MLB Free Agency: Juan Uribe Bests Pool of Aging Third Basemen

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MLB Free Agents - Juan Uribe

Sep 4, 2013; Denver, CO, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Juan Uribe (5) runs to first base on a RBI double during the eighth inning against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field. The Rockies won 7-5. Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

The baseball offseason is always something to behold. It really gives us a good idea of who’s “going for it” and who’s pretty much just staying the course. And it doesn’t have to be the magnitude of the uber-coveted Robinson Cano; who really thought that Francisco Liriano would be crucial to a Pittsburgh Pirates playoff run. At the very least, it lays the groundwork for what franchises expect of themselves in 2014.

When it comes to third base, there isn’t quite the top-level talent available like Robinson Cano, Mike Napoli or Brian McCann at their respective positions. There is one player who has been very sneaky-good over the last several years.

Juan Uribe

In Uribe’s last three full seasons (at least 100 games played), his total fWAR (Fangraphs version of WAR) is 10.9. In fact, in 2013 alone, Uribe was a 5.1 fWAR. For comparison’s sake, Adrian Beltre last season was a 5.2 fWAR, in 264 more plate appearances than Uribe.

Of course, there are some warning signs around this aging third baseman:

  • First things first, he’ll be turning 35 years old before the next season starts. That’s a landmine as far as 35-year old three baggers go; there have been two regular third basemen in the last four years to crack a 3.0 fWAR at that age or older, Alex Rodriguez (2011) and Scott Rolen (2010).
  • Speaking of being 35, Uribe has missed significant time in the last couple of seasons due to injury. With three trips to the disabled list between 2011/2012 and being relegated to bench duties for many parts of those seasons, Uribe wound up with just 474 plate appearances over those two years.
  • Most of his value comes from defense. We’ll get more into that later.

Here’s how Uribe has performed at the plate over the last three seasons (the first two of which he was injured), and his career rates:

2011

2012

2013

Career

HR/FB%

4.6%

4.5%

10.5%

9.7%

K%

20.3%

20.7%

19%

18%

BB%

5.8%

7.3%

7.0%

5.7%

LD%

17.5%

16.8%

20.1%

19%

GB%

41.5%

48%

42.9%

39.4%

FB%

41%

35.2%

37%

41.6%

OBP%

.264

.258

.331

.299

SLG%

.293

.284

.438

.420

BABIP

.245

.234

.322

.253

 

As a 34-year old third baseman who has hit 20+ home runs once since the 2007 season, Uribe out-performed his career rates in many critical categories like line drive percentage, HR/FB percentage, OPS and batting average on balls in play.

Above, I mentioned that I would get to his defense. Here’s why.

UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) is a defensive metric used to value the overall ability of a defender at a given position. If you want an entire primer, there’s a great one provided by the people at FanGraphs, who also make this data freely available.

In short, a few things that apply to Uribe directly:

  • Almost uniformly, players decline in defensive ability by their mid-20s, and are in full decline by their 30s. By the eye test, Uribe still has a quick glove. His range, however, will never get better than it was, and will only get worse as the seasons wear on.
  • Third base can be an exception for the aging curve at times – Scott Rolen was an above-average defender until leaving baseball at the age of 37.
  •  Last year his UZR/150 defensive games played was 35.3 runs above average, which was a career-high for Uribe at any position. His simple UZR was 24.0, by far the best of his career at any position.

So we have a going-on 35-year old third baseman who was the best defensively he’s ever been (by a pretty fair margin), who also performed above his career rates in many crucial offensive categories, and had been hampered by injury for a couple years previous. And the suitors will line up for him.

He’s not going to get more than three years on the free agent market, at the most. Teams would be willing to give him a two year deal, as it has been speculated, but it wouldn’t be surprising if a team gave him three years for less money annually, viewing him as a relatively cheap bench player past 2014.

If Juan Uribe is among the elite of the free agent third basemen pool, it gives you an idea of who is available. Here are some other important names, and how they’ve performed recently:

Eric Chavez (36-years old for 2014 season)

Chavez is past the point where he can be relied on as a regular starter; he hasn’t had 350+ at-bats since 2006 and still struggles with injuries every year.

That doesn’t take away from the fact that Chavez has 25 home runs in his last 506 at-bats, a pretty lofty total for just about any player. His glove isn’t what it was – again, the injuries have ravaged him over the years – but his bat is just fine.

More suited for a designated hitter’s role on an AL team, there is a team with World Series aspirations down in Arlington that could be looking for a big bat from the DH spot.

Michael Young (37-years old for 2014 season)

For two straight years, Young has produced below-average extra-base hit rates and his line drive rate has declined in back-to-back seasons (albeit, it was marginal this year). For four consecutive years now, Young has hit below the homerun/flyball rate across the MLB.

Defensively, Young has been pretty bad per UZR. This really limits what he can do on the field for a team now. His sub-par glove was fine when he was hitting 36-52 doubles a year – which he did for seven straight years – but he’s had 53 over the last two years and is a singles hitter now.

If a team wants to sign him for his apparent intangibles, they’re going to pay for his name too.

Kevin Youkilis (35-years old for 2014 season)

“Aging, injury-plagued player seeks contract” is probably the most apt description for this year’s third base class of free agents.

Youkilis had a relatively promising start to the season. Playing sparingly, Youk managed a .769 OPS for the month of April in 64 at-bats. Unfortunately, injuries subsided most of the rest of the season for the Greek God of Walks, and Youkilis managed 41 at-bats before undergoing successful back surgery in June.

That month of April was a tease, and it’s tough to trust him to stay on the field. His health will determine whether or not he performs on a baseball field again, but someone out there will give him a chance if he’s good to go.

Placido Polanco (38-years old for 2014 season)

Over his last 1700+ at bats, Polanco has 14 home runs, a worse XBH/H ratio than Michael Young, and his OPS has declined every year since 2007.

He was once a coveted player, but is not close to the player he was 5-6 years ago – his HR/FB percentage in 2013 was 1.1 percent.

Jerry Hairston (38-years old for the 2014 season)

Recently, Hairston was seen outside of St. Louis holding a “Have Bat, Will Travel” sign.

No, not really (I think). Hairston was good against lefties in 2012, but fell off the table in 2013, posting a cool .539 OPS in 204 at-bats overall, with a .445 OPS against lefties. Teams are always throwing darts, so there will be a training camp invite somewhere. But after a lengthy career, this may be the end of the road for one of the five Hairstons in MLB history.

As you can see, there’s not a whole lot out there for third base. Teams that may be in the market to fill a need at the Hot Corner – St. Louis, both Chicagos, among others – might be better served to put their assets into the trade market than a free agent market whose prized name is Juan Uribe.

*as always, thanks to FanGraphs and Baseball Reference for their invaluable resources

Michael Clifford was born and raised in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada and is a graduate of the Unviersity of New Brunswick. He writes about fantasy hockey and baseball for XNSports and FantasyTrade411.com. He can be reached on Twitter @SlimCliffy for any fantasy hockey questions.
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