The U Files # 44: Getting Into the Infield

The New York Mets have been consistent in fielding outfields devoid of angels, even through the high points of 1999 and 2000. However, the infield, which was the strength of those great Met teams, has turned from gold to rust (The Mets have not only been Phillipsed to death, but have done the chemically impossible!). The Mets enter the 2004 season with its crown jewel inserted at shortstop, but a hole at second base.

The Mets started the 2003 season with Mo Vaughn at first base, Roberto Alomar at second base, Rey Sanchez at short and Ty Wigginton at third base. Vaughn amassed fewer than 200 at bats before his knees gave out. It is likely he will never play ball again. Jason Phillips stepped in in Vaughn's place with surprising production. Alomar continued to disappoint, and was traded to the Chicago White Sox for a package centered on LHP Royce Ring. It was acknowledged that Sanchez was merely keeping the spot warm for phenom Jose Reyes, and indeed Reyes was the starting shortstop from June 10 until he suffered an ankle strain August 31. Sanchez was traded to the Seattle Mariners for OF Kenny Kelly. Wigginton was the only member of the starting infield to last the season.Mbr<
In 2004, the Mets figure to have catcher Mike Piazza and Phillips share time between the catcher and first base positions. Wigginton is established at third base (as the Mets await the arrival of prospect David Wright). Jose Reyes will assume the starting shortstop position for his first full year. The second base position is up for grabs. Prospect Victor Diaz, acquired in a trade for Jeromy Burnitz from the Los Angeles Dodgers, is not ready. The Mets gave time to homegrown prospect Danny Garcia, but he too could likely use more repetitions at class AAA Norfolk. The second base position will be one focus of newly reaffirmed General manager Jim Duquette. Some of the options involve moving incumbent players to new positions.

The simplest options involve signing someone who's been playing second base already, such as Luis Castillo of the World Champion Florida Marlins (who will be hard pressed to create so many Capitalized Words again), or Tadahito Iguchi, from the Land of the Rising Sun. Gnarlier options involve the Transposition of Entrenched Uniformed Personnel. Possible such maneuvers could involve Miguel Tejada or another "besu-boru" player, Kazuo Matsui, both currently shortstops. Tejada could be moved to second base, or to third with Wigginton shifting to second base. Matsui insists on remaining a shortstop, so he would force the shifting of Reyes to second base. The unlikeliest scenarios involve the warping of space-time to fill the void.

Castillo has been the most talked about free agent of what is a weak crop of unattached second baseman. He is known for playing good defense and making things happen with his speed. However, advanced defensive statistics show he was below average defensively in 2002 (2003 statistics not yet released), and his offensive game is in danger of disintegrating.

Castillo is purely a speed player. His ability to post high batting average hinges on his ability to generate infield hits, since he cannot inflate his average with extra base hits. Many of the extra base hits he does generate hinge on his ability to stretch singles into doubles, and doubles into triples. As he annually generates below average slugging percentage, his offensive value is tied to his on base percentage. In 2003, his .381 OBP made him a viable tablesetter. However, his walk totals will not support a high enough OBP should his batting average fall off, to make him useful.

At age 28, Castillo is at a point where his speed is in danger of attenuating. Data on the aging of ballplayers as it regards speed is available. An author of www.baseballprimer.com who goes under the name Tangotiger produced a chart of age factors (http://www.geocities.com/tmasc/agepatterns.txt). Among the data are factors for stolen bases and triples. Stolen bases reach a peak at age 24, and continuously diminish thereafter. By age 28, stolen base ability is at 82 percent of its peak. By age 32, it is down another 20 percent. Triples peak at age 21 and decline continuously after. By age 28, triples are at 60 percent of their peak. By age 32, triples are at 44 percent of their peak.

Iguchi was a first round pick in the Japanese draft of the Fukaoka Daiei Hawks. His career to this point is a string of disappointing years until 2003, when he hit .340/.438/.573. If he could maintain a level of production that corresponds to what that line translates to in MLB, he'd be as good an option as there is. However, that line may not legitimately represent his ability. His impressive OBP and SLG numbers are inflated by a batting average that few players in any league could maintain. A conservative adjustment of his line is .310/.414/.544. This would equate to a line of approximately .279/.379/.489 in MLB. This represents the plausible maximum of his adjusted stats. In fact, we don't know whether the real Iguchi is represented more by his 2003 stats or by the larger sample of his prior career. Iguchi is not a free agent, so the Mets would have to compensate the Hawks to receive the right to negotiate with Iguchi.

Miguel Tejada is the most hyped of the options. The masses would point to his three consecutive years of 30 home runs and 100 RBI, followed by a 27 HR, 106 RBI season in 2003. A deeper look into his career reveals that he had over 600 AB in each of those four seasons – his rate of home runs and ribbies is not as great as it may seem. He hit .277/.341/.475 over the last four years, which is a more accurate indication of what he provided for the Oakland offense. However, the outdated stats of home runs and RBI are still influential enough, that his agent will be able to ask for more than $10 million per year.

To conjure an image of how much Tejada is actually worth, I will calculate his Runs Created above replacement, and multiply this by the average marginal dollar an MLB team spends per run above replacement. Here I will make the assumption that a team of replacement level players would post a .300 winning percentage. Further, we assume that this team makes the major league minimum: $300,000 times 25 players, or $4,800,000.

The average ML team finishes approximately 344 runs above replacement level. The average payroll of a ML team is $70,445,900. Marginal payroll is payroll minus the league minimum, which we use to figure dollar per run above replacement. The average marginal payroll is $62,045,900. Thus, each run above replacement is worth $180,366.

Assuming that a replacement level team would post a .300 winning percentage, a replacement level hitter would hit .290/.364 (OBP/SLG) in the 2003 AL. Tejada hit .336/.472 in 2003. It works out that Tejada was 34 runs above replacement offensively in 2003. Tejada is a good defensive shortstop, let us assume he is worth 6 runs above average defensively. Replacement level defense is likely close to average defense. So, let us figure that Tejada is worth 40 runs above replacement. At $180,366 dollars per run above replacement, this makes Tejada worth $7.2 million dollars above replacement, or about $7.5 million dollars.

Kazuo Matsui is a free agent; he can be signed without having to compensate his former Japanese team. Scuttlebutt has it Matsui is likely to sign with either the Dodgers or Mariners. Unlike Iguchi, Matsui has posted many years of superb baseball. Unfortunately, since Matsui will not change position, his signing would force Reyes to move.

The two biggest American options either are at risk of decline, or are likely to be massively overpaid. The Japanese options have problems of their own. It may be the best option for the Mets to find a stopgap not among the more notable options and wait until Diaz is ready, should he not be moved to another position. Such an option is Todd Walker, a free agent after playing a year for the Boston Red Sox. Known as an offensive second baseman, his defense isn't as bad as it is reputed to be.

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