At this point last winter Juan Uribe was still more than a month away from signing. The year before he was two months away from signing a minor league deal. This year he has found a deal before the calendar flips to December. The Dodgers have signed him to a three-year, $21 million contract, stealing him away from the division-rival Giants. On the surface that represents a nice three-win swing between the two teams, but there is plenty more that goes into this deal.
Uribe will likely take over at second base, displacing Ryan Theriot. The Dodgers’ desire to upgrade over Theriot is understandable. He’s never been much at the plate, as evidenced by his career .319 wOBA. Defense and versatility are what have kept him in a starting role for the Cubs, and then Dodgers, for the last four seasons. Uribe provides that same level of versatility, but anecdotally carries a heavier stick. To that point, his career ISO is more than 100 points higher than Theriot’s. But that misses one important point:
Ryan Theriot’s career wOBA is higher than Juan Uribe’s.
It’s not by much — a mere .007 — but it’s there. Theriot obviously carries most of his offensive value in OBP, where he has produced a career mark nearly 50 points higher than Uribe. This evens out when we weigh them on the same scale, wOBA, rather than OPS, which weighs power more heavily. If we look only at the last three seasons we can see that Uribe is only slightly better than Theriot, by a measure of 0.8 WAR. If they show a similar discrepancy during the next three seasons, it’s tough to argue that Uribe is worth that $7 million per season when compared to Theriot.
Since we learned of the deal I’ve heard the sentiment that the Dodgers will non-tender Theriot as a result of the Uribe signing. This would be foolish. Theriot is entering his second year of arbitration, after having lost his first hearing last winter. He made $2.6 million, and after a poor season he can’t expect much of a raise — he might not even get the $3.4 million that he sought last winter. If he rebounds to produce somewhere between his 2.3 WAR from 2009 and his 3.1 WAR from 2008, he can be a valuable player for the Dodgers, even if it’s not in a full-time role.
Why would the Dodgers benefit by having two utility players on the roster? Their infield is fragile. Rafael Furcal presents a perpetual injury risk. Of the 810 games the Dodgers have played during his five years with the team, he has played in just 580. We also heard rumblings that the Dodgers wanted an insurance option at third base after Casey Blake, 37 next year, dropped off in 2010. Having both Uribe and Theriot allows the Dodgers to sub an above-replacement player into the lineup. Had they settled for just Theriot and a regular utility guy, they’d be in a bind should Furcal or Blake become unable to play.
While Uribe has justified more than a $7 million salary with his play in the last two years, it’s tougher to excuse the three years the Dodgers gave him. Uribe has been in the league 10 years, so we have a decent read on him. While the last two years might appear impressive, they completely ignore the years prior. For four straight seasons, between 2005 and 2008, Uribe’s wOBA was .304 or lower. Even with 50 extra base hits in 2010 it was just .322. It’s not a given that he’ll start to decline in his age-32 through -34 seasons, but there’s little chance we’ll see him improve. Maybe he can give the Dodgers one above-average year at the plate, but it’s tough to wish for more.
If the Dodgers made this move with an eye on carrying four infielders to help compensate for weaknesses among their current crop, this deal might work out. They certainly overpaid in years, but in 2011 they’ll be fine. If the move is simply to replace Theriot with Uribe, it is a mistake. Unless the team thinks that there’s no way that Theriot can recover (and no way that Uribe can fall off a cliff again), then the upgrade is just not worth the money and time commitment. Theriot will cost less than half of what Uribe makes, and with just a one-year commitment. That sounds like a much better move than committing three years to a player who hasn’t produced that many above-average years in his 10-year career.