Help Wanted: Utility Infielder

This makes sense. If a player is good enough defensively to play shortstop, and a good enough hitter to justify being given at bats, they typically get snapped up to play shortstop fulltime because there’s also a serious dearth of shortstops worth giving at bats. Just look at how hard the Red Sox have struggled to fill their SS spot since they traded Nomar Garciaparra. This is a big part of why Derek Jeter’s agent thought he could ask for the moon. If Jeter were an outfielder, he’d be in a much deeper pool of talent–as a shortstop, he’s a lot harder to replace.

So why would a player good enough to play shortstop go the utility infield route? Probably due to idiosyncratic situations–the team is has established veterans at each spot, but wants to get him a shot at the bigs. Maybe it’s because the team’s manager is a bit trigger happy on the double switches, and wants a number of versatile defensive players to pick and choose from. It’s probably not because the player wants a mixed role…just look at the average salary of shortstops versus the average salary of utility infielders. As we make a point of saying a lot around here–it’s about the money–and utility infielders can be found at the bottom of the payroll totem pole.

So before we go into the external targets, let’s take a look at the internal options the Yankees have for the role–those being Ramiro Pena, Eduardo Nunez, Kevin Russo, and possibly Brandon Laird.

If you’ve been awake for the last two seasons, you’re already aware of Ramiro Pena, who appeared in 69 games for the Yanks in 2009, and 85 in 2010. In that time, he’s displayed reasonable defense in the infield, and was worth 3.9 runs above average defensively (and 5.0 if you don’t take his 4 innings in the outfield into account–during which he was worth -1.1 runs, which is impressively bad. Anyone remember how that happened?) So if you keep him on the infield dirt, he’s a net positive defensively. He was pretty bad at the plate in 2009, when he put up a .287/.317/.383 line, but his defense kept him at replacement level. In 2010, not so much–his .227/.258/.247 was abysmal, though mitigated by his .429/.375/.429 line with the bases loaded, with 7 RBI, 5 R and 3 singles in 7 opportunities. In other words, while you might remember his clutch hits–Pena was actually terrible in 2010, and as such the Yankees are going to be searching high and low for someone better to fill his spot.

Next in line is Eduardo Nunez, who appeared in 30 games for the Bombers in 2010, mostly at SS and 3B. Nunez followed up a strong 2009 AA line of .322/.349/.433 (note the miniscule walk rate of .027) with a reasonable .289/.340/.381 line at AAA, and didn’t embarrass himself in 59 at bats at the major league level. That sample isn’t nearly large enough to judge on–the best you can say for such a small bit of data is that it wasn’t negative. In addition, all accounts I can find of Nunez’s defense in the minors labels him as questionable. I do know firsthand from a Yankee insider that the front office viewed Nunez’s recent performance in the minors (especially 2009) as a bit of a mirage–while his reasonable cup of coffee in 2010 may have earned Nunez another shot at the utility infield spot, as recently as this past July, he wasn’t really in the organization’s future plans. Native New Yorker Kevin Russo made it into 31 games at the major league level in 2010, split mostly between 3B and LF (with a small cameo at his natural position, 2B) and managed to provide meaningful positive contribution defensively–his UZR/150 (which shows what he would provide over 150 games at that rate) he would have been worth between 40 and 50 runs (which is…insane). This was on a tiny sample size, but Russo’s defense has gotten reasonable reviews in the minor leagues, especially his arm, which is quite strong for a middle infielder (which is probably why the Yankees felt comfortable using him in the outfield last season). He’s also shown the ability to get on base through his minor league career (save for 2010, when his OBP dipped to .332). Questions remain as to whether he’s been abnormally lucky on balls in play (averaging around a .340 BABIP through the minors) but he may be worth a protracted look if the Yankees are unable to find a suitable replacement for Pena.

Next in line is Brandon Laird, whose 2010 AA line of .291/.355/.523 line lead to a late season callup to AAA and a 40-man roster spot. Unfortunately, after being called up, he hit just .246/.268/.344 the rest of the way. Laird’s ability to play SS is….in question. Also, he needs to perform at AAA before we can really consider him for the major league squad. I mention him because his 23 HRs through 2/3 of last season popped him onto a lot of Yankee fans’ prospect screens. He’s probably not much of an option in 2011 (and I wouldn’t be one bit surprised to see him traded this offseason).

Moving on to the external candidates–Baseball-Reference’s handy “Play Index” provided the following list of players who played at least 10% of their seasons at 3B, 2B and SS, while putting up an OBP of at least .320 and garnering at least 300 at bats (since 2008). Not surprisingly, the list is rather short.

1 Omar Infante 2010 .359 506 28 ATL NL 134 471 65 8 47 29 1 62 .321 .416 .775
2 Juan Uribe 2009 .329 432 29 SFG NL 122 398 50 16 55 25 2 82 .289 .495 .824
3 Augie Ojeda 2009 .340 309 34 ARI NL 103 264 38 1 16 32 3 28 .246 .345 .685
4 Jeff Keppinger 2009 .320 344 29 HOU NL 107 305 35 7 29 27 3 33 .256 .387 .707
5 Craig Counsell 2009 .357 459 38 MIL NL 130 404 61 4 39 42 0 54 .285 .408 .766
6 Ramon Vazquez 2008 .365 347 31 TEX AL 105 300 44 6 40 38 3 66 .290 .430 .795
7 Marco Scutaro 2008 .341 592 32 TOR AL 145 517 76 7 60 57 0 65 .267 .356 .697
8 Nick Punto 2008 .344 377 30 MIN AL 99 338 43 2 28 32 1 57 .284 .382 .726
9 Omar Infante 2008 .338 348 26 ATL NL 96 317 45 3 40 22 2 44 .293 .416 .755
10 Brendan Harris 2008 .327 490 27 MIN AL 130 434 57 7 49 39 0 98 .265 .394 .721
11 Craig Counsell 2008 .355 302 37 MIL NL 110 248 31 1 14 46 1 42 .226 .302 .658
12 Clint Barmes 2008 .322 417 29 COL NL 107 393 47 11 44 17 0 69 .290 .468 .790
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 12/5/2010.

In addition to the above list, I’ll mention some other names that have been discussed around the interwebs as possibilities for this role: Bill Hall, Ty Wigginton, Miguel Tejada. Finally, a list of shortstop free agents, including Christian Guzman, J. J. Hardy, Jerry Hairston Jr., Cesar Izturis and Omar Vizquel. Have any other ideas? Throw em in the comments, we can discuss them there.

Some of these names are easier to ding than others. Omar Infante just got traded from the Marlins to the Braves, so it’s unlikely that he’s in play. There’s a reason that Augie Ojeda hasn’t yet hit free agency, at 36 years old. He’s got less than a season’s worth of at bats spread across 9 partials, aggregating to an .234/.320/.313 batting line. He can really play defense, but he’s still under Arizona’s control, and the Yanks won’t tolerate his offense anyway. Ramon Vazquez’s is a passable second baseman, but is terrible at the other infield spots–his .302 career wOBA doesn’t make up for his other shortcomings–which is probably why he spent 2010 between the Mariners and Astros’ AAA clubs. Marco Scutaro is under Red Sox control…nuff said. Brendan Harris is under Twins control cheaply, and even if he wasn’t, he’s been a terrible baseball player in all but one of his seven seasons (2007). Christian Guzman’s .300 wOBA combined with below average defense isn’t worth a roster spot,  and while Cesar Izturis can pick it in the infield, his .296 career OBP probably won’t be tolerated in Yankee Stadium. Ty Wigginton is a “utility infielder” in name only, he’s a reasonable defender in the outfield, but is best described as statuesque on the infield dirt. His UZR tables at 1B, 2B, and 3B make my eyes bleed. Miguel Tejada is old, probably more expensive than he’s worth, and in need of a serious snapback season (both offensively and defensively), and I don’t see the Yanks taking a shot. One of the better candidates, Juan Uribe, was signed to a three year, $21 million deal by the dodgers–probably a bit of an overpay, and far more than the Yankees are going to shell out for their utility slot.

So who’s left? Let’s take a look at them lined up against one another. In this case, I’m taking defense (as measured by UZR and UZR/150) @ SS and 3B, both over career and over last three seasons as indicative of players ability to fill into the Yankees needed role. UZR/150 is an indicative season based on the total sample taken, which can be flawed–if a player has only one inning at shortstop, and somehow made all three outs in that inning, his UZR/150 would be ridiculously high. On the other hand, if a player has had a tremendously long career, during which he’s been a good defender, but has slipped in recent years, his average performance over the course of his career would be a poor projection of what he likely to do in the coming year. So we show both career UZR/150, and total UZR  from 2008-2010, which should (in combination with his # of plays) show how good the player is likely to be in 2011. Some of these players are free agents, others would require a trade be worked out, but have been mentioned as possible trade candidates this offseason (not necessarily in connection with the Yankees).

First off, let’s cross Juan Uribe off this list. As noted above, between the creation of this table and the present time, he signed with the Dodgers, and is off the market. Next lets get rid of Jeff Keppinger: While Kep can hit a little, he can’t play SS or 3B, making him unsuitable for this role. Clint Barmes, perhaps the least attractive name on this list, has been signed by the Astros (who also happen to control Jeff Keppinger). Looking at the above table, I’m not really sure why he’s worth a major league roster spot. The last easy ding is Omar Vizquel–who is listed on Cot’s 2011 FA SS list…but actually re-signed with the White Sox back in November.

The most attractive name on this list has to be J. J. Hardy, who is under Twins control, but has been linked to Pittsburgh via trade chatter of late. He has been tendered a contract, and will likely be in line for a raise to $5.5 million or more, but that almost makes him more attractive to the Yankees. As mentioned above, it’s difficult to convince free agents, at least good ones (which are they type the Yankees typically pursue) to man the utility infield role. In this case, the Yankees don’t have to negotiate with the player–they have to negotiate with Minnesota. Hardy’s defensive contribution has been meaningfully positive every year he has played. In addition, while he’s had both up and down years at the plate, he tops our list with a .324 wOBA. He’s not played 3B at the major league level, but given his proficiency at SS, I believe he could slide over quite easily.

After Hardy, I would point to Craig Counsell as the second most attractive. The 41 year old utility infielder continues to cheat father time–while he’s almost purely a singles hitter, he has shown the ability to get on base at an above average rate, and has been a net positive defensively 14 years in a row. The Brewers (for whom he has played the last four years) currently have an offer on the table, but the Yankees could presumably lure him away. His comp was $2.1 million in 2010–if the Yankees are indeed running up against the budget constraint, his relatively low price tag could make him more attractive.

Jerry Hairston is the proud owner of a championship ring from the 2009 Yankee team, so he’s certainly in the running. He is coming off an absolutely terrible offensive season, and at age 34 his best days are almost certainly behind him. That said, he was a net positive defensively at 2B, SS, 3B and RF, while being marginally negative at CF and LF (all in small sample sizes)–and managed to be worth 1.9 wins in total (as measured by WAR, which takes both offense and defense into account). His closest suitor at the moment remains the Padres, who he played for last season.

Ex-Twin Nick Punto could also be an option–while he’s a terrible hitter, he can really pick it in the field. Since his first full season in 2006, Nick has been worth nearly 60 runs purely on defense. He’s also likely to be very cheap. The level of his defensive abilities make him somewhat palatable–but his .293 wOBA fits nicely into the “black hole” category. The only way he gets fitted for pinstripes would be if the Yankees wanted a defensive specialist, and were up against the absolute edge of their budget (which they very well may be). Currently, he is most closely linked to the Cleveland Indians.

Bill Hall has actually been mentioned as a possible Yankees target–but I can’t see it happening, mostly because he hasn’t played shortstop (aside from 5 emergency plays last season) since 2006. The Yankees need their utility infielder to be capable of spelling Derek Jeter, and Hall doesn’t seem to fill this need. And while some will point to his ability to play the outfield (ala Hairston), I’d point to his -7.3 runs contributed in the field in 2010 (much of which was generated in the outfield). There’s no sense in having a utility player who can neither field nor hit–if the Yankees are looking for such a player, I’ll happily do it pro bono.

It’s difficult to handicap the above candidates. Almost all Yankee chatter since the end of the season has been focused on Jeter, Cliff Lee and Mariano Rivera. Utility players simply aren’t sexy enough to draw the interest of the mainstream media with such significant names oustanding on the Yankees’ to do list. Of the above candidates, I’d prefer to see Hardy or Counsell in pinstripes–barring that, I’d let Nunez wrest the role from Pena in spring training. That said, I wouldn’t be one bit surprised to see Punto or Hairston on the 2011 Yankee team–Hairston as a competent jack of all trades, or Punto as a flashy defensive specialist on a team that may already be set offensively. Who you got?

About Will@IIATMS

Will is a lifelong New Yorker and Yankees fan who splits his time between finance, music, and baseball. He was one of the early contributors to IIATMS, though life took him away for some time. He is very excited to be back.

8 thoughts on “Help Wanted: Utility Infielder

  1. We've had the introduction of the DH and the expansion of the pitching staff from 9 to 13 without expanding the 25-man roster. It's time.

  2. TBI: Good catch, that's definitely a name I should have considered. However, over the last three years, Renteria's wOBA has been roughly the same as Clint Barmes–and his defense hasn't been as good as other candidates on this list–he would likely have been one of the names discarded in the first cut.

  3. What about Eckstein?
    Can you give me a quick primer on UZR? Now that the Astros are considering trading Keppinger, I'm looking at this stats.

    • If last year was the entirety of Ramon Santiago's career, this would be worth considering–he was a big positive on defense (+10.1 almost entirely at SS), and was bad, but comparable to some of the names on our table, offensively.

      But last year was the first time since 2007 that he was positive defensively, and he's got a career wOBA of .294. I'd prefer Nunez.