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Exploring the shortstop trade market

With Clint Barmes now a Pirate and most of the other free agent shortstops apparently priced out of the club’s range, it’s safe to say that the Brewers’ offseason shortstop hunt hasn’t quite gone as planned. At this point, most followers of the club are largely over the thought of the club bringing in a high-end player to save the team’s offense and have resigned themselves to the possibility that, come April, the name “Betancourt” will appear next to the 6 on Ron Roenicke’s lineup card.

Recently, we’ve been doing more than our due diligence on the team’s shortstop search, and today, we’re going to look at another avenue the club could pursue: the trade market. Ideally, the club will be able to find a solution via free agency, but each of these players could present a suitable alternative to the Betancourts of the world if that’s what it comes to:

Jason Bartlett

Unlike the other players we’ll discuss, there are no questions as to Bartlett’s availability, but the value he could provide is far less clear-cut. Bartlett likely won’t give the Brewers much of an upgrade on offense, as his .245/.308/.307 line was good for a .279 wOBA, nearly identical to Yuniesky Betancourt’s .278 mark. Moving out of Petco Park may help Bartlett a little, but he simply doesn’t hit enough fly balls (just 25.3% of all batted balls, according to Fangraphs) to see a big jump from moving into a smaller ballpark. Similarly, any optimism that he can repeat his strong 2009 (.320/.389/.490) should be exercised with extreme caution, as Bartlett is now well into the decline phase of his career, and has followed up his big age-29 campaign with two less-than-stellar seasons at the bat. Bartlett will also come at a significantly higher cost than Betancourt: In addition to the player(s) San Diego will demand in trade, Bartlett is owed $5.5 million next year and has an option for 2013 that carries a $1.5 million buyout.

Going by this, Bartlett would have to be a significant improvement over Betancourt on defense in order to justify a trade. Defensive metrics’ opinions on Bartlett vary, but on average, they consider him to be around 5 runs below average at short. (Betancourt, presumably on the strength of his not-horrible play in the beginning of the season, was generally listed at around the same number, but has been as far as twenty runs below average in previous years.) The reliability of said metrics is another issue altogether, but it doesn’t change the overall story: Bartlett is only a modest upgrade over what the Brewers had last year, but will come at a significantly bigger cost, both in salary and prospects. Unless you have a lot more faith in him rebounding than I have, Bartlett doesn’t really make sense for the Brewers.

Eduardo Nunez

Nunez is another name that figures to be involved in trade talks this winter, with the Yankees looking for a starting pitcher (via trade or otherwise) and their shortstop job blocked for the foreseeable future (The Braves are interested in Nunez, according to MLB Trade Rumors). Unlike most of the other shortstops the Brewers have been linked to, Nunez comes with a bat that would be a plus for his position, with a .313 wOBA that sits comfortably above the .303 average for shortstops. However, the real concern here is whether Nunez could fill the second half of that proposition on an everyday basis. The numbers (more appropriately, the video stringers) didn’t think highly of Nunez’s work at shortstop, as UZR and Plus/Minus both pegged him at eight runs below average in just 50 games (extrapolated to a full season, almost all metrics had him around 20-30 runs below average). Nunez carries enough offensive upside to remain an interesting thought, but given the questions surrounding his defense and the likely cost (the only realistic scenario that puts Nunez in Milwaukee is him being part of a package for a Brewers starting pitcher), he is far from a perfect candidate. Still, a combination of Nunez and a more glove-minded caddy (I never thought I’d hear myself say this, but Nick Punto or Jack Wilson would make sense in this role) could form a tandem that, though still flawed, would be a lot better than the alternative.

Brendan Ryan

In contrast to the other players discussed here, Ryan is very unlikely to be going anywhere (he’s under club control until 2014 and the Mariners don’t have a competent replacement in the near future), but could provide a lot more value than either Bartlett or Nunez. Ryan isn’t a great hitter (.248/.313/.326 last year, with a .291 wOBA), but is still, by most estimates, at least 10 runs per season better than Yuniesky Betancourt with the bat. Ryan’s biggest weapon, however, is his glove. I was unable to find a metric that has ever rated Ryan as below average (he is consistently in the 10-15 run range). All this adds up to a shortstop that was worth 2.8 WAR last year.

As nice as it would be for the Brewers to have Ryan’s production, at what cost he would come is the real issue. (Remember, the Mariners really have no reason to trade him.) Last year, Ryan was traded straight-up for right-hander Maikel Cleto but after last year’s performance, Ryan’s value has probably climbed considerably. (At the time, Cleto was a 21-year-old minor league hurler with a great fastball and numbers that didn’t quite match up, and was seen as a potential bullpen arm.) The current dearth of quality shortstops in the big leagues, which almost led to a bidding war for Clint Barmes, isn’t going to help here either.  Ryan could be the solution to many of the Brewers’ problems, but don’t hold your breath in anticipation of this one happening.

All told, none of these players are terribly exciting, but are all improvements over the presumed “Plan B” of Yuniesky Betancourt, an option that is looking more likely with each passing day. Hopefully, the Brewers’ shortstop situation will be resolved soon, but the club would be best served keeping their options open should they be the only suitor standing after the music stops on the current game of musical infielders.