Monday December 21st, 2015

The free-agent market continues to move slowly this off-season. With just four shopping days left until Christmas, the shelves remain well stocked in every aisle, unless you're looking for catchers or elite starting and relief pitchers. I’ve already taken a look at the top starting pitchers remaining on the market and the three best outfielders who are still available. Today, let’s peruse the infielders, taking a look at which team would most benefit from adding the top available free agent at each position, plus one multi-position option. (Note: Players are listed by position from first base around the diamond.)

First Base: Chris Davis
Best Fit: Angels

Davis offers the most productive bat of the five infielders here, and no would-be contender is more desperate for an offensive upgrade than the Angels. The Halos ranked 12th in the American League in runs scored this past season, pushing across just 4.1 runs per game despite an MVP-worthy season from Mike Trout and a 40-homer season from Albert Pujols. The latter would not block Davis here, as the two can combine to cover first base and designated hitter. Pujols, who will turn 36 in January, is also coming off surgery in his right foot that is likely to delay the start to his 2016 season.

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The odd man out after Pujols’s return would be C.J. Cron, who will turn 26 in January and has yet to prove he can be significantly above replacement level at first base. Davis would thus have the potential to be as much as a five-win upgrade for the Angels, and as a dangerous lefty slugger, he would slot in neatly between the righthanded Trout and Pujols in the order.

All of that said, Davis would be hurt by the move from homer-friendly Camden Yards to homer-suppressing Angel Stadium, and, as I wrote last week, he is a risky investment given his low contact rates and associated risk of offensive collapse in his early thirties (he turns 30 next March). Nonetheless, the Angels' additions this off-season—shortstop Andrelton Simmons, third baseman Yunel Escobar, catcher Geovany Soto, outfielders Craig Gentry and Daniel Nava, and Rule 5 pick Ji-man Choi—have limited offensive upside. The Halos need to add at least one impact bat to have any hope of keeping pace with the Rangers and Astros in the coming season. Davis fits the bill there.

Second Base: Howie Kendrick
Best Fit: Royals

Kansas City's second base options are lacking: Ben Zobrist is now a Cub, Omar Infante has posted a 64 OPS+ in his first two seasons with the Royals, and the team appears to lack confidence in Christian Colon, who will turn 27 in May and has collected just 168 regular-season plate appearances in the major leagues. Kendrick, coming off a down season with the glove into a free-agent market that also included Zobrist and Daniel Murphy, might be a relative bargain. As a 32-year-old second baseman, he’s clearly a risky signing, but there is no more win-now team than the defending World Series champions.

It’s not unreasonable to expect Kendrick to be a three-win player for Kansas City in 2016 and to keep the team above replacement at the keystone for a few years beyond that. He also fits the profile of a player the Royals would want, with good contact and high batting averages at the plate, heady base running and above-average defense (usually, anyway). All of those combine to make him a more valuable player than his raw numbers might suggest.

Shortstop: Ian Desmond
Best Fit: White Sox

As the Todd Frazier trade suggested, the White Sox remain convinced that they’re just a player or two away from contending in the AL Central. I’m not sure I buy it, but with Alexei Ramirez a free agent, filling that shortstop hole with the best player on the market could go a long way toward changing my mind.

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Desmond had a lousy walk year and is already 30, but he averaged 3.6 Wins Above Replacement per season ( version) from 2012 to '14 and hit .262/.331/.446 with 12 home runs in the second half of '15. He also recovered from his error-prone April to post an above-average season in the field. Like Kendrick, Desmond's poor walk year and surprising lack of suitors could bring down his price considerably. Picture him between the slick-fielding Frazier and Brett Lawrie in the White Sox' infield and hitting at homer-friendly U.S. Cellular field in a lineup with Adam Eaton, Jose Abreu and Frazier. In that scenario (and with Chris Sale, Jose Quintana and Carlos Rodon in the rotation), the White Sox, who were dead last in the AL with 3.8 runs scored per game last year, really could be one of 2016’s surprise teams.

Third Base: David Freese
​Best Fit: Red Sox

Freese is the best free-agent third baseman available—and has been all off-season—purely by default. Despite some prospect optimism, postseason heroics and a 2012 All-Star appearance, he is not an elite player by any measure. With a league-average bat and below-average glove, he’s a hard sell as an upgrade to any team’s third base situation given his free-agent price tag. He might make sense, however, for the team that signed last year’s default best free-agent third baseman: Boston.

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Pablo Sandoval was flat-out awful for the Red Sox in 2015: He posted a 76 OPS+ and was below average in the field, making him a sub-replacement level player on the season. But the switch-hitting Sandoval did hit .266/.317/.427 against righthanded pitching (a tick above league average for that split), suggesting that he’d benefit from a righthanded platoon partner. Enter Freese, who has hit .296/.367/.459 against lefties in his career and would benefit from the move from Angel Stadium to righty-friendly Fenway Park. Two wrongs typically don’t make a right, but for a Boston team with a lot of cheap, home-grown talent and a clear path back to contention in 2016, making a whole player out of the parts of Sandoval and Freese that still work could complete its efforts to turn its misfit-toy corner infielders into assets.

Utility: Daniel Murphy
Best Fit: Pirates

If the lack of rumors surrounding him is any indication, Murphy’s home run barrage in the postseason didn’t alter the nature of his free agency as much as some suspected it would. Indeed, the dominant perception of him appears to be less that of a late-blooming, power-hitting second baseman than that of a player with an above-average bat who can fill any of a number of positions. That’s the correct view: Murphy can’t play shortstop, but he was a minor-league third baseman, has played 190 games at first base and made 57 starts in leftfield in his first two major league seasons.

That profile would seem to fit the Pirates. Pittsburgh traded its second baseman, Neil Walker (who was entering his walk year), to Murphy’s old team, the Mets, leaving an infield headed up by similarly flexible defenders in Jung-ho Kang and Josh Harrison and with no player locked in to any position. Harrison can play third, second and even a little short; Kang split his time between third and short in his rookie season. With no set first baseman (Mike Morse projects as the Opening Day starter) and with a bench of utility man Sean Rodriguez and four-corner man Jason Rogers, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle could mix and match as he sees fit with Murphy, who has hit .291/.331/.421 (111 OPS+) over the last five seasons. That would be a nice replacement for Walker, who is only five months younger and hit .269/.337/.429 (113 OPS+) over the same span in the lineup.

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