Wednesday November 17th, 2010

Barely a week after Dan Uggla rejected a contract offer rumored to be worth $48 million over four years, the Florida Marlins have traded their arbitration-eligible All-Star second baseman to the division rival Atlanta Braves for infielder Omar Infante and lefty reliever Michael Dunn. The deal gives the defending NL wild card Braves a powerful right-handed bat for the heart of their lineup but is a bit of an odd fit for Atlanta on the other side of the ball and another embarrassment for the Marlins franchise.

Part of the problem is that the Braves already have an All-Star second baseman in Martin Prado, who is three and a half years Uggla's junior and a superior fielder at the position. Prado, however, has played all four infield positions and both outfield corners in his major league career, while Uggla has only played second base. The Braves thus intend to put Prado in left field resulting in a defensive arrangement that has Rookie of the Year runner-up Jason Heyward in right, Nate McLouth in center, Prado in left, a 39-year-old Chipper Jones at third base, Alex Gonzalez at shortstop, Uggla at second, and rookie Freddie Freeman at first base. Uggla, however, is a terrible defensive second baseman, while Prado is no worse than average at the keystone and has played just four games in left field as a professional. Meanwhile, McLouth, whose bat went so cold last year that he was twice demoted to Triple-A, is, despite the 2008 Gold Glove he earned for a collection of diving highlight catches, as deficient in center as Uggla is at second.

That makes for an awkward fit on Opening Day, but there's a bit more method to that madness than there might initially appear. While the Braves are certainly hoping for the best at the infield corners from Jones and Freeman, two players on opposite ends of their careers, there's a very good chance that one or the other will vacate his position due to either lack of performance or injury. Freeman is a highly-touted prospect, but he's not in Heyward's class, is just 21, and has just 24 major league at-bats under his belt during which he has managed just four hits and no walks. He is the team's first baseman of the future, to be sure, but there is no guarantee that the future will arrive in April. Jones, meanwhile, will not only be 39 at the end of April, but has averaged just 122 games played over the last seven seasons and is returning from a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee which ended his 2010 season after 95 games.

Though he has never moved off second base, Uggla has often been the subject of offseason speculation that he might move to first or third base due to the quality of his glove work at second, and if the Braves do need to replace Jones or Freeman for an extended period of time in 2011, they would be well-advised to use Uggla for that purpose and return Prado to the keystone, even if Prado's history of utility makes that seem somewhat unlikely. Of course that opens up a big hole in the outfield, but it's only November, and though Braves general manager Frank Wren said the Uggla/Prado plan will allow them to back off their search for a big outfield addition, the Braves should continue to be in the mix for a top fourth-outfield or center fielder as the final piece of this puzzle.

Defense aside, Uggla is a nice upgrade for the Braves, though given how well All-Star utility man Infante performed in 2010, he's not as big an upgrade as some might assume. Comparing the 2010 Braves to their projected 2011 lineup, Freeman replaces free agent Troy Glaus, and full seasons of McLouth and Jones would eat up the playing time of released outfielder Melky Cabrera, leaving Uggla to replace Infante's 506 plate appearances and bits and pieces of the playing time of various other bench players. Infante, who hit .321/.359/.416 while playing five positions in 2010, was worth 4.3 wins above replacement this year according to Baseball Prospectus's Wins Above Replacement Player (a total-value statistic that includes offense and defense), while Uggla, coming off his best major league season, was worth 5.3, a difference of just one win. That gap shrinks even further when one considers the likelihood of Uggla regressing slightly from that career year. In 2008 and 2009, Uggla averaged just 4.4 WARP, making him a break-even proposition as a replacement for Infante's 2010 performance.

Of course, Uggla is far more likely to continue to play at that level than Infante, who had never been worth as much as two wins above replacement prior to 2010 and is a career .274/.319/.395 hitter even after that All-Star season. In that way, the Braves have significantly upgraded their 2011 outlook despite not actually making a significant upgrade over their 2010 production.

That knife cuts both ways, as the Marlins likely see Infante, whose $2.5 million option for next season was picked up by the Braves two weeks ago, as a cheap and not insufficient replacement for Uggla, who made $7.8 million this year and is headed to arbitration coming off a career year. That's wishful thinking. Then again, one always wonders just how much the Marlins are concerned about wins and losses relative to dollars and cents.

Yes, the Marlins' contract offer to Uggla was significant, but Baseball Prospectus's Marginal Value Above Replacement Player (MORP), which attempts to project a player's value in dollars based on his PECOTA-projected performance and the behavior of the free agent market, projects that Uggla will be worth $51.8 million over the next four seasons, and that projection was calculated prior to his big 2010 season. That is to say that the Marlins' decision to immediately respond to Uggla's rejection of their offer with a trade calls into question just how serious they were about coming to terms with Uggla given that they didn't even match that projected value base on a fairly pessimistic projection system. Remember, it took a threat from the commissioner's office back in January for the Marlins to shake loose the cash to sign Josh Johnson to an extension, and the team is notoriously reluctant to offer extensions or even go to arbitration with anyone other than their very best players. Even with Johnson and Hanley Ramirez signed to multi-year deals, Uggla was Florida's most expensive player in 2010 and likely would have been again in 2011.

Given the underwhelming return, career utility man Infante and inexperienced lefty reliever Dunn, who will be 26 in May, this trade looks very much like a salary dump. Infante will start in the infield for the Fish, possibly at third base with 2009 Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan returning to his original position of second base, and Dunn will join a strong young bullpen recently populated by the Marlins' attempt to wash their hands of the 2007 Miguel Cabrera trade by dealing fading center field prospect Cameron Maybin to San Diego for righties Ryan Webb and Edward Mujica and busted lefty starting prospect Andrew Miller to the Red Sox for lefty Dustin Richardson. However, the 2011 Marlins need a strong bullpen like a fish needs a bicycle. Florida is reportedly close to landing free agent catcher John Buck via a three-year deal worth a reported $18 million, giving them a third player on a multi-year deal, but Buck is another import in the Infante mold, a 2010 All-Star in his late 20s who struggled to hold on to a starting job with the lowly Royals prior to his career year with the Blue Jays. Spending on Buck and not Uggla, who averaged 32 home runs and 97 RBIs in his five-years in teal and black and is just four months older than Buck, is counterproductive. There's really no positive way to spin this trade for Marlins fans. Yes, Uggla will be a free agent after the coming season, but so will Infante, which leaves Dunn as the only the long-term impact from this deal. Effective relief pitchers, assuming Dunn will remain one, have their value, Dunn's 50-odd innings of matchup relief work will be small consolation for a fanbase that just lost another one of its stars.

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