Shortstop is one of the deepest positions on the market this winter. The Pittsburgh Pirates made an early splash in the free agent waters and signed shortstop Clint Barmes to a two-year, $10.5M deal.
Pittsburgh chose to explore other shortstop options outside of Ronny Cedeno this winter. While Cedeno was statistically the best defender on the team in 2011 (5.9 UZR), he has historically never produced much at the plate. His paltry .277 career wOBA and .271 wOBA in 2011 are both evidence of that.
Barmes is a natural fit with the Pirates because he replaces the sound defense that Cedeno provided last year, but also increases the production at the plate to a respectable level. The 31-year-old Barmes has double-digit home run power and posted a .308 wOBA — which may not be impressive, but it is just below league average (20 out of 34) amongst shortstops with at least 350 plate appearances in 2011 and is enough due to his glovework.
Cedeno also has never exactly been consistent defensively, according to UZR. He may have compiled one of the better UZRs of the 2011 season at shortstop, but he owns a career -5.1 UZR at the position. Barmes, on the other hand, has a 20.8 UZR at shortstop throughout his nine years in the big leagues.
The left side of the infield would be stellar defensively with Barmes at short and a combination of Josh Harrison and Brandon Wood at third, but it seems inevitable that the Pirates give top prospect Pedro Alvarez more time at third base prior to mulling a switch to first due to his defensive issues. Though if you’re prone to optimism, Barmes’ good range should limit the number of baseballs that Alvarez has to handle.
$5.25M per year is a bit much for a glove man with average (at best) offense at shortstop — especially for two years — but in an offseason that has seen Mark Ellis become a $4.5M commodity at second base, the Pirates didn’t overspend by much. After all, Barmes posted 3.1 WAR in 2011, which correlates to $14.1M on the open market.
Pittsburgh should obviously not expect Barmes to replicate his career-best season — as the ‘11 season was the first year he was worth more than 2.0 WAR — but he has been worth 7.4 WAR over the past four seasons. Pittsburgh likely had to guarantee a little more money than his competitors to get Barmes to overlook postseason contenders in Milwaukee and San Francisco, who were also reportedly involved in the mini-sweepstakes, but spending $5.25M per year on a two-win player is not exactly bad business.
Not to mention the Pirates’ starting rotation had the third-lowest strikeout rate in the majors last season and the seventh-highest ground ball rate (largely buoyed by Charlie Morton), so plus-defensive infielders will be even more valuable in terms of run prevention for the Pirates compared to the rest of the league.
Of course, the argument exists that the Pirates should avoid the free agent market and continue to develop the young talent in the organization. Chase D’Arnaud looked overmatched in his first cup of coffee in the majors, but perhaps the organization should see what they have in him before allocating $10.5M to a league-average shortstop on a team that is probably two or three years away from legitimate contention in the NL Central.
D’Arnaud, though, struggled defensively in 2011, and only hit .264/.328/.389 in Triple-A and .247/.331/.377 in Double-A over the past two seasons, respectively. He is a fringe major-league prospect and might stick as a utility infielder down the road, but is unlikely to be anything more. At the very least, he needs more seasoning at Triple-A.
Instead of giving the everyday job to D’Arnaud and watch him struggle, Pittsburgh opted to sign an underrated option at shortstop to solidify in infield defense and provide an offensive upgrade from Ronny Cedeno (which is not very difficult, to be fair). Barmes will not propel the Pirates to a postseason berth, but he will provide plus-defense and stability at shortstop without breaking the bank.
This is a nice little signing for Pittsburgh.