Is Elvis Andrus Still Valuable?

Over the summer at ESPN and FG+, I wrote a piece that investigated just how terribly the recent trend of long-term extensions for players at least two years away from free agency had gone. While Ryan Howard was the obvious poster boy for “Wow, that was a bad idea,” the future deals given to Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Joey Votto, Justin Verlander, Evan Longoria and others all look a little questionable now, either because of unexpected decline/injury in the period between the signing and the actual start date, or because of how much payroll space it’s taking up. Not all have gone badly — Felix Hernandez and Troy Tulowitzki have been worthwhile investments — but many have, and that’s without even knowing what’s going to happen when Miguel Cabrera’s eight-year extension kicks off in 2016.

Teams can’t exactly always wait until precisely one minute before free agency to give extensions to valuable players, but giving out these deals so far ahead of time is such a hugely risky proposition, because so much can go wrong, both on and off the field. Organizations may be buying the security of knowing that their player can’t walk away in the near future, but they’re trading off the very valuable ability to gain an extra year or two of information on that player, and it’s easy to see that some of these deals never would have been signed if the teams knew at the time what they knew when the original contract would have ended.

It’s with all that in mind that today I’m interested in looking at a youthful and valuable shortstop who is just about to start an eight-year extension he agreed to with his team two seasons ago. Texas’ Elvis Andrus is only 26, but he’s also coming off the two worst wOBA years of his career, years that came after ink hit paper. Is this contract doomed to sink the Rangers? Or is he still a valuable asset?

* * *

This is coming up now because there’s a few big-market teams that need a shortstop this winter — Yankees, Dodgers, Mets, perhaps the Red Sox if they whiff on Pablo Sandoval and slide Xander Bogaerts back over — and with J.J. Hardy already extended in Baltimore, there’s very few acceptable free agent options at the position. No, really: Just go look at our Free Agent Depth Charts. You’ll see a few guys with acceptable-to-great bats who aren’t plus defenders (Hanley Ramirez, Asdrubal Cabrera, Jed Lowrie), and a better fielder who just sat out half the year and had a 44 wRC+ (Stephen Drew).

That being the case, and because the Rangers have both many holes to fill and young infield depth in Jurickson Profar, Rougned Odor, and Luis Sardinas, Andrus has been popping up in trade rumors, being connected most notably to the Yankees. This weekend, GM Jon Daniels didn’t shoot down talk of a deal, and listed out exactly what Texas needed to fix, noting that a trade was the most likely scenario:

First, let’s remember why the Andrus extension seemed to make sense in the first place — because he was young (2016 is only his age-26 season), because he was an elite fielder, a very good base runner, incredibly durable, and close to a league-average hitter. It’s difficult to find all of that in one package, so while the dollar amount was shocking, the thought behind it wasn’t.

At the time, Dave Cameron wrote here that the deal was a good example of teams learning to value defense more than they had in the past. Daniels said it was “something we didn’t normally do,” because of Andrus’ youth. Before this season, when the Rangers were ranked No. 4 in our shortstop positional power rankings, I noted his down 2013, but pointed out just how hard it was to find a good shortstop, saying If “eh, he’s not terrible at the plate” sounds like less than high praise, well, he’s still doing enough good things elsewhere to rank No. 4 here. (Related: Just wait until we’re talking about Pedro Florimon or someone below, and then think about how great Andrus looks.)”

So, yes, the deal was certainly defensible at the time, because Andrus had just put up back-to-back four-win seasons and was young enough to think more would come. Here’s the bad news: all of Andrus’ important offensive trends, particularly since.
andrus_trends
Since 2010, Andrus’ walk rate has decreased every year, and for a player without much power, that’s a problem. In 2011-12, when he was at least able to show some small amount of pop and get his slugging into the .360-.370 range, that wasn’t such a big deal. In 2013-14, when he’s slugged .332, walked less than ever, and made less contact, it does present a problem. Unsurprisingly, the first year of these five (75 wRC+) look a lot more like the last two (79, 79) than do the middle two of 2011-12 (93, 97).

A roughly league-average offensive shortstop with plus defensive skills is a star, and that’s why his WAR in those big two seasons were 4.4 and 4.4  A below-average offensive shortstop with plus defensive skills is still worthwhile, hence Andrus’ 2.8 WAR in 2013. A below-average offensive shortstop with declining defensive skills, well, that’s a problem, and it’s why WAR saw Andrus at just 1.3 in 2014.

Let’s acknowledge the usual cautions about single-year defensive stats, and note how he ranks in our “Defense” metric, which includes not only a player’s performance, but is adjusted for position.

2010: 8.2
2011: 13.9
2012:
14.7
2013:
10.1
2014;
2.1

A September ESPN report attempted to explain why:

In 2014, he’s played with five different second basemen and had to expand his range in the outfield with left fielder Shin-Soo Choo’s sprained ankle limiting his range. He’s even had to go further to center field because of the early struggles of Leonys Martin.

At the plate, Andrus’ runs scored (67), hits (146), RBIs (34) and OBP (.315) are down. He’s hit into a career-high 20 double plays. He’s been caught stealing an AL-leading 13 times. Andrus has battled through inflammation in his right elbow, something that’s been bothering him since spring training. The discomfort comes and goes, and he really needs rest.

We have spray charts, so let’s investigate that claim of needing to expand his range. At left, we have Andrus’ made plays (in green) and missed (in red) from 2013; at right, the same for 2014:

andrus_range

Maybe it’s not out of the question that there’s something to that. Looking at the ‘made plays,’ it wasn’t so nearly as clustered this year as last (although some of that is likely due to increased shifting by the team). The ‘missed plays’ in 2013 were mainly your typical infield singles and occasional errors; in 2014, he was all over the field trying to get to balls. While his Range Runs had slightly declined from 11.2 to 7.8 to 4.9 in the previous three years, it plummeted to -5.1 in 2014.

Perhaps you think that it’s a flaw in the defensive stats, saying that Andrus was unfairly penalized for the shortcomings of his teammates, and I won’t rule that out completely, but that’s also not it by itself. As the quote above shows, Andrus was dealing with a sore right shoulder all season long, which isn’t ideal for a shortstop; as the quote linked here shows, Andrus reportedly showed up to camp overweight and was “uncomfortable” with it late in the year. Considering that his BsR and his Speed score both declined this year, and he led the AL in times caught stealing, it’s easy to wonder if the 2014 Andrus just wasn’t getting to balls that the 2012 version would have. (He’s reportedly focusing on losing weight this winter.)

Looking ahead to 2015, Steamer likes Andrus for a rebound, projecting an 87 wRC+ and better defense, good for a three-win season. If a winter of rest helps with his arm, and if he’s dedicated to conditioning as he says, perhaps that helps the defense and base running bounce back. I can’t say I’m as optimistic for the bat, however. Andrus’ swing rates really haven’t changed all that much, other than the fact that pitchers are throwing him fewer strikes and he’s not swinging less. The little power he showed two years ago has disappeared, and he doesn’t walk. It’s not great when “but he’s young” is the best hope you have for a hitter.

Still, the biggest issue with the contract is the length, because while $15 million annually for the next six  years (and $14 million for two after that) sounds like a ton, it’s really not. It’s barely more than the qualifying offer. It’s paying him like slightly less than a three-win player, and that valuation will only turn in the team’s favor as the cost of a win likely continues to rise over the next few years. Even the length might not be so bad, because Andrus has opt-outs after both 2018 (his age-29 season) and 2019 (30).

If Andrus were a free agent this winter, as he would have been if not for the extension, he’d likely still get something close to that average annual value, just for not as many years. This hasn’t worked out the way Texas hoped it would have, expecting that a young player could maintain or improve with the bat rather than regress. But while the contract makes his trade value minimal unless the Rangers were to pick up an enormous amount of it, it’s not entirely the millstone it might seem to be. After all, it only takes a small rebound for him to once again be an above-average player at a position that’s difficult to fill. The Rangers just might have wished they waited another year to hand out that extension.





Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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Chris K
Guest
Chris K

I’m not sure I’d lump in Longoria’s contract with the rest. Even with a down year offensively, dude was still worth three and a half wins and is controlled through 2022 for $118MM. Give him Steamer’s projection for 2014 and the average .5 WAR decline rate and that contract still carries tens of millions of dollars of surplus value, and that’s assuming he won’t ever post another seven win season. Guy is only 29.