The Older and Better Dodgers Middle Infield

If you’re a baseball fan and you spent any amount of time on Twitter on Wednesday night, then you probably spent as much time hyperventilating as the rest of us. A new Dodger front office that had spent its first few weeks stealthily upgrading around the fringes of the 40-man — guys like Joel Peralta, Chris Heisey and Juan Nicasio — turned the entire sport upside down with trade after trade after trade, followed by more trades.

Three of those moved served to massively shake up the middle infield. Jeff has you covered on the Dee GordonDan HarenAndrew Heaney deal, which removed a second baseman from Los Angeles. Dave did a quick InstaGraph on the ensuing Howie Kendrick-Heaney trade with the Angels, which brought one right back. Right here, we’ll talk about how after 15 years and 2,090 games in Philadelphia, Jimmy Rollins is reportedly heading west, joining with Kendrick to make for a fascinating new infield duo. A 36-year-old shortstop well past his prime isn’t exactly the type of player you’d expect this front office to go for, but it makes all the sense in the world for both the player and the team.

For the Dodgers, the appeal is clear. To say shortstop was a need is a massive understatement. With Ramirez gone and top prospect Corey Seager probably another year away, the current situation was so dire that it ranked No. 31 — that’s last, because “free agents” count as a team right now — in our depth charts. Gaze upon the horror:

#31 Dodgers


Name PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA Bat BsR Fld WAR
Erisbel Arruebarrena 350 .210 .257 .298 .248 -16.7 -0.1 -0.9 -0.4
Miguel Rojas 175 .221 .269 .285 .249 -8.2 0.1 0.1 -0.1
Justin Turner 105 .266 .326 .381 .315 0.3 -0.1 -1.1 0.4
Darwin Barney 70 .233 .283 .316 .268 -2.3 0.2 0.4 0.1
Total 700 .223 .273 .309 .260 -26.9 0.0 -1.4 0.0

Three of those guys exist entirely for their defense, which comes without any apparent capability to hit at a big-league level. Turner is actually coming off a surprisingly good 3 WAR season thanks to a career year with the bat — but he also showed he was terribly stretched in the rare occasions he was asked to play shortstop. Obviously, there was no way a team hoping to contend for a title was going to go into a season like that.

While we’re here, check out what second base looked like, too:

#23 Dodgers


Name PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA Bat BsR Fld WAR
Dee Gordon 560 .256 .307 .331 .285 -10.8 3.5 -1.3 1.1
Justin Turner 70 .266 .326 .381 .315 0.2 0.0 -0.8 0.2
Alex Guerrero 49 .242 .278 .393 .295 -0.6 0.0 0.0 0.1
Darwin Barney 21 .233 .283 .316 .268 -0.7 0.1 0.1 0.0
Total 700 .255 .306 .340 .288 -11.8 3.5 -1.9 1.4

I imagine that a projection of Gordon as a one-win player won’t be popular, and I’ll say that I believe he’s probably a bit better with the glove than that, but it’s difficult to argue with the offense. Gordon has had something like three good months in his big league career, and the fact that two of them happened to start 2014 is entirely why he can be referred to as an “All-Star.” For a guy who lives on his speed, drawing four walks in the entire second half is a critical problem.

But you can see why the Dodgers looked at the middle infield and considered it a problem that had to be solved. Combined, you’re looking at a one-win projection from two spots up the the middle, which is simply unacceptable. Obviously, we’re looking at an unfair snapshot of the roster — shortstop was never going to go unaddressed — but merely what the situation was here and now. Gordon seemed to be a big regression candidate, and shortstop was a toxic waste zone.

Of course, the free-agent list was barren at short, which is why the Orioles showed good foresight in locking J.J. Hardy up to a reasonable deal before the postseason ended. Jed Lowrie and Asdrubal Cabrera probably aren’t shortstops any longer, and Stephen Drew and Everth Cabrera are both coming off of seasons that destroyed any value they once had. Troy Tulowitzki is unlikely to be moved, and the recent big moves by the White Sox ended any thoughts of Alexei Ramirez. It’s why the A’s went after Marcus Semien, and why the Yankees reached out for Didi Gregorius. If you needed a shortstop, you were going to have to trade for one.

Coming off a 3.6 WAR season, Rollins remains desirable, and even at 36, Steamer projects him to be a two-win player, though that’s a number he’s eclipsed in three of the past four years. (ZiPS agrees, pegging Rollins in Los Angeles at 2.3 wins.) Even if it’s just two wins, that’s a considerable upgrade from what the Dodgers were looking at otherwise, going from “just unbelievably awful” to league average, making this a worthwhile move. While Rollins won’t be productive forever, there’s not much reason — with one exception that we’ll get to in a minute — to think he’s suddenly about to fall off a cliff.

On offense, Rollins has been a league-average hitter almost exactly (wRC+ of 103, 101 and 102) in three of the past four years around a down 2013 (85), without much of a platoon split. Even taking his poor 2013 into account, by wRC+ he’s 15th of 29 shortstops with at least 500 plate appearances over the past two years. Clearly, the 2007 MVP is long gone, but coming from as big of a hole as the Dodgers were, Rollins is a big step up. For the mere financial cost of less than $10 million (the Phillies are eating an unknown portion of Rollins’ $11 million) for a commitment of only one year and two non-elite prospects, it’s an easy call. Eight million dollars barely buys you a win on the free-agent market these days, and anyone decent isn’t signing for just one year.

The one red flag, though, is Rollins’ strikeout rate. After years of sitting in the 9%/10% range, it has jumped to 13.7% and 14.0% and 16.4% over the past three seasons. Those Ks generally haven’t affected his overall production — which has remained steady (save for 2013) — but it’s a real concern since most of it has come from his swinging-strike rate.

Despite his advancing age, Rollins has still added value on the bases, stealing successfully 80 times in 97 attempts over the past three years and posting a positive BsR every year of his career. Defensively, it’s been more of a mixed bag, as DRS has disliked him in three of the last four years, while UZR/150 has considered him above-average in three of the past four years. Both agree he was lousy in 2013. Back in September, Eno Sarris talked to Rollins about incorporating yoga into his routine, which he attributed to some of his bounce back from that off year. It’s rare that DRS and UZR/150 disagree this much on a player, which makes Rollins’ true defensive value difficult to determine. If you wanted to say “average,” you wouldn’t get much of an argument. He is, however, a considerable upgrade over Ramirez with the glove.

Rollins had long refused to leave Philadelphia, but it was easy to see the writing on the wall, especially when Pat Gillick admitted the rebuilding phase had finally arrived. For a veteran player finally willing to jump off a sinking ship, Rollins’ chance to play for a winner in his home state seems to have been too much to pass up. It makes sense for the Dodgers, and the team gets an acceptable one-year bridge to Seager. It makes sense for Rollins, too.

On the Phillies side, this — and the trade earlier Tuesday of reliever Antonio Bastardo to Pittsburgh — indicates the official beginning of a rebuild that is at least two years overdue. Even before removing Rollins and Bastardo from the depth charts, the Phillies were the worst team in baseball in our 2015 Base Runs projections. That’s only going to get worse if and when Cole Hamels, Chase Utley, Marlon Byrd, Carlos Ruiz and/or Jonathan Papelbon hit the road. It’s going to be a painful year or two in Philadelphia, but as tough as that will be, it’s a necessary step.

* * *

Back to Kendrick, not to entirely repeat what Dave already wrote, but it’s easy to underestimate how big of an upgrade he is over Gordon:

Steamer projects Kendrick as a +3.3 WAR player for 2015, and given that he’ll make just $9.5 million next year, he’s a significant bargain for the money. The Dodgers can either approach Kendrick about an extension now, or keep him for the final year of his contract and hit him with a qualifying offer next winter. Given the market value of a win this winter, one season of Kendrick plus the potential draft pick is probably worth something like $25 or $30 million. Don’t sleep on Kendrick’s value as a big time asset.

Kendrick isn’t just a better hitter than Gordon — and he is, by a lot, to the point that he’s basically been Ian Kinsler with better base running — but he’s a better fielder, as well. 2014 was Gordon’s first full year as a second baseman, and all things considered, he did well, showing good range while booting some of the easy ones. He can be expected to improve, but Kendrick has regularly been among the elite defenders at his position.

Now consider that with Brandon McCarthy in town, the Dodgers have three of the top 27 pitchers (min. 150 IP) in baseball in ground ball percentage from last year:

15) McCarthy, 52.6%
16) Clayton Kershaw, 51.8%
29) Zack Grienke, 48.7%

Kershaw and Greinke don’t need help from anyone. They’re getting it anyway, because they just saw their second base and shortstop defense improve considerably, and they already had plus defenders Juan Uribe and Adrian Gonzalez at the corners. Want to know why the Dodgers are considering trading Matt Kemp? Because this team hasn’t always been good on defense, he especially is not, and it’s clearly important to the new regime.

Between Kendrick and Rollins, the Dodgers conservatively just upgraded by four wins, and maybe more, doing so while only giving up Gordon, minor league lifer Rojas, Dan Haren (who was immediately upgraded upon by the reported signing of McCarthy anyway), and whatever small parts end up going to Philadelphia for Rollins. Both Kendrick and Rollins are eligible to become free agents after 2015, but that also gives the Dodgers the ability to extend a qualifying offer, though that’s only likely to be a consideration for Kendrick. It even makes them more right-handed, as a deal for Kemp seems likely.

This new Dodger infield is older and signed for fewer years. It also makes them much, much better on both sides of the ball, at a reasonable cost. In just a few hours, a good team got closer to being a very good one.





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

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Ashlandateam
7 years ago

A brilliant new GM + lots and lots of money + ownership stung by painful playoff losses the last couple seasons = a nightmare for the rest of the NL. If this were a Fantasy League, the other 13 owners would be protesting that Marlins trade, and adding Kendrick and McCarthy on top of that is amazing.

Matt
7 years ago
Reply to  Ashlandateam

A fantasy trade of Dee Gordon for that package would actually make a lot more sense than the real one.

chuckb
7 years ago
Reply to  Ashlandateam

Plus they got Grandal and 2 pitchers and unloaded Kemp on the Padres.