The Shortstop Dilemma

In a recent chat at the Union-Tribune, Dennis Lin, in response to a question about Everth Cabrera‘s outlook for next season and his potential replacements, typed these 35 words into his browser:

I believe there’s a decent chance Alexi Amarista starts at shortstop next April. He’s obviously not a long-term solution, but he’d be serviceable. The Padres were really impressed by his play in the second half.

What may be most disconcerting about Lin’s response is that it’s an entirely reasonable one.

Everth Cabrera, the incumbent Padres shortstop, has a trio of potential roadblocks surrounding his return as a full-time starter: (1) the pending legal issues from the arrest on September 3 on suspicion of driving under the influence of marijuana, (2) the hamstring injury which cost the shortstop nearly 70 games last year and also sent him to the disabled list in 2013 and 2010, and (3) the inconsistent performance.

As we discussed last week, Cabrera’s campaigns have yo-yoed between productive and complete wastes since his 2009 out-of-nowhere debut. In 2013, Cabrera made major offensive strides and finished with a .283/.355/.381 line in 435 plate appearances. His 2013 walk rate was nearly identical to his 2012 walk rate, but he struck out just 69 times (in 14 less plate appearances) compared to 110 whiffs in 2012. Last year all of those positive gains were lost — the slash line fell back to .232/.272/.300 in 391 PAs and both the walks (20) and the strikeouts (86) traveled in the wrong direction. The defense, depending on your metric of choice, has hovered in the area just below average, but the base stealing has fallen off drastically (44-48 on steals in 2012 compared to 18-26 last year).

Despite all of the issues, Cabrera remains a legitimate candidate for the job next season, which might tell you a little something about the alternatives. He’s shown in the past that he’s been able to bounce back following a dismal campaign, and the talent — the ability to put up 2-plus WAR in partial seasons — is obviously there. Further, Cabrera should remain relatively cheap after making just $2.45 million last year, and he’s (super-two) arbitration-eligible through 2016. Heck, I was campaigning for an extension just prior to the start of last year.

Let’s just consider, though, that the Padres aren’t comfortable entrusting the starting shortstop job to a player battling legal issues, health issues, and production issues. Who would they turn to?

You’re not going to get far before you reach Alexi Amarista’s name. Since coming over from the Los Angeles Angels with Donn Roach in the Ernesto Frieri trade, Amarista has made a name for himself by showing tremendous positional flexibility, playing at least 100 innings at center field, left field, shortstop, second base, and third base. Further, nobody in the Padres organization — besides Cabrera — has played more major league innings at short than Amarista’s 785. While Amarista has some positive attributes and a reasonable argument to man the shortstop position in 2015, there are at least three reasons why the Padres should look elsewhere.

Amarista isn’t good at baseball

Hold that thought.

Amarista’s really good at baseball. He’s better than like 99.9 percent of the baseball-playing public and his major league slash line would make him look like Babe Ruth compared to you or me. He’s also really small by major league standards — or, really, regular people standards — and he’s probably been told time and time again that he’s not big enough, or strong enough, or prospect-y enough to play major league baseball, and yet here he is as the focus of this blog post. So not only is he really good at baseball, but he’s also an inspiration to youngsters who have been told they aren’t good enough to reach their goals. He’s awesome. (Seriously.)

Okay, but he isn’t very good at baseball when compared to the major league population. Last year, by FanGraphs‘ wRC+, Amarista ranked 201 out of 210 among players with at least 400 plate appearances, right between defensive wunderkind Andrelton Simmons and post-hype prospect Gordon Beckham. Extend that out further — from 2012-2014 among players with at least 1000 PAs — and Amarista’s 76 wRC+ beats out only Zack Cozart, DJ LeMahieu, JP Arencibia, Adeiny Hechavarria, and Darwin Barney*. What this tells us is that there aren’t many players that hit like Amarista who are allowed to rack up playing time like Amarista.

*Amarista ranks 219 of 224

That’s just his bat, though. If you bring defense and position into the equation by using WAR (FanGraphs‘ version, this time), Amarista doesn’t look much better. His .4 WAR under the same parameters as above (2012-’14, 1000 PAs) put him at 209 out of 224.

In fairness, Amarista did well for himself last year after being installed as the everyday shortstop. He OPS’ed .669 in July and August, following Cabrera’s first trip to the DL, before falling off in September. More impressive than the occasionally effective punch-and-judy offense, he held his own at shortstop, posting +.5 UZR and +7 DRS. Still, you need more than a half season’s worth of defensive data to draw too much from it and according to the eyes of the fans, Amarista profiles more as an average defender (which would play below average at short) with near-average reaction/instincts and hands/catching and a weak arm.

Playing Amarista everyday at shortstop takes away his greatest asset

There are players of Amarista’s ilk who stick around for a long time without inheriting an everyday role or playing at a level significantly above replacement. Geoff Blum comes to mind. The former Padre racked up over 4,300 plate appearances with a sub-.700 career OPS, and he played in a more offense-friendly era than today’s game. Primarily a third basemen, Blum could play every infield spot in a pinch and even saw action in the outfield. He made almost $13 million as a player known for good makeup and versatility, but after the age of 30 he only reached 400 plate appearances twice in a season and was rarely relied upon as an everyday starter.

The value that Amarista brings to the Padres, like Blum, comes in his versatility. He’s proven that he can handle second, short, and third base with competence and — forgiving the occasional circuitous route — he’s got experience in the outfield in an emergency. He also possesses good speed and has shown solid judgement in base stealing, though his minor league numbers in that area (120-181) are ugly. With the small-ball skills, the base running ability, and the positional flexibility, Amarista is the perfect guy to have around on the bench in late-innings, or to spot start here or there on the field.

Slotting him in as the full-time shortstop takes all of those strengths away, and turns Amarista into a liability. Suddenly the outs start mounting and the defense isn’t as good as advertised, and you’ve wasted a season at shortstop on a 26 year-old replacement level player with skills that scream utility guy.

A younger player with more upside deserves the everyday role (if not Cabrera)

We have a pretty good idea who Alexi Amarista is. He’s an offensive liability with passable defense and a glove for every position. Despite the fact that his minor league numbers might hint that there’s something more there offensively, there’s little chance that Amarista breaks out and becomes a useful regular. Baseball Prospectus‘ PECOTA, for instance, tabs him as a below-replacement level player in its long-term forecast.

There are other players we know less about, like Jace Peterson. After struggling through 58 sporadic PAs on last year’s Padres team — where he hit just .113/.161/.113 — Peterson was mysteriously absent from the September roster. (He closed the minor league season with six straight multi-hit games, for what it’s worth.) It’s not like Peterson’s a no-doubt, sure-fire prospect — heck, PECOTA also projects him at near-replacement level, too — but at least he’s more of an unknown, (slightly) younger than Amarista, and offers some upside projection. Jason Parks, BP‘s former go-to prospect guy, pegged Peterson somewhere between a major league regular and a utility guy last January, noting his good bat speed, control, approach, and solid-average glove.

There aren’t a whole lot of other options inside the organization right now, unless you took from the glut of second base/third base tweeners and tried them at short. (Which is probably a better idea than going with Amarista.) Trea Turner and/or Jose Rondon likely won’t be ready for at least another season.

Still, there’s a big baseball world out there, from the Rule 5 draft, to the free agent scrap heap, to trades and just because an obvious candidate doesn’t arise, if neither Cabrera or Peterson are the opening day shortstop, it doesn’t mean you have to settle on Amarista. Even if 2015 turns into a total rebuild, why not let Amarista do his thing as a role player and let some other player — some unknown — try out shortstop? Remember, Everth Cabrera was an afterthought as a Rule 5 pick out of Single-A, and he’s almost turned into a mainstay at short.

Alexi Amarista has a chance to turn into a fan favorite in the mold of the annoying-little-pesky-small-ballin’-utility guy, but it’s unlikely he’ll do it in a everyday role. He loses everything that makes him valuable if he plays shortstop everyday, plus the overexposure would kill the novelty of it all. And, perhaps worse than that, he’d be blocking the position from a potential long-term solution.

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  • GoldenBoy

    Cabrera should be our opening day shortstop, but with a very short leash. He’ll have to prove himself over the offseason, and if he slumps out of the gate, Amarista should be the guy for the rest of the season, out of principle. You can only give a player so much patience.

    • Billy Lybarger

      GoldenBoy for Manager – of the Dodgers, please.

    • Dustin

      I wouldn’t have a problem with a somewhat short leash on Cabrera if they go with him to start, but I’d still be opposed to installing Amarista as the everyday shortstop if they decide to move on from Cabrera.

      • GoldenBoy

        The Padres need to significantly upgrade their offense. It’s tough to find a strong bat in the SS position. They might as well look for upgrades in the OF and IF corners. They’ll likely have to wing it at SS. You never know, a random guy like Ryan Jackson might impress during Spring Training.

      • Dustin

        Sure, I can see where you’re coming from there. If they improve other areas, I’d be okay with them going with Cabrera to start and then Amarista as the backup, with the idea that if Cabrera was removed as the starter for any reason they’d go with someone else — like Jace Peterson — in the everyday role over Amarista.

  • Tom Waits

    Let’s go outside the organization. Jace isn’t half baked yet, Cabrera doesn’t deserve another chance (based on performance, I will not cast stones about his morality when my house, furnishings, and clothes are made of glass), and Amarista has the magical ability to accumulate 3x as much playing time as he should.

    • Dustin

      I’m slightly more optimistic on Cabrera, but sure, it makes a lot of sense to look outside the organization for additional help at this point. Even if it’s not for a starter necessarily, they should at least acquire a more competent option to push/take over for Cabrera.

  • ballybunion

    The thing about depending on Cabrera is that his legal problems may make him ineligible to play. If he escapes a jail term, he might be suspended by MLB. With the recently announced payroll flexibility and word from Baseball America that the Padres have held a second private workout for Yasmany Tomas, Preller might be wheeling and dealing as soon as the World Series is over. Then all our speculation will go for naught, which might be a very good thing, since we may not be as baseball-savvy as we think we are.

    • Dustin

      That’s true, you certainly have to let that situation play out, although I wouldn’t expect a suspension via MLB based on precedent. (Not that I would necessarily be against one, depending on the facts of the case.)

      But, really, without offseason speculation, what else do we have?

  • BringBackBrown

    Is Beamer Weems available?

    • Dustin

      He had a big-league name, that’s for sure.

  • Ryan Stall

    What about Taylor Lindsey and Cory Spangenberg?

    • Dustin

      Hey, Ryan — sorry, almost missed your comment.

      Those aren’t bad ideas, but I don’t think either would cut it on the defensive end. Spangenberg doesn’t have a great arm from most reports I’ve read, and Lindsay has questions about his arm and range, which is probably why both of them have settled in as second basemen.

      • Ryan Stall

        I like what I saw from Spangenberg in September. I’d like to see how he does when we’re not 10+ games out of contention. If he can hit the way he was hitting in September I don’t care where he plays as long as he can play that position capably. From what I saw, he did make some nice plays at 2B, SS and 3B but he wasn’t very good in the outfield.

      • Dustin

        Yeah, definitely will be interesting to see what he can contribute. The Padres seem to collect second base/third base tweener types, so I don’t know if they’ll be a spot for him to get regular reps on the big league club next year. Guess it depends on how he does in the spring and what kind of moves the Padres make.

      • Dustin

        And that should be “there’ll” instead of “they’ll” …

        The more I think about it, is he the favorite for the third base job? Or is it Solarte? Maybe a free agent move or a trade will change things up there.

      • Ryan Stall

        The way he was playing in September and as bad as our offense was last year you make a spot for him. Like what we should have done with Denorfia in 2012.

      • Dustin

        Yeah, I just worry that it was a small sample, and I’m not sure if that’s what kind of offense you can expect out of Spangenberg going forward. But I certainly agree that if you’re going to have him on the big league roster, let him start. Playing once or twice a week isn’t going to help his development, and if there isn’t a spot for him in the majors let him play everyday in Triple-A.