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The 2010 Shortstop Dilemma

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Baseball players are a lot like musicians. During their undiscovered years their fans value them higher than any mainstream act. This is when fans are most devoted. They help pass out flyers, they let their friends borrow the demo tapes, and so on. Eventually the band or rapper or whatever reaches mainstream status and seemingly loses the adoration factor because everything beloved becomes distorted and overstated. They're just another band now. Everyone knows of them and that mystique is gone.  Common rapped about a similar phenomenon in "I Used to Love H.E.R.". "Her" in this case refers to hip hop. He talks about how everyone does "her" nowadays and how that's affected their relationship and such.

Back when the Rays acquired Jason Bartlett, I think I was probably one of the half dozen people thrilled. During the 2007 season - using Range Zone Rating and Out of Zone Plays; this was the pre-UZR time period for me - I harped about the need for a defensive upgrade at shortstop far too much. I lusted for John McDonald, or Adam Everett, or ... Jason Bartlett. I doubt I named him, but when Andrew Friedman pulled the trigger and I looked at his defensive numbers I knew he was everything I wanted.

Of course people focused on his errors and pondered how a good defensive shortstop could make 26 errors and still keep his reputation. It all came down to range. Bartlett made plays out of his zone, in his zone, and in his neighbor's zone. Really he was a breath of fresh air after witnessing Brendan Harris' patented "three steps and dive" technique.

Along the way I've gained a reputation for hating Bartlett. I guess challenging the merit of his team MVP award while being cautious about anointing him as a suddenly great hitter causes such a label to stick. In that way, Bartlett has gone from underground sensation to a commercialized version of his past self. Depending on what my hipster friend is willing to pay me for my Bartlett CD; it could've endured my last spin. Regardless, I've enjoyed the Jason Bartlett era at shortstop. Whether it ends in a few months or in a few years, I do not know. I do know there are a few possible outcomes.

 One of these four things will happen with the shortstop position this off-season:

A) The Rays will keep Jason Bartlett and keep Reid Brignac in Triple-A once more.

B) The Rays will trade Jason Bartlett and install Reid Brignac as the new starter.

C) The Rays will trade Jason Bartlett and install a stop-gap until they feel Brignac is ready.

D) The Rays will keep Jason Bartlett and trade Reid Brignac.

Why trade Bartlett?  For one, he's no longer the young, inexpensive player he was just two years ago. He turns 30 the day before Halloween and this off-season marks his second year of arbitration. Bartlett's 2009 salary was nearly 2 million dollars. With his best offensive season ever that figure will shoot up. Historical comparisons seem to suggest Bartlett's salary being in the 3 to 4 million range next season. That's not an albatross, but it could be an inefficient usage of organizational resources.

For one, Bartlett's offensive prowess is likely to revert closer to a .700 OPS than a 1.000 OPS. This isn't a shot at him, but it seems rather unlikely he goes from slap hitter to home run hitter. Next his defense is heading down a wayward path.  This is expected though. He's an aging shortstop with recent knee issues. When he arrived with the Rays his previous three UZR seasons were (in descending order): 7.8, 11.5, and 14.4. Since he's posted 2.1 and as of today -5.8. He's not longer a +10 defender, instead more like an average in the -5 < x < 5 runs range.

Make no mistake a player with league average (or slightly below) offense and league average defense at shortstop is worth 3-4 million. That's not the issue here and won't be the issue in the near-future.  The reasons for trading Bartlett would be two-fold:

1. His career high offensive year combined with stellar defensive reputation (plus intangibles) may convince a team to give up more for him than they should.

2. Bartlett might not be 3-4 million better than Reid Brignac plus his trade return.

We won't know about the first stipulation outside of leaked speculation. As for the latter one, we can estimate that Brignac is likely a below league average hitter next year and something like a -5 < x < 5 fielder. That's basically what I'd expect from Bartlett, with varying degrees of "below average" offensively. All told, Bartlett has to be about eight runs better offensively assuming everything else is equal.

But that's not the only variable. Bartlett can be a win better than Brignac and be the better player. Still, if a team offers the Rays a package fit for a five-win shortstop, can they really afford to pass it up?

What if Brignac isn't ready? Would the Rays consider Sean Rodriguez or Ben Zobrist? Would they bring in a Bartlett-esque veteran? Maybe they could just play without a shortstop (also known as the Brendan Harris experience).

And, what if, the Rays simply trade Brignac? This would signify they were fully interested in winning now. Presumably Brignac would bring back a decent major league part. Some reasons not to move him: he's young, left-handed, and under team control for a good six seasons.  

However this goes down, relish in the fact that this is the second time in franchise history - maybe the first, given B.J. Upton's defensive ineptness at the position - that the Rays aren't short on shortstops.