A Trio of Infield Signings Give Two Contenders Role Player Certainty

Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

It would be fun, if you were running a team, to go out and sign the best available player at every position where you had even a specter of a question. Need a shortstop? Call Carlos Correa. First baseman? Freddie Freeman awaits. Second baseman? Science now allows us to regrow and clone Rogers Hornsby. If you’re spending at the completely fake top end of the market that I just made up, you might as well spring for the very best available.

Sadly, the real world doesn’t quite work that way. For one, teams don’t have infinite money; more importantly, cloning and reanimating technology doesn’t exist yet unless you’re interested in making Scottish sheep. Even good teams have to sign players who aren’t perennial MVP contenders, or even perennial All Stars. The Dodgers signed Jake Lamb and Hanser Alberto this week, and the White Sox signed Josh Harrison. None will be the best player on their team. None will be an MVP frontrunner. All three are interesting fits that will help their teams, though.

Lamb signed for $1.5 million, and he’ll profile in a role tailor made for his skillset: a backup third baseman who will get playing time against right-handed pitching. Justin Turner is 37 and has dealt with intermittent nagging injuries of late. His bat is still excellent, but he’s not the defender he once was. Saving some wear and tear on him by shifting him to DH or giving him extra rest is a great idea.

Before signing Lamb, though, the Dodgers didn’t have an obvious replacement for Turner in the field. Chris Taylor can play third base, but he’s often deployed elsewhere, and he’s more of a middle infielder than a corner type. Edwin Ríos hasn’t returned from injury. Matt Beaty played exactly 11 innings at third in 2021. Gavin Lux tried the position out in the minors but didn’t play it often in the majors. Lamb, on the other hand, is a solid option who can also handle first base or outfield when necessary.

Using Lamb to create an extra layer of defensive versatility until Rios returns or one of the team’s infield prospects is ready makes good sense to me. He probably won’t play very often, but the things he’s insuring against — wearing down Turner and Taylor too quickly or deploying Beaty to positions he’s ill-suited for — are worth mitigating. If I had to guess, I’d speculate that Lamb won’t still be a Dodger in August; there are enough players in the pipeline that he’ll need to surprise to stick on the roster. But every game counts, and for $1.5 million on a team with a huge budget, building in some extra protection makes good sense.

Alberto is the more eyebrow-raising of the two LA signings. He couldn’t stick on the Orioles — the Orioles! — after 2020 and got just 255 plate appearances of playing time on his way to a .270/.291/.402 line with the Royals last year. Not your average Dodger, but a Dodger nonetheless, and on a major league contract at that, though the terms haven’t yet been reported.

What superpower does he have that got him this deal? It’s simple: he’s a righty who can cover multiple infield spots. The Dodgers take maintaining a balanced bench very seriously. They use Taylor liberally all over the diamond, which unlocks multiple lineup configurations. But before signing Alberto, they had a problem: against leties, all of those lineup configurations were just unlocking new ways to play Lux and Cody Bellinger with the platoon disadvantage.

If Los Angeles wants to spell righty batters against left-handed pitching, it’s got a pile of options. Beaty and Luke Raley were on the major league roster already, and Lamb is now there, too. When Rios returns from rehab, he’ll represent another lefty option. Zach McKinstry got some playing time last year, and Michael Busch isn’t far away. Lefties as far as the eye can see!

None of those players are stars, though Busch might be one day. The rest of them are role players, and while the Dodgers excel at getting the most out of the back end of their bench, it’s difficult to do that when everyone is left-handed. Austin Barnes was their only righty bat, and he’s a catcher with a 77 wRC+ over the last four years. A little thump against southpaw pitching would go a long way.

Alberto doesn’t actually have thump if you care about extra-base hits, but he’s a certified lefty killer. In his career, he’s hitting .333/.354/.461 against lefties, as compared to a putrid .240/.263/.332 line against righties. I don’t for a moment believe his splits are that extreme — a 118-point BABIP gap does a lot of work in small samples — but I also don’t think he’s as bad against righties as those numbers would tell you. The truth likely lies somewhere in between: he’s probably a roughly average hitter against lefties and a poor but not atrocious one against righties.

There are reasons to be skeptical that this will work out. Line drives and smashed ground balls account for the majority of his production. His approach at the plate limits his upside; he has a career chase rate of 48.8%, so he’s hardly out there picking a pitch that he can drive. His enviable contact skills and swing-first attitude limit his strikeouts, but they’ve also led to a career 2.4% walk rate. In a lot of ways, he’s an anti-Dodger. Alberto and Max Muncy might combine to see six pitches per at bat — four for Muncy and two for Alberto.

Maybe the Dodgers see something there that they believe they can help Alberto with. He has admirable bat control and hit the ball harder than he ever had in his career in 2021. If he can rein in his aggressive nature and hunt good pitches against lefties, he could be a revelation.

More than that, though, who else were the Dodgers going to find to fill this role? Multi-position righty infielders who will accept a backup role aren’t exactly growing on trees this year. Jonathan Villar probably wants a bigger role, though he’d be a similar fit. Matt Duffy is more of a third baseman than a utility infielder, though he’d kind of work. Donovan Solano is 34 and starting to look like a defensive liability.

I think Alberto is a really interesting signing. I also think that if he weren’t interested in a backup role, Los Angeles might have contacted someone else with a similar skill set and used them instead. We project him for 182 plate appearances this year, and that would suit the Dodgers just fine. If he’s a useful addition to the team when he plays, the signing was a success. Anything beyond competence is just a bonus.

Harrison is a cut above Lamb and Alberto when it comes to necessary but un-sexy signings. While the Dodgers needed backup infielders, the White Sox needed something far more important: an everyday second baseman. I like Leury García as much as the next analyst, but he’s best suited as a jack of all trades, backing up across multiple positions and acting as an injury fill-in across the board. Need a third baseman for a week? García can do it. Shortstop? Give him a call. Center field? Why not; he has 1,500 career innings there.

That role doesn’t work when you’re playing second base every day, and adding Harrison both upgrades the White Sox at second and unlocks García’s ideal role. Harrison is 34, so it would hardly be a shock if he declined from here, but he had a solid season in 2021 and held his own defensively splitting time between second and third. Giving him a few extra days off will likely help prevent wear and tear, and hey, look, the White Sox have Leury García available to do just that!

The White Sox put themselves into a positional bind by trading Nick Madrigal last year. There weren’t many second baseman available in free agency unless you could convince a shortstop (Javier Báez or Marcus Semien) to slide over to second for you. A reunion with César Hernández also seemed unlikely after his rough showing in Chicago last year.

When the Mets signed Eduardo Escobar, that basically left García (a free agent who the Sox re-signed early in the offseason), Harrison, and Villar as the best options to play second. Those are slim pickings relative to some of the other names available on the market, but you can only work with what’s available, so signing Harrison seems to me like a logical decision, even if it feels like a half measure for a team trying to win enough games to earn a first-round bye in the new playoff system.

There’s a world where Harrison is an All Star this year. He’s a line-drive machine who rarely walks, strikes out, or makes soft contact; that kind of skill set leads to blistering hot streaks when the ball is falling in. He managed a .294/.366/.434 line in Washington last year before being traded, good for a 116 wRC+, and I guarantee you that White Sox fans would be happy with that performance.

His season didn’t end there, though, as he hit .254/.296/.341 in 48 games with Oakland, which would be far less exciting to South Siders. Those are the breaks when you’re a swing-happy, low-power hitter; when the ball isn’t falling, or when you aren’t drawing your fair share of walks for whatever reason, things can get ugly.

Let’s put it this way: I think there’s a one-in-three chance that Harrison outperforms Nicky Lopez, who Mike Matheny recently anointed the best second baseman in all of baseball. That’s a good result for someone the Sox signed to a one-year, $5.5 million contract, and a particularly good deal when you consider their alternatives.

Would Chicago be better if it found a way to add a big-ticket second baseman? Pretty clearly yes. But it didn’t and doesn’t look likely to; there aren’t a lot of obvious trade targets at the position, and the free-agency market has come and gone. By patching the position with Harrison, the White Sox can focus on improving elsewhere — right field, perhaps, or rotation depth. They’ve already announced that they’re looking to trade Craig Kimbrel, and shoring up second base gives them a clearer picture of what to look for when they deal him.

None of these signings alter the balance of power in baseball. None of these signings will feature in a year-end retrospective of how the World Series was won. But all three look savvy to me as small moves that address weaknesses on contending teams with surgical precision. If the cores of the Dodgers and White Sox play well, these signings will flatter them. If they don’t? Lamb, Alberto, and Harrison probably won’t save the season. For the cost, that’s a bargain both teams seem happy to accept.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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10 months ago

Wonder how much the Dodgers plan to play McKinstry… I’ve been thinking that the White trading for McKinstry, perhaps with Kimbrel, would make a reasonable amount of sense for both. Harrison isn’t a bad addition, but as much as the Dodgers have a glut of lefty sorta-up-the-middle bats, the White Sox have a glut of righty corner/DH power bats, and each has something of a need for the latter. Plus they share a spring training complex at Camelback Ranch, which makes scouting (or player convenience) extra easy.

10 months ago
Reply to  MRDXol

the White Sox trading for McKinstry*