Orioles Approach to Free Agency: Second Base
The series continues with a look at what the Orioles should do at second base this offseason. You can find the introduction to this series here and the previous installments in this series here and here. So far we’ve determined that the Orioles should have at least $20 million to spend this offseason. And that Mike Napoli would be a good target for the club to play first base, and serve as the backup catcher. There are rumors that he doesn’t want to be moved off of catcher because he feels his value is greater as a catcher, so he may not be open to signing to be a first baseman if he gets an offer to be a catcher somewhere else.
The Orioles have an interesting situation on their hands at second base this offseason. They claimed Alexi Casilla off waivers from the Twins in early November giving them 4 candidates for the second base job next season. Ryan Flahery, Robert Andino, Brian Roberts and Casilla are all in the running to play second base for the Orioles heading into 2013. That’s not even considering the Orioles top position prospect according to Tucker Blair, Jonathan Schoop. It’s possible that Schoop is ready to take over the position either late in the 2013 season or in 2014 if he develops as the club hopes.
But the Orioles need to figure out what they are going to do at the position to start the season. If we believe the public comments that Dan Duquette has made, the team is not planning to make any further acquisitions at the position. After claiming Casilla, he told Roch Kubatko:
“I think we have enough people on our roster to man the position,” Duquette said.
However, we all know that sometimes GM’s don’t always tell the media exactly what they’re planning on doing. To do so would put the team at a competitive disadvantage. So even though the Orioles have 4 players on the roster capable of playing second base and their top prospect who’s a shortstop but probably will be moved to second base, let’s see who is available in free agency should the Orioles choose to go that route.
Yuniesky Betancourt (31)
Emmanuel Burriss (28)
Ronny Cedeno (30)
Mike Fontenot (33)
Willie Harris (35)
Orlando Hudson (35)
Kelly Johnson (31)
Adam Kennedy (37)
Jeff Keppinger (33)
Will Rhymes (30)
Freddy Sanchez (34)
Marco Scutaro (37)
Ryan Theriot (33)
Most of the players on this list are not even worth discussing because they wouldn’t be an upgrade form what’s already on the roster. The Orioles already have plenty of depth at the position. What they need is an upgrade in talent for their starter. The only players worth considering to do that are Kelly Johnson, Jeff Keppinger, and Marco Scutaro.
In what seems like eons ago, Kelly Johnson began his career as an outfielder with the Atlanta Braves. 31 years old at the beginning of next season, age seems to be catching up with him quicker than most. His strike out rate has increased each of the last 4 seasons, up to 27.4% in 2012. During this same time period, his out of zone swing percentage has increased each season as has his swinging strike percentage. In other words, Johnson’s been swinging at more pitches out of the strike zone while progressively making less contact on the pitches he swings at in the strike zone. That is not a good combination. As he gets farther away from his excellent 2010, that season starts to look more and more like a fluky career year. Add in the fact that his batting average has only been above .225 in one out of the last 4 seasons, and this is a player the Orioles absolutely should not be interested in signing this offseason.
Despite playing mostly third base last season with the Rays, Jeff Keppinger profiles best as a second baseman. He primarily played third base in 2012 because that’s where he was needed after Evan Longoria’s injury. Though he can play all of the infield positions in a pinch, Keppinger provides most of his value with the bat. His impressive slash line in 2012 was .325/.367/.439. Though many would point to his .332 BABIP as a sure sign to regress next season, his batted ball profile actually fits a batter who would be able to sustain a high BABIP. For each of the last two seasons, his line drive percentage was over 23% and for his career 50% of his batted balls are ground balls. Ground balls have a higher BABIP than fly balls, so his profile of line drives and ground balls lends itself to a high BABIP. As one of the most contact heavy batters in the league, he would balance out the Orioles strikeout heavy lineup. In only 115 games last season, he was worth 2.8 fWAR. Over a full season, that’s about a 4 win player.
Where would the Giants have been this season without Marco Scutaro? He was phenomenal for the Giants in the postseason as well as the regular season. His slash line for the Giants was an unbelievable .362/.385/.473. Unfortunately, his first half of the season with the Rockies was as poor as his second half was great. Scutaro’s slash line with the Rockies was only .271/.324/.361. Actually, that’s not so bad compared to what the Orioles got from second base this season. He’s neither as good as he was with the Giants, nor as bad as he was with the Rockies. As usual, the truth lies somewhere in between. Scutaro has become the highest contact batter in the league, pacing the entire major leagues in contact percentage (95.3%) and swinging strike percentage (1.8%!) last season. Scutaro was worth 2.5 fWAR last season and has been worth over 2 fWAR in each of the last 5 seasons. He’s a good ballplayer and up through his age 36 season hasn’t shown any signs of decline.
Coming off of a NLCS MVP and a fantastic half season with the Giants, Marco Scutaro will not come cheap. At 37 years old, he may not be worth the 2 or 3 year commitment he is probably seeking. While a very productive player, I would not be in favor of the Orioles signing him to a 2/$14M or 3/$21M contract. He’s a risk to start declining at 37, and the multiple year commitment would block Jonathan Schoop from ascending to the job should he improve his game to the point where he was ready to take over the position.
However, Jeff Keppinger would be a very cheap alternative to improving the keystone position. Before last season he signed a 1 year, $1,525,000 contract with the Rays in his first year of free agency after being let go by the Astros. Keppinger is kind of like Scutaro light but at nowhere near the cost. They both have an extremely high contact, low power game but Scutaro brings a much higher profile after his season with the Giants. He’s also 4 years Keppinger’s senior. If the Orioles were to sign Keppinger to a contract for 1 year and let’s say $2 million, they wouldn’t have a problem turning him into a utility infielder should Schoop prove to be ready some time in the middle or end of 2013. They would improve upon the below replacement level production they received from the position in 2012 while not blocking their top position prospect in the minors. It just makes sense. I’d advocate for the Orioles to sign Keppinger to a reasonable one year deal this offseason.