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The Middle Infield Dilemma

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Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

In the late evening of July 27, 2015, the Blue Jays acquired Troy Tulowitzki. Two days later he made his Blue Jays debut, coincidentally the day after Devon Travis played in what would be his last of the 2015 campaign. Starting from then, the Jays have played 405 games (385 regular season, 20 postseason). Of those, Tulo has started 251 games in the field (62%), and Travis has started 144 games in the field (36%). Below is a diagram, roughly to scale, showing how that breaks down:

Tulo Travis Venn

Only 89 times - 22% of the time - have Tulo and Travis started alongside each other in the middle infield. That's actually less often than the 24% of the time neither have started over the same time. Fully three quarters of the time that both have been Blue Jays, the team's backup middle infielder has been pushed into starting duty. Granted, this probably underestimates to some extent how often both can be expected to play in 2018, based on "regression" but also the sample's timing.

Nevertheless, it clearly illustrates both the need, and the front office's focus on adding quality middle infield depth this winter. Both Tulo and Travis are supposed to be ready for Spring Training, and so long as that's the case both should slot in as starters: Tulo given his long history of production but also simply the money left on his contract, and Travis given that when healthy his production has translated to 4+ WAR over a full season.

But if the primary infield guy off the bench is going to be starting something on the order of 50-75% of the time, then you need much better production than the 70 wRC+ and -34 batting runs accumulated by all layers at 2B or SS in 2017 other than those two.

Ideally, it would look something like Darwin Barney's 2016 season: a good defender capable of handling either position with a serviceable-if-below average 87 wRC+. The issue of course, is that in the context of his career, that represented closer to the high end of his production level than his median or likely expectation. Which is why the Blue Jays were able to acquire him essentially for free in the first place.

Basically, the Blue Jays are looking for a "second division regular": a player who projects below the level of an average MLB regular, more on the level of a fringe starter. Finding such a player represents a pretty significant dilemma, as it means threading a pretty tight needle between good enough to hold one's own as a regular, but not so good that other teams see them as regulars and pay accordingly. A regular if necessary, but not necessarily a regular (to borrow a line).

So it's a tough task, but let's survey the landscape. Compounding the above difficulty, the free agent market isn't terribly inspiring:

  • Neil Walker: some talk of pursing him and then moving Travis to the outfield. If Walker's market collapses, maybe, but it would eat up a significant amount of the available budget space and wouldn't help with SS depth.
  • Eduardo Nunez: has hit for the last three years, but he's a butcher defensively with injury issues of his own. Sort of a poor man's Jose Reyes as a Blue Jay, but beggars can't be choosers and at the right price perhaps.
  • Howie Kendrick/Chase Utley/Brandon Phillips: only options at 2B, and Kendrick more of an OF at this point. But could do worse than veteran stopgaps on a one year deal.
  • Alcides Escobar: basically hits like Ryan Goins. Actually, basically is Ryan Goins at this point.
  • Others: Danny Espinosa? Have to buy heavy regression with the bat. Yunel Escobar and Jose Reyes can still hit some, but done defensively and off-field baggage. Stephen Drew seems done.

So if the free agent market doesn't have palatable options, that means looking to trades. There are some potential rentals (last year of arb) available that shouldn't cost too much to acquire:

  • Jose Iglesias: Should be available from a rebuilding Tigers team ($5M arb projection). Hasn't hit last two years, but strong defensively, and hopefully regresses upwards towards projection (84 wRC+)
  • Adeiny Hechavarria: similar profile to Iglesias, but has hit at decent clip for a second division regular in three of last four seasons. Would be intra-division trade, and Rays probably aren't looking to move him, but would be one way to cut payroll.
  • Freddy Galvis: Phillies have Crawford/Kingery so should be looking to open up playing time. More like an expensive Barney though ($7.4M arb projection) and big UZR/DRS split on defensive value. I'd think he's also a non tender candidate.
  • Asdrubal Cabrera would be a good fit, but the Mets don't seem likely to move him.

The trade market should also offer some options that come with multiple years of control, though that also means likely having to dip into the prospect pool:

  • Jurickson Profar: the flavour du jour due to upside, but lots of interest and unproven. Feels like a better fit for a rebuilding team, Jays' priority should be more certain 2018 floor
  • Cesar Hernandez: three years of control, and more of a 2B but could probably handle SS in a pinch. If Phillies want to make room and get a significant return, they could move him. His performance is more of a true regular, and so he'd require significant prospect value going back.
  • Yangervis Solarte: can play all around the infield, though marginal at SS. Three years affordable control, so Padres can no reason to move him absent a good return.
  • If they were willing to move significant prospects, could they make a run at Marcus Semien? Oakland has no reason to move him unless they got a really nice package, but he'd be pretty close to ideal.

From the free agent bin, for me it would really come down to contracts, maybe seeing who's left when the music stops and can be signed cheaply. Iglesias would be my preferred option from the rental bin (again, assuming a reasonable return). I really like Cesar Hernandez, and giving up significant value can be justified considering the value in 2018, but also the control and value beyond.

The other option would be a platoon type option. Ryan Goins likely sticks as the last guy on the bench anyway, and he's a lefty hitter who hits righties better (69 wRC+ vs. 43 career), which is the opposite for most of these guys. If you take his projected 70 wRC+ for 2018, it would be closer to 80 wRC+ against righties. That at least approaches the threshold for a second division regular.

That might be a bit of a stretch on Goins though, but Galvis could be an option as a switch hitter with a career 80 wRC+ against RHP, especially if he's non-tendered. Since most middle infielders are righties who hit lefties better, finding a platoon partner shouldn't be too difficult. Darwin Barney actually has a 90 wRC+ against LHP only.

This is far from an ideal solution, especially as it limits roster flexibility by tying up two bench spots as light hitting middle infielders, but it could be at least be a viable plan B if other pursuits come up empty. The truth is, there's no easy answer to the 2018 middle infield dilemma.