As soon as Ryan Howard went down with a ruptured Achilles tendon to close out the National League Division Series, the Phillies were left with two clear options to replace him in the short-term. On one hand, they could pursue an above-average, starter-quality first baseman like Michael Cuddyer — a player who would require significant financial and time commitments. Or, the Phillies could rebuild with scraps — playing platoons on the cheap until Howard returns, perhaps as late as May or June.
Sunday night the Phillies opted for the latter, acquiring Ty Wigginton from the Phillies in exchange for cash or a player to be named later. Instead of paying Cuddyer multiple millions — possibly eight figures — over two to three years, Philadelphia will merely owe Wigginton $2 million for the next season as the team works through the early parts of 2012.
Wigginton’s entrance into Philadelphia’s roster makes the Phillies’ plan clear. A carousel of Wigginton, John Mayberry Jr. and Ben Francisco will replace Howard — with some Jim Thome thrown in as part of the Tilt-A-Whirl that makes up Ruben Amaro‘s grand carnival. When Howard returns, Wigginton will slot in as a right-handed bench bat capable of filling in both at third base for Placido Polanco and at second base for Chase Utley. Both players have a recent injury histories, so even without Howard’s injury, Wigginton ostensibly fills a role for the Phillies.
As a full-time first baseman, Wigginton would be a full-scale disaster. Wigginton hasn’t been an above-average hitter since 2008, when he was playing in Houston. He couldn’t ride the hitters’ parks of Baltimore or Colorado to OBPs above .320. His only asset at this point is power — he has hit 48 home runs in roughly 1,500 at-bats during the past three years — but that still hasn’t been enough to make him a relevant hitter. Despite the gaudy homer totals, Wigginton has compiled an ugly -14.6 batting runs above average since 2009. Simply put, that doesn’t play at first base.
He could be marginally useful if deployed only against left-handed pitching. Wigginton posted a 109 wRC+ against lefties last season, similar to his 113 career mark. Still, first basemen posted a 125 wRC+ last season overall, so he still projects as below average even in a platoon.
In the other infield spots, Wigginton’s bat is more palatable. National League second basemen only managed a .699 OPS, and the senior circuit’s third basemen — typically considered a position of power — managed a .705 mark. Wigginton’s bat becomes an asset off of first base (between .714 and .731 the past three years).
But what the position change added to his offense, it was mitigated with his poor glove. Wigginton’s advanced fielding section on his player page is a sea of minus signs. This is unsurprising from of a player who has the body of a first baseman, at 6-foot-3, 230 pounds. He hardly passes the eye test at either second or third base. Perhaps if his weaknesses were hidden by platoons and defensive replacements (such as Michael Martinez), he could be useful. As it stands, his presence will be exploited over any substantial amount of playing time.
The term “poor man’s Michael Cuddyer” has already been bandied about. “Poor” might be an understatement. Cuddyer has produced 47.4 batting runs above average since 2009, a full 62 runs (or about six wins) better than Wigginton. Still, as unappetizing as it might be to watch a clearly inferior — bordering on replacement-level — option for the first two months of the season, the Phillies will see a return on their move to go cheap.
Perhaps the team will realize that return this year, with enough available cash to re-sign Jimmy Rollins. Or maybe Philadelphia realizes the return one or two years down the road, where the prospect of more than $40 million committed to Hunter Pence, Ryan Howard and Michael Cuddyer could stifle the team’s ability to improve via the free-agent market.
Ty Wigginton won’t produce like Cuddyer in Howard’s absence. And, frankly, he isn’t likely to produce much at all. But the freedom he affords the front office is well worth the short-term decline in production.