Whereas first base features a few of the top talents available in the coming period of free agency, second base… does not. That is hardly surprising. Second basemen are generally culled from a pool of players from which the best bats generally move to third base while the best defenders go to shortstop. The leftovers become second basemen (or Bloomquist-ian utility players). There are a few impact players at second base, and none of them are going to be available as free agents this winter. However, second basemen have been getting paid relatively little in free agency the last few years, and some of the available players could represent an inexpensive, short-term upgrade for a number of teams. A few of the better options are discussed below.
Ages are for the 2012 season, and are listed in the usual form (age prior to July 1, 2012).
Jamey Carroll, 38
I discussed Carroll in a recent post. Carroll is understandably thought of as a utility player, but the past few years he has averaged about two wins a season. He has no power, but somehow manages an above-average walk rate. Combined with a low strikeout rate, he gets on-base at a decent rate. He adds value on the bases and can plays second base decently. Carroll has been surprisingly good the last few seasons, but one would expect age to start catching up with him. However, 1.5-2 WAR is a reasonable expectation for Carroll in 2012 if he is given something like a full-time job.
Mark Ellis, 35
A few years ago, Ellis was a darling of the “New Moneyball” — a below-average hitter with a great glove at second base. Over the last few seasons, injuries and age have taken their toll. Past performance and simple regression probably mean that Ellis is better than his .283 wOBA 2011 performance, but not enough to make him anything like an offensive asset. Ellis still has a good glove, but the decline of his bat, injury problems, and the general afflictions of age point to a guy who is probably a one-win player even given a starting position. Ellis is a bench player/”veteran presence” at this point in his career. I included him as a “good second baseman emeritus.”
Aaron Hill, 30
Aaron Hill has $26 million dollars worth of club options left on his contract. This is not a joke. They will not be picked up, of course, even if the Diamondbacks are reportedly interested at bringing Hill back at a lesser price in 2012. You know, because the last 142 plate appearances are obviously more indicative of Hill’s skill than the previous 1,000. Long ago, Hill was a worthy heir to Orlando Hudson as a decent-bat, slick glove second baseman in Toronto. In 2009, things changed when Hill hit 36 home runs. He managed 26 in 2010, but almost every one of Hill’s other offensive skills disappeared, and in 2011, the power went, too. Hill just can’t seem to get the pop-ups under control, and while those may sometimes fly out of the park in Arizona, well… I am not sure why Arizona thought he was a better option than Kelly Johnson, maybe the infamous “change of scenery?” Hill does has a decent glove, but that is not enough to make him more than a stopgap starter or part-timer at this point in his career. He has also had hamstring problems the last couple of seasons. Hill might be a 1.5 win player at this point, and that is being generous.
Jerry Hairston, Jr., 36
I started working on this piece near the beginning of the Brewers-Cardinals Game Six “classic.” Hairston dove into first base and it looked like he hurt himself badly. I thought I would need to remove him from this list. He stayed in the game, though. I’m glad, too. Hairston is still an underrated player. I vaguely remember Hairston and Brian Roberts battling for playing time for the Orioles way back in the day, maybe I am “misremembering.” Scott ‘s brother is not much of a hitter, but he won’t kill a team. He calling card is a glove that can play just about anywhere on the field — I mean really can play there, not Willie Bloomquist “play” there. Between that and his offensive limitations, that has gotten him pegged as a utility man. Perhaps that is his best role, but there are a number of teams that could have done better to have Hairston play second or even shortstop for them every day this past season (like, say, the Brewers… d’oh!). Given his age and limited playing time in the past, I would not count on Hairston for more than 120 games. His bat is not completely worthless, and his glove is good enough that, given the chance, Hairston would be 1-1.5 win player over a full season. Hairston is still best suited as a high-end super-utility player, but could make an inexpensive and decent stopgap starter at second for a team with no better options.
Kelly Johnson, 30
Arizona gave Johnson a little over 400 plate appearances to try to regain his 2010 power stroke. After that, they traded him for a guy who hadn’t been good for about 1,000 plate appearances — Aaron Hill. There must be something about Johnson beyond what I can see that turns teams off. He was non-tendered by the Braves after a poor 2009, despite good production in the two seasons prior to that. He had a monster rebound for 5.9 WAR for the Diamondbacks in 2009, but after a rough 114 games in 2011, Arizona decided Hill was the better plan. I guess they were “vindicated” by Hill’s six weeks of glory. Johnson obviously had some problems in 2012 — his contact suffered greatly and his strikeout rate predictably skyrocketed. The various metrics and Fans Scouting Report vary with respect to his fielding. Johnson was obviously not a true-talent six win player in 2010, but even in his disappointing 2011, he put up 2.2 WAR. Like Hill, Johnson will be 30 in 2012, so he is in his decline years. Even so, Johnson projects as a two-win player at worst for next season. Toronto’s plan in acquiring Johnson may have been the chance to acquire compensatory draft picks, but the Blue Jays should be careful about offering Johnson arbitration. Given what second basemen have made in free agency in the recent past, Johnson (who had a $5.85 million salary in 2011) and his agent may rightly think he can get more money in arbitration than he would on the open market. If Johnson does reach the open market, he could be a good deal for a team needing a legitimate starter at second base. Johnson easily projects as the best player on this list.