With the dawn of a new year full of hardball promise (and, of course, the invariable potential for disaster) finally at our doorsteps, it's an indubitably apt time to look forward, and I can hardly think of anything better to look forward at than perhaps the most glaring positional weakness of the Texas Rangers' projected 2009 major league roster: third base.
We examined the organization's unstable short-term footing at the hot corner approximately two weeks ago in the first installment of this two-part series, and the reader consensus on how the Rangers should approach that conundrum was clear: dole out as much available playing time as possible to German Duran and Travis Metcalf during what many perceive to be, above all else, a developmental year, and simply play it by ear from there.
Make no mistake about it, either -- there's an exceedingly strong chance that you'll see one or the other anchoring the bag at third base on Opening Day against the Cleveland Indians and reigning American League Cy Young Award winner, left-hander Cliff Lee. There's also a slim chance that you'll see Chris Davis, the Rangers' projected Opening Day first baseman, across the diamond at the position he played extensively throughout his meteoric ascension to The Show (yet doesn't currently figure to log significant playing time at), and an even slimmer chance that you'll see Hank Blalock and his surgically weakened shoulder futilely attempting to relive the glory days.
My intention with the second part of this series was not to rehash the known, however, but rather to explore the unknown, and it is for that reason that I opted to go a bit outside of the box and profile five alternative solutions the Rangers could conceivably utilize at third base in 2009, some of whom are admittedly a bit more far-fetched than others, but all of whom evoke some much-needed critical thinking during a very slow time for baseball:
SS Michael Young (TEX) | Opening Day 2009 Age: 32.4 Years
2008 ML Statistics: 708 PA, .284/.339/.402, 12 HR, .267 EqA
Club Control: 5 Years | 2009 Salary: $16 Million*
Why It Makes Sense: "But Joey," you ask with a pretentious smirk, "I thought Young wasn't going to move to third base until 2010?" And yes, that is the generally accepted plan so many expect Texas to swiftly employ once Elvis Andrus satiates the front office's performance-based expectations and properly positions himself to inherit the everyday shortstop job in the majors.
There is, however, some thought out there that the Rangers should slide Young over to the hot corner a year earlier than anticipated -- presumably with the intention of going ahead and getting the inevitable defensive acclimation period out of the way during a season that many forecast to be of a transitional nature -- and bridge the gap with an all-field, no-hit free-agent shortstop (i.e. Cesar Izturis) or some cost-saving amalgamation of internal parts (i.e. Joaquin Arias and German Duran) until Andrus proves himself ready, willing and able to assume his throne. If you're of that mindset, then this idea undoubtedly makes a lot of sense.
Why It Doesn't Make Sense: I have little doubt in my mind that Young, a consummate professional if there ever was one, will ultimately do what is best for the team, and if that requires yet another leftward shift on the infield diamond to make way for the presumptive franchise shortstop of the future, he's going to do it. The American League's reigning Gold Glove shortstop would likely be far less amenable to the idea of moving for the sake of a perceived stopgap solution, however, and forcibly moving one of the clubhouse leaders against his will would create many more problems than it would solve.
Outlook: Young isn't remotely tradable, yet does not profile as a particularly great defensive option at second base (and really, this message board chatter of Ian Kinsler possibly moving to left field or third base becomes wholly irrelevant if he rebounds with the glove in 2009, as I expect he will) or at a corner outfield spot, and doesn't have the bat to be a designated hitter, so the hot corner is left as the most logical long-term destination, and I still expect to see him there on Opening Day 2010.
A significant offensive renaissance after an injury-marred 2008 campaign and a smooth defensive transition will be necessary just to make him a league-average mainstay, however, and anything less could leave the Rangers scrambling to compensate for Young's shortcomings with improvements elsewhere.
[Editor's Note: FOXSports.com's Ken Rosenthal reported on December 11th that Young is, in actuality, owed approximately $60 million (some of which is deferred) over the next five seasons rather than the previously reported sum of $80 million, as Young opted to receive some of the money over the last two seasons in the form of a bonus. Nevertheless, I'll stick with the commonly cited figure of $16 million until I hear otherwise.]
3B Joe Crede (FA) | Opening Day 2009 Age: 30.9 Years
2008 ML Statistics: 373 PA, .248/.314/.460, 17 HR .261 EqA
Club Control: --- | 2009 Salary: $4.5 Million (Projected)
Why It Makes Sense: The words "Crede" and "Rangers" have been sighted in close proximity to one another more than once in mainstream baseball columns this off-season, a phenomenon that shouldn't come as a tremendous surprise when your probable Opening Day third baseman (Metcalf) has compiled a lifetime .258/.327/.428 batting line in the minors.
Perhaps best classified as a low-walk slugger with deceptively sturdy power, Crede is more than capable of fashioning a .260 EqA-caliber campaign with the bat, and is an elite defender at his best; according to John Dewan's well-regarded plus/minus defensive rating system, Crede registered at 13 plays above average defensively in 2008, and has been a whopping 55 plays above average defensively over the last three seasons (comprising 2,483 defensive innings). He'll likely save you anywhere from 5 to 10 runs more than the league-average third baseman with his glove alone, and while that may not sound like much on the surface, it becomes exponentially more compelling when you realize that terrible defense at third base cost the Rangers anywhere from 25 to 30 runs in 2008.
Why It Doesn't Make Sense: So why is such a quietly valuable player -- one that projects to be worth approximately two wins above replacement, if not more -- still available on the free-agent market? Two simple words tell the somber tale: Back. Problems. Crede has logged just 551 plate appearances in 144 games over the last two seasons as a result of chronic, debilitating flare-ups of back pain that presently threaten to (literally) cripple his prime earning years.
Agent Scott Boras recently asserted that his client was enjoying "pain-free workouts" and had been receiving "great reports from the doctors," but then serious back-related ailments can be career-threatening for athletes, and so additional setbacks in that regard could have major long-term implications. Plus, it's Boras. He could put a positive spin on a torn ACL.
Outlook: Should the Rangers eschew participation in the frenzied January dash to acquire whatever adequate pitching is left on the market, Crede would represent an intriguing potential use of scarce monetary resources -- the 2009 version of Milton Bradley, if you will, in that he measurably improves your on-the-field product if (but only if) he's healthy. It's improbable any team will wish to guarantee such a risky proposition a multi-year contract, and if Crede arrives at the logical conclusion that Texas would be a great place to attempt to rebuild his value on a Bradley-esque one-year commitment (because, hey, it certainly worked for Bradley), there might just be a match in the cards.
3B Ty Wigginton (FA) | Opening Day 2009 Age: 31.5 Years
2008 ML Statistics: 429 PA, .285/.350/.526, 23 HR, .290 EqA
Club Control: --- | 2009 Salary: $6 Million (Projected)
Why It Makes Sense: Dispatched to the Astros in July 2007 in exchange for veteran right-hander Dan Wheeler (a vital component of the Rays' 2008 run to the American League pennant), Wigginton rewarded his new employers with his most prolific offensive campaign to date, socking one home run per 16.78 at-bats and generally wreaking an inordinate amount of havoc on Senior Circuit hurlers (particularly lefties, whom he torched to the tune of .340/.424/.631 in 118 plate appearances) while logging steady playing time at third base and, over the final two months of the season, in left field. Even after accounting for the obligatory loss of offensive output generated by a move back to a more difficult league, his bat would still almost certainly represent an asset for the Rangers at third base.
Why It Doesn't Make Sense: Though his glovework at the hot corner arguably improved in 2008, he's still firmly below average defensively, and one has to wonder if a career high homers-to-fly balls ratio (18.5 percent) indicates that a regression to the mean is imminent. It's worth noting that 15 of his 23 home runs were belted within the hitter-friendly confines of Minute Maid Park; in 234 plate appearances on the road, Wigginton hit a putrid .234/.316/.380.
Furthermore, the Star Tribune's Joe Christensen reported two weeks ago that Wigginton and his agent, Dan Lozano, were believed to be seeking a more lucrative contract than the three-year, $17.5 million bounty Casey Blake obtained from the Dodgers earlier in the winter. Such a deal would obviously make little sense for the Rangers at this point in their development, and even if Wigginton eventually slashed his contractual demands to something in the general vicinity of one guaranteed year at $6 million (perhaps with a second-year club option and a nominal buyout fee attached), he wouldn't represent a particularly great value, and in fact could hinder the team's ability to add payroll down the line.
Outlook: With Wigginton, one almost gets the sense that he's destined to be overpaid based solely on his career-best 2008 campaign with the bat, and while his southpaw-mashing tendencies would seemingly kill two birds with one stone (simultaneously giving the Rangers solid-average production at third base and the right-handed power bat they crave), any interest one side has in the other may not be reciprocated in kind.
3B Mike Lowell (BOS) | Opening Day 2009 Age: 35.1 Years
2008 ML Statistics: 429 PA, .274/.338/.461, 17 HR, .272 EqA
Club Control: 2 Years | 2009 Salary: $12 Million
Why It Makes Sense: A boom/bust proposition in the vein of Joe Crede, Lowell has quietly established himself as one of the better everyday third basemen in baseball over the last seven seasons (with the notable exception of an abysmal 2005 campaign, which preceded a near-trade to Texas that was ultimately foiled by the Red Sox). An exceptional glovesman with a keen hitting eye and good right-handed power such as Lowell would give the Rangers a significant all-around boost, and it seems fair to assume that he has a few good years left in him.
Why It Doesn't Make Sense: Not only would Lowell cost the Rangers a cool $24 million over the next two seasons (which is the primary obstacle in play here), but talent would have to be relinquished as well (though presumably less with the more salary Texas agreed to take on), and Boston's failure to win the Mark Teixeira sweepstakes ostensibly reduced any motivation general manager Theo Epstein might have had to trade Lowell. The native Puerto Rican also underwent arthroscopic surgery back in mid-October to repair a torn tendon in his right hip, though his recovery is reportedly progressing better than expected, and thus the injury risk isn't what it is with Crede.
Outlook: Concurrently the best and most difficult to acquire third baseman on this list, Lowell would add several wins to the Rangers' 2009 record -- but at a price, in terms of cash and talent, that Texas likely won't be willing to meet.
3B Martin Prado (ATL) | Opening Day 2009 Age: 25.4 Years
2008 ML Statistics: 429 PA, .320/.377/.461, 2 HR, .294 EqA
Club Control: 5 Years | 2009 Salary: $400,000 (Projected)
Why It Makes Sense: An intriguing name previously introduced by loyal BBTiA reader Michael Gleason, the right-handed Prado flashed gap power and an ability to lace the ball to all fields during his first full major league season, and has received minor league accolades for his defensive prowess at the keystone (his native position) from industry publication Baseball America. Versatile, young, talented and under club control through the 2013 season, Prado would be a long-term acquisition more so than short-term filler.
Why It Doesn't Make Sense: Because so much of Prado's on-base and slugging percentages are powered by his batting average, even a marginal drop-off could cut a deep gash into his overall value, and the fact that he has never produced an .800 OPS or better in the minors raises a few warning flags. A contact hitter first and foremost, Prado doesn't walk or strike out particularly often, and his power projection is limited. His versatility might be more attractive to the Braves than the Rangers, who infrequently employ pinch-hitters and already have a glut of potential utility infielder candidates in the system.
Outlook: The idea of acquiring Prado realistically entails two key questions: (a) does Atlanta care to trade him, and (b) does Texas care to trade for him? The slick-fielding Venezuelan did an admirable job of filling in at a wide assortment of positions for the Braves in 2008, and there is evidently some thought that he could push Kelly Johnson for the starting job at second base (though that might be a bit dubious in reality), so it seems safe to surmise that he's a valued asset. And, in light of the Great Prospect Heist of July 2007, I don't know that the Braves will be falling over themselves anytime soon to complete another trade with the club that arguably fleeced them.
So, there you have it. I had originally set out with the intention of including a 'Wins Above Replacement' table -- similar to the one pictured here -- comparing Metcalf, Duran, Davis, Young, Crede, Wigginton, Lowell and Prado (no Blalock -- I don't foresee him getting that opportunity), but I wasn't satisfied with the results churned out by the two player forecasting systems presently available for public consumption at FanGraphs (Bill James and Marcels), and concocting my own offensive projections out of thin air didn't seem like a terribly objective way to go about things. Plus, sometimes a little ambiguity is what drives intelligent baseball discourse.
As a result, there's a pretty good chance we'll be extending this series to three parts once the popular CHONE projections are up and running at FanGraphs with the necessary data included -- assuming, of course, that they're published before the likes of Crede and Wigginton are snatched off the market. Until then, feel free to ... erm ... conjecturize, which I readily acknowledge isn't a real word, but it's 4:30 a.m. and I'm beginning to hallucinate, so please try to work with me here.
One last thing: I find it awfully interesting that Dave Cameron and Matthew Carruth, two of the more universally respected statistical minds out there, have both arrived at a similar conclusion: the 2009 Rangers, as presently constructed, are within five wins of the 2009 Angels. The disparity in talent between the best and worst teams in this division is not what it was just a matter of weeks ago, and that's an important consideration to keep in mind as we irreversibly steamroll towards spring training.