Glaring Weaknesses: Second Base Edition

Non-Tender candidate #1 - USA TODAY Sports

It's no secret that the Blue Jays have gotten very little from their second baseman in 2013.

Coming off a series win over the lowly Minnesota Twins the Blue Jays are hovering just below .500 with the All-Star break on the horizon. This team may not officially be out of contention but there is no doubt they are going to need to go on a big run again at some point if they really want to get in the thick of things. With the trade deadline later this month it is unclear what AA has in mind. There is some thought out there that the Jays will be pursuing upgrades for 2013 only because they are "going for it this year". In a sense that is true given the nature of AA's aggressive off-season, but the reality is that this team is built for a 2013-2015 window. In fact, the Blue Jays have team options on R.A. Dickey, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion for 2016, although so many things can happen between now and then that it's hard to say whether the Jays would want to pick those options up. The only significant player whose contract is up after this year is Josh Johnson.

While one could make an argument that this year should be the Blue Jays' best chance to make the playoffs due to the aging curves of their best players, it is important to remember that it is not the only year in which they have a good chance to contend with their current core. I don't think that it's prudent for AA to sell out to win this season considering how far back the Jays currently sit and the fact they have a couple more seasons to make this thing work. Thinking along these lines I find rumors that the Jays might be interested in Chase Utley, a pending free agent, highly peculiar. In my view the only acquisitions that make sense at this juncture are players that will be under team control in 2014.

One could also argue that the Blue Jays should be sellers at this point but they really don't have that many pieces to sell at the moment. Josh Johnson's value is at its absolute lowest point right now and there won't be much of a return unless he can string together some strong starts before the deadline. I'd rather hold unto him and gamble with a qualifying offer at the end of the year. The other piece that stands out is Darren Oliver who has become somewhat redundant with three other younger, cheaper southpaws in this bullpen. I don't think the Jays should hesitate to rent out Oliver if they get an even remotely promising prospect in return because I don't think his departure makes the team any worse today and there is no way he returns for 2014.Other than those two there aren't any pieces to sell that wouldn't be giving up on the next couple of years. If Anthony Gose were excelling then you could get a good return for Colby Rasmus right now and turn over the keys to Gose but the gap between those two is pretty big at this moment and Colby looks more likely to be the CF of the future right now.

With the premise that 2014-2015 is the window the Blue Jays should be focusing on, I decided to begin a three part series on shoring up the three biggest weaknesses on the current team: second base, catcher and starting pitching. For each position I will examine two players on other teams that I think would be good fits, one that I think they could realistically acquire, another that would be more of a pipe dream as well as two internal options that could reasonably contribute within the window mentioned above.

Today I begin that series by looking at arguably the biggest hole the Blue Jays have right now: second base. Toronto currently ranks last in the major leagues with a -2.0 WAR from their second baseman. The next worse team in the league, the Chicago White Sox are getting a -1.0 WAR. With a .227/.269/.345 slash line and a league worst -16.8 Ultimate Zone Rating on defense there is nothing to like about the output Toronto second baseman have produced.

The saddest thing about those numbers is that they are actually misleadingly inflated. The way FanGraphs keeps statistics by position is by including the stats of all the players who are listed at that position as opposed to who actually played there. As a result the total stats for the Jays second baseman are actually inflated by Mark DeRosa's .205/.291/.410 slash line given that he has played mostly third base. Additionally Maicer Izturis's stats count towards this number when in fact he has been the starting third baseman since June 10 (he has only played 5 games not at third base since then) and during his time at that position he has hit .295/.323/.368 which, while far from spectacular, is a misleading representation of how Toronto second baseman have produced. Also Munenori Kawasaki has yet to reach base in 10 PA as a 2B and this is not counted because he is only listed as a SS by Fangraphs right now, another tiny demerit on Toronto's second base black hole. Long story short, it's ugly. Almost unbelievably ugly in fact. There is a possibility that when Brett Lawrie returns Izturis can slide back to 2B and continue to produce but that relies on a lot of unknowns. The first thing to do when examining possible candidates to fill this role is to look internally.

Internal Options

Option #1: Jim Negrych

I would like to start off by saying I never made any guarantees that all of these options would be great options. Negrych is 28 years old and a career minor leaguer so he isn't exactly a high ceiling player. However, the guy has hit .325/.389/.460 in AAA, which isn't nothing. He has a career minor league line .301/.377/.409 which suggests he has some idea with the stick. I punched his current AAA numbers into a major league equivalency calculator and it came up with a .277/.332/.385 line which is respectable. Not that MLE statistics should be trusted or treated as gospel but perhaps you could consider that an unlikely best case scenario.His numbers are fairly reliant on his hot start to the season and I'm sure there are plenty of good reasons he hasn't gotten a chance, but he walks, hits and doesn't strike out a ton and none of that can be said of Toronto's second baseman so far. Perhaps the Jays could squeeze a Joe Inglett type run out of Negrych sometime in the next two years, especially if Bonifacio is released, but ultimately that is likely too much to ask.

Option #2: Andy Burns

Burns is farther from the major leagues that Negrych but he might be more likely to be a viable contributor. Burns turns 23 later this year and has just made him way to AA New Hampshire so he is a bit old to be thought of as a big time prospect. At the same time, he's not a career minor leaguer type like Jim Negrych just yet. In 2011 Burns hit .248/.351/.464 at Lansing, which he improved on this year at Dunedin with a .323/.379/.520 effort. Burns does not have big time power or big time speed and many have questioned his ability to stay at shortstop. However, his more modest tools might be fine for a second baseman. New Hampshire will be an important test for Burns but if he can continue to excel and move his way up to Buffalo to start 2014 he could be knocking on the door. Burns would probably need to have some luck for that to happen, he isn't the calibre of prospect for the Jays to actively make room for, but he remains an interesting name to watch in the next couple of years.

Toronto does not have extraordinarily exciting internal options and chances are the problems at second base will be something addressed with players from outside the organization. Below are two thoughts of players they might think about acquiring, one on the realistic side and one that's a bit of a reach. As I stated before I believe the Blue Jays should be prioritizing 2014 and 2015 so I did not consider any player whose contracts expire after the 2013 season.

External Options

Realistic Acquisition Possibility: Kevin Frandsen Philadelphia Phillies.

At this point you are well within your rights to say, "Kevin Frandsen who the [choose your own preferred expletive here, I wouldn't want to impose my stylistic preferences on you] is that?" It is true that Frandsen is not exactly a household name but I think he would be an intriguing possibility for the Blue Jays.

Frandsen is currently a utility infielder for the Phillies, he's 31 and he has a career slash line of .269/.329/.372 with a career UZR of -5.3 and career WAR of 1.4 in 945 plate appearances. It is for this reason that you are not excited about the idea of Kevin Frandsen, it is for this reason that I doubt my own conclusion when I look at all those numbers in a row, and perhaps most importantly, it is for this reason that Frandsen would be easily available to the Blue Jays.

There are a few reasons why Frandsen is more a more valuable player than he appears to be. It starts with his defense. Although Frandsen has ugly overall defensive numbers, that is a function of how he has been used. Due to the fact he has never really been considered a starter he has played many positions. The problem is that he's only good at one: second base. Here's a chart showing Frandsen's career UZR by position:

Position

Innings

UZR/150

Third Base

877.2

-9.4

Second Base

694

6.9

Shortstop

198

-21.3

First Base

83.2

2.7

Outfield

59.1

1.0

The sample size on most of these numbers is very small but my guess would be the Frandsen has been misused at third bases and just doesn't really have the arm to hack it on the left side of the infield. When I dug around a while a found this quotation from soxprospects.com from when he was in the Boston organization, "Frandsen is a very good defensive second baseman and average shortstop, strong glove, limited range and arm strength". Additionally, according to his Baseball America page he was rated "Best Defensive Infielder" in the San Francisco Giants system after the 2005 season. While that rating is from a long time ago and defense peaks early, I think there is reason to believe that Frandsen could be capable with the glove if you stuck him at second base.

There is also reason to believe Frandsen might be able to do more with the bat than his career line indicates. Since he joined the Phillies in 2012 he has hit .320/.382/.446 and been worth 2.2 WAR in 319 PA. Those numbers have been helped by an unsustainably high BABIP (.366 in 2012) but this year Frandsen's BABIP has come back to earth (now sitting at .288) he has still hit .283/.380/.435, a pretty good line. As long as Frandsen has a BABIP within the normal range he looks to be a half decent hitter considering he almost never strikes out (8.5% career rate). It appears that he ran into some awful BABIP luck earlier in his career and he was never the guy with flashy tools that was going to get a second chance. Previous to his stint with the Phillies the only two years in which he had over 150 PA he registered BABIP's of .277 and .267 which just aren't enough for a contact hitter to get by.

Overall there isn't a ton of data on Frandsen and he's no spring chicken but I think there is reason to believe he could be the type of player that could be a sneaky upgrade for this team. Not that being an upgrade on the current situation is a high bar by any means. He is under team control through 2014 and would cost almost nothing in arbitration and could also probably be had from the Phillies for a song. Frandsen is no franchise player or saviour, but if his glove holds up at second base he's the sort of guy that could surprise and be an average starter for a year or two. I could see him as a poor, probably very poor, man's Marco Scutaro. I may be the only person on the planet thinking this, but the Blue Jays might be looking at the wrong Phillies second baseman.

The second external possibility falls firmly into the category of "wouldn't that be fun" type pipe dream. However, it's not so ludicrous so as to be literally impossible so it gets a mention here.

Far Less Realistic Acquisition Possibility: Ian Kinsler, Texas Rangers

Unlike Kevin Frandsen if you are reading this blog you are likely fairly aware of what Ian Kinsler brings to the table. Kinsler is a three time All-Star with a .273/.354/.459 career slash line and surplus value on the base paths and in the field. There would appear to be very little reason for Texas to part with Kinsler but if they are smart, and they are, they might have to consider it. Texas recently signed defensive wizard Elvis Andrus to a massive extension locking him in as the shortstop of the future and they have phenom Jurickson Profar recently graduated to the major leagues without a definite position as a result. Right now Texas is trying Profar in the outfield but if Andrus remains on the squad they really need to maximize Profar's value by putting him at second base. Profar's bat will probably play well in a corner outfield but it would look truly elite in the middle of the infield. Although Kinsler is a very valuable player Texas would be wise to part with him if they could get a big return due to his age and contract.

Kinsler turns 32 next year and he is locked up until 2017 on a contract worth $17 million dollars a year. If Kinsler was moved off of second base his value to Texas would be diminished and they would likely be able to do better with the $17 million in payroll flexibility and the healthy return they could get in a trade. As Kinsler ages he is likely to lose a great deal of value given that his fielding and base stealing looks to take a hit in the coming years. By 2016-2017 his contract could be a little bit ugly. So if you are Texas, trading Kinsler makes some sense. However, the reason this is a pipe dream is the logistics.

Firstly, the Blue Jays don't really have the assets to swing a deal for Kinsler and secondly Texas is trying to win right now and keeping all three of Profar, Andrus and Kinsler is probably the best way to do that at this moment. Although Kinsler would look good as a Blue Jay and will probably play his last couple of truly great years during the Blue Jays window of contention I just don't see how this deal would ever get done. However, AA has done things I would have previously considered impossible, dumping the Vernon Wells contract comes to mind, so you never know.

The overall picture for the Blue Jays at second base looks fairly bleak. The internal options are questionable to say the least and the biggest second baseman on the trading block is only signed through 2013. If the Blue Jays absolutely surge through July perhaps a trade for Chase Utley becomes a more realistic option. Until such time count on seeing a lot of Munenori Kawasaki, which, in terms of entertainment value alone, is hardly a tragedy.

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