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The Brewer Shortstop Problemâ„¢

During last week’s Very Important Event at SABR 41, Sam Miller of the OC Register noted that one of the deficiencies of the current Angels team is the abundance of average-ish players on the roster. Despite the fact that the Anaheimers sit only a single game out of first place at the All-Star break, their playoff chances are impaired by a lack of obviously upgradeable positions: seven Angels are on pace for (or have already reached) a WAR of 2.0 or better — i.e. league average — while Bobby Abreu (who’s not going anywhere) and the catcher spot are the other two relevant slots.

Turning our attention to the Middle West, however, we see a team in the Milwaukee Brewers that has very clear deficiencies. One of these — third base — I have no intention of addressing here. The other, however — namely, shortstop — has been a conspicuous weakness from the very second Brewer GM Doug Melvin traded away Alcides Escobar et al. for Zack Greinke.

Please note that it’s not my intention whatsoever to suggest that the Greinke deal was a poor one. Very much to the contrary, Greinke appears to be an essential part of a vastly improved Brewer club. Rather, the point of this post is to note that there has never been much reason to assume that Yuniesky Betancourt, who has been a replacement-level player since 2008, would prove to be anything but a replacement-level player in 2011.

During April and May and June — when it remained to be seen if the Brewers would contend in the six-team NL Central — Betancourt’s futility was tolerable. But because Milwaukee enters the All-Star break tied for first in the NL Central, and because even one win could mean the difference between reaching and not reaching the postseason (and seeing the attendant revenues), it’s imperative for the Brewers to take action regarding their black hole at short.

So, what are the options? As best as I can tell, these are they (with wins gained or lost in parentheses):

Option No. 1: Status Quo (0 Extra Wins)
Preserving the present shortstop situation — with a majority of starts by Betancourt and an occasional spot start by Craig Counsell — would leave the Brewers with roughly a replacement-level shortstop situation for the duration of the season.

Option No. 2: Josh Wilson (0 Extra Wins)
One might assume that, because he’s neither rotund like Betancourt, nor hobbled by age like Counsell, that Josh Wilson would be an improvement at shortstop over the current pair. One would very likely assume wrongly in this case. Wilson is a .229/.282/.323 (.280 BABIP) hitter through 965 career major-league plate appearances and the advanced metrics think he’s below average defensively, too. Also, because he’s right-handed, there’s no chance that Wilson could platoon with Betancourt, who (i.e. Betancourt) has actually been effective-ish against lefties in his career.

Option No. 3: Minor Leagues (-0.5 Extra Wins)
Edwin Maysonet has played about two-thirds of Triple-A Nashville’s games at shortstop. Over that time — and over the other eight season he’s been in the minors — he’s done little to suggest that he’s even as good as Betancourt with the bat. There’s also the distinct possibility that his defense is slightly below average.

Eric Farris is a player with excellent speed and good minor-league contact rates who’s played some (17) games at shortstop in Nashville, but there are concerns about his arm strength, which has relegated him to playing second base. Ultimately, while Farris would be an interesting replacement for Betancourt, it’s unlikely that Farris would represent a legitimate improvement over Betancourt.

Option No. 4: Trade (0.5 – 3.0 Extra Wins)
Far be it from me to proclaim what assets in Milwaukee’s possession would be most valuable to a potential trade partner. Far be it from me, as well, to make any sort of confident guess as to how much salary the Brewers would be willing to absorb as part of a trade. Still, even proceeding cautiously, there appear to be enough tradable assets and enough payroll flexibility to give the Brewers some kind of bargaining power.

As for which players, specifically, might be available to the Brewers — and would also add something substantive in the way of wins — that’s a matter of speculation, obviously. If you turn your attention to the mostly infallible Yuni Matrix in the upper right-hand corner of this post, however, you can get a basic idea of this author’s thoughts on the matter.

Basically all of the players listed in said Matrix would likely represent some kind of improvement for the Brewers. Owing to their tepid bats, that might only be 0.5 wins from Toronto’s John McDonald and Seattle’s Jack Wilson. Looking at the top-left quadrant of same, we see Jose Reyes, a player who, though unlikely to be acquired, might add something like three wins to the Brewers.

Ultimately, it’s for Milwaukee and Doug Melvin to identify a player in the upper-right quadrant of the matrix — which, that’s where we find Dodger Rafael Furcal all by himself. For the cash-strapped Dodgers, 11 games out of first place in the NL West, dispensing of Furcal and the $5 million or so he’s owed makes a lot of sense — especially with prospect Dee Gordon capable of replacing Furcal.

If you don’t mind being optimistic for a moment, Clevelander Luis Valbuena is another option.Though he’s had limited major-league success (-1.5 WAR in 770 PA), he’s slashed an impressive .313/.379/.511 (.355 BABIP) at Triple-A Columbus this season, is only 25 years old, and is expendable for the Indians with shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera in the midst of his best season and prospect Jason Kipnis looking to take over second base in the near future. Valbuena’s defense might be below average at short, but his upside is probably 1.0 – 1.5 wins over Betancourt.

Even the acquisition of Wilson Betemit — currently blocked at third in Kansas City by Mike Moustakas — would likely represent a net gain at shortstop, even if Betemit defends more poorly than Betancourt.