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.