Free Agent Market: Shortstop

The shortstop market took a considerable hit when J.J. Hardy re-upped with the Baltimore Orioles around midseason. Arguably the second-best option at a position rarely flooded with elite available talents, Hardy inked a lucrative multi-year deal which made sense for a guy who’s battled injuries and inconsistency the past couple seasons. As a result, this offseason’s free agent list at shortstop contains one superstar, a few solid regulars, and some question marks.

Jose Reyes is clearly the prize of the shortstop market, and among the top of the entire free agent class this offseason. Reyes is coming off his finest season with the stick in his nine-season career, having posted career bests in wOBA, wRC+, each triple-slash category, and probably just as noteworthy, K/BB ratio. Only a subpar defensive season kept 2011 from being Reyes’ best overall season WAR wise, as his 6.2 mark just missed exceeding the 6.4 he posted in 2008.

There are a lot of factors to consider with Reyes’ value going forward. First, if there’s any lingering worry about his hamstring health, his value could drop. It’s certainly unlikely, but for a player who relies heavily on his wheels (80 percent career base swipe rate/average 11 triples per season), this could factor a bit on which teams get involved in the bidding. Somewhat similarly, there could be a Carl Crawford factor. No, the silly talk about Crawford’s deal being the worst of all-time isn’t at all what I’m suggesting, but with somewhat similar skill sets, maybe Crawford’s struggles might make a $20-million-per-year deal less likely for Reyes.

Finally, let’s take a quick glance at some underlying stats for Reyes. Indeed, Reyes did well to walk more than he fanned in 2011, but even that came at a pretty steep drop from Reyes’ walk rates in two of the past three seasons. Managing to slice his strikeouts three percent is nice, but it’s more likely that the walk rate will stay where it is than the strikeout rate based on his career marks, which could put Reyes in line for a slight regression. Another stat likely to regress is Reyes’ BABIP, which peaked in 2011 at .386, against a career mark of .346. The BABIP doesn’t necessarily match up when cross-referencing his batted-ball data from 2011 against the rest of his career. None of his rates were out of whack, which would likely suggest that despite an excellent 2011 season stats-wise, there’s also at least a little room for regression here. He’ll still get what’s likely the richest shortstop deal in the game right now – and probably deservedly so – but he’s by no means a sure-fire bet to stay healthy or as productive as he was in 2011. It’s still probably a risk worth taking.

The days of Jimmy Rollins as an elite shortstop are likely over, and reports of him seeking a five-year deal border on preposterous, but there’s a good chance he’ll nab the second-largest contract AAV-wise among shortstops this offseason. It’s been three full seasons since Rollins has posted a wOBA above .330, and one more since his OPS was north of .800, but the former MVP has managed to continue to be relatively valuable for the Phightins by playing his usual stellar defense, swiping bags adeptly (82.7 percent career mark), and keeping his K/BB rate in close proximity (>1 the past two seasons).

However, it’s time to face some facts. Rollins had a .736 OPS last year, and while that was better than the average bear at shortstop (NL SS as a whole: .688), a .268/.338/.399 line from a 33-year-old shortstop doesn’t scream “multi-year deal at $15 million a pop,” does it? Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if Rollins doesn’t get the years he desires in a contract, but ends up settling somewhere between $12-15 per campaign on a shorter-than-desired pact. On a pure ‘WAR-to-dollars’ value scale, that probably makes sense. From a feasibility standpoint, however, as a GM I’m not sure I’d take the plunge. After all, I don’t know how long Rollins’ legs will hold up, and once they go, I think his value will plummet rather quickly.

Rafael Furcal
is an interesting case. Trivia question: What was the last season which saw Furcal play 150 games? The answer of course is 2009, and before that, 2006. Thus, only two of the last six seasons have proven healthy for the switch-hitting Dominican who once flashed brilliant speed, but now has broken-down wheels. What’s interesting about Furcal is that when he’s healthy, he’s shown the ability to post double-digit totals in each extra-base hit category, swipe bases by the boatload, and control the strike zone very, very well. He’s done that in small doses as recently as 2010 (4.2 WAR in only 428 PA), but one would have to go back to 2006 to find the last full, capable season from Furcal.

Still, with a decent season still somewhat on the horizon, and a shortstop position bereft of talent league-wide (ML SS had a .708 OPS collectively), it seems likely that a GM would look to Furcal as a potential buy-low option. Whether or not Furcal agrees will be interesting to watch, but at age 34, I imagine he’d likely be amenable to a shorter-term deal than Reyes or Rollins, and still has some potential to keep it together for a season or two of better than league-average production. With a $12 million option that’s pretty much guaranteed to be declined, he’ll likely have to settle for that much over mutlple years when he finds his next home this winter.

Another shortstop with an option in his contract is Marco Scutaro of the Boston Red Sox. At $6 million, it’s hard to say for sure if the Sox will exercise the option, or decline it and perhaps try to re-negotiate a deal with Scutaro, who has enjoyed two seasons of .284/.343/.401 production since returning stateside. The 36-year-old Venezuelan has really come into his own as a bit of a late bloomer, having enjoyed pretty much all of his modest success on the wrong-side of 30 since his initial call-up.

Scutaro is a pretty well-rounded player. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but he controls the strike zone pretty well, has decent extra-base pop, and manages to keep the ball out of the air relatively well too. As a result, the onus is on the Red Sox to decide if they want one more year of Scutaro bridging the gap, presumably to Jose Iglesias, or if they want to hand over the reins to Jed Lowrie in the meantime. Presumably, it’ll probably depend a bit on how much money the Sox want to earmark towards a starting pitcher, perhaps C.J. Wilson. Either way, Scutaro provides a competent, if not flashy alternative on the free agent market.

The last shortstop we’ll profile is Clint Barmes. I’ll readily admit it was close between Barmes and Alex Gonzalez among players profiled, but I chose Clint over Sea Bass because of age, and the notion that I think the Braves will bring back the fellow they acquired in the Yunel Escobar deal to hold down the fort for the other shortstop pulled in that trade, Tyler Pastornicky.

Barmes has played his entire career in launch pads. And while his .252/.302/.410 triple-slash (78 OPS+) is by no means great shakes at the plate, there’ll certainly be a secondary market for Barmes once the big movers and shakers settle into their new digs. One of the big reasons teams will like Barmes is that he can provide good pop from the bottom of the order. Barmes typically posts ISOs in the .150-.170 range, and did go as high as .195 in 2009 with the Rockies when he popped 23 home runs and 32 doubles. Also helping Barmes’ value out is that he’s adept with the leather too, having graded out positively in UZR in every single season in which he’s played regularly so far. As a fan of a team which desperately needs a shortstop, but is unlikely to make a big splash, Barmes seems like a pretty good buy-low option. In the best case scenario, he’ll play solid defense and may provide your club with 40-50 extra-base hits out of the seven-hole.

Other options include: Yuniesky Betancourt*, Orlando Cabrera, Jamey Carroll, Jack Wilson, Ramon Santiago, Nick Punto, Cesar Izturis, John McDonald, Alex Gonzalez, Craig Counsell, Ronny Cedeno*, Jerry Hairston Jr.
*Team/Player holds an option.

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In addition to Rotographs, Warne is a Minnesota Twins beat reporter for Cold Omaha as well as a sportswriter for Sportradar U.S. in downtown Minneapolis. Follow him on Twitter @Brandon_Warne, or feel free to email him to do podcasts or for any old reason at brandon.r.warne@gmail-dot-com

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“Jose Reyes is clearly the prize of the shortstop market, if not the entire free agent class this offseason.”

Really? Pujols…