Mediocre middle infielders have dominated free agency in the early going. Mark Ellis, Clint Barmes and Jamey Carroll have each signed relatively lucrative multi-year contracts at a time when most teams seek bigger impact players. The run on these defense-first, lighter-hitting infielders means that some teams will need to get creative to fill holes at shortstop or second base.
These teams can’t simply wait until mid-January and ink Barmes to a reasonable deal. They may need to make a trade. While shortstopgap free agents like Barmes and Rafael Furcal were expected to get some attention from all the teams shying away from Jimmy Rollins and Jose Reyes, one name seldom discussed is Jason Bartlett.
Bartlett would require a trade with the San Diego Padres, but it’s entirely possible that his very affordable salary, likely reasonable cost to acquire, and minimal commitment makes him the perfect stopgap solution. This is especially true when comparing Bartlett with Furcal, who very well may sign a deal in between Barmes/Ellis/Carroll and Rollins.
With the news that the Padres are considering trading him and Orlando Hudson, it’s worthwhile to explore who might have interest and what Bartlett brings to the table. And no, that isn’t the same table on which free agents are supposedly leaving money.
While PETCO Park suppresses offense, home park effects weren’t the sole cause of Bartlett’s poor season at the plate. Away from the unfriendly confines he posted a .323 OBP and .330 SLG — he was dismal at the plate wherever he went. Aside from a remarkable 2009 season that saw him hit .320/.389/.490, Bartlett is a below average hitter.
He has a career .319 wOBA, and his current true talent level is closer to the .305-.310 range. He doesn’t walk or whiff that often, and while he runs the bases well — 107 stolen bases and +18.5 BSR since 2007 — he isn’t on the bases enough to fully utilize his best skill. He traditionally hits lefties better, but this past season it didn’t matter who he faced or where that matchup occurred: his numbers were below average in every conceivable split.
That wasn’t always the case. In 2007, his wOBA split favored lefties .378/.290. The next year, that split grew to .408/.271, and in his tremendous 2009 campaign he again topped a .400 wOBA against lefties, this time coupling it with a gaudy .372 mark against righties. However, over 2010-11, the split exists on a much smaller scale.
He still hits lefties better, but his offensive decline is attributable to poorer performance against them. Not only does he no longer crush them, he is below average when gauged relative to the league average against opposite-handed hurlers.
Defensively, the jury is out on Bartlett. It’s doubtful anyone would feel strongly about his attributes in either direction. His UZR marks are trending in the wrong direction, but he seems to hover between league average and -5 runs. This isn’t a great range to occupy, but it’s not the end of the world.
Put together, Bartlett can’t really hit, isn’t a defensive wunderkind, and no longer has a crazy split capable of enhancing his value via role specificity. This may invite the question of what exactly there is to like about him. Really, as simple as it sounds, the fact that he is a somewhat durable shortstop — between 135-140 games the last three seasons — and doesn’t completely stink in the field is enough to generate value.
Despite declining defensive ratings and a gradually worsening bat, Bartlett has averaged 1.5 WAR since the 2010 season. Teams don’t generally seek out 1.5 WAR players to solve a problem, but in this case, paying $5.5 million for 1.5 WAR might make more sense than paying $16 million over two years for injury-ravaged 1 WAR seasons.
And that’s the key for Bartlett: he doesn’t cost much. He makes $5.5 million in 2012 and has a $5.5 million option for 2013. The money doesn’t seem like much, but as we saw when Clint Barmes signed with the Pirates of all teams, cheap and affordable aren’t always justifying factors for a transaction. Contextually, Barmes made no sense for the Pirates. At 1.5 WAR, Bartlett would outproduce his deal, but he isn’t a perfect fit everywhere.
In fact, because he would also cost a prospect, it is arguable that he won’t provide any surplus value without substantially improving at 32 years old. Teams inquiring on him should take another look through their farm system to see if it’s possible to cobble together 1 WAR at the league minimum rate. However, with these middle infielders signing so quickly, and numerous teams still actively trying to fill a hole — Phillies and Mets on contingency plans, the Braves to replace Alex Gonzalez, the Brewers, the Cardinals, the Astros now that Barmes signed with the Pirates, and the Giants in the National League alone — a market will clearly exist for Bartlett.
The Padres might actually be able to get more than they thought for Bartlett with so many teams in need of a shortstop and so few matching his characteristics.
He isn’t a very good baseball player, but he does enough right, and makes an attractive enough salary to merit attention. Teams wary of paying Rollins $48 million over four years should look at Furcal as a Plan B. But teams focusing their attention solely on Furcal should consider the merits of trading for Bartlett instead. He carries less risk and is more likely to provide some bang for his buck.