Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Cross Him Off Then (Iwamura Edition).

The first of several second base options is now off the market.
The embers of Pittsburgh’s 2008-2009 fire sale were still smoldering when on Tuesday, a day before Game 6 of the World Series, Pirates GM Neal Huntington poured out the last of his Busch Light on the pile and acquired the 30-year-old Akinori Iwamura in a deal with the Tampa Bay Rays.
The 2009 season splintered for Iwamura when the Marlins’ Chris Coghlan barreled into his planted foot at second base, resulting in a left knee injury that required surgery to repair.  Prior to a dust-up at second base Iwamura was hitting a robust .310/.377/.406 with 14 extra base hits in 176 PA.   Upon his return to the lineup in late August, Iwamura hit just .250/.310/.355 with 5 extra base hits in his final 84 PA as a Ray.  His keen zone judgment (17.2 career out-of-zone swing percent) and line drive tendencies led to his use as the Rays’ leadoff hitter (that, and lack of other candidates) to which Iwamura produced a slightly below league average 733 OPS in his 1,203 PA in three years.
Much like the use of defensive stats in general, Iwamura’s value at second can be contested.
Fangraphs.com’s UZR system suggests that he was the 13th best second baseman in ’08 while Dewan’s Plus/Minus system places him several points lower at 19th.  Meanwhile, human analysis over at the Fans Scouting Report generously placed him as the 8th-highest ranked second baseman.   In truth, he falls somewhere in between those rankings – still a feat for someone who was adjusting to a new position on the opposite end of the defensive spectrum from where an aging player should be shifted.   At his natural position, third base, Iwamura impressed fans enough in 2007 to rank him ahead of Joe Crede and Nick Punto, two players who scored much better according to UZR and Plus/Minus.  For the Twins, having a guy that has the versatility to transition between positions would have been beneficial, particularly when injuries and ineffectiveness takes their toll.
While Iwamura easily embodies one of the top three second baseman available this offseason, Pittsburgh’s involvement is a curiosity.  As a team that is all but shackled to the cellar of the NL Central, unable to procure a winning record since 1992, the Pirates ventured into a rebuild mode that has outlasted three general managers (Ted Simmons 1992-1993, Cam Bonifay 1994-2001 and Dave Littlefield 2002-2007) and has been handed over to Huntington who has gone nuclear with the club.  Admittedly, Huntington’s vision for the future of the organization is solid.  By building a strong scouting department and acquiring prospect talent to replenish the bone dry system, Huntington is focused on the sustainable longevity rather than the immediate results – a boondoggle of a mistake many GMs find themselves in when trying to make a quick turnaround of a franchise.   Instead of overpaying for marginal veterans on the free market or swapping for the quick-fix trade (a la the Royals); Huntington has turned his attention on the foundation.
Which is why I do not understand obtaining Iwamura if you are helming the Pirate ship.
Iwamura’s one-year contract worth $4.50 million provides Pittsburgh with a stop-gap function in the infield.  Suddenly, Iwamura will be accounting for 10 percent of the Pirates payroll. At best, his addition will provide the Pirates with approximately 2 victories, raising their record from the futile 62-wins to 64.  In addition to absorbing the added payroll (which isn’t necessarily a problem since they have been under $50 million since 2004), they shipped a young relief arm in Jesse Chavez.   The 25-year-old Chavez’s fires a solid 94-mph fastball that was tattooed on occasion (9 of 11 HRs allowed) and has two very good out-pitches in his slider (35.9 chase pct, .333 WHIFF Avg) and changeup (27.1 chase, .264 WHIFF Avg).  With a lively arm, getting him to mix his pitches better seems to be his only impediment from being a stalwart contribution to a bullpen.  Is this the best allocation of resources?  Sending a good, young arm and adding 10 percent to your total payroll for a one-year player?
On the other hand for the Twins, this move would have made sense.  Iwamura’s 2 wins would help advance the Twins from an 87-win team to an 89-win team, his line drive ability projects well and his zone discipline would fit in nicely among the free-swingers’ club.  However, when you examine it more closely, would Iwamura’s acquisition really make that big of a difference?  On the roster, the Twins currently have Nick Punto who shares a myriad of commonalities with Iwamura despite being a year-and-a-half Iwamura’s senior.  They both are due $4.5 million in 2010, they have a very low chase percentage (Iwamura’s 17.2 versus 19.1), high line drive rates (20.2 for Iwamura, 20.4 for Punto) and both supplied roughly 2 WAR.  Iwamura holds an advantage in the power department but Punto’s defense is far superior.  If the Twins were to have made this move, it would have come at the expense of a B-quality prospect and the upgrade would have been minor. 

Ignoring Iwamura does not mean that the Twins have to stand pat either.

If you follow along Offseason GM Handbook, you’ll note that we highlighted plenty of viable options at second base.  Nick Nelson noted that it is an area of depth, more so than any other infield position.  Nelson encouraged the acquisition of Placido Polanco which would be a far better maneuver that trading for Iwamura.  In addition to providing the intangible “veteran” that is often cited as missing in the Twins organization, Polanco has provided Detroit with 3 or more WAR since 2007.  Likewise, in my blueprint, I encouraged the acquisition of Rickie Weeks, a young second baseman who had developed into a top-of-the-order threat in Milwaukee before a wrist injury ended his season.  Weeks is poised to return to a 3+ WAR player who is just entering their prime, but would necessitate a trade.

With Iwamura’s quasi-marquee name off the list this offseason the Twins probably avoided a lateral move, paying for the security of Iwamura’s track record rather then the unknown of Punto.  Nevertheless there are better ways to improve this team.