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Thinking Outside the Bun, Part 1: Shortstop

Ha, I made a Taco Bell joke. But what isn't a joke is that the A's look like legitimate contenders. The problem, of course, is that some of us are starting to get a sense of separation among the relatively large pool of legitimate contenders. That separation is between the teams that were able to make some pretty big moves before, and arguably even after, the trade deadline (and all of them seem to have done it pretty cheaply) and the teams that are just going to have to ride out their longshot chances with the pieces they already have. For some reason, Billy Beane hasn't been able to be one of the GMs to hit the jackpot in this season's weird "Here, have a 4-5 WAR player for a bucket of balls, some keys that don't fit anything anymore, and a half-off coupon to a matinee showing of a movie that isn't in theatres anymore!" sweepstakes.* So naturally, and as usual, we gotta find something unconventional to do.

Our needs are well-known at this point, although I'm sure we all have varying opinions on which ones are most pressing. At the same time, I think we can agree on some broad strokes. For example, we need to have circa-2003 Albert Pujols playing first base for us, but this need is not as pressing as the need for a shortstop who can do the things that a shortstop is supposed to do-chief among those things being playing baseball. As the home stretch of the season approacheth, I haven't been getting a lot of good sleep, I've been waking up next to people whose last names I don't know, I've been drinking an alarming amount of liquor, and I accidentally forgot to take my Lexapro for a couple days. None of this is relevant to trade targets, the A's, or even baseball, but in the resultant fever dreams, visions of possible "creative" solutions to some of our needs have entered my brain.

The classic precept of Moneyball is that a team can compete by making use of undervalued commodities. A lot of the things that used to be undervalued aren't undervalued anymore, and much has been made of the narrative-whether it's true or not-that Billy Beane has spent several years searching for the next undervalued commodity. Maybe he actually found it, and that's how he assembled this current surprisingly successful team; personally, I don't know that he did. But as I was putting together these thoughts on outside-the-box trade targets, I found myself wondering, what if bad contracts are an undervalued commodity? There are plenty of guys out there who appear to be untradeable because of their bloated contracts. It's not that they're bad players. Some of them are, and some of them are perhaps just underperforming due to various extenuating circumstances (I will argue that this is true of my first trade target), but some of them are legitimately solid ballplayers that just aren't worth what they're being paid.

But this season we've seen some of those contracts getting traded. They've been getting traded because the teams that signed them are so desperate to move them that they're willing to take basically garbage in return, and even eat significant portions of said bad contracts in many cases, just to get the situation out of their hair as quickly as possible. I think it could be argued that the White Sox and Dodgers are already blazing a trail in the field of "bad contract as undervalued commodity." The A's are in the odd position of having a certain degree of payroll flexibility because we just aren't spending that much right now, and Lew has been clear that he'll open his wallet for Billy. So while I didn't set out to write about trade targets with bad contracts, that's kind of the direction this went. Another recurring theme will be getting adventurous with what positions a guy can play in the field, which should be no strange concept to ANers, many of whom (rightfully) still have love for Scott Hatteberg (as an Athletic, if not as a color announcer.) Now I understand that these might be a little off-the-wall. But just think about it. I'm just making conversation here.

A final note: I'm not going to talk much about what I think the cost of these trades would be, in terms of prospects, because I am absolutely blind when it comes to valuing a prospect. Again, I'm mostly just looking to have a conversation about these ideas. I will mention several times, when it makes sense to do so, what I feel like we could offer in terms of straight-up cash-money-dollarz, but if I don't feel like a particular trade would really need to involve that, then I'm not going to speculate much about who or what we'd be giving up to get the guy.

*To be fair, the White Sox did give up more than that in the Liriano deal. One of the keys they sent the Twins was from that Children's Fairyland place, the ones that let you hear recordings of fairy tales. I used to love those things when I was a kid, and they cost a whole two bucks now, so that's arguably the most valuable piece the White Sox gave up.

CHONE FIGGINS: Hey, hey, keep it to a dull hiss. I know Chone Figgins is nobody's idea of a solution to any problem on any baseball team, but maybe he can fill a need in Oakland. First of all, let's talk about defense. We know Chone Figgins is not an outfielder. I mean, he's an outfielder in the sense that he has played in the outfield, but he's never done well there. It's not what the man was built by God to do. We also know he's not a second baseman. By way of illustration, our current second baseman, Jemile Weeks, can be a bit of an adventure at second base himself, and his career UZR/150 is -5.1.* But Jemile's still a young player, with about 35% as many innings played at the position as Figgins has, and it's quite possible that he'll get better. Chone's career UZR/150, on the other hand, is likely to represent his true talent at 2B: -9.5. I'll pass.

As a shortstop, we don't really know much about Chone Figgins. He's played all of 150.2 innings there. That's like 17 games. And yet, that's exactly the position I'm suggesting we acquire him to play. The reason is that we do know that Chone Figgins is a third baseman. He's played there far more frequently than at any other position, and he's done respectably. His career UZR/150 there is 8.6. But I'm one of the people that is fine with the production we're getting from Brandon Inge at third base. No, he's not a very good hitter. But as pro-sabermetrics as I am, I do think there are a couple of the so-called "intangibles" that have real meaning. One of them is the value of a veteran presence on a club full of kids. Inge has been to the postseason before, and he can be a leader in the clubhouse if we make it that far. We don't have a lot of other leadership figures like that. The others that come to mind are Bartolo Colon and Josh Reddick, the latter of which has no more postseason experience than any of the other youngsters. Aside from that, Inge's defense is solid, and we have Sizemore coming back next year, so I don't think third base is as big of a focus as shortstop.

Now I know that 3B is totally not the same thing as SS. I know Chone Figgins is almost certainly not a long-term solution for the A's at shortstop. But at the same time, it's not like it's completely insane for a third baseman to play short. One of the things we always hear about an infielder in terms of whether or not he can play short is that his arm isn't strong enough to make the throws. But a third baseman makes a pretty long throw to first himself, and also makes a longer throw to second on a double play ball. At that position, Figgins has not shown himself to have a bad arm. In fact, his arm even plays acceptably in the outfield. He can make throws. He can play infield. He probably won't experience some sort of career rebirth as the next great shortstop, and he'll probably be shuffled off our roster within a couple years if we pick him up now, but we need a shortstop who can play baseball, and I believe that Chone Figgins can do that better than what we're working with right now.

Now let's talk about offense. You're right. He's had two abysmal seasons in Seattle, after a decent first year there. But come on, guys: who the hell hasn't had an abysmal couple of seasons in Seattle? You just can't play well there. It's toxic. Those guys show up to work each day, from opening day to the end of the season, knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that they aren't going to the playoffs. It's like Belgrade after the NATO bombing up in that clubhouse, they got so much rebuilding to do (the joke there, for all you Europhiles, is that Belgrade still hasn't been able to rebuild a lot of the infrastructural damage done by the bombing, 14 years later. I got jokes, y'all.) I firmly believe that Figgins' offensive production fell off a cliff because he went from being a solid roleplayer on a blockbuster Angels team to a supposed centerpiece of a "rebuilt" Mariners lineup. You can't do that to a Chone Figgins. He isn't that kind of player. He collapsed because he was expected to do something he was never going to have a realistic chance of doing. Before the last two seasons, he put up consistently respectable WRC+ and wOBA numbers, because he was in a lineup where he wasn't the big threat. Teams had to pitch to him, and he didn't have to expect himself to be a hero all the time.

If you slot him into the A's lineup, he's in something similar to that position again. We have some real hitters, hitters that have to be reckoned with, and that takes the pressure off a guy like Figgins. Look at who Figgins was as recently as 2009, his last year with the Angels: .298/.395/.393 (I am always amazed when a guy slugs below his OBP), .358 wOBA, 117 WRC+. Even in Seattle's hitter-murdering ballpark, playing a role he wasn't meant for, he hit .259/.340/.306 in his first year, with a .302 wOBA and an 88 WRC+. The next two years were garbage, but keep in mind that-even aside from the previously mentioned difficulties-in 2011 and 2012, his BABIP is .221, more than 100 points below his career average. A lot of that could well be his own fault, as two seasons is a pretty long time to be unlucky, but a lot of it also probably isn't. For his career, he's a .277/.349/.364 hitter, with a .323 wOBA and a 97 WRC+.

Compare those numbers-any of them, including the pedestrian 2010 ones-to the production the A's have gotten out of the shortstop position this year: .187/.258/.296. .250 wOBA. 55 WRC+. Somehow, good defense has lifted us to .3 WAR at the position, essentially all of which has come from Cliff Pennington. But I don't have to convince you that we need help at shortstop. We all know this. It's probably the only thing that every A's fan does agree on, at this point. Even four-year-old toddlers are out there at the Coliseum going, "Come on, Hicks, a blind man could have laid off that pitch."

Now to the question of overall value. First, let's take a look at WAR. Again, we'll be ignoring 2011 and 2012 because I don't think they represent Chone's true talent level. But between 2004, his first full season, and 2010, the last season in which he performed like a Major League Baseball player at the plate, his three worst seasons, by WAR, were 2005, 2006, and 2010. He was worth 2.8, 0.7, and 1.1 wins, respectively, in those seasons. What do those seasons have in common? A lot of negative value on defense. And what happened to Chone Figgins in those seasons to make his defensive value so low? Interesting you should ask: in 2005 and 2006 he spent a lot of time in the outfield, which he isn't very good at playing, and in 2010 he was the Mariners' everyday second baseman, which is another position he isn't very good at playing, and didn't log a single solitary inning at third base. Also, for what it's worth, he is again spending a lot of time in the outfield this year, and it's killing his defensive value. Again.

What this says to me is that, if he's in a lineup that allows him to loosen up and just hit like Chone Figgins, and if he's playing a position he's good at playing-and I think shortstop can be a position like that for him-that his real value is more than the cumulative -2.4 WAR he's accrued in the last two seasons. Even factoring in his age, some decline in his abilities since his time with the Angels, and the fact that he almost certainly won't play shortstop as well as he plays third base, I don't see any reason why this dude couldn't be a positive contributor as the everyday shortstop for the A's. I'd go as far as to say that if we kept him on in that role for the 2013 season-which I'm not sure I even think we should do-he'd chip in a solid 2.5 WAR. There's nothing spectacular about that, but it's a lot better than 0.3. We don't need spectacular right now. We just need serviceable. And regardless of what we do with him in 2013, he can plug the shortstop hole for the remainder of 2012 and make one of our lineup spots a little less disastrous.

Now let's turn to the contract situation. Yeah, it's kind of a turn-off. Dude's getting $9M this year, about $3.4M of which is yet to be paid. Next year he gets $8M, and he has a $9M vesting option for 2014 that kicks in if he racks up 600 plate appearances in 2013. It's important to note here that between 2004 and 2011, he averaged 601 PAs. He did not reach 600 last year and he will not reach it this year. It's unlikely that he will reach it in 2013, and even if he was on track to do so, I really don't think Billy Beane would find it that hard to stop that from happening if he didn't want to be on the hook for the vesting option. The truth of the matter is that if we did pick up Figgins, his vesting option wouldn't vest, and if it did, it would probably be an indicator that he was performing well enough to make that not a bad thing. So let's ignore the vesting option and focus on 2012 and 2013, which is what we would almost certainly be on the hook for.

For one full season plus a couple months of this one, Figgins is owed roughly $12.4M. Now even if the Mariners didn't eat a single dollar of that, we have the payroll flexibility to do it. Lew Wolff has said he's opening the purse strings for Billy this year if spending some money can help us compete. If $3.4M is all it takes to solve one of our most glaring problems for the 2012 season, I don't think it'll be hard to swing that, and our payroll is already so low that even the $8M next year won't be a problem, aside from the fact that it could potentially be money wasted on a bad player. But it won't stop us from making moves we need to make. Keep in mind that it wasn't so long ago that our payroll was somewhere in the mid-$70M range, and we're like $20M below that currently. We can handle this move financially.

Now add into the calculus that the Mariners are in "get all these Goddamn contracts out of here so we can rebuild" mode. They ate about two thirds of Ichiro's contract to move him to New York, and they got nothing in return. The only, only, only reason the Mariners did that trade was to replace "Ichiro Suzuki and his $6.7M remaining 2012 salary" with "not Ichiro Suzuki." They only saved a couple million bucks, but they did save a couple million bucks. I think you can make a solid argument for the Mariners being willing to eat some of Chone's salary to get him out of town. I could see them eating less than two thirds, because Chone is owed more, but I bet at minimum they'd eat the remainder of his 2012 salary and leave us holding the bag for 2013, which is fair. If they did eat the same proportion of Chone's salary as they did with Ichiro, they'd end up basically covering his 2013 salary, while leaving us with the remainder of his 2012 salary. I don't know if it's fair, but they did it to get rid of Ichiro, and in terms of raw dollars, they would actually save even more money if they did it to get rid of Chone.

Here's the bottom line on Figgins. I'm still not ready to say that Cliff Pennington is a crappy player. I think he had a bad 2012 and he can come back and be something more like what he used to be next year. But for the remainder of this season, we need an answer at shortstop. If Chone Figgins can even just play a solid league-average defense at shortstop, he's not a liability defensively. Meanwhile, as a hitter, he's almost certainly not as bad as his 2011-2012 numbers suggest. He is in the absolutely worst possible situation that he could be in, as a hitter, and it just keeps getting worse with every Ichiro-for-nobody trade the Mariners make. This dude is the last guy left on that team who can even remember what it was like to be a star. If we can get him from the Mariners without giving anything of value up, and I think we can, what's the worst that happens? One season, plus a couple months, of a bad contract that we can totally survive. And because he's Chone Figgins, and nobody likes Chone Figgins, he's totally gettable.

The worst case scenario is that we spend between $4M and $12M for a season-plus of a bad and untradeable player, and it's not like we are required by law to put him out there every day.** We could just use him as, like, an expensive pinch runner, or just to give Inge a break every once in awhile at third, which is a position we do know he can play effectively. Hell, maybe he could just be our third baseman next year if something goes awry with Sizemore, or if we get rid of Weeks and move Sizemore to second. I like Inge as much as the next guy, but if for whatever reason he's not around next year, it's not like his offensive production would be that hard to replace for a guy like Chone Figgins. Inge is not a very good hitter anymore, if he ever was, no matter how "clutch" he may seem. Figgins might not be a very good hitter anymore either, but he can still play good defense at third.

*I only use UZR, because I don't trust any baseball metric with less than three letters in its abbreviation. TZ? Sounds like a cheap skateboard. And I don't like skateboards. Not even expensive ones. Go take your cheap skateboard somewhere else, TZ.

**Actually, the worst case scenario is that Chone Figgins is secretly an alien robot programmed to destroy all human life if he spends more than seven consecutive days exposed to a clubhouse that smells like raw sewage, but it's not a very likely scenario.

ALFONSO SORIANO: As a guy who came of age as a baseball fan in the early 2000s, it's still weird to me that Alfonso Soriano is an outfielder now. There was a brief period in the middle of the last decade during which my baseball fandom lapsed, and when I returned to following the sport, I remember thinking, for a short time, that there was now a second guy named Alfonso Soriano in the Major Leagues, because I kept hearing about an outfielder by that name. I remembered Soriano as a Yankee second baseman. He's one of a handful of players whose name I can never hear without hearing it in Tim McCarver's voice for some reason, and most of those players are or have been Yankees. (Brandon Inge's name, incidentally, I can only hear in Joe Buck's voice.) But yeah, Soriano used to be a second baseman. He was not a great second baseman, defensively, or even a good one, but he wasn't the worst second baseman in history either. And that's why I think we could use him in the middle infield.

Defense: For his career, his UZR/150 at second base is -8.9. Given that he's put in the equivalent of about five full seasons of work at the position, I think we can call that his true talent level. Throw in the fact that he hasn't played there regularly since 2005, and hasn't played so much as a single inning anywhere in the infield since 2009 (when he logged all of two full innings between 2B and 3B for the Cubs), let's adjust our expectations for his future performance there down to something like -10. Jemile Weeks, as I noted in the previous entry, has a career UZR/150 of -5.2, and I do have faith that he'll get better, so Soriano does not make sense as a replacement for Jemile at second, but he could be used in a pinch, if necessary for whatever reason, as a backup/utility 2B or 3B. But, as with Chone Figgins, I'm going to argue more seriously for Soriano to be picked up as a shortstop solution.

Yes, we'd be sacrificing some defense in this scenario. Say what you want about our shortstop production, but so far it's actually been okay on defense. Defense is the only thing that's given us even our meager 0.3 WAR from the position. Alfonso Soriano at short would go right back the other direction on defense. I'm acknowledging that. But I don't think he'd be as bad there as one might assume. I don't think, for example, that his arm would be a huge liability. It's generally played well no matter where he's been positioned. He can make that throw. Yes, he will boot some balls, and he won't reach some balls, and he'll probably throw some balls away, but we were talking about Hanley Ramirez at shortstop, so let's not pretend we're completely opposed to the idea of a not-so-great defensive shortstop.

It's true that he hasn't played shortstop since 2000, and that was in the minor leagues, but on the other hand, he did play shortstop, professionally, for money, in the New York Yankees organization, at the AAA level, for 85 games. In those 85 games, his fielding percentage (I know, it's a pretty meaningless stat, but if UZR is available for minor league players circa 2000, I don't know where to find it) was .975. For all I know, the only reason they moved him to second was that they had Derek Jeter playing short. To illustrate how completely and utterly Alfonso Soriano would have been blocked at the position of shortstop, consider the fact that Derek Jeter is still playing shortstop for the New York Yankees, more than a decade later. If worse comes to worst, and he just does not work as a shortstop, then we still have Alfonso Soriano on our team. I'm sure we can figure out a use for him.

Offense: I know I don't have to sell anybody on this facet of Alfonso Soriano's game. For his career, he's a .274/.323/.505 hitter, good for a .354 wOBA and a 113 WRC+. And lest anyone think that he's losing his edge at the ripening age of 36, his 2012 line is pretty similar: .269/.323/.489, with a .346 wOBA and a 112 WRC+. Even if his production starts to fall off in the next two years as he turns 37 and then 38, he's still going to be a damn good hitter, and a potent addition to the Oakland lineup. Out of Soriano's defense, offense, and overall value, I feel like offense is not the toughest thing to sell to the AthleticsNation crowd.

Overall Value: This is gonna hurt. Dude is still owed about $6.8M for the rest of 2012, and he's got $18M per year coming to him in 2013 and 2014. No options, just a straight-up $42.8M that he's going to get paid between now and the end of the 2014 season. That's like most of our 2012 payroll, spent on one guy for a little more than two seasons. But I said I was thinking outside the box here. We have payroll flexibility. Who else are we realistically going to need to spend that money on? Even after this season, we're not likely to attract a lot of marquee free agent hitters that we can pay for, and we don't need to buy free agent pitchers. Looking at the list of FAs for next year, here's who I see as realistic options for the A's: Ian Kinsler, who's going to want a long-term deal at a position we don't need to sign a long-term player for, certainly not for the price he'll be asking; Kevin Youkilis, who I can't imagine will be prohibitively expensive, at his age, if we want him; and of course Rickey Henderson, who would probably make a better offensive and defensive shortstop than Brandon Hicks despite being a retired 83-year-old left fielder, but he'll probably come cheaply. So I don't see Soriano's salary as being prohibitive for this team, particularly considering that we could probably even get the Cubs to eat a few million.

What I'm not sure about is his gettability. Bloated contract or not, he is, as I have pointed out several times, Alfonso Soriano. Epstein isn't going to just fire-sale him for peanuts, but I also can't imagine him asking for too much. The way I see it, we don't have to give up anything real in the way of prospects if we eat most or all of that monster salary, or we can give up a couple decent prospects by eating half the salary, or we can give up a couple good prospects if we eat none of it. Personally, I'd rather eat most or all of the salary.

So what the hell, the bottom line is that we can spend this money if we feel like it makes sense. One thing to keep in mind is that even if it doesn't work out perfectly, you still have Alfonso Soriano. That's not a bad thing. Sure, he could get injured, but he hasn't had a propensity for that in his career. Since his first full season, he hasn't played fewer than 109 games and he hasn't had fewer than 503 plate appearances. And even in that season, he was still worth four wins and some change. Those are dice that I don't mind rolling.

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