The Texas Rangers have the best prospect in baseball, a 20-year-old shortstop named Jurickson Profar who the public projection systems think could be a league average player in the big leagues right now. He’s going to start the year in Triple-A, though, as neither middle infield position is currently available in Arlington, with Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler currently entrenched at shortstop and second base respectively. Kinsler is beginning the first year of a five year contract extension, and after posting the worst year of his career at age 30, he wouldn’t be particularly easy to trade at the moment. Thus, the presumption has been that Andrus was going to be the odd man out, especially since he’s represented by Scott Boras, an agent known for encouraging his players to get to free agency when they have the chance.
Well, apparently, we can throw that assumption down the drain, because Ken Rosenthal is reporting that the Rangers are getting close to signing Andrus to an eight year contract that would total approximately $120 million, though those numbers could change before the deal is finalized. If the 8/120 number comes to pass, that would represent $109 million in new money for six of Andrus’ free agent years, as he’s already under contract for $11 million over the next two seasons. Or, another way to think about it is that the Rangers are giving Andrus the Jose Reyes contract now in exchange for the right to not have to trade him away for fear of what he might get on the open market in two years. And in that light, this deal makes a lot of sense for Texas.
You’re going to hear a lot of people talk about how $120 million for a below average hitter is crazy. He has 14 career home runs and a wRC+ of 86. This is a lot of money to pay for defense and baserunning, and in worlds where defense and baserunning aren’t considered to be all that important, this deal is going to take some heat. But, in Major League Baseball, defense and baserunning are important, and Andrus has the skillset to earn this kind of paycheck.
The glove and the legs shouldn’t really be much of a question at this point. No matter how you choose to evaluate them, Andrus is among the best in the game at adding value both in the field and on the bases. His career UZR at shortstop is +29, and when you factor in the positional adjustment, that comes out to +55 runs in defensive value over the last four years, putting him #7 in MLB. At +29 runs in baserunning value, he’s #2 over the last four years. Between his glove and his legs, we’re talking an average of +21 runs above average per year during his career to date. That makes him a two win player before he ever sets foot in the batters box.
And, while Andrus isn’t exactly an offensive force, he’s turned himself into a decent offensive player, posting a wRC+ over 90 each of the last two years. Near average hitters have value, especially when they’re elite glove guys who are fantastic baserunners. And there are reasons to think that Andrus’ offense isn’t done growing either.
Matt Klaassen wrote about the future of Andrus’ bat back in February, noting that the lack of early career power isn’t the death knell that some might have you believe. Yes, he has a career .353 slugging percentage while playing half his games in Texas, but as Klaassen noted, players with similar track records at this point in their career have added power and become better hitters as they got older. Quoting Klaassen:
While I expected a few more surprises, it turns out that (given the parameters I set up, which may or may not have been well-chosen) players statistically similar to Andrus relative to their era, while of greatly varying quality, all managed to at least stay the same or improve as the moved through their twenties, as one would expect. The lack of power was not a problem with this. Perhaps predictably, even a hitter without much power can improve like most others if he combines good contact skills with good plate discipline.
Andrus has swung at fewer than 40% of the pitches he’s been thrown in his career, and he’s made contact 88% of the time he has chosen to chase. Contact skills and plate discipline are the base of a decent offensive skillset for a low powered player, and Andrus has already shown he has both of those things. If he adds even a little bit more power, projecting him as an average or even slightly above average hitter during his prime isn’t out of the question.
As Andrus’ offense improves, so too will his defense likely decline. Defense is a young man’s game, and as Tom Tango noted in a piece called Fielding Aging Curves on The Hardball Times back in 2008, unregressed data suggests that shortstops might peak defensively between 22 and 24, and even regressing that data heavily puts the peak no later than age 28. In reality, Andrus is probably headed towards a downward slope in defensive value, and the question is more about how long he’ll be able to sustain his current levels of performance rather than whether he can improve in the field.
But, the defensive aging curve for a 25-year-old with a pretty stellar health track record is not so steep that we should expect the years to steal more defensive value than they add with potential offensive improvement. In fact, it might be that Andrus has more near term offensive upside than he does defensive downside, and projecting him as a +5 win player in the next couple of years isn’t completely out of the question. He’s already established himself as a +4 win player with his current skills, and unlike Reyes, he’s been exceedingly durable.
Skepticism about the predictive nature of defensive metrics was one of the reasons that Michael Bourn had to settle for $48 million as a free agent this winter, but Bourn was a 30-year-old with serious contact problems, while Andrus would have reached free agency after his age-25 season. Toss in the scarcity of shortstops versus the abundance of center fielders, and the potential for continuing price escalation in MLB over the next two winters, and all of the sudden an $18 million AAV for Andrus’ 26-31 seasons looks downright reasonable.
However, this still leaves the Rangers without a place to put Jurickson Profar. Profar has the chops to handle shortstop, so blocking off the position will either force him to second base or make him trade bait, and as we noted, Kinsler is currently in his way at second base. But, luckily for the Rangers, Kinsler could still be a valuable player at first base (link goes to subscription required FG+, but it’s $5 per year — 42 cents per month — to sign up…), even though he doesn’t fit the profile of a slugging cleanup hitter. And the Rangers have a pretty big hole at first base right now.
Kinsler resisted the overture when the team asked him about moving to first base over the off-season, but this extension gives him a clear choice — he can either move to first base peaceably and remain with the only team he’s ever played for, or he can go the way of Michael Young, throw a big fit about getting moved to make the organization better, and eventually get traded to a lesser team to finish out his career. When Andrus’ future in Texas was uncertain, there was a real chance that Kinsler might be able to hang onto his second base job and stay in Texas. With Andrus in the fold, that option is off the table, and Kinsler can now choose between a trade or a positional change.
It might not happen this year, as some time in Triple-A won’t kill Profar and the Rangers will save some money long term by keeping him in the minors until June, but Profar is now the Rangers second baseman of the future, and Kinsler will either be the Rangers first baseman (or perhaps outfielder) or get himself traded out of town. Given the team’s weakness at first base, Kinsler could probably earn some points by volunteering to start taking groundballs at first now, in preparation for a potential move to the position in the second half of the year, should Profar prove ready to take over sooner than later.
Regardless of how the Kinsler situation plays out, though, the Rangers are better off with Andrus than without him, and at this price, it makes sense to take a shot on an Andrus-Profar double play combination for the long term. You can never have too many good players, and rather than being forced into moving Andrus as he got closer to free agency, the Rangers may have figured out how to keep one of their best players.
It wasn’t cheap, but defense isn’t as undervalued now as it was a few years ago, and Andrus is one of the game’s best examples of how defense and baserunning can make up for a lack of home run power. Profar would have been a good replacement for Andrus had Texas needed to go the trade route, but now, he might just ben an even better teammate instead.