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Rays off-season outlook: Free-agent shortstops

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Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

This weekend Ian Desmond, a former Expos draft pick and career Washington National, announced he would test the waters of free agency, entering a market of shortstops that appears to be exclusively age-30 or above.

And surprisingly, among the group, he doesn't have the best offensive stats in 2015 -- which is what I expected to find when I started this article. That distinction belongs to our own Asdrubal Cabrera:

2015 Asdrubal Cabrera Ian Desmond
PA 537 626
wOBA .319 .297
wRC+ 105 85
BB% 6.5% 6.7%
K% 19.7% 28.8%
ISO .162 .154
BABIP .310 .309
AVG .266 .236
OBP .315 .290
SLG .428 .391
SB 6 12

Looking at the above, you're seeing the number one and number two leaders in WAR among impending free agent short stops. Everyone else came in at replacement value, and that includes Jimmy Rollins and Stephen Drew. Anything below those two players and you're better off with Tim Beckham/Nick Franklin. After all, if the next best thing is average, a best case scenario past Cabrera and Desmond is a platoon either way.

Between the players worth signing to a bigger-dollar contract, Cabrera may be the more likely man to get a multi-year deal on the free agent market. That's not to say I expect age-30 Cabrera to be a better long term proposition than age-30 Desmond, but it's close enough to make for an interesting conversation.

Let's go back to the offense. While Cabrera had a great finish to the year, that only brought him up to average offense. And while he has trended above league average on the whole, Desmond has the higher peaks, and neither were actually all that inspiring in 2015 anyway:

Both players had issues in the first half of the season, but rebounded in the second half. Cabrera went from a 72 wRC+ to a 155 wRC+. Desmond went from a 58 wRC+ to 117 wRC+. Both players have enough talent to over-achieve occasionally at the plate, and both did so in the second half .

It's hard to predict what either player will do next season or in the years to come. I'd anticipate a better 2016 out of Cabrera, but only barely so on offense. Cabrera has the appeal of being a switch hitter, and he doesn't have back-to-back years of 28% strikeout rates. Advantage Cabrera on offense.

While it may be difficult to project value over a multi-year deal for either of these players, that shouldn't matter to the Rays, as they're only in the market for a one-year rental. Daniel Robertson is on his way, and so is Willy Adames. This is not a team hotly pursuing throwing millions of money around for a long term deal.

The Rays want another Asdrubal Cabrera situation, nabbing the best infielder possible on a "bounce back" deal. And between the two? Only one of Desmond or Cabrera could use such a deal: Cabrera's 2015 was impressive, while Desmond's left much to be desired.

That's right, I'm talking about defense.

Jason Getz - USA TODAY

Defense

You know, that thing that Asdrubal Cabrera was pleasantly good at in 2015, and that Ian Desmond has to re-learn every April. If you are in a front office looking to hand out a deal, Cabrera doesn't have the yips out of Spring Training. It might be that simple.

Possibly to the benefit of anyone wanting to sign Desmond to a bounce-back deal, 2015 was a parade of embarrassments for the Nationals shortstop. He needed just eight games to record six errors, and was revealed to be a guy who actually makes a lot of errors! It tends to happen at the beginning of the year every season for him.

This time around Desmond switched gloves and settled back into consistent defense, but still ended the season with 27 errors, making it an average year for his career. By comparison, Cabrera had nine errors last season and averages 17 errors per season.

Advanced metrics aren't a big help here in evaluating differentiating between the upcoming free agents. Among the four shortstops discussed above, Stephen Drew was a second baseman last season, and Ian Desmond had the best DRS at -1 runs saved. UZR doesn't like any of them.

Bad press does not, for a strong off-season, make, and while Cabrera seems to be the best option yet again on the free agent market, he's probably ready to land more job security (and more Benjamin's) than the Rays are willing to dole out.

In the three years heading into free agency, Cabrera was making money remarkably similar to the path Desmond is on now. After a bad final year, heading into the market as the best short stop available, he took a one year deal at 75% his previous year's salary.

FA year Asdrubal Cabrera Ian Desmond
-3 $4,550,000 $3,800,000
-2 $6,500,000 $6,500,000
-1 $10,000,000 $11,000,000
0 $7,500,000 ?

Now that Cabrera turned in a strong first year on the market, he can go get more money again. Desmond, meanwhile, might be well positioned to a similar contract to the one Cabrera signed with the Rays for 2015.

Competition

Looking at the baseball landscape, there are ten free agent short stops. Two of those players are likely to have their club options activated (Alexi Ramirez and Alcides Escobar), while two other players (Joaquin Arias and Willie Bloomquist) did not get full playing time last season. That narrows the free agent class to six players.

Player PA wOBA wRC+ BB% K% BABIP ISO WAR
Asdrubal Cabrera 537 .319 105 6.5% 19.7% .310 .162 2.3
Ian Desmond 626 .297 85 6.7% 28.8% .309 .154 1.5
Jimmy Rollins 556 .284 80 7.7% 15.5% .247 .135 0.2
Stephen Drew 428 .284 76 8.6% 16.6% .201 .180 0.2
Cliff Pennington 238 .260 57 10.1% 20.2% .258 .074 -0.4
Mike Aviles 307 .270 68 6.2% 12.1% .254 .089 -0.7

Stephen Drew had his season cut short this month by a nasty concussion, but the rate stats show similar production despite a low in-play batting average.

Among the players above, Rollins dominated southpaws in 2015, while only Cabrera was above average against right handed pitching. If you want a benchmark for a Tim Beckham platoon, Beckham's 98 wRC+ against right handed pitching was better than all but Cabrera above with only 99 plate appearances, while his 102 wRC+ over 108 PA's vs. left handed pitching would have placed third behind Rollins and Desmond (108).

Beckham was used sparingly, and dare I say, well in 2015. It's not clear what he looks like over a full season, but if the Rays miss out on the four players worth using in a full season of play, he's not a far cry from the contenders.

As for who the Rays might be bidding against, there are ten teams in baseball whose shortstop is either unproven or replaceable:

  • Rays - Tim Beckham & Nick Franklin
  • Yankees - Didi Gregorious
  • Tigers - Jose Iglesias & Dixon Machado
  • Athletics - Marcus Semien
  • Mariners - Ketel Marte & Brad Miller
  • Marlins - Adeiny Hechevarria
  • Mets - Wilmer Flores & Ruben Tejada
  • Pirates - Jordy Mercer & Jung Ho Kang (injured)
  • Diamondbacks - Nick Ahmed & Chris Owings
  • Padres - Jedd Gyorko & Alexi Amarista

Among those above, Gregorious and Flores have flourished in their second halves, while Hechavarria and Ahmed have proven to be quite sure-handed in their defense. If we can count the Yankees out of the bidding, it's a huge help to the Rays cause of landing Desmond or Cabrera, but I wouldn't count any of the above teams out.

The game plan for the Rays will be to choose one of Cabrera and Desmond, and lock them in to a one-year deal. Unless they are big believers in the thus-far average production of Beckham over 1/3 of a season, and the added help of Nick Franklin.

Cabrera succeeded in his supposed mission of landing a bounce back year with the Rays. If he'd like to re-sign on a one year deal, I'm sure the Rays and the fans would be glad to have him. He again looks to be the best free agent short stop available.

But if Cabrera is ready to go out to one of those nine other teams listed above and find a better pay day, the Rays should be first in line to offer Ian Desmond the same bounce-back package that turned Asdrubal Cabrera back into a star.