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Evaluating the Free Agent Class: Second Base

This year's second base class while not overtly exciting, contains many of the "solid citizen" class of ball-player. Guys you can plug in, play decent defense, stay healthy for the most part, and provide solid stats, but as with the first base class, this free agent class is looking a bit long in the tooth.

Marlon Anderson could be at the end of the line. He has not topped 200 plate appearances since 2006 and has not been a starter since 2003. The Mets gave him just 4 at-bats this season before designating him for assignment and he did not return to a Major or minor league club for the rest of the season. He will turn 36 years of age in January and has managed to hang on due to his position versatility and his utility as a pinch-hitter due to a left-handed bat with decent contact-making skills.

Ronnie Belliard is one of two free agent second basemen for the Dodgers and either he or Orlando Hudson figures to get re-signed given the lack of a Major League ready replacement in the system. Belliard will turn 35 just after the start of the season and has not been a regular since 2007. He continues, however, to show a productive bat and his hot bat since coming over the Nationals has actually placed him in a starting position over Orlando Hudson at the beginning of the NLCS. The interesting thing Belliard has managed over each of the past two seasons has been a HR/FB rate of over 13|PERCENT| a mark he has never topped previously and has a career mark of just 8.3|PERCENT|. Notably along with this his strikeout rates have increased 4|PERCENT| to 5|PERCENT| from his more usual 14|PERCENT| to 16|PERCENT| strikeout rate. This might be construed as a conscious effort to drive the ball more and swing more aggressively, but it does not bear out in terms of where he is hitting it. He has hit more line drives (20|PERCENT| or more) the past two years, this does not however bear out in terms of fly-balls as they remain in the mid-thirties where they have been his entire career. It should also be noted that his line drive rates the pat two seasons have been above his career norm of 19.3|PERCENT| and given the increased strikeout rate, it may become more increasingly difficult for him to maintain his batting average if he is going to strike out so often. Furthermore, it should be noted that 8 of his ten home runs have come over a small sample size during his tenure with the Dodgers and given his overall smaller plate appearance total that a hot streak is simply distorting his stat line and given his overall history and age should not in any way treated as likely power production.

Jamey Carroll continues a theme of aging middle infielders. He will turn 36 next February and has never been a very good fantasy play, but has been quite useful in AL and NL only leagues on a fill-in basis as a very disciplined hitter who walks over 10|PERCENT| of the time and makes consistent contact (16.4|PERCENT| strikeout rate for his career) which has resulted in respectable career .273  batting average. Counting-stat wise he has been and will continue not to be impressive as someone who hits less than 30|PERCENT| of his batted balls in the air, instead hitting line drives well over 20|PERCENT| of the time, and has little speed to speak-of. Some team will bring him in again as a back-up. The more volatile the infield situation the team he signs with the more value he will have.

Orlando Hudson dispelled concerns that his comeback from injury by achieving 631 plate appearances, his highest total since 2006 while batting .283 and hitting 9 homeruns with 8 stolen bases in 9 attempts. There was some fluctuations in walk and strikeout rates (improvements and decline respectively) but both within the range of his career norms. The one thing to note, despite his 9 home runs, is the fact that his power was down from previous seasons in terms of SLG and ISO while his fly-ball rates at 25.7|PERCENT| was the lowest mark of his career while his ground ball rates were at their highest at nearly 56|PERCENT|, but it should be noted that he was coming off a broken wrist injury, an injury noted for its ability to sap power, and that it could return somewhat in 2010.
Akinori Iwamura has an option on his contract for $4.25 million dollars but it also features a $250,000 buyout. In his absence due to injury in 2009  Ben Zobrist proceeded to hit 27 home runs. With Carlos Pena also returning next season the Rays will have to decide whether they want to play Iwamura at second and shift Zobrist to right field, which was a platoon situation for most of 2009, or simply buy him out, keep Zobrist at second and focus on acquiring another right fielder. Despite the injury, Iwamura's offensive metrics were well in line with his previous performances, walking around 10|PERCENT| of the time and striking out about 20|PERCENT| and posting a SLG under .400. His line drive/ground ball/fly ball splits are also similar to his career marks too. Interestingly Iwamura has been consistently able to post high BABIP's which is what helps him to manage to keep his batting average respectable, so it strikes me that as he ages and loses foot-speed, he may not be able to maintain his level of play, but is at least one of the younger second base free agents, turning just 31 prior to the beginning of next season.

Omar Infante played the majority of his games at second base but also saw time at shortstop and in the outfield this season and is likely to reprise a utility role going forward with whatever team signs him. Position versatility and making contact are two of his best attributes, striking out less than 14|PERCENT| of the time this season. He is also not completely walk adverse and walked 8.6|PERCENT| of the time, but it was the second highest mark of his career and he owns a career 6.3 percentage. One aspect of his game that you would not expect from a light-on power hitter are his high fly ball rates which stand at 42.9|PERCENT| for his career and were at 40.9|PERCENT| in 2009.  In other words this is a player who hits a lot of weak fly-balls. What he has done to keep his batting average up the past two seasons is hit line drives greater than 26|PERCENT| of the time and produce BABIP's of .333 and .347. An adjustment downward in his future is likely, especially if utilized on a more frequent basis where he would be overexposed.

Felipe Lopez is the most exciting free agent second basemen on this list. He also will start the season at just 29 years of age and could get a nice multi-year contract even if he perhaps will not be worth the effort going forward. He combines some patience and a four year trend of improving contact-making skills, strking out less than 17|PERCENT| of the time this season.  However, as part of striking out less often, he has sacrifed some of his extra-base hit game hitting fly balls approximately 5|PERCENT| less than he has on a yearly basis over the course of his career. It also needs to be noted that his .310 batting average was driven to great extent by a .360 BABIP, by far the highest mark of his career. He also posted a career high in line drives of more than 2|PERCENT| more than his previous high. The other unfortunate item has been the evaporation of his running game with 14 steals in the last two seasons and a 50|PERCENT| success rate for two years in a row. A 50|PERCENT| base stealer is not someone likely to get the green light on all but the most aggressive of clubs going forward.  Despite these factors, Lopez is still a decent offensive second basemen with ability to hit at least in the .280's and high single-digits in home runs. This is a prime case of not making your bids based on an expectation of previous season performance.

Mark Loretta is the third aging second basemen/utility man the Dodgers have as a free agent. The difference though is that there is no expectation for Loretta to return to a starting role after not having done so since 2007. He still has excellent plate discipline and can produce a near 1:1 BB/K with excellent contact skills and a respectable OBP he may not be able to get enough repetitions to prove it in his upper thirties.

For years Placido Polanco was a bargain player who would well out-earn his purchase price. I've noticed the last two seasons that finally he has been getting the respect he deserves.  His 2009 season was virtually identical to his 2009 season, striking out just 7.4|PERCENT| of the time each year and his walk |PERCENT| within .2|PERCENT| of the previous season at 5.5|PERCENT|. He has actually become a bit more of a power threat over the past few seasons, increasing his fly-ball percentage each of the last five seasons while still maintaining around a 20|PERCENT| line drive rate. The only reason he did not return to his typical .300+ batting average was a suppressed BABIP of .295 as compared to his .314 career mark. Polanco also earns points as a superior defender at second and though he is now 34 years old, he could still be highly sought after this off-season.

Freddy Sanchez has an option year remaining on his contract but at $8.1 million dollars the Giants may look into cheaper options outside or within the organization.  He is a better fantasy player perhaps than a real player as he makes good contact with an 11.6|PERCENT| strikeout rate for his career and is a .299 hitter, but he also has a career .334 OBP.  The batting average is maintainable given his contact skills and given a nice level swing that has kept his line drive rate for his career at 24.4|PERCENT|. It might actually be interesting to see him play in a more power friendly stadium for once as Sanchez has always had good gap power and had 39 extra base hits this season and has a career SLG of .416.