Kansas City designated Emilio Bonifacio for assignment over the weekend in order to make room for the return of Bruce Chen, and that’s normally the kind of thing that would fall through the cracks of a baseball news cycle. In Bonifacio’s age-28 season, he put up a .295 OBP between the Blue Jays and the Royals, getting shipped to Kansas City in August for “cash considerations,” which is another way of saying “you deal with him now.” Now he’s been cut loose barely more than a week before camp starts, and when that happens in late January or February, that generally means player number 40 on the 40-man roster just got whacked to clear a spot for someone new. That’s Chaz Roe, or Everett Teaford, or Pedro Figueroa, the previous three guys who were DFA’d across the bigs. I’d wager less than a quarter of you can name all three teams who let them go. These kinds of moves just aren’t all that interesting.
Except that Bonifacio’s DFA is somewhat interesting, because the Royals signed him to a $3.5m deal to avoid arbitration not three weeks ago, and the fact that he’s suddenly gone now when they didn’t just non-tender him earlier this offseason strongly indicates that Chen is taking his budget slot, as well as his roster spot. (That the Royals appear to be calling it a day with a payroll of around $89m-90m, thus forcing them to go with the abysmal Pedro Ciriaco as a backup instead, is another matter entirely for a team with holes that hopes to contend.) Before the Royals signed Omar Infante, there were non-ludicrous discussions to be had about Bonifacio starting 2014 as the team’s starting second baseman, then moving to the super-sub role he’s best suited for if and when the team improved at the position.
Now he’s out there in DFA limbo, and what otherwise might have been a minor transaction is lighting up the imaginations of fans across the sport. There’s more than a few SBnation team blogs wondering if their team should go after Bonifacio. Here’s a well-known independent Phillies blog. A Mets one. A Yankees one. A Dodgers one, which in the interest of transparency I will admit is mine, though I didn’t write that post. Just search “Is Emilio Bonifacio a fit for…” on Google, with the search limited to the last week, and you’ll see pages of interest.
Fans and bloggers don’t make transactions happen, but you understand why. (In addition to, “it’s February 3 and everyone is bored.”) As camp looms, teams all over are desperate to bring in competition for their benches, and the cupboard is essentially bare. You can see that by looking at our free agents depth chart, which has only Justin Turner, Jeff Baker, Nick Green, and Sam Fuld at Bonifacio’s primary positions of second, third, and center. (Even Baker is a second baseman in name only, since he exists basically to crush lefty pitching, making him not at all a reasonable comparable to Bonifacio.) Someone actually gave Cesar Izturis a camp invite, and Ramon Santiago, and Chone Figgins, and Omar Quintanilla, and Chris Nelson, and even Yuniesky Betancourt, though he had to leave the hemisphere to find it. If still you’re looking to improve your depth at this point in the offseason in any way other than signing Stephen Drew and forcing a current starter to the bench, you’re basically at the losing end of a game of musical chairs.
Bonifacio is obviously a flawed player, because you don’t get sold and then DFA’d if you aren’t, and he clearly had a lousy year with the bat, but only part of a lousy year. Despite that poor OBP and the poor wOBA that comes with it — .279, tied with Vernon Wells and Placido Polanco for 11th-worst among those with 400 plate appearances last year — he adds enough value on the bases and on defense that he was still slightly above replacement. (As well as the difficult-to-measure value that comes with being able to extend a roster by playing multiple positions.)
When I say “part of a lousy year,” that’s because after being atrocious with Toronto, hitting .218/.258/.321 in 94 games after they’d made sure to have him included in the huge Jose Reyes trade, he went off to Kansas City and hit .285/.352/.348 in 42 games and 179 plate appearances, adding a full win and starting 28 of the final 34 games at second base. A .369 BABIP no doubt had something to do with that, but so did a walk rate that improved from 4.6% with Toronto to 9.5% with the Royals, and considering his BB% was between 8.5% and 9.2% in each of his previous three seasons, it’s a lot easier to look at the Toronto number as the anomaly there.
But no one wants Emilio Bonifacio because of his bat; they want him because of his legs, and because of his ability to play multiple positions, some even better than terribly. As a second baseman, he was worth 10 DRS in 2013 alone, even considering what was reportedly a tough early adjustment to the turf in Toronto. He’s been roughly average to slightly below in over 1,000 career innings at third base, depending on your metric of choice, and a bit worse than that at shortstop and center, though at least with hundreds of innings of experience at each should you need it.
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Really though, the value here is on the base paths. Over the last four years, Bonifacio has 110 steals against 22 times being caught; over the same span, he’s tied for seventh in BsR, despite having a thousand or more fewer plate appearances than those on the top of the list thanks to a stint in the minors in 2010 and injuries that shortened his 2012. He’s one of just 19 players since 2010 to steal 100 bases, but only three have been caught fewer times. He can’t always hit; he can always run.
If this is coming off like going after Bonifacio is a no-brainer, it’s not, because two teams in the last six months have now decided they don’t want him, and $3.5 million for a flawed bench player is too much for some clubs. Over the last three years, he’s been pretty good (2.8 WAR, .360 OBP in 2011), injured and struggling (0.4 WAR in 2012), and half-awful, half-productive in 2013. You probably don’t ever really want him to play shortstop, and ideally he’s just a backup second baseman who can pinch-run and cover third and center now and then.
That may not sound like much, but then you look at some of the situations teams are dealing with. The Dodgers don’t know if they can trust newcomer Alexander Guerrero at second base, and have only Dee Gordon, Figgins, and Miguel Rojas as alternatives. The Yankees infield is the subject of articles about whether they’re the worst of all time, probably not unfair considering that Brian Roberts and Derek Jeter are all but guaranteed to miss time, and Kelly Johnson isn’t exactly experienced at third base. The Mets, pending an unlikely Drew signing, have no middle infield depth behind Ruben Tejada and Daniel Murphy. Atlanta might make use of someone who can play second and center considering the presence of two of 2013’s worst players, Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton. Baltimore has no obvious second baseman, and needs depth at third while Manny Machado‘s knee heals. Milwaukee can’t count on Rickie Weeks, isn’t certain about Scooter Gennett, and has a manager who loves to run.
I’m going to stop there lest I name half the teams in the bigs, but the point is made. Considering the weakness that so many rosters have at the bottom or in particular areas, there’s a pretty easy case to be made that Bonifacio has some value to offer. $3.5m is probably an overpay, but then it’s sometimes difficult to remember just how much money is floating around the game these days. If a win really is valued in the $6m-$7m range, then Bonifacio need only be worth 0.5 wins to be worth it. That’s exactly what Steamer has him as, but in only 65 games, and, oddly, with a huge decrease in his BsR projection.
If no one claims him, Kansas City can simply send him to Triple-A, and maybe that’s all that happens here, and since the contract isn’t fully guaranteed, there’s a few possible outcomes. But even though the Royals don’t seem to want him, there’s enough value here and enough need elsewhere that it’s not unlikely that someone decides that $3.5m just isn’t a lot of money. The available depth pieces just got mildly more interesting, and in the days leading up to spring training, sometimes that’s all we can ask for.
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