November 3, 2009

Realistic Free Agent Options: Shortstop

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 shortstops the Twins should look into ...

Marco Scutaro: At the age of 33 he finally got the opportunity to be an everyday shortstop and Scutaro responded with a career-year, holding his own defensively while hitting .282/.379/.409 with 12 homers, 35 doubles, and 90 walks in 144 games. Repeating that performance would make Scutaro one of the best shortstops in baseball, but prior to last season he had a career line of just .261/.325/.377 in 2,423 plate appearances and never topped a .750 OPS.

Even a return to his pre-2009 offense would leave Scutaro as a decent starting shortstop if his defense holds steady and the Twins should certainly toss a two-year, $10 million offer his way, but my guess is that at least one team will be willing to pay for 2009 instead of 2002-2008. Making a big commitment to a 34-year-old former utility man coming off a career-year would be a mistake, so the Twins' interest in Scutaro should depend entirely on the market.

Jack Wilson: He hasn't been worth the $20 million that he's made over the past three seasons and the Mariners will likely pay him a $600,000 buyout rather than exercise his $8.4 million option for 2010, but Wilson's glove keeps him as a starting-caliber shortstop. He's always had an outstanding reputation defensively and Ultimate Zone Rating agrees, pegging Wilson as good from 2001-2007 and great over the past two seasons.

He's an awful hitter, batting just .255/.292/.362 this season and .268/.310/.374 for his nine-year career, but it's important to note that the average MLB shortstop hit just .271/.328/.393 this season. Duplicating his career numbers would make Wilson just slightly below average offensively and his excellent glove would put his overall value solidly above par. Of course, at 32 years old duplicating his career numbers may prove tough and the odds are against his defense remaining elite, so the Twins shouldn't go nuts.

Orlando Cabrera: He's getting tons of credit for the team's dramatic turnaround after batting .411 with 21 runs and 16 RBIs over the final 16 games, but Cabrera also hit a putrid .237/.268/.361 in his first 43 games with the Twins. Add it all up and he hit .289/.313/.430 with the Twins after batting .280/.318/.385 with the A's, both of which are very close to his .275/.322/.398 career line. As noted above that type of modest production qualifies as about average at shortstop, but Cabrera isn't near Wilson defensively.

In fact, UZR pegged Cabrera as 15 runs below average this season. He's rated well defensively in the past, but Cabrera is 35 years old and looked bad enough following the trade that Ron Gardenhire even admitted his range was lacking. Average offensively and well below average defensively is a recipe for disaster in a mid-30s shortstop, and Cabrera's poor OBPs are a terrible fit in the Gardenhire-preferred No. 2 spot. If he wants to come back cheaply that's fine, but hopefully the Twins didn't fall in love.

Alex Gonzalez: Similar to Wilson in that the vast majority of Gonzalez's value comes from a good glove. He was with the Marlins for eight seasons before a one-year stint with the Red Sox in 2006 and then signed a three-year, $14 million contract with the Reds, who were being run by former Twins assistant general manager Wayne Krivsky. Gonzalez had a career-year in 2007, batting .272/.325/.468 with 16 homers in 110 games, but missed all of 2008 with a fractured left knee.

He struggled mightily after returning this season, hitting just .210/.258/.296 in 68 games with the Reds before they traded him to the Red Sox, but then batted .284/.316/.453 in 44 games as Boston's starting shortstop. Gonzalez has been wildly inconsistent but mostly terrible offensively throughout his career, hitting .247/.294/.395 in 11 seasons, but makes up for it with consistently excellent defense that even graded out well after the injury. He's obviously no great shakes, but would beat overpaying Cabrera.

Khalil Greene: I'm not sure what to make of Greene at this point. Dealt from the Padres to the Cardinals in December, he seemed like a good breakout candidate after spending the first six years of his career calling San Diego's incredibly pitcher-friendly ballpark home. While in San Diego he hit .225 with a .658 OPS at Petco Park compared to .270 with an .802 OPS on the road, but Greene's move to St. Louis was wrecked by season-long struggles with anxiety and he hit just .200/.272/.347 in 193 trips to the plate.

I'm certainly not in any position to say whether Greene is mentally ready to bounce back in 2010, but he's still just 30 years old and showed 25-homer power away from Petco Park while with the Padres. I'd love for the Twins to kick his tires a bit and perhaps offer an incentive-laden one-year deal, although given Greene's disastrous season on and off the field a minor-league contract might even be enough. Either way, he's worth looking into considering the underwhelming crop of free agent shortstops.

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