a .360 BABIP, gave him a 141 wRC+. Despite this, he stayed in Hickory all year.
In 2013, he dipped a little upon his promotion to the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, but he had a far way to go, so it wasn’t really a problem. His walks fell, his power fell and his BABIP fell, but he still had a 119 wRC+. While he started his professional career playing 1B, 2B, and OF, he had settled in as a 3B at this point, playing 3B the entire season at High A.
At 22-years-old, he made the Frisco Roughriders (the Rangers might seriously have the best minor league team names in baseball). He was bad. Presumably due to injuries, but he did manage to get promoted for 8 games in AAA and he took full advantage in those 8 games (.304/.467/.522.). Robinson had the misfortune of being in AA at the same time as Joey Gallo, so he only played 16 games at 3B. He played 10 games at 1B, and 63 in RF.
Nonetheless, he repeated AA in 2015 and his numbers returned to his previous standard: 127 wRC+ with a .290 BABIP. Gallo repeated AA so he couldn’t play 3B again. A wave of OF prospects forced him out of the OF too with Nomar Mazara, Nick Williams, Lewis Brinson, and Preston Beck all seeing time. Where did he play then? He played 96 games at 2B and 28 games at SS.
He finally begin a season in Round Rock, the AAA of the Rangers, for 2015 at 24. He was good. He struck out too much with a 27.5 K%, but walked 12.5% of the time, and saw his power balloon to a .223 ISO. Round Rock is apparently a pitcher’s park, so this was a significant change. He repeated AAA for the 2017 season and essentially repeated his 2016 in 309 plate appearances. They are about as close to the same stats as you can get. His walk rate rose, his K rate sunk, his ISO and his BABIP stayed the same and he had a 123 wRC+ at 25.
He debuted in the majors this year and was actually decent, though with some warning signs. He came to the plate 121 times and finished with a 93 wRC+ with a .305 BABIP. He also had a .215 ISO. You can probably figure out why his wRC+ was only 93. He struck out 34.7% of the time. He walked 11.6% of the time as well, so he needed to just cut down on his Ks and he’d be fine.
He did not do that. He got worse. Way worse. He struck out 34.9% of the time.... in AAA this time. In a near equal number of plate appearances, he struck out 45.6% of the time in the majors. 45.6%. He had 57 strikeouts in 126 plate appearances. He had a .347 BABIP and a 57 wRC+, because his power abandoned him. In Round Rock, he still had power with a .265 ISO and .454 BABIP for a 144 wRC+. If you look up AAAA player in the dictionary, this is your guy.
Defensively, he played primarily CF this time with 40 games in Round Rock and 22 in Texas. Seriously, this guy played everywhere. In his minor league career, he played 331 games at 3B, 197 at 2B, 108 in RF, 74 in CF, 43 at SS, 32 at 1B, and 22 at LF. In the majors, he’s played 27 games in CF, 24 in LF, 23 at 3B, 15 at 2B and 7 games with no starts at SS.
Optimistically speaking, something happened in 2018 that caused him just miss bats constantly, because he was not great before, but he just fell off a cliff. It’s pretty clear what Robinson needs to do in order to be successful at the major league level. It just happens to not be very easy. He has power. He walks a lot. The elements are there. He just needs to be Randal Grichuk, not Ian Happ with the strikeouts.
Robinson’s defense is more than just standing at a bunch of different positions. In 2016, Fangraphs ranked him as the 27th best Rangers prospect, saying “If the walks translate, he has starting potential at one of the seven positions he’s proven sufficient at manning.” Robinson unfortunately never made John Sickels Top 20 Rangers prospects, but the system was pretty stacked while he was there. Sickels wrote a player profile on Robinson before the 2017 season.
He has experience at multiple positions, playing every position on the field during his career except pitcher and catcher. Unlike many such players he is actually a solid fielder at most of those positions. His range isn’t good enough for regular play at shortstop, but he can handle the slot in an emergency. He’s very skilled at second base and third base and has looked comfortable at all three outfield spots as well.
A different Fangraphs writer wrote about Robinson’s defense at the beginning of the 2017 season.
Drafted as an unpolished athlete in the 2010 fourth round, Robinson immediately began seeing time all over the diamond and has gradually improved at each position. While he’s mostly stopped playing shortstop, Robinson saw time at all other positions (except catcher) in 2016 and even got some reps in center field, a position he continued to hone in Venezuela over the winter. He runs well enough that he can pass there in case of emergency, but he’s best at third and in right field, where his arm is an asset.
The word versatility can get thrown out a lot for fringe players and you can mostly translate it to “a guy’s bat isn’t good enough at his best position and he’s bad defensively at the other positions where his bat plays better.” But three different prospect writers think highly of his ability to play multiple positions well. Seems like he might actually have versatility.
For whatever it’s worth, Jeff Albert might be able to help him. As John LaRue noted, “Everywhere Albert has coached, high contact rates follow. Correlation, causation, etc., but it’s a good sign.” He doesn’t need to him improve his contact rate that much. Granted, some of this is dependent on his power being for real and that’s not necessarily a given. He has a projected .159 ISO next year for Steamer, which is good but not 30% K rate good. But something went terribly wrong in 2018 as a hitter and he feels like a player that can be fixed.
Will he be fixed and become a decent hitter? Probably not. But he’s a hell of a lot more interesting of non-prospect than Wisdom. Wisdom can only play 1B and 3B. He’s nowhere near a good enough hitter to justify playing 1B, and he’s completely blocked by both Jedd Gyorko and Yairo Munoz at 3B for a backup role, two better hitters than him. Robinson can play literally anywhere except maybe SS and definitely catcher and pitcher, plus is left-handed. I don’t know if he’s the plan or if the Cardinals plan to get a better middle infield left-handed player, but you could do worse as a 25th man.