Three Utility Infielders Find New Homes

Paul DeJong
Rich Storry-USA TODAY Sports

Royals sign Garrett Hampson to one-year, $2 million deal

Hampson defines what it means to be a utility player — the 26th man on the roster who contributes not through offensive prowess but via baserunning and defensive versatility. Despite once being a 50 FV prospect, he never became an everyday regular with the Rockies, hovering around replacement level thanks to his consistently poor hitting (he posted a wRC+ of 64 in each of his first three full seasons in a Khris Davis-esque streak). Concerns about his power potential in the minors were validated by his pedestrian exit velocities in the majors, maxing out at 11 homers even in the favorable conditions of Coors Field.

After being non-tendered by Colorado, Hampson signed a one-year deal with the Marlins, where he was roughly a league-average hitter over 250 plate appearances. This sudden uptick in offense was largely a mirage of batted ball luck; he posted a .379 BABIP compared to a .320 career baseline (in the ballpark with the highest BABIP), the lowest barrel rate of his career, and no improvements in walk or strikeout rates.

You certainly shouldn’t be expecting anything resembling a league-average hitting line from Hampson, but his baserunning and defense are still enviable. He has averaged +4.2 BaseRuns per 150 games played, and while he’s not a volume stealer, he has an 81% career success rate. His skills on the basepaths have translated to defensive range at every single position besides first base and catcher. It’s extremely difficult to maintain a high quality of fielding despite being constantly ping-ponged between the infield and outfield, especially from the beginning of a big league career, yet Hampson has performed admirably wherever he’s been stationed.

Garrett Hampson, True Utilityman
Position Innings RAA + UZR Arm Runs
2B 1014 -4
3B 97 1
SS 621 1
LF 94 0.2
CF 1300 2.9
RF 86 -1.1

Hampson has been above average with the glove spending the considerable majority of his time at up-the-middle positions, an asset to teams who can spend a roster spot on a defense-first player and/or rebuilding clubs looking to boost their inexperienced pitching staffs with solid gloves. The Royals certainly fit the latter criteria, with eight members of their current projected pitching staff, including three members of the starting rotation, entering 2024 with fewer than three years of service time. A most likely use case for Hampson will be as a platoon partner with the left-handed Kyle Isbel and Michael Massey, though he could get time almost anywhere given the lack of proven talents on the roster.

Mets sign Joey Wendle to one-year, $2 million deal

Wendle is best known for his four-year tenure with the Rays, where he thrice eclipsed 500 plate appearances and 3 WAR (or a pro-rated 2020 equivalent) despite never locking down a single position. Instead, he rotated between second, third, and shortstop, primarily manning the keystone early on, then seamlessly shifting the bulk of his starts to third base when Brandon Lowe had a fully healthy season at second. When he hit at an above-average clip, he did so without much pop or plate discipline, putting bat on ball and consistently placing line drives into the outfield. He maximized his productivity given his lack of raw power or lift in his swing, but it relied on his plus speed and bat control, which couldn’t last forever.

Wendle broke into the majors late, playing his first full season for the Rays at age 28. Despite entering free agency for the first time, 2024 will represent his age-34 season. As a result, he’s lost a step over the years, evident in his declining defensive and baserunning value. He took extra bases on hits less frequently than before, and last season was his first as a below-average defender by RAA. His line-drive rate went from great with the Rays to below-average with the Marlins, and hitting the ball on the ground over half the time isn’t effective for someone who doesn’t have the foot speed to leg out infield hits. The warning signs were there in his age-31 season in 2021, so it’s unsurprising Tampa traded him that offseason, (correctly) anticipating a future decline. Wendle was never great with the Marlins, but his production completely fell apart during the last couple months of his tenure there, with a -6 wRC+ over the last two months of the year.

Joey Wendle Speed Metrics
Year Sprint Speed Percentile BsR/150 Def/150
2018 81 3.2 5.4
2019 86 3.2 8.6
2020 83 4.2 5.4
2021 71 -0.2 10.4
2022 50 0 7.3
2023 61 0.3 2.1
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Def incorporates RAA and positional adjustment

Wendle will slide into the role previously held by fellow left-handed multi-positional infielder Luis Guillorme, who was non-tendered following a down year truncated by a calf injury. It’s somewhat surprising that Guillorme was let go given his arbitration estimate of $1.7 million and track record of success in a bench role, especially with his disciplined approach at the plate and high walk rates. Should both Wendle and Guillorme return to form next season, the Mets will be trading a points of OBP for a few more extra-base hits, though the former’s decline in athleticism make it difficult to see him as an impact player, even in his limited role.

White Sox sign Paul DeJong to one-year, $1.75 million deal

Only one position player contributed more negative WAR to his team than Wendle in last season’s second half, and it just so happened to be DeJong. In the first half with the Cardinals, he hit below league average and put up the best defensive numbers of his career, putting him on a three-win pace for the season. With St. Louis well out of contention, they flipped him to the Blue Jays, where he fell into a historic slump. In 13 games north of the border, he went 3-for-44, striking out 41% of the time without drawing a walk or clubbing an extra-base hit. His .068/.068/.068 slash line was good for a -76 wRC+, prompting the Blue Jays to release him after just three weeks.

DeJong then signed on with the Giants, themselves in the middle of a horrific offensive implosion. While he was acquired to take playing time from the aging Brandon Crawford, his struggles in Toronto followed him west, where he hit even worse than Crawford. He wasn’t as historically awful as he was with the Jays, but he still hit just .184 without a walk before the Giants cut him loose as well.

The question going forward remains whether or not DeJong’s abysmal second half was a 31-game anomaly or a true change in his talent level. There are certainly red flags in his under-the-hood numbers; zero walks in 94 plate appearances is concerning, but his chase rate shooting over 54% after leaving St. Louis (compared to a 32% career rate) may be even worse. His power almost completely evaporated as well. A combination of lowered exit velocity with more ground balls than fly balls for the first time in his career led to just one barrel in 60 batted ball events. Steamer’s projections certainly put a good deal of weight into his disastrous run, forecasting a .276 OBP and 76 wRC+, with a strikeout rate a few points above his career norm.

DeJong’s signing won’t drag the White Sox, who scored the second-fewest runs in the majors last year, out of the cellar, but it will at least stabilize their infield situation in the short term. With the arrows pointing down on 40-man infielders José Rodríguez and Lenyn Sosa, the Sox lack immediate plug-and-play options at the six beyond Nicky Lopez. Their clearest option for the future is top prospect Colson Montgomery, our 12th-ranked prospect atop the 55 FV tier. But while Montgomery has looked great in pro ball, he’s far from a perfect prospect, and his poor defense at shortstop may necessitate a future position change, though he’s never played an inning anywhere else in the minors. He also suffered a back injury that limited him to just 84 games in 2023, including a relatively unimpressive showing in the Arizona Fall League. It’s possible that DeJong could hold down the fort for the early season, making way for a midseason debut from Montgomery.

Kyle is a FanGraphs contributor who likes to write about unique players who aren't superstars. He likes multipositional catchers, dislikes fastballs, and wants to see the return of the 100-inning reliever. He's currently a college student studying math education, and wants to apply that experience to his writing by making sabermetrics more accessible to learn about. Previously, he's written for PitcherList using pitch data to bring analytical insight to pitcher GIFs and on his personal blog about the Angels.

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Roger McDowell Hot Foot
2 months ago

It’s of course completely inconsequential but man, I am baffled by the Mets’ signing of Wendle. How is this guy ever going to be worth a roster spot?

David Klein
2 months ago

All he needs to do is to be the player he was in 2022 to be decent utility player, but this past year might be the end of him being a true mlber. That said, it is only two mil.

2 months ago

It’s taboo around these parts to talk about this, but DRS is a good measure of defense and he is still elite on defense per DRS.

2 months ago
Reply to  nah

When your offense is so bad it negates your elite defense to the point of having a negative WAR surely there’s questions to be had here as to whether or not this is a guy deserving of a roster spot.

2 months ago

And, what could the Mets possibly have been thinking when Hampson, five years younger and also capable in the OF where the Mets are likely to need some embroidery, went for the same $2m as Wendle. Mystifying!

David Klein
2 months ago
Reply to  sogoodlooking

Royals probably gave Hampson more playing time assurances.

Last edited 2 months ago by David Klein
kick me in the GO NATSmember
2 months ago
Reply to  David Klein

Royals: You Hampson fit right in! We are trying to put together One of the greatest defensive baseball teams of all time, but for the cost of this bag of recycled cans. Its been a multi year project.

Hampson: Sounds like I fit right in!