The Meat Market: Shortstops

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Welcome to The Meat Market, may I interest you in a shortstop? If so, now is definitely the time to buy. Of the 36 major-league players who started at least 50 games at shortstop in 2004, 16 are free agents this offseason. A 17th player, Jose Hernandez, started just six games at shortstop this year, but started 146, 148 and 68 games at the position during the previous three seasons.

The list includes a former MVP (Barry Larkin), the starters from both World Series teams (Orlando Cabrera and Edgar Renteria), a two-time batting champion (Nomar Garciaparra), a three-time triples champion (Cristian Guzman), a nine-time Gold Glove winner (Omar Vizquel), a guy with five straight 25-homer seasons (Jose Valentin), the owner of two of the top 10 single-season strikeout totals ever (Hernandez), one of the worst hitters in baseball history (Neifi Perez), a World Series hero who looks like he’s 12 years old (Craig Counsell), a grown man who calls himself “Pokey” (Pokey Reese), and two other former All-Stars (Rich Aurilia and Royce Clayton). It’s quite a diverse group and there’s something for everyone.

A five-time All-Star and possible future Hall of Famer, Garciaparra is definitely the biggest available name. However, a lot of his stardom and reputation was cemented years ago, and he has since established a much lower (though still very good) level of performance. Whether it is the cause of Garciaparra’s dropoff or not, the change can be traced back to the 2001 season, when he missed 141 games with a wrist injury. Before then, he was a .333/.382/.573 career hitter and in the two seasons directly preceding the injury, he hit .365/.426/.601. Those are incredible, jaw-dropping offensive numbers for a shortstop, but unfortunately he hasn’t been able to approach them since.

Over the last three years, Garciaparra has hit a combined .306/.352/.516. Those are still excellent numbers for a shortstop, but when you consider that Garciaparra’s defense has declined as well, his offense is no longer enough to make him an elite player. Plus, the team that signs Garciaparra this offseason may not even get that level of offense from him, as he no longer has the luxury of playing his home games at Fenway Park. At Fenway from 2002-04, Garciaparra hit .340 with a .576 slugging percentage. Away from Fenway, he hit .279 with a .464 slugging percentage.

If what you’re really getting in Garciaparra is not the big name or the batting titles, but rather a defensively-challenged, oft-injured, 32-year-old shortstop who hits .280 away from Fenway, doesn’t draw any walks, and slugs below .500, is that someone to go after? If he’s willing to sign a short-term deal or a contract with plenty of incentives, then sure. If he’s looking to break the bank or sign up long term, then I doubt it. There are younger, cheaper shortstops who are far better defensive players, and they can give you a close enough approximation of Garciaparra’s offense — not the old version, of course, but the current one. It may sound simple, but the fact that he hit .372 in 2000 doesn’t help a team one bit in 2005.

One of those younger, better defensive shortstops is Renteria. After he hit .305/.364/.439 for the Cardinals as a 26-year-old in 2002 and followed it up by hitting .330/.394/.480 as a 27-year-old in 2003, I thought Renteria had officially made The Leap. He had speed, controlled the strike zone, hit for great batting averages, played good defense, and was showing some significant power development. But then he took a step back this year, hitting just .287/.327/.401, while declining in nearly every facet of his game.

YEARS        G      AVG      OBP      SLG     IsoP     IsoD     SO/BB      SB%
96-01      838     .279     .337     .379     .100     .058      1.73     71.9
02-03      309     .318     .380     .461     .143     .062      0.97     80.0
 
2004       149     .287     .327     .401     .114     .040      2.00     60.7

As you can see above, what Renteria did this season looks a lot like what he did from 1996-2001, and a lot different than the two outstanding years he had in 2002 and 2003. It’s very possible that his 2002 and 2003 seasons are the best he’s going to get — after all, they were his age-26 and age-27 seasons — but I still think Renteria will more closely resemble the .318/.380/.461 hitter than the .287/.327/.401 hitter over the next few years.

Even if he just splits the difference between his 2002/2003 and the rest of his career, Renteria should be good for around .295/.345/.425 with 15-25 stolen bases per season. That’s close enough to what I think can be expected out of Garciaparra outside of Fenway that Renteria’s defensive edge gives him an advantage overall. Plus, unlike Garciaparra he’s not on the wrong side of 30 yet and hasn’t missed huge chunks of time with injuries in two of the last four seasons. There is no question in my mind that I’d take Renteria over Garciaparra for the next 3-5 years, so it all comes down to what their respective markets are.

Of course, teams that think Garciaparra is all washed up and Renteria has already peaked still have plenty of other options this offseason. There was a time when I would have hyped Valentin in this space as an extremely underrated shortstop and someone who promised to be a great value as a free agent signing, but I’m not sure that’s still the case at this point. Valentin has always been a shortstop whose defensive reputation (horrendous) was completely different than his defensive numbers (outstanding). For the most part, that remains true, but it has actually been Valentin’s offense — always his calling card — that has declined.

Valentin’s batting average has dropped each year since 2000, going from .273 to this year’s .216, which fell so low that he couldn’t even manage a .300 on-base percentage. The power has remained, but the deterioration of Valentin’s batting average has taken away his status as an underrated player before anyone could really take notice. A smart team could push back the hands of time a bit by benching him against left-handed pitching, something the White Sox never managed to do. In fact, a switch-hitter, Valentin actually gave up batting from the right side this season. It didn’t help, as he continued to struggle against southpaws, hitting just .191/.262/.404 to give a him three-year mark of .163/.226/.304 against them. During that same span, he hit .252/.324/.514 against right-handed pitching.

Valentin’s free agency is an interesting test for teams, because the ballclub he ends up with will be signing him despite some awful error totals and extremely poor batting averages. He still has value, of course, because his range defensively makes up for the errors and his power offensively makes up for the batting averages, but a lot of teams won’t view it that way. He is a perfect example of having to look at what a player can do to add value to a team, rather than focusing on what he can’t. I’d say there’s a pretty good chance Valentin ends up with a “stat friendly” organization, although they may be a couple years too late in getting him.

Another guy who was once underrated is Cabrera, although his losing that status is not because of any skill deterioration, but rather that he got a chance to play for the Red Sox during their World Series run. After a few solid offensive seasons in Montreal, Cabrera got off to a very slow start this year, hitting just .246/.298/.336 in 103 games with the Expos, before being traded to Boston. Once with the Red Sox, he got back on track, hitting .294/.320/.465 down the stretch. His overall numbers were not particularly good — .264/.306/.383 with 10 homers and 38 doubles in 161 games — but he came fairly close to matching his career averages of .268/.316/.409.

At 30, Cabrera is a couple years older than I thought he was and he hit .275/.325/.409 over the last three years, so he’s not a guy who’s likely to break out in a big way. However, with his defense and baserunning (65-for-78 stealing bases during that stretch), Cabrera can be a valuable player if he can simply repeat that .275/.325/.409 for the next few years. In a lot of years, I suspect Cabrera would be in line for a very nice contract, but he is probably hurt more than anyone by the depth of the free agent shortstop class this offseason.

Guzman is another guy who is hurt by the sheer volume of shortstops available. In fact, I bet it was the main reason why the Twins decided to decline his $5.25 million option for 2005, although as a Twins fan I’m hoping the fact that he isn’t worth nearly that much money was also a factor. Guzman is one of those players who people just keep waiting for improvement from. Actually, people in Minnesota got so sick of waiting that they simply started talking about Guzman as if he had improved, despite it not being true.

YEAR        G      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS      GPA
2002      148     .273     .292     .385     .677     .228
2003      143     .268     .311     .365     .676     .231
2004      145     .274     .309     .384     .693     .235

Guzman is basically the opposite of Valentin, in that a lot of people saw his .274 batting average this year and said, “Wow, he really had a good offensive season for a shortstop.” (Seriously, people actually said that to me.) That couldn’t be further from the truth, of course, because his .274 batting average doesn’t even begin to explain what type of hitter Guzman is. He doesn’t walk, he doesn’t control the strike zone, he doesn’t have any power, and the end result is awful offense. Because this is 2004 and not 1974, we should be able to look past batting average to see that, but it’s apparently a tough thing for many to do. To Guzman’s credit, however, his defense improved noticeably in 2004, and if you trust the numbers, he was one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball.

Guzman will be just 27 next year and there is no doubt a GM or five out there who think they can get that potential to finally turn into on-field results, but I wouldn’t touch him for anything longer than a two-year deal. He has a sub par work ethic, has never been in great shape, is constantly showing signs of losing his speed, and doesn’t strike me as a player who is going to play at a high level into his 30s (or in his 20s, but that’s another issue). The Twins were smart to let him go, particularly with a whole bunch of potential short-term stop gaps available, like …

Vizquel is a guy I’ve talked about as a good one-year filler, but it sounds as if at least one team has bigger plans for the 38-year-old. I’ve heard that the White Sox are talking about a two-year deal worth $8 million for Vizquel, which is not only extremely overpaying him, but also extremely strange when you consider they’d be setting the shortstop market by signing a 38-year-old in an offseason where teams have their pick at the position. If Vizquel is too expensive or is snatched up by Chicago, teams could turn to veterans like Larkin and Aurilia. Larkin will be 41 in 2005, so he’s nothing more than an option for one year, but he hit .289/.352/.419 this season after hitting .282/.345/.382 in 2003. The problems are that his defense is no longer what it once was and he is quite injury prone, playing in just 181 games over the last two years.

Aurilia is someone teams would be smart to take a chance on for next season. After leaving the Giants as a free agent, he was awful after signing with the Mariners, hitting .241/.304/.337 in 73 games before being traded to the Padres. He hit a little better in San Diego (.254/.331/.384) to bring his season totals up to .246/.314/.353. Those are horrible numbers for Aurilia’s standards, but considering he played in the two worst ballparks for hitters in all of baseball, they were every bit as “good” as Guzman’s numbers in hitter-friendly Minnesota. And Aurilia has at least shown that he is capable of prolonged stretches of being better than that, hitting .324/.369/.572 as recently as 2001 and hitting .278/.331/.444 in his career with San Francisco (also in a very tough park for hitters).

The final low-cost guy I’d go after is Hernandez, who hit .289/.370/.540 in 238 plate appearances with the Dodgers this year. At 36, he’s not a long-term option either, but Hernandez was never fully appreciated when he was with the Brewers (mostly because of all the strikeouts) and he showed this year that he’s still capable of putting up very good numbers for a middle infielder. Even with a sub par 2003 season, Hernandez has hit .262/.330/.434 over the last three years, making him an ideal target for a one-year, incentive-laden deal.

The rest of the free agent shortstop crop includes Reese, who I discussed yesterday as a second baseman, as well as Chris Gomez, Jose Vizcaino, Alex Gonzalez, Ramon Martinez, Perez, Clayton and Counsell . Of that group, Vizcaino is probably the best bet for a one-year value, and I wouldn’t touch Clayton, Perez or Gonzalez (the bad one who played for the Cubs, not the bad one who plays for the Marlins) for anything more than the league minimum. Clayton might sucker some team into overpaying him because he was able to inflate his numbers with the Rockies, hitting .299/.360/.461 on Planet Coors and a more Clayton-like .259/.315/.334 everywhere else. Gomez, Counsell and Martinez are all stretched as everyday shortstops, but would make very solid utility guys.

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