The Dodgers entered the offseason a little sooner than they expected, but they have already hit the ground running in terms of their offseason planning. While they must await the results of medical exams on both Matt Kemp and Chad Billingsley, they have a pretty good idea of how they expect to attack the offseason, and that is to get after starting pitching. That is a good goal — with Billingsley and Ted Lilly potentially unavailable at the start of the season, and Aaron Harang potentially not good at any time, Los Angeles could use some reinforcements. But general manager Ned Colletti is also planning, at this juncture, to run with the combo of Luis Cruz at third and Hanley Ramirez at shortstop next season. This is a mistake.
The Dodgers were impressed by Cruz down the stretch, and following the ineffectiveness of Dee Gordon the hip injury to Jerry Hairston and Juan Uribe’s general Juan Uribeness, Cruz was a boon for the club on the left side of the infield. The 28-year old Minor League veteran started 48 games at third base, 23 games at shortstop and even tossed in two games at second base for funsies. And while he isn’t going to remind anyone of Miguel Cabrera, he did compile a 107 wRC+. He also finished the season with 119 straight plate appearances without drawing a walk. Cruz’s 3.0 BB% was the third-lowest in baseball among those with at least 250 PA’s this season — only Miguel Olivo, Alexei Ramirez and Pedro Ciriaco walked less frequently on a rate basis.
Instead of drawing walks, Cruz made his hay by making contact — only 30 players had a K% less than that of Cruz’s 11.5 K%. But can Cruz maintain such a low strikeout rate? Anecdotal evidence would suggest not. His swinging strike % this year was 8.3%. Thirteen other players, including his teammates Ramirez and Adrian Gonzalez, has an identical SwStr% — all 13 struck out more frequently. Looking at his swing percentages, there were only 11 players who swung at balls outside of the zone more frequently than did Cruz, and 11 of them struck out more frequently as well. In fact, looking at his swing percentages, a trend emerges:
Only seven people swung at more pitches than did Cruz, but plenty of players made more contact. What that would seem to suggest is that Cruz is about to start striking out more frequently, and as he does he will fall back towards utility player status, if that. He doesn’t have much power to speak of, and given his speed, he’s probably not going to be legging out too many infield singles. Making contact and good glovework are what keep Cruz a viable player of the Dodgers, and if his contact skills erode even a touch, so does most of his value.
Compounding the decision to keep Cruz at third is to insert Ramirez at shortstop for a whole season. There was a reason that Ramirez was moved off of shortstop by the Marlins at the beginning of this season. Ramirez fails the eye test and the stats test at shortstop, and he isn’t exactly Brooks Robinson at third base either — during his nearly 900 innings at third base this season, the UZR/150 he compiled was barely better than Miguel Cabrera. The Dodgers like the idea of premium offense at the shortstop position, but the tradeoff is simply not worth it at this point — Ramirez’s WAR in 2011 and 2012 combined doesn’t equal his 2010 production, and the 4.6 WAR he compiled was, at the time, tied for his worst major league season.
The better play would be to look for a shortstop externally and slide Hanley back to third base. There he can still have value offensively — his 107 wRC+ was just a hair out of the top 10 for qualified third basemen. And while there aren’t a lot of options at third base, there may just be some opportunities at shortstop. My first call would be to Texas, which has two shortstops in Elvis Andrus and Jurickson Profar. If one were to become available, the Dodgers shouldn’t hesitate to work up a competitive offer. The same situation exists in Baltimore with J.J. Hardy and Manny Machado, unless the Orioles are planning to permanently convert Machado to third base. Perhaps the Indians, who are potentially going to be rebuilding again, would part with Asdrubal Cabrera. Or perhaps the Marlins would be interested in parting with Jose Reyes now that they have decided to once again shed payroll.
On the free agent front, Stephen Drew could be an attractive play if the A’s turn down his option. Drew progressively rounded back into shape as the season drew to a close. Finally, Marco Scutaro is set to become a free agent, and while the Giants would no doubt like to retain him, the Dodgers should have the financial muscle to outbid them for his services. All of these players would be less pumpkin-y than is Cruz, and while some may represent a high price in either cash or prospects, Los Angeles has already passed the point of no return for the foreseeable future.
If the Dodgers fail to net any of these players, a combination of Cruz and Hairston probably won’t make for the worst third base combo in baseball, but it’s certainly not ideal. The Dodgers are trying to restore their former glory and get back to the postseason, and they came very close this season. But that progress shouldn’t fool Los Angeles into thinking that they are merely a couple of starting pitchers away. The left side of the infield remains a concern — the team can’t count on Jerry Hairston to be full strength right away, and they can’t count on Dee Gordon to be productive either. Hanley Ramirez has no business playing shortstop, and while Luis Cruz was good this season, he is unlikely to be as good next season. When the clock strikes midnight for Cruz, the Dodgers may end up with as many questions on the left side of their infield next year as they did halfway through this year.