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True Utility: Nick Punto

During his tenure with the Minnesota Twins, Nick Punto has often been the object of scorn around the internet, generally being lumped in with players like Willie Bloomquist as another “speedy” white dude whose alleged “scrappiness” overshadows overall lousiness on the baseball field. The Twins recently decided that they weren’t enamored enough with Punto to pick up his five million dollar option for 2011. With Orlando Hudson looking for bigger deal in 2011 and thus unlikely to return, Minnesota seems to be looking to Alexi Casilla as their 2011 second baseman at the moment. I don’t think Casilla is as good as Punto — whatever small advantage he has with the bat is taken away by a terrible glove — but if the Twins need to trim payroll, not picking up Punto’s option makes sense (although picking up Jason Kubel‘s option is an odd choice…). That’s a lot of money for a part-timer.

But where might Punto fit? He’s clearly a terrible offensive player. His .324 wOBA in 2008 was encouraging, but since then he’s failed to be over .300 in a full season, and sported a Kendallian .280 in 2010. CHONE’s August update estimated his true, context-neutral hitting talent at -15. Of course, that isn’t the whole story with Punto. While never getting a full season of playing time, the last three seasons he has been 2.5 (377 PA), 1.3 (440 PA), and 1.4 WAR (288 PA), respectively. UZR is impressed with his infield defense at 3B, 2B, and SS. So is DRS, and (to a lesser extent) TotalZone. He’s probably an above-average fielder at second and third (where his range makes up for a weak arm), and although he’s not as good at shortstop, he’s probably at least average-ish. He’s likely close to 1.5 WAR player over a full season. $4.5 million (once his $500,000 buyout is accounted for) is still too much for him if he isn’t going to play full-time (although if he were, it wouldn’t be bad). I’m not sure whether the Twins will try to re-sign him for less or not, but if they don’t, he should find a job somewhere.

“Utility player” gets thrown about a fair bit. Sometimes it is used for players who can’t play anywhere well (or can’t hit well enough to play the “easy” positions), guys like Bloomquist or Ross Gload (Gload being the LF/1B version). A better term for such players is simply “replacement level,” I think, since their utility (theoretically, since some teams insist on paying them well) is really in filling the end of the bench while being paid the minimum. Punto, however, has genuine utility. Despite being noodle-batted, he can field well at positions that are difficult to fill; he isn’t simply a guy who is defensively good at first base or left field. Indeed, even if he’s a bit below average at shortstop, that’s valuable, even for a -15 hitter.

That doesn’t mean that every team in the league should be lining up to sign the 33-year-old Punto. Let’s say he’s a 1.5 WAR player. If he plays about half the season, that’s less than one win over replacement. Yes, a win is probably going to be worth between four and five million dollars in 2011, but that’s on average. Teams that aren’t going to contend shouldn’t look at Punto (unless he’s willing to play for the minimum) or players like him; the extra win isn’t worth that much to rebuilding teams. However, a player like Punto does make sense for a contender for whom the value of a marginal win is greater. The Yankees aren’t necessarily a team that should target Punto, but let’s use them as an example. Their third baseman, Alex Rodriguez, has missed substantial numbers of games the last three seasons. Assuming they bring Derek Jeter back, he’ll be 36 to start next season. And Robinson Cano will need a game off every once in a while. The Yankees are trying to contend in the toughest division in baseball, so a player like Punto might makes sense for them. (Again, the Yankees are just an example; one could potentially put win-now teams like the Phillies, Cardinals, or even the Twins on the list.)

Contenders have too much at stake to play a true replacement-level player for an extended period of time if one of their starting infielders go down, so if they can get Nick Punto at, say, two million dollars for 2011, it makes sense. Many teams are going to sign mediocre relievers for more than that. Punto isn’t a great player, but his ability to play good defense at hard-to-fill positions makes him a valuable one in the right situation. That skill, not “scrappiness,” is why Punto, unlike the replacement-level players he is often confused with, has true utility.