Padres Land a Bargain in Kinsler

The Padres have been connected to big names like J.T. Realmuto, Noah Syndergaard, Nathan Eovaldi and even Bryce Harper, all of which suggests that after three straight seasons of 90-some losses and eight straight with records below .500, they’re ready to get out of the business of losing. So far, no dice on the marquee additions, and last winter’s big Eric Hosmer contract isn’t sitting so well, but on Friday, they did score something of a bargain, signing second baseman Ian Kinsler to two-year deal worth $8 million, with a club option of unspecified value also included, according to The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal. The implication is that Kinsler’s days as an everyday player are numbered, and that he’s ready instead for that sage veteran mentor/utility role, à la Chase Utley with the Dodgers.

(Or maybe he just wants to knock back some quality craft beers and fish tacos. San Diego is great for that, but perhaps I’m just projecting.)

The 36-year-old Kinsler was last seen making a mess of things in the World Series, going 1-for-10 for the Red Sox and most notably committing base running and fielding gaffes in the epic, 18-inning Game 3. As pinch-runner for J.D. Martinez, he was thrown out at home plate on the back end of an inning-ending double play in the 10th, and then, after the Red Sox had taken the lead in the top of the 13th, he threw away a Yasiel Puig grounder that allowed the tying run to score. Not great. The Red Sox lost that game, and while they won the Series, Kinsler didn’t make another appearance.

Aside from winning that elusive championship ring, it really wasn’t a season to write home about for Kinsler. After being traded from the Tigers to the Angels last December 13 (for minor leaguers Wilkel Hernandez and Troy Montgomery), he scuffled, and once the Angels fell out of contention, he was dealt again on July 30, this time to Boston, in exchange for relievers Ty Buttrey and Williams Jerez. He had started the year so slowly that in June I explored whether he was cooked, though his bat perked up long enough for him to be of interest to a Dustin Pedroia-less Boston team that featured Eduardo Nunez and Brock Holt scraping by with replacement-level production. It must have been contagious, because Kinsler went from hitting .239/.304/.406 (97 wRC+) with 2.2 WAR in 391 PA with the Halos to .242/.294/.311 (62 wRC+) with 0.0 WAR in 143 PA with the Sox. The saving grace of his season was his defense; he was 9.4 runs above average according to UZR, 10 above average via DRS, and over the past two years, he’s been +17.5 and +16 by those two metrics while batting just .238/.308/.397 for a 90 wRC+ but 4.9 WAR. That’s still an above-average player, if not a terribly sexy one.

The bat is worrisome, though. According to Baseball Savant, Kinsler’s 85.3 mph average exit velocity ranked in the bottom 8% of the league, and his xwOBACON (expected wOBA on contact) plummeted from .350 in 2017 to .303 in 2018. As I noted in June, his downturn owes largely to two major problems: first, he’s struggled against four-seam fastballs, particularly ones 95 mph or higher; and second, he’s stopped hitting lefties. Despite a career 135 wRC+ against heaters as a group, he’s been at 88 and 94 over the past two seasons, and as for the high-velo stuff, here’s an updated version of a table I made for the previous article:

Ian Kinsler vs. 95+ MPH Four-Seam Fastballs
Year wOBA lg wOBA wOBA dif xWOBA lg xwOBA xwOBA dif
2015 .305 .309 -.004 .315 .311 .004
2016 .337 .315 .022 .353 .316 .037
2017 .223 .312 -.089 .298 .318 -.020
2018 .271 .306 -.035 .312 .308 .004
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

The trend isn’t uniform, but it isn’t good. Neither is hitting .191/.236/.250 for a 33 wRC+ in 144 PA against lefties, especially when you’re a righty. That aspect of his performance may well have been a fluke, the flip side of his .278/.357/.539 (135 wRC+) line against southpaws in 129 PA in 2017. For his career, he has a fairly typical split (127 wRC+ against RHP, 101 against LHP), but over the two-year period, his 81 wRC+ against lefties is in the 24th percentile among righty swingers, which is worrisome.

Here’s the thing, though: the Padres got less than nothing out of their second basemen in 2018. Jose Pirela, Carlos Asuaje, Cory Spangenberg and three other guys combined for a 78 wRC+ and -0.1 WAR at the spot. Spangenberg was released in November, and Asuaje was just claimed off waivers by the Rangers, so they’re out of the picture. Luis Urias, who hit .208/.264/.354 in 53 PA for the Pad squad, is the future, a 55 FV prospect who is currently number three on the Padres list (behind shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr and lefty MacKenzie Gore) and number 21 overall. He’s just 21 years old, though, and while’s A.J. Cassavell recently reported that he’s expected to open the season at the keystone, it would surprise nobody if he were to start the year back in Triple-A. Since Tatis is just 19 and hasn’t played above Double-A (and has just 102 games there overall), there’s talk that Urias could even start the year at shortstop, a position he’s continued to spot-start at as he’s moved up the ladder.

All of which is to say that Kinsler, a 13-year veteran with 47.7 WAR, four All-Star appearances, and a pair of Gold Gloves to his name, could be Urias’ double play partner, or his placeholder, or his backup/mentor, depending upon how things unfold. He might even get a chance to play third base in a utility role, if and when both Tatis and Urias are in the bigs. Maybe he’ll become such a natural in this capacity that the Padres will view him as a surrogate dad, as some of the Dodgers did with Utley. The Padres’ padre? Why not?

Considering that Kinsler was projected to produce 1.8 WAR in 490 PA — though now, it would be a surprise if he got that much playing time — and that in our free agent preview the estimates for his salary ran for $6-8 million for a single season, two years and $8 million seems quite reasonable for San Diego. His presence probably won’t change the course of the Padres’ 2019 season, but if he helps Urias adapt to the majors and fulfill his potential, it’s a small price to pay.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Urias is a lock to be on big league roster as season starts but he could start at SS, good article