I consider myself to be fairly open-minded when it comes to possible moves the Indians could make. I’m more likely to float an unrealistic idea than to call someone else’s proposal a long shot, and I’m generally pretty optimistic about how a potential acquisition could help the team.
But even I’m struggling to see the appeal of the latest free agent to whom Cleveland has been connected: Jose Lopez.
FoxSports.com’s Jon Paul Morosi reported Tuesday that the Indians have engaged in “serious discussions” with the 28-year-old infielder, and I’m having a hard time getting excited about it. Without knowing the specifics of the potential deal it’s hard to make any real judgments—if it’d be a noncommittal minor-league contract there’d be nothing to lose—but I’m not sure how he’d be a fit for the Tribe at all.
Lopez is an absolute liability at the plate. In 82 games with the Rockies and Marlins this year he hit .216/.245/.372. He’s got decent pop (.720 Power Factor) but no plate discipline to speak of (his walk rate was under 3 percent). With a 59 wRC+, he was 41 percent worse with the bat than an average MLB hitter and 26 percent worse than a replacement-level batter.
This wasn’t a single-year slump, either: of the 259 players who have earned at least 600 plate appearances over the last two years, Lopez is at the very bottom in OBP (.263), wOBA (.268) and wRC+ (64). His .611 OPS was good for fourth-worst, and his 3.5-percent walk rate beat only Yuniesky Betancourt. By wRC+, Lopez has been an above-average hitter only once in eight MLB seasons.
This isn’t to say that Lopez is worthless—he could be an intriguing value signing for a club in need of a utility infielder—but I can’t see why the Indians would want him. Jack Hannahan is already the primary backup infielder, and while he can’t play second or shortstop, Jason Donald and Cord Phelps can; both Donald and Phelps are younger, better, and have more upside than Lopez. If Lopez found a clear place on Cleveland’s depth chart and the injury bug hasn’t bitten the entire infield at once, it would mean he had leapfrogged someone better.
There’s an argument to be made that having a veteran who’s logged multiple years in the majors around might be helpful to the Tribe. But in that case, why didn’t the Indians just keep Luis Valbuena? Lopez is right-handed and is a better fielder, but Valbuena is younger and has more upside—not to mention that he was already on the roster before he was traded to the Blue Jays. Or, if Cleveland really needs an experienced veteran off the bench, why not throw the fans a bone and bring back Omar Vizquel?
But there’s a worse possibility than Lopez taking up a utility infield spot: Lopez as the starting first baseman. Morosi and MLBTradeRumors.com’s Mike Axisa both hint at this idea; let’s hope Cleveland isn’t really considering it. Yes, Matt LaPorta will need to earn his job back this spring, but I’m nervous about the suggestion that Lopez is a suitable replacement.
The problem with LaPorta isn’t that he’s not a good enough hitter—wRC+ had him as just below average (93) in 2011—it’s that he’s not a good enough hitter to be a first baseman. Replacing him with Lopez would make the problem even worse. It’s possible for a team to contend when its first baseman has an OPS around .600, but when a hole in the lineup at the easiest position to play is a pretty serious handicap.
Is it possible that Lopez will be an improvement? Sure. His glove is definitely better than LaPorta’s, so it’s a question of whether the fielding or hitting gap would be greater. Using Bill James’ projections and assuming he’d be an above-average defensive first baseman, our Simple WAR Calculator puts him at 0.4 wins above replacement (LaPorta projects for -0.3 WAR). But LaPorta has a much higher ceiling, and James’ projections for Lopez are far better than what he’s done the last two years; use instead his 2010-11 production level and he falls to -0.8 WAR over a full season. In other words, the average Triple-A first baseman would be better than Lopez.
A small-market team like the Indians needs to leap at any chance it gets to upgrade cheaply, and without many holes in the projected roster Cleveland doesn’t need to make any more big moves this winter. But I just can’t see why Lopez would be worth the Tribe’s while, and he definitely isn’t a good answer at first base.