January 21, 2005

Trouble Up the Middle (Again)

From the moment the Twins signed Juan Castro earlier this offseason, I've been scratching my head wondering why they had to pay a utility infielder who is a career .226/.269/.331 hitter so much money for so long. Guys like Royce Clayton, Ramon Martinez, Jose Vizcaino, Neifi Perez, Pokey Reese, and Desi Relaford were all had for one-year deals worth around a million bucks, so I didn't see the need to secure Castro's modest services by committing to a two-year deal worth $2.05 million, plus incentives.

Then, adding insult to injury, the Twins tendered a contract to the arbitration-eligible Luis Rivas, signing their long-time second baseman (and long-time AG.com whipping boy) up for $1.625 million in 2005. Together, Rivas and Castro will make at least $2,875,000 in 2005 and, if they both get a chance to be starters as is expected, will form one of the least productive middle infields in all of baseball while eating up over 5% of the team's payroll.

All of which is why I felt nauseous when I saw the Cleveland Indians sign a utility infielder of their own last week, inking Alex Cora to a two-year deal worth $2.7 million. For just $700,000 more than they gave Castro, spread over two seasons, the Twins could have had a player who can potentially be an asset both offensively and defensively. Imagine that. Now, it's worth noting that Cora's deal with Cleveland has incentives based on playing time that could drive his price up, but Castro's deal with the Twins has similar provisions too.

Of course, some might argue that $700,000 over two seasons, while not a lot of money for most teams, is quite a bit for the cash-strapped Twins. I might even be inclined to agree, if not for the fact that the team just paid what appears to be a premium for Juan Castro earlier this offseason, and then gave Rivas $1.625 million after a season in which he hit .256/.283/.432. Setting aside the monetary issues, there is little doubt that Cora is a superior offensive player to Castro.

2002-2004        PA      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS      GPA

Cora 1290 .264 .335 .375 .710 .245
Castro 715 .245 .283 .377 .660 .222

Clearly neither of these guys are going to be confused with Barry Bonds, but Cora has shown the ability to avoid making outs at a decent rate -- a major skill for punchless hitters and something Castro has never been able to do. Fifty points of on-base percentage is not to be ignored, but with that said, obviously Castro's hitting (or lack of) wasn't behind the Twins signing him. Castro is considered a very good defensive infielder, and though he has played primarily second base and third base over the past few seasons, he has plenty of experience at shortstop as well. That -- and perhaps that alone -- is why the team signed him.

Cora, on the other hand, has been the Dodgers' regular second baseman for the past two years, logging just 55.1 innings at shortstop during that time. However, he was Los Angeles' everyday shortstop back in both 2000 and 2001, and logged 453 innings at shortstop as recently as 2002. In fact, Cora actually has more innings at shortstop over the past three seasons (508.1) than Castro does (450). Though it's possible Cora's defensive skills at shortstop have deteriorated over the past two years, he was considered a good defender there before Cesar Izturis came along and bumped him to second base.

If you're going to pay over $1 million per season for a slick-fielding infielder who is completely worthless offensively, why not pay $1.35 million per season for a slick-fielding infielder who has some actual value at the plate? And if you don't like that idea -- it would increase the team's payroll slightly, after all -- then what about signing Cora to play second base? Cora will actually make several hundred-thousand dollars less than Rivas in 2005, and for just a million bucks more than the Twins have committed to Rivas for one season, they could have locked Cora up for a second year.

Just for fun, let's run that same offensive comparison, this time with Cora and Rivas:

2002-2004        PA      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS      GPA

Cora 1290 .264 .335 .375 .710 .245
Rivas 1225 .257 .300 .399 .699 .235

Once again, Cora has been better than the guy the Twins have, and that's not even adjusting for the fact that Cora has been playing half his games at Dodger Stadium, consistently one of the toughest places for a hitter in baseball. Meanwhile, Rivas is a ground ball hitter who has benefited from playing half his games on turf.

I don't want to sound like the world's biggest Alex Cora fan, because I'm really not. However, Castro and Rivas are neither cheap or good, and the fact that someone like Cora just signed with a division rival for similar money is very disconcerting. Cora would be an upgrade at either middle-infield spot for the Twins, but instead he'll be simply a role player on what is looking like a very strong Cleveland bench (another discouraging fact for Twins fans).

All of this almost has me longing for the days of Cristian Guzman already. Almost.

Today at The Hardball Times:

- Phat Albert (by Aaron Gleeman)

- Ranking the Relievers (by Studes)

- What's In a Name? (by Brian Borawski)

- It's a Funny Funny Game (by John Brattain)

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