Sunday, March 13, 2005

2005 Ranger Preview -- Second Base 

I don't hate Alfonso Soriano.

I feel the need to preface my comments on the Ranger second base situation with that statement, because one of the most frequent accusations that is levelled at me is that I hate Alfonso Soriano. What is my motivation for supposedly hating Soriano? Either 1) because we got him in exchange for Alex Rodriguez, or 2) just because.

Now, with that said...the Ranger second base situation is a problem. The Rangers have waited too long to trade Soriano -- and I absolutely believe that Buck, at least, wants him gone -- to the point where they now aren't going to be able to get much of a return for him.

Part of the problem with Soriano is the perception that he's still a young player. He's not...with his true age having been revealed last season, we now know that he was 25 when he debuted, and he's currently 29 years old. A 29 year old is heading towards the end of his peak years, not towards a period of significant improvement. Soriano is, right now, likely about as good as he's going to get.

Which leads us to the second problem...there's a perception out there, at least among fans and the media, that he's a perennial All-Star, a player with a lengthy track record of success. In fact, he's been a regular for four seasons, and has been an above-average player for only two of them:

Age 25 -- .263 EQA
Age 26 -- .300 EQA
Age 27 -- .297 EQA
Age 28 -- .269 EQA

Soriano wasn't anything great with the bat as a rookie, which didn't surprise folks who looked at his horrible plate discipline and felt that he'd be unable to post respectable OBPs in the majors. Despite this, he had a breakout year in 2002, putting up numbers that made him one of the best second basemen in the league that year.

The thing that people seem to overlook now is that Soriano's 2002 season was, as John Sickels pointed out at the time, incredibly unique, and the big question during the 2002-03 offseason was whether Soriano would be able to repeat that performance, given his horrible K/BB ratios. Soriano's year wasn't necessarily viewed as the beginning of a lengthy stretch of greatness, but rather, as a possible aberration from a player without the skills necessary to have long-term success.

And for much of 2003, that skepticism looked to be well placed. After a hot start, Soriano struggled for much of the middle of the season, putting up an OPS for May, June and July of 756, 717 and 697, before finally ending the season red-hot in September, posting a 1056 OPS. His torrid September and April (when he posted a 1066 OPS) brought his overall numbers up to where they were close to his 2002 performance, but the streakiness throws up a big red flag.

So his struggles in 2004 weren't terribly surprising, at least to me. Moving to a hitter's paradise like TBIA helped mask some of his offensive decline, but his road numbers were abysmal (.241/.291/.444), and his EQA (which takes into account park effects) reflects that he regressed almost to his 2001 level of performance.

There is a tendency among a lot of folks -- not just Rangers fans, but the mainstream baseball media -- to dismiss Soriano's 2004 season as an outlier. He's got a track record of success, they say, and now that Soriano has spent a season in Texas and is comfortable here, he's sure to bounce back.

I question how comfortable Soriano really is right now -- he's a constant subject of trade rumors, the media is constantly reporting that his manager wants him gone, he was booed repeatedly last year, and he's currently hobbling around on a hamstring he hurt 5 months ago -- and even if he were more comfortable, I think the whole notion that a player will perform better in his second season with a club rather than his first just because he's used to his surroundings to be rather specious.

But more importantly, the first premise -- that his track record suggests that 2004 was an aberration -- simply isn't correct. People act like Soriano has half-a-dozen seasons of great play under his belt, when in reality, Soriano has now had four seasons in the majors -- in two of them, he was an average offensive player, and in two of them, he was an above-average offensive player. I can understand that a glass-half-full mentality and wishful thinking would lead one to say that 2002 and 2003 reflect the "real" Soriano -- that 2001 and 2004 shouldn't count, because in 2001 he was a rookie, and in 2004 he was adjusting to his new surroundings -- but I'm not inclined to grade Soriano on a curve for those two seasons, at least not for those reasons.

The other thing is that Soriano's arrival in 2001 didn't occur in a vacuum -- you can look at Soriano's minor league performance in 1999 and 2000 and use that to help gauge where his expected level of performance should lie. And Soriano's minor league numbers are underwhelming...in 1999, an OPS of 717 in AA and 598 in AAA, and in 2000, an OPS of 795 in AAA. When Soriano was thought to be 21 and 22 those two seasons, those performances aren't that bad...he's young for each level, after all. But the two year aging really hurts him in this regard...a 23 year old posting a 717 OPS in AA, and a 24 year old posting a 795 OPS in AAA, is going to dramatically lower his expected ceiling in the majors, particularly given his inability to draw a walk and his ridiculous strikeout totals.

So if you include his minor league numbers, and look at his performance from 1999 through 2004, what you see is a track record that suggests that the outlier isn't 2004, but rather, is 2002-03...looking over his entire career, in the majors and minors, the question that should be asked shouldn't be, why did he regress in 2004, but rather, why did Soriano have as much success as he did in 2002 and 2003? In light of his performance in 2004, I think those two seasons simply represent a performance spike, a period where he hit much better than he should reasonably have been expected to hit, and better than he should reasonably be expected to hit going forward.

Something else to take into account...when Soriano first came up, he was compared to Juan Samuel, a comparison I think is very apt. Like Soriano, Samuel was a poor second baseman with a ton of speed, good power, and a horrible K/BB ratio, who thrived on swinging at everything and putting as many balls as possible into play. Samuel never quite reached the heights expected of him, and his performance declined quickly when he approached 30. Another player who Soriano reminds me of, albeit less than Samuel, is Carlos Baerga, a cornerstone of several very good Indians teams in the mid-90s who rapidly went downhill after age 26 (although I wouldn't be surprised if Baerga were older than advertised, and were actually 28 or 29 in 1995, his last good season).

For much of the offseason, I've been saying that I thought Soriano would hit somewhere between the way he did in 2003 and the way he did in 2004. Looking at all this, though, and taking into account the problems he's having this spring with his hamstring, I'm moving my projection downward. I'd be very surprised if Soriano posted an EQA higher than .275 this season, and I wouldn't be surprised at all if he was worse offensively in 2005 than he was in 2004. I think Soriano is on his way downhill, which is why I'm so opposed to a long-term deal for Soriano, particularly with the idea that he'll DH in a few years. As it stands right now, I don't think his bat is good enough to keep him in the lineup as a DH in 2005, and in 2007 or 2008, it may not be good enough to keep him in the lineup as a 2B.

Now, the common response from Soriano fans is that, even if he doesn't hit any better than he did in 2004, he's an asset, because how many second basemen hit 30 homers? The answer, of course, if very few, but the problem is that Soriano doesn't bring a whole lot more to the table offensively. His OBP is sub-par, and his slugging percentage, even with all those homers, didn't crack .500 last season. Plus, his steal numbers have dropped every season since he entered the league, and he only recorded 18 last season, a number he's not likely to improve on if he's still skittish about his hammy.

That said, his .267 EQA is above-average for a second baseman. According to Baseball Prospectus, Soriano was 9.6 runs above average for a second baseman offensively last year.

But that, alone, doesn't make him an above-average second baseman. Normally, I don't put a whole lot of weight on defense, but Soriano is so bad in the field, it drags him down significantly. BP puts Soriano at 13 runs below average defensively last year, and while BP's defensive stats aren't perfect or exact, that seems like a reasonable number...if anything, it might be on the low side.

So combining defense and offense, Soriano was 3.4 runs below average for second basemen last year. I don't expect that to improve in 2005, when he'll be making $7.5 million -- about 20% of the non-Ho payroll budget. And then folks wonder why no one wants to give up anything of value for Soriano, or why I so badly wanted Soriano to be dealt this offseason, and Todd Walker or someone of that ilk added.

I expect Soriano to be gone come 2006, either because he's dealt at the trade deadline, or because he's non-tendered next offseason. He's in line to make $10 million or so in arbitration after 2005, so absent a huge season from him, there's almost zero chance any team would trade for him and go to arbitration, and almost zero chance the Rangers would go to arbitration with him. The only reason they might bite the bullet and refuse to non-tender him would be because they'd rather pay the money and save face than admit that the Soriano part of the ARod trade was a bust, which would be the tacit admission if they non-tendered him and let him walk without getting anything in return. That would be the worst scenario for Texas...Soriano having a 2004-esque season this year, the team not being able to trade him, and deciding they have to go to arbitration with him and keep him around to DH in 2006.

The news is better if they can find a taker for Soriano. Ian Kinsler leapt into the public consciousness last year by hitting .400 with a double a day in low-A Clinton, before being skipped a level and promoted to AA Frisco, where he continued to hit the ball well, hitting .300/.400/.480 in the Texas League. Kinsler was drafted in the 17th round in 2003 as a shortstop, and was viewed before the season as an organizational depth guy who made pick it well enough to be a viable utility player someday. But he turned heads in spring training -- both Jamey Newberg and Mike Hindman of the Newberg Minor League Report came back from Surprise raving about him -- and impressed all season long. He cracked Baseball America's top 100 prospect list, and Baseball Prospectus slotted him as the #21 prospect in baseball, high praise for a guy who saw almost 500 players get picked ahead of him less than two years ago in the draft.

With Young ensconced at shortstop, Kinsler has been playing a lot of second base in camp, and has been hammering the ball. I think Kinsler would be best served going down to AAA and playing second base every day for the time being, but if he can avoid being dealt (he was part of the trade to Colorado for Larry Walker that Walker vetoed last year, and is supposedly a hot commodity with other teams), I wouldn't be surprised if he was the Rangers' starting second baseman by August. He's described as a Mike Young Starter Kit, and if he can come up and hit like Young has the past couple of years, and play defense like Young does at second base, then the middle infield for the Rangers is in pretty good hands.

A couple things struck me while reading your piece on the Fonz:

1. Has anyone ever done a statistical analysis on Soriano's good seasons to see how lucky he was those years.

2. He was good as a 26 and 27 year old, and okay as a 28 year old, isn't it reasonable to expect that he has 1 if not 2 career seasons in him during his 29-32 year seasons. A lot of guys hit that high mark at 29 or 30
I'm not sure on #1.

On #2, positional players generally peak at ages 25-29, and Soriano is not someone I see has having the sort of skills that would make him a late-peaking type of player.

Could Soriano have a career season at age 29 or 30? Sure, it is possible...but his performance to date suggests, to me, that that is very unlikely.
That was a first-rate analysis. I would be insulting you if I were to tell you that you should write for one of the local papers. You should be writing for BP.

I'd love to see the Rangers get any kind of pitching prospect for Soriano, then sign some journeyman 2b (or trade one of our low OF prospects for one) to fill the hole until Kinsler's ready. I hope they don't rush Kinsler, but from what I've heard, I think he would be exciting to watch this season.
Did you ever write one of these analyses on Michael Young and why you didn't believe he'd hit .300 throughout last season?

All kidding aside, what kind of season do you expect from Michael Young?
Thanks for the compliment, Observer, and I agree with you on Kinsler.

On Young, I'm going to have my preview up probably this weekend, after I do third base, but in a nutshell...I'm expecting him to put up numbers about halfway between 2003 and 2004.
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