In a move sure to send major shock waves through the free agent market, the Detroit Tigers have reportedly re-signed Ramon Santiago to a two-year, $4.2 million contract. The city of Detroit has declared a municipal holiday to celebrate the return of their long-time utility infielder…. But seriously, folks, while this looks (and in some way is) like a contending team making a sound-if-unexceptional decision to bring back a helpful utility player, this is a pretty interesting signing. It is not just that Santiago is better than he’s being paid to be. Bringing back Santiago also opens up possibilities for the Tigers this off-season if they are willing to explore them.
To those who do not value defense or position, it may look like the current off-season has been a banner year for middle infielders, with Jamey Carroll, Mark Ellis, and Clint Barmes all getting somewhat surprising two-year deals for considerably more than Santiago got from Detroit. Of course, they are all considered full-time players, while Santiago is a utility player. But is there really that much of a difference? Those three players are all somewhere around 1.5 or two wins players, true talent (Ellis probably a bit less). Santiago put up two WAR in 2010 and 1.4 in 2011, and that was in barely half-time play. Of course, that also means his performances need to be regressed a fair bit due to the small sample, and he is not exactly young. Santiago does not offer much offensively, but it compares well to his peers listed above. The Hardball Times Oliver projection for Santiago in 2012 is for a .297 wOBA, which is about 10 runs below average over a full season. However, given that Santiago has been above average at shortstop (the position he has played the most) over the years, that would make him about a two-win player. So 1.5 to two wins seems like a fair projection over a full season. The Tigers are getting a bargain here.
That is a good thing, but not the most interesting aspect of the deal from my perspective. It is unlikely that the Tigers are going to play Santiago full-time. However, for a contending team, spending more on a marginal win makes sense, and Santiago’s ability to play shortstop, third, and second well means that he’s a good stopgap if one of the starters get seriously injured.
But Santiago’s signing also gives the Tigers additional flexibility in their off-season decision-making, if they are willing to look at him as more than a part-time player. There seems to be some buzz around Santiago and Ryan Raburn platooning at second base. That is a decent way to leverage two players who are somewhat iffy as full-time starters. Santiago is a switch hitter, but for his career he only has hit right-handed pitching a bit better than lefties. Raburn, on the other hand, has hit lefties far better than righties. So offensively, this leverages Raburn’s assets better than Santiago’s, although that also helps the team. Of course, the problem is that while Santiago is a good middle infielder, Raburn is terrible as a defensive second baserman, which could negate much of what will be gained by an inefficient platoon.
While the platoon is not a bad idea, when I mention the flexibility that Santiago could provide, I was referring to potential infield and outfield configurations for the 2012 Tigers. As it stands today, the non-Miguel Cabrera part of the infield looks like a Santiago/Raburn platoon at second, Jhonny Peralta at shortstop, and Zombie Brandon Inge at third. As of now, the outfield is Austin Jackson in center, with Delmon Young and Brennan Boesch on the corners. It is not an intimidating group, but the Tigers are in the less-than-intimidating American League Central, and they are currently the best team in the division. There is room for improvement, of course, s I will briefly suggest how.
I am assuming the Tiger realize they need to do something about third base. Of course, if they had not traded Scott Sizemore for a bag of decidedly non-magical beans, they would already have an inexpensive, workable solution at third base. That is water under the bridge. However, the key might be how they handle the outfield. If the Tigers think Brennan Boesch can handle right on an every day basis, they could move Raburn to left and non-tender Delmon Young, saving themselves about $6 million in the process. Some people still refuse to believe it, but despite Young being non-horrible in 2010 and hitting some home runs in the 2011 playoffs, he still isn’t very good. Oliver actually forecasts Raburn to slightly out-hit Young in 2012, .333 wOBA to .327. And while Raburn isn’t exactly Brett Gardner in left, he’s surely better defensively than Young in the outfield. By letting Santiago play second full-time and putting Raburn in left, the Tigers would probably not lose much if anything on offensive, improve their defense at two positions, and save $6 million that could go to addressing other needs. (Maybe if they promise to fill Oakland’s clubhouse soda machines for the next 20 years, they can get Sizemore back.)
If the Tigers do not want to let Raburn play every day, they could always put him in a platoon with Boesch. That would probably do as much for the team as a Raburn/Santiago platoon, and would allow them to keep Delmon Young if they just can’t help themselves. Just non-tendering Young and putting Raburn in left seems like the best solution to me, however. There are other possibilities that are opened up by letting Santiago be their primary second baseman — perhaps moving Peralta to third and making a run at Jose Reyes or a cheaper option like Rafael Furcal. These are mere speculations, and I do not want to be any more speculative than I already have been in this post. By getting Santiago at a relative bargain compared to similar players, the Tigers have given themselves positional and payroll flexibility to make further good moves. Hopefully for Detroit fans, the front office is open to a number of different possibilities beyond the obvious.
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