Fixing the Left Side of the Dodger Infield With Defense

December 28, 2012 at 7:38 am | Posted in Hanley Ramirez, Luis Cruz | Leave a comment

I think we can all agree that though the big moves have already been made, the 2013 Dodgers still have some spots to fill. They need a righty bench outfielder, someone who can back up first base — maybe that’s the same player — and perhaps a lefty reliever. Those moves will come in time, but none of them are my biggest concern about the roster we’re currently looking at. No, that’d be the unpleasant proposition of starting the season with Hanley Ramirez at shortstop and Luis Cruz at third base, which seems to be both an inefficient use of existing assets (defense demands they be swapped) and simply scary from a depth perspective, given Cruz’ lack of a successful track record.

This isn’t news, of course. We’ve been discussing exactly this for months, but with the SS/3B market completely barren — what, you really wanted Michael Young or Placido Polanco? — and the few teams that actually have talent on the left side being generally unwilling to move them for anything less than exorbitant fees, we’ve sadly come to realize that a big move to fix this problem is unlikely. Notice that Mike Olt & Elvis Andrus & Jurickson Profar are all still in Texas? It’s because no one is willing to meet the astronomic prices the Rangers want, even with the tempting prospect of Justin Upton out there for them. And even if the Rangers are willing to trade any of those players, it won’t be the Dodgers who have the best pieces available to get them.

What that means for us is that the Dodgers are now in a situation where there was little available here at the start of the offseason, even less when the Mets retained David Wright and Boston signed Stephen Drew, and all but nothing left now that the carcass of the market has been picked clean. Hell, the Diamondbacks traded Trevor Bauer for a shortstop from Ohio and didn’t even get themselves Asdrubal Cabrera, landing only prospect Didi Gregorius, who many think won’t hit enough to stick at the big-league level.

So there’s no offense out there to be had, and no, don’t waste your time trying to come up with convoluted trade scenarios to get Chase Headley out of San Diego. Yet I can’t be satisfied with that, so I’m trying to look at the problem in a different way.

When we say that “the market is barren” we tend to look at it from an offensive point of view. Polanco is 37 and had a .302 OBP last year. Young is 36 and coming off a .312 mark. Yunel Escobar had only a .300 OBP and is a notorious jerk. The market’s in such a spot that even players who are deeply flawed but still provide some small amount of value are going for shockingly high prices, as you can tell by the $12m the declining Kevin Youkilis got for one year (which I probably would have swallowed hard to accept if it were with the Dodgers) and the two-year deal Jack Hannahan (.312 OBP) got from the Reds weeks after being non-tendered by the Indians.

So, fine, offense wasn’t there to begin with and it’s not there now. But what if we looked at this from a perspective of simply improving the defense? It’s not as sexy, but preventing runs is just as important as scoring them. Sure, simply swapping Ramirez & Cruz would be a great start, but the team seems hesitant to do so. What if we could do better?

Ryan & Hardy. How convenient! (via Keith Allison

Ryan & Hardy. How convenient! (via Keith Allison)

Let’s take a look at the top rated defensive shortstops from 2012 (min 400 PA) as ranked by FanGraphs UZR/150:

1) Brendan Ryan 17.1
2) Clint Barmes 15.3
3) J.J. Hardy 10.1

That’s a good start, but as we know, one year isn’t really enough of a sample size for defensive metrics, so let’s look at this over the last two years

1) Clint Barmes 13.3
2) Brendan Ryan 13.2
3) Jhonny Peralta 11.1

and the last three

1) Brendan Ryan 12.8
2) J.J. Hardy 11.1
3) Jhonny Peralta 9.5

Yeah, I know. Fielding metrics are improving but still imperfect, and the repeated appearance of Peralta on that list might be evidence enough of that. Still, I don’t think anyone would argue the fact that Ryan and Hardy pass the sniff test as two of the best defensive shortstops in the game, and pairing either with Mark Ellis up the middle would make for potentially the slickest-fielding middle infield around, one that any pitcher would love to play in front of. (Remember this conversation when we’re watching balls fly past Ramirez and Skip Schumaker in June, by the way.)

As expected, their outstanding gloves come at a price, since each finished in the bottom 20 by wOBA of all batters with at least 450 plate appearances last year. Ryan actually finished dead last thanks to an unfathomable .194/.277/.278 line that is cover-your-eyes bad, though his fielding ranked so highly that he was still worth nearly two wins. Hardy has excellent power for a shortstop, bashing 52 homers in his two years in Baltimore, but at the cost of a .282 OBP; still, he’s been worth nearly eight wins with the Orioles in 2011-12.

These guys are flawed enough that I can’t say I’d be willing to part with a ton to get either, but it’s also not that hard to see a trade fit simply because of the rotation depth the Dodgers have to shed. Baltimore has young star Manny Machado ready to take over at shortstop and a rotation that went through 12 starters last year. For a team currently planning to throw out Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, & Zach Britton, might it not be preferable to shed Hardy’s remaining 2/$14m, add a Chris Capuano or Aaron Harang to solidify the rotation, and avoid overpaying a Kyle Lohse or Joe Saunders in the market?

Seattle doesn’t have an immediate replacement for the arbitration-eligible Ryan, but they’re also not expected to contend in the tough AL West and they do have a good infield prospect in Nick Franklin potentially ready to make his debut sometime in 2013. After trading away Jason Vargas for Kendrys Morales, they have some sort of grab bag of Hisashi Iwakuma, Erasmo Ramirez, Blake Beavan, & Hector Noesi lined up behind Felix Hernandez, so Capuano or Harang would be a fit there as well. (Go ahead, contort yourself into expanding this to send Andre Ethier to Seattle, but know that Kyle Seager isn’t coming back, Ryan alone doesn’t even scrape the surface of being enough of a return unless you get into good pitching prospects like Danny Hultzen or James Paxton, and that with Nick Swisher gone, this only makes sense for the Dodgers if Michael Bourn is the next target.)

The obvious retort to all of this is, “well, Cruz was hardly a problem with the glove and showed some life in his bat in the final six weeks, so why not give him a chance instead of trading for someone else.” But I don’t see Cruz as being equal with the glove to either Ryan or Hardy, and he doesn’t have the pop that Hardy has shown. Besides, it’s not just about Cruz, as I’ve argued in the past. Getting Ramirez off of shortstop is the most important part here, and for whatever reason, Cruz doesn’t have the weight to do so. Making a move for Hardy or Ryan might.

Furthermore, moving Cruz from “starting third baseman” to “utility infielder at second, third, & short” would push Nick Punto or Juan Uribe (or, preferred deity willing, both) off the team, and that improves the overall strength of the roster as well as providing insurance in case he turns back into a pumpkin. If we’re all wrong, and he hits the way some are convinced that he can, then by all means put him back in the lineup and send me a giant pile of crow to eat.

For a team that’s so wildly expensive and built to win now, a left side of Ramirez at short and Cruz at third is no way to enter a season. There may not be any offensive upgrades available, but perhaps defensive improvement that could benefit the entire pitching staff would be just as good.


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