November 1, 2009

Realistic Free Agent Options: Second Base

Projecting which free agents the Twins will go after is difficult because their pursuit of low-cost options depends upon how the market shakes out and who drops into their price range. In the past five years they've also wasted money on a lengthy list of washed-up veterans like Tony Batista, Livan Hernandez, Ramon Ortiz, Craig Monroe, Juan Castro, Sidney Ponson, and Luis Ayala (among others) with only an occasional worthwhile signing like Joe Crede or Dennys Reyes sprinkled in.

For the most part the Twins have targeted only bargain-basement options while far more often than not choosing badly, which makes it kind of pointless to predict which free agents they'll pursue. So, instead I'll focus on which free agents they should pursue. I'm trying to be realistic with the recommendations, highlighting guys who may actually sign modest one- or two-year deals rather than dreaming about the top-tier free agents. With that in mind, here are five second basemen the Twins should look into ...

Placido Polanco: He turned 34 years old last month and has naturally lost a step on both sides of the ball, but Polanco still hit .285/.331/.396 this season while ranking among baseball's better defensive second basemen. He rarely walks and has modest pop, but Polanco makes as much solid contact as any hitter in baseball and batted .311/.355/.418 in five years with the Tigers. Assuming that his defense doesn't fall off a cliff, even something like .275/.330/.375 would make him above average.

Given his age and skill set it wouldn't make sense to offer Polanco more than a two-year deal, but he'd help solidify a middle infield that has been problematic for most of the decade and would actually be a decent fit in the No. 2 spot that Ron Gardenhire would surely reserve for him. Freddy Sanchez took $12 million over two years to remain with the Giants last week and Polanco would make plenty of sense for the Twins if he's willing to accept something similar.

Orlando Hudson: Injury concerns and Type A free agent status left the market for Hudson lacking last winter, so he ended up taking an incentive-laden one-year contract from the Dodgers. Hudson stayed healthy and hit .283/.357/.417 in 149 games to basically duplicate his .282/.348/.431 career line, which is very solid production from a switch-hitting second baseman and earned him over $8 million in total salary. He's likely to be a Type A free agent again this offseason, so the price tag should be palatable.

Along with his strong offense Hudson also has a sparkling defensive reputation, winning three straight Gold Gloves from 2005 to 2007. However, he turns 32 years old next month and Ultimate Zone Rating pegged him as below average at second base in each of the past two seasons. Not wanting to give up their first-round pick likely caused the Twins to shy away from Hudson last year and the same figures to be true this time around, but strictly in terms of money and production he'd likely be a nice fit.

Felipe Lopez: As noted here at the time not going after Lopez in July was a mistake, because Arizona wasn't asking for much and he would have been a nice upgrade at second base. He ended up going to Milwaukee for a mid-level prospect and hit .320/.407/.448 in 66 games. He's definitely not as good as he looked with the Brewers, but Lopez has hit .280/.349/.407 over the past five seasons. He has both a 20-homer and 40-steal season on his resume, but hasn't done much power hitting or running lately.

Lopez carries a poor defensive reputation stemming from his time at shortstop, but has graded out just fine at second base and is still on the right side of 30. He managed just a one-year, $3.5 million deal as a free agent last offseason and clearly wasn't a particularly hot commodity near the trade deadline, so the switch-hitter should be available at a reasonable cost again this winter. I'm not sure if the Twins have any interest, but they probably should.

Ronnie Belliard: Because he's somewhere between chubby and just plain fat Belliard looks like he'd be a disaster at second base, but he's logged nearly 10,000 career innings at the position while rating slightly above average according to UZR. That could change in a hurry given that he'll be 35 years old in 2010 and obviously the stat-resistant Twins will be much more focused on his gut than his UZR, but as a one-year pickup they could do a lot worse than Belliard.

After struggling for the Nationals to begin this year he was traded to the Dodgers and hit .351/.398/.636 down the stretch to overtake Hudson as the starter at second base. He hit .277/.325/.451 in 110 games overall, which is close to his .282/.337/.432 line from the previous five seasons. MLB second basemen posted a .752 OPS this year and the Twins got a measly .569 OPS from the position. Belliard has had an OPS above .740 in all but two of his 11 full seasons and has been below .700 just once.

Akinori Iwamura: Not technically a free agent because the Rays hold a $4.25 million option for 2010, but I'm listing Iwamura here just in case they choose the $250,000 buyout instead. Iwamura missed three months with a torn ACL in his left knee, which is a big concern for a player whose game is based largely on speed. Not only is his range at second base now in question, over 12 percent of Iwamura's career hits haven't left the infield.

However, if most of his speed and mobility return following the injury Iwamura is a very solid all-around player who provides an average glove at second (or third) base with a career .281/.354/.393 mark at the plate. A left-handed hitter with good plate discipline and modest power, he has on-base percentages of .359, .349, and .355 in three seasons since coming over from Japan while actually performing better against southpaws. Solid defense, good speed, and a .350 OBP would be nice if the Rays let him go.

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