The Nats picked up a backup SS today, Cesar Izturis, off of waivers. At least the thought is that he’d be a backup, because he certainly doesn’t hit like a starter. Although he did start for the Orioles in 2010 and for the Brewers this year, he is your traditional, old timey all-glove no-bat shortstop. And when I say no bat, I mean no bat.
His career line of .255/.294/.323 tantalizes you with hints of his lack of power and ability to get on base, but if we dig deeper, we can see it’s even worse than it looks. In his three seasons as Baltimore’s SS, he managed to slug .292, with an OBP of .283, in what is considered one of the best hitter’s parks in the league. And if you go back to 2008, he’s batting a “how-is-he-still-in-the-majors?” .246/.290/.302, with 6 HRs and 77 BBs in 1,581 PAs. But there is a reason he’s still in the majors, and that’s his defense.
Looking at his WARP (Baseball Prospectus’ Wins Above Replacement) he’s sitting at 0.1 for his career. That is with a career VORP (we’re talking only hitting with this) of -27.0 factored in. I’m actually surprised he’s offense value is considered that high (or that low negative), but it still highlights how much his defense adds to his value. His only years of positive offense where he had more than 207 PAs were in 2008 with St Louis and 2004 with LA. That’s it. So looking at WARP, we can see that this guy’s value is exclusively tied to his glove – it’s just barely positive despite having very bad hitting.
And as a fielder, he has been exceptional. His career UZR/150 as a SS is 7.3, basically saying over the course of his career he’s 7 runs better than your average SS per year, which is somewhere just below one additional win. That’s pretty darn good to get from defense. His numbers for the other infield positions are even better, although they are not as big of a sample. And we try not to look much beyond that, because year-by-year UZR/150 is extremely unhelpful at giving us real information.
The Nats got some insurance on the defensive end, and a guy who can definitely play SS. It doesn’t really cost them anything but cash, so it’s not a horrible pickup. And if we scan the minor league system, while there are guys who could possibly help with the bat in the middle infield, there probably isn’t a ton of confidence they could do it while playing even average SS.
(As an interesting aside, in the Keith Law podcast with Kevin Goldstein last week they discussed the hit-or-miss life of a 2B prospect. Either you can hit enough to play 2B, or you’re done, there aren’t backup 2Bs in the majors because if you can’t play SS, nobody wants to carry you as a utility man. I wonder if some of the guys in the Nats farm system I looked at last week are stuck in that spot).
So the Nats don’t necessarily have a guy they feel can play SS in the majors today in their farm system. Before this pickup, they didn’t have any options if something happened to Espinosa. Sure, Steve Lombardozzi could be stuck in there, or even Ryan Zimmerman, but Lombardozzi played all of 20 games at the position in the minors, you really want him there for more than a couple of innings? No, they needed somebody, and they needed insurance pretty quickly. I just wonder if there was somebody out there on the waiver wire that could have provided a bit more offense than Izturis.