It’s a perfect storm for the class of shortstops coming to free agency this offseason. By which I mean, it’s a perfect storm against them.
The Oxymoronic Perfect Storm
If I were a meteorologist for the 2020 free agent shortstops, I’d first have to point to this frosty, high-pressure system of a pandemic-stricken nation, hovering basically over this…whole…area, here. With no fans* in the stands this season, owners** are crying poor little billionaire, trying to lower expectations with every press conference.
We could wish that ownership would be forethinking enough to want to field teams that fans will pay to see in 2021; we could wish that they would be kind enough to also inform the public when they make money hand over fist, and not just when they don’t. But if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. And Madison Bumgarner would, presumably, be freaking thrilled.
So no, instead, most free agents must brace themselves to receive low offers, perhaps well below what they would normally command, from these cash-strapped franchises. And we must brace ourselves for an offseason that will be merely a different kind of depressing from the very lengthy offseason that preceded it.
But for our free agent shortstops, that’s not all!
No, because we also have this low-pressure system of warmer air scooting in from the opposite direction, which is the all-star free agent shortstop class of 2021. Next offseason, free agents will include 2014 Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa, Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Award Winner Javier Baez, two-time Silver Slugger Award Winner Trevor Story, two-time Silver Slugger, 2016 Rookie of the Year, and most recently 2020 World Series MVP Corey Seager, and two-time Gold Glove, two-time Silver Slugger, Platinum Glove and perennial Best Smile in the Universe Winner Francisco Lindor. These guys have so much hardware that it is going to smash crops, dent car hoods, and hurt like heck when it hails.
Many clubs may choose to wait a year for the chance at a truly franchise-altering shortstop, and compounding this problem for our free-agent shortstops is the fact that Cleveland has already raised the trade alarm. The Indians are looking to really, really trade Francisco Lindor, and this time they mean it. But given that the organization is impoverished enough that it put Brad Hand on waivers in the hopes of not paying his $1 million buyout, it’s assumed that they cannot shoulder the projected $21 million Lindor would make in arbitration. That their required return will be less for one year of Lindor than it was last year, for two, also makes it seem more likely that a deal will get done.
And what’s this?
Ah yes, moving up the south, we have Hurricane Impending CBA Negotiations! In 2021, MLB’s collective bargaining agreement will expire, setting the stage for torrential downpour and gale-force winds between players and ownership. Remember how fun it was this summer when owners pretended to be compromising with players but kept offering them the same, repackaged thing? Board up your windows for more of the same!
Even if none of the other conditions were such to depress the offers coming to free agents this offseason, concerns about work stoppage would be enough to lower owners’ bids.
It’s a perfect storm.
I’ve thought, through all of this, about the oft-used metaphor, “testing the waters of free agency.” At best, I fear the waters are cold, choppy and dark. At worst, this feels like the part of the map where it is scrawled: here there be dragons.
But let’s look at these shortstops, shall we?
All my metaphors dispensed with, let me brighten the mood by just thinking about these talented athletes. Though the marquee free-agent talent is at other positions–I am going to type the words J.T. Realmuto quickly so I’m not wracked with sobs–shortstop may be one of the strongest classes for everyday players in 2020.
One could argue that the most tantalizing shortstop available this might even be the name that not all fans recognize. Granted, more baseball fans are certainly familiar with Ha-seong Kim after this past summer, when Extreme Thirst for baseball caused new fans to seek out KBO games. ESPN making English-language broadcasts of Korean baseball available helped, too.
But if you’re not familiar with the Kiwoom Heroes’ star shortstop, delight in these numbers. In 2020, he hit .306/.397/.523 in a nearly full KBO season of 138 games. His 30 home runs represented a career-high, paired with 23 stolen bases for an exciting combination of power and speed. For the first time in his career, he walked more than he struck out, with a respectable 12.1 BB% and dreamy 10.9 K%.
And the most exciting thing, for any team looking to acquire him: he’s 25.
Players in the KBO can be posted after seven years of service time, becoming unrestricted free agents after nine. But as Kim made his debut at age eighteen, he’s now eligible to be signed by a MLB team, with a posting fee going to the Heroes, a percentage that varies depending on the size of the overall contract. This gives Kim a five- or six-year advantage in age to most of the other shortstops on the market, and means that a team looking for a long-term solution in free agency might find it here.
It also means that Kim’s excellent last two seasons—though he hit for less power in 2019, the batting average and plate discipline were comparable—could be a trajectory to further growth, and not necessarily a peak. That’s enough to flip your bat about.
But how might his bat translate to MLB?
Of course, the level of competition in the KBO is not identical to MLB. Many analysts have approximated it to the level of minor league AAA baseball, with the average velocity of pitches seen considerably lower in the KBO. Dan Mullen of ESPN notes that the average fastball velocity in the KBO is 88.6 MPH, versus 93.1 MPH in MLB. On the other hand, many baseball teams could have interest in a 25 year-old shortstop with a 142 and 141 wRC+ in the past two seasons in Triple-A, if they could acquire him as a free agent and not by trade.
An excellent piece by Dan Szymborski on FanGraphs also provides some “translated” stats from his ZiPS system. It estimates that, if he had been playing in MLB, Kim would have hit .274/.345/.479 with 29 homers and 17 stolen bases. If that’s what a team gets, that will play.
Defensive (Kiwoom) Hero
Though we don’t have full defensive statistics from the KBO, Kim appears to be a fine shortstop, with good range, quick hands and solid footwork. John Trupin notes that his arm might be strong enough for third base, but it would seem less likely that, at 5’9 and 167 pounds, a team would move him to the hot corner. Depending on how his defense plays in MLB, a team might choose to slide him to second base, instead.
MLB Trade Rumors estimates that Kim might get a five-year, $40 million deal, which seems like it could be a bargain for the club that signs him. But with Jung Ho Kang getting $11.5 million and Byung-Ho Park netting a similar $12 million, both for four years, this may not be a conservative estimate. Especially in this current, here-there-be-dragons, environment.
Marcus Semien broke out spectacularly in 2019 with a 137 wRC+, after four previous years of posting near league-average offensive numbers as the starting shortstop for the Athletics. A third-place finish in MVP voting for Semien seemed to directly correlate to his third-place finish in bWAR, behind only Cody Bellinger and Alex Bregman. I advocated for him as one of the most underrated players of the year. He was a heart-throb dream-boat.
However, the shortened 2020 season was less productive for the 30-year-old Semien. His 91 wRC+ was his lowest mark since his 2014 season with the White Sox. He had come to the A’s, along with Chris Bassitt and Josh Phegley, in a trade for Jeff Samardzija, ultimately an excellent bargain for Oakland.
It’s a shame that Semien didn’t have a better season before looking to cash in on his dependability in free agency, but Statcast metrics have little solace to give him. His expected batting average (xBA) of .204 (based on quality of contact, not a predictive stat) was actually worse than his .223 mark.
However, parsing a 60-game season, he did have a better second half (.794 OPS) than first half (.594 OPS). And the first two weeks of the season, in which Semien hit only .190, were mostly responsible for dragging down the month that comprises that “first half.” So, his entire season may be suffering under the weight of a slow start that would have been erased in a normal, 162-game season. It’s worth noting that he was excellent in the A’s seven postseason games, hitting .407/.484./.667 with two home runs. Semien can hope this performance won’t be lost amidst the Athletics’ four-game swoon to the Astros in the ALDS.
The Curious Case of Semien’s Defense
Semien’s defensive metrics have largely improved over the course of his career, with two excellent seasons by Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) in 2018 and 2019. However, these stats also appeared to nosedive this past season. The vagaries of 2020’s small sample may be to blame, but I wonder about the impact of an absent Matt Chapman, who missed nearly the last month (otherwise known as half) of the season. Following his 2019 campaign, Rian Watt of FanGraphs linked Semien’s stronger defense to the appearance of Chapman, corroborated by an interview with Semien. Chapman’s defensive ability, strongly correlated to the singing of angels in God’s heaven, also enabled Semien to play further towards second base, his weaker direction. With this positioning, the shortstop could more confidently range up the middle, or dive to his stronger side, towards Chapman.
Whether or not the shopping teams are aware of the Matt Chapman factor, we can still hope that Semien will land in a place with a strong defensive third baseman. And not, for example, somewhere like Philadelphia, as much as I love Semien. Alec Bohm still needs to make defensive strides, no matter how clutch he is with runners in scoring position, or how beautiful his hair. (IYDK: his hair is really beautiful. It’s like the hair of the angels that sing about Matt Chapman.)
FanGraphs’ crowd sourcing projects a three-year, $51 million deal for the solidly productive shortstop. In the piece above on MLB Trade Rumors, however, his agent suggests that they expect more. Since the A’s didn’t extend a qualifying offer to Semien, he will at least be forging into free agency unencumbered.
As long as we’re on the topic of the Phillies infield and players who didn’t receive qualifying offers, let’s move along to Didi Gregorius. With the best 2020 MLB season of any of the free agent shortstops, Gregorius might arguably be worth the $18.9 million QO—in a normal season.
But, as I made meteorologically clear, it is not a normal season, and the Phillies, showing all the organizational cohesion of a game of blindman’s bluff, whatever that is, are crying poor and will not retain Sir Didi at that price. Granted, it’s likely that Gregorius’s deal will be for less in terms of AAV (average annual value), with FanGraphs’ crowd predicting a three-year, $45 million contract. But a $15 million AAV, however probable, feels unfair. After a down 2019 season following Tommy John surgery, he was worth nearly that much, at $14 million, on a prove-it deal.
And then, he did prove it.
Gregorius’s wRC+ of 116 fell short of only his career high-water-mark of 122 in 2018. His .284/.339/.488 came from reliable, consistent production in a season when most of his teammates had periods of being colder than liquid nitrogen. Didi was the glue of the Phillies’ lineup, exemplified in his team-leading 40 RBI (no one else was even particularly close).
Look, I know. I barely recognize myself, citing RBI. I know it’s a context-dependent stat. But in this case, Gregorius’s context was the ninth-straight losing season of a Phillies franchise. Leading the team in RBI reflects what I saw, which is that even more of the 2020 Phillies season would have been heartbreaking without him in the lineup.
But, in fairness, and to be more in character, Statcast doesn’t love Gregorius any more than it does Semien. Gregorius routinely ranks towards the bottom of the league in exit velocity, and he lost a very troubling 4 MPH from his exit velocity this past season. If this concerns the Phillies front office, I can’t blame them. His .284 average well over-performed his .261 xBA, though a similar discrepancy in 2017 still led to his career season of 2018.
Pull Hitter Landing Spots
Clearly, the 31-year-old Gregorius has benefited from playing in two stadiums with a short right porch, in Yankee Stadium and Citizens Bank Park. Gregorius has yet to hit an opposite field homer, or even straightaway center field home run, in his career.
But a return to the Reds, the organization that drafted him, would still be an advantageous ballpark. The Angels, who purportedly had “an interest” in Didi before the baseball season even came to a close, would also provide him with a friendly right field wall.
The Angels, of course, were doing advance scouting on this year’s market because they’re losing their shortstop of the past five years, Andrelton Simmons. Granted, the possibility exists that the Angels could decide to move David Fletcher into this role full-time, which I mention only because I have an irrational fondness for David Fletcher, and like to mention him on the few occasions that it might be remotely warranted.
President of LLSEDP (Ladies Love Smartly-Executed Defensive Plays) Opines
But clearly, I am also a huge fan of Andrelton Simmons, as President of the Ladies Love Smartly Executed Defensive Plays Lobby. Hark, the Bohm-haired angels sing about Simmons’ defense, for sure. Frankly, the earthly Angels of Anaheim sing about it, too.
The four-time Gold Glove Award and Platinum Glove Award winner regularly sits near the top of Statcast’s Outs Above Average (OAA) leaderboard. It’s no exaggeration to say that he has Hall-of-Fame caliber defense, when his 2017 represents the single-season record for defensive runs saved, with 40. And he laps the field. His career total of 191 DRS is far more than double of any other active shortstop (Nick Ahmed has 80). In fact, it only requires one more solid, Simmons-esque year to make him the all-time career leader, currently held by Adrian Beltre with 202 DRS.
Concerns for Simmons
Of course, another solid Simmons-esque year is in question, after he only played 30 games in 2020, necessitating a fill-in from David Fletcher, which I only mention because David Fletcher was pretty great this season but nobody ever talks about him, except me because I love him. Simmons has been hampered by injuries to his left ankle in the past two years, costing him almost 60 games in 2019, and half of the short 2020 season. He did choose to opt out for the final week, but I imagine that his ankle sprains and the Angels’ place in the standings both factored in the decision. The past two injury-plagued seasons have also cost him in the realm of his defensive calling card, with 12 DRS in 2019 and, quelle horreur, -2 in 2020.
This is a difficult situation for Simmons to be in, at age 31, when his bat has been below league-average more often than not in his career. Another shortstop who is the opposite of a Statcast darling, Simmons has very little power, although his decent batting average is often buoyed by a quite excellent career 9% K-rate.
The FanGraphs crowd suggests three years at $42 million, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Simmons forced to take a shorter deal during this off-season, if only to prove that he’s healthy and his glove is as flashy as ever.
Though it feels unfair to mention the defense of Andrelton Simmons and basically anyone else in the same segue, Freddy Galvis is another player whose admirable defense declined in 2020. Statcast’s OAA seems to tell a clear-cut story of decline—with 12 OAA in both 2018 and 2019 cratering with -2 in 2020—although the recent creation of the stat handily avoids Galvis’s early years in Philadelphia before he improved his defense (see: -13 DRS in 2015).
But the 31-year-old Galvis had made himself into a slick-fielding shortstop, and it’s particularly disheartening to note that the Reds had begun to swap him out this season. On the Athletic, C. Trent Rosecrans pointed out that it was a clear indication of the Reds’ feelings about Galvis that they chose to sub in Jose Garcia, who had never played above double-A. Garcia’s bat isn’t quite up to major league speed yet, so Galvis still got playing time, but it’s particularly disheartening to see him pulled for a defensive replacement.
Because essentially, defense had become Galvis’s calling card, since his bat has never been league-average.
His best season by wRC+ was actually this one, at 91, fueled in part by a career-high walk rate—at 8.2%, still lower than the 9.2% league average—and cutting the mid-20% strikeout rate of his past two years. He’s been a better offensive player with the Padres, Blue Jays and Reds than he was with the Phillies, but it’s still hard to make the case for a career 79 wRC+ bat if paired with subpar defense.
All this said, I’m rooting for Galvis to get at least the $6 million, 1-year deal speculated by the FanGraphs crowd sourcing. Because ladies do still love his past few years of smartly-executed defensive plays. Also, he’s the baseball player that my stepmother has chosen to call her “large, adult son.” I mean, those cherubic cheeks.
Sentimentality might be the culprit in writing about Galvis before Jonathan Villar, who may be a more attractive target for teams if Galvis’s defense has faltered. I say “may,” because it’s hard to know what you’ll get in the 30-year-old Villar, in terms of his offense, on either the macro or micro level. Swinging between a 120 wRC+ in 2016 and 72 in 2017, or a 107 in 2019 and a 66 in 2020, is a symptom of a variability in walk and strikeout rates, launch angle, and a steadily declining exit velocity.
Even his stints with two different teams in 2020 swung a pendulum.
Villar put up a merely subpar 81 OPS+ with the Marlins, before a truly abysmal 36 OPS+ in 22 games with the Blue Jays. I was shocked when the Orioles placed Villar on waivers after his excellent 2019 season, in which he hit 24 home runs and stole 40 bases, and thought he was going to be one of the factors that would make the Marlins better than expected in 2020. But he certainly didn’t deliver exactly what the Blue Jays expected in his short stint with them. Fortunately, they were looking for a Bo Bichette fill-in at the time, and were still able to make the postseason with a healthy Bichette on board.
Teams may decide to write off the tiny sample with the Blue Jays as just that, but it’s hard when Villar’s xBA this year was even worse than his actual .232 mark by almost 20 points. And it’s hard that defense has never been Villar’s asset, with a career -14 DRS at shortstop. The FanGraphs crowd sees a $6 million, 1-year deal for Villar, too, but I would frankly rather bet on a bounceback year from Galvis’s glove than Villar’s bat.
These Guys Can Also Play Shortstop
The free agent market plays (a poor) host to some other players who could potentially fill a shortstop need, though it’s not their predominant position.
Enrique Hernandez, whose full name I will always type out until I can figure out how to get the accent on e, might be the most choice candidate amongst them, but has played most of his games in the outfield, or at second base. Hernandez hits lefties better than righties and was platooned at times by the Dodgers, but it seems like there’s always a moment in the season when his bat heats up.
Joe Panik, predominantly a second baseman, played 14 games at shortstop with the Blue Jays this year. Though only 30 years old, Panik hasn’t been the same young star he was in his first several years with the Giants, after several injuries dogged his 2018 season.
Other free agent shortstops or shortstop-capables include Ehire Adrianza (31), Zack Cozart (35), Matt Duffy (30), Dee Strange-Gordon (33) Adeiny Hechavarria (32), Chris Owings (29), Jordy Mercer (34), Eduardo Nunez (34), J.T. Riddle (29), Andrew Romine (34), and Eric Sogard (35). Jose Peraza (27) and Tim Beckham (31) have signed minor-league deals with the Mets and White Sox, respectively.
Who Needs a Shortstop?!
The briefest answer is: the teams that are losing them. This means the Athletics, Reds, Phillies, and Angels are definitely on the hunt, unless the Angels decide to go with David Fletcher, which I mention because, you know. The Phillies could hypothetically settle on Jean Segura as the full-time shortstop, with Alec Bohm at third and Scott Kingery at second, if they are as intent on phoning the offseason in as they appear to be.
The Yankees could also decide to sign a shortstop, and move Gleyber Torres to second base to replace the departing DJ LeMahieu. Cleveland is likely down a brace of middle infielders, as Cesar Hernandez was only on a one-year contract, and will need someone inexpensive. Unless, of course, they plan to go very, very inexpensive, and run out Owen Miller, their 18th ranked prospect who has not played above AA, and Tyler Freeman, the organization’s number two prospect, who has not played above A ball. More likely, they’ll be shopping towards the bottom of this list.
The Cardinals or Tigers could also be suitors for Ha-seong Kim, given that they are losing their second basemen—or, giving up their second baseman, in the case of Cardinals declining Kolten Wong’s $12.5 million option. The Orioles, meanwhile, have picked up the more affordable $3.5 option on José Iglesias, after his exceptional season, but could seek a longer-term solution with Kim for their rebuilding club. The Marlins also have another year of Miguel Rojas, but perhaps their new history-making General Manager, Kim Ng, will want to make a splash!
Anything to brighten those dragon-infested waters.
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