The Meat Market: Second Basemen

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He doesn’t have the name recognition and a place reserved in Cooperstown like Roberto Alomar or huge power numbers and an MVP award like Jeff Kent, but the best available free agent second baseman this offseason is Placido Polanco. Polanco has long been one of the elite defensive infielders in baseball and he’s added some impressive hitting to his resume since being traded to the Phillies for Scott Rolen in the middle of the 2002 season.

Take a look at the difference between Polanco’s offense with St. Louis and with Philadelphia:

TEAM                  G      AVG      OBP      SLG     IsoP     IsoD     SO/BB
St. Louis           489     .296     .331     .385     .089     .035      1.77
Philadelphia        301     .294     .349     .441     .147     .055      1.10

With the Cardinals, Polanco was a slap-hitter with very little plate discipline. With the Phillies, his Isolated Power (slugging percentage minus batting average) nearly doubled from .089 to .147 and he improved both his plate discipline and strike zone control, all while maintaining an excellent batting average.

Polanco put up Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) totals of 37.8 and 33.0 during the past two years, ranking ninth and 11th among all major-league second basemen despite missing a total of 76 games with injuries. Missing that many games (40 in 2003, 36 in 2004) is never a good thing, but if Polanco can just find a way to stay healthy for 150 games, he could be one of the top offensive second basemen in baseball. Add in his always outstanding defense and he’s not only a real stud, he’s perhaps the most underrated of this offseason’s free agents.

That’s not to suggest Kent isn’t an outstanding second baseman himself, because he certainly is. In two seasons with the Astros, Kent hit .293/.350/.521 in 275 games, big numbers for a middle infielder. However, thanks to the home ballparks they’ve played in, the offensive gap between Polanco and Kent isn’t as big as you might think. If you take their VORP totals (which adjust for ballparks) from the past two years and prorate them to 600 plate appearances (about a full-season’s worth), Kent checks in at 50.7 and Polanco comes in at 38.3, for a difference of 12.4 runs.

While even the best defensive metrics aren’t as reliable or accurate as measures of offense, there’s little doubt in my mind that Polanco makes that up and then some defensively. But even if he doesn’t, you’ve also got to account for a) the contracts they are likely to command, and b) the fact that Kent will be 37 in 2005, while Polanco will be 29. Which guy would you bet on being the better value over the next couple seasons?

Meanwhile, Alomar has had a lot of trouble being productive over the last few years, which is somewhat understandable with that giant fork sticking out of his back. Alomar’s fall from stardom is one of the fastest and most startling I’ve witnessed as a baseball fan. In 2001, at the age of 33, he hit .336/.415/.541 with 66 extra-base hits, 30 stolen bases, 100 RBIs and 113 runs scored in 157 games with the Indians. It was perhaps his best season, which is saying something for a guy who has a dozen All-Star appearances and five top-10 MVP finishes. However, it was also his last good season, which is the confusing part.

Alomar spent 2002 with the Mets and hit just .266/.331/.376, and then proved his cliff dive wasn’t a temporary thing by batting .258/.333/.349 for the Mets and White Sox in 2003 and .263/.321/.393 for the Diamondbacks and White Sox this season. At this point, barring some sort of time machine discovery, Alomar (.262/.331/.367 from 2002-04) is a switch-hitting, older, slightly less awful version of Luis Rivas (.257/.300/.399 from 2002-04). And yes, that’s as bad as it sounds. Who would have imagined back in 2001 that both Roberto and Sandy Alomar would be free agents following the 2004 season and they’d get about the same amount of interest from teams, which is to say very little.

Aside from Polanco and the two big names, there are still a few other decent free agent second basemen on the market. For starters, both members of this season’s Cubs’ duo, Todd Walker and Mark Grudzielanek, are available. After a disappointing 2003 season with the Red Sox, Walker came back with a nice year at the plate, hitting .274/.352/.468 in a semi-platoon role. Over the last five years, he has posted on-base percentages between .333 and .355, along with slugging percentages between .428 and .476, so you pretty much know what you’re getting from him offensively. Defensively, he’s simultaneously underrated and mediocre, which is just fine as long as he hits. What he did with the bat in Boston is the low end of what a team can live with.

Grudzielanek missed half the year, which enabled Walker to get so much playing time. When he did play, he was quite good, continuing the little renaissance he’s had since joining the Cubs. With the Dodgers from 2000-2002, Grudzielanek hit a measly .274/.319/.382, but he hit .312/.360/.421 in two seasons with Chicago. Those aren’t great numbers, obviously, but if he can continue to get on base more than 35% of the time while playing solid defense, he’ll be a valuable player for someone.

The rest of the potentially useful names at second base include Miguel Cairo, Pokey Reese, Tony Womack, Mark McLemore, Rey Sanchez and Ramon Martinez. Reese and Sanchez are valuable solely for their gloves, although if that’s still true for Sanchez at 37 years old, it won’t be much longer. Reese is a legitimate star defensively, but he has hit a Neifi Perez-like .244/.304/.324 over the past three years. Whatever value he has as an everyday player would probably be maximized by playing shortstop, in which case he picked a bad year to try to find a starting gig (more on this tomorrow).

Cairo and Womack each had surprisingly decent 2004 seasons. Cairo unexpectedly filled the Yankees’ void at second base quite well all by himself, batting .292/.346/.417 in 122 games. It wasn’t the first time he has made himself useful (.295/.366/.417 in 93 games in 2001) and those numbers are pretty close to his career levels (.273/.322/.370), so Cairo might have a similar year left in him for 2005.

I’m not so sure about Womack, whose .307/.349/.385 performance with the Cardinals represents his best offensive season since … well, ever. He established new career-highs in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, all while being just slightly above average for his position. With his past exploits on the basepaths and the fact that he played for the NL champs this year, I could see some team giving Womack a multi-year deal, which would be a mistake. He’ll be 36 years old in 2005, he hasn’t stolen 30 bases in a season since 2000, and this was the first time in his entire career that he’s had a better-than-average OBP. If I were a betting man, I’d let you set the line on Womack’s 2005 OPS and I’d take the under.

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