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August 17, 2010

The Strange Saga of Joaquin Arias

A vintage, badly weathered Polaroid of Arias circa 2006

On Monday night, Joaquin Arias committed two 8th-inning defensive blunders that heavily subsidized Tampa Bay’s four-run outburst (video here). Manager Ron Washington was uncharacteristically harsh:“"We've got to get our heads outta our butts and play better baseball tomorrow."

I’d only assign Arias partial blame for the over-the-shoulder miscue. Yes, he raced after the pop-up awkwardly, but, as evidenced repeatedly last night, the Tropicana ceiling transforms ordinary fly balls into hazardous, “where’s Waldo” eye-squinters. Also, right fielder Brandon Boggs was making his first MLB appearance in two years and arguably could have called Arias off. However, Arias’s “fielder’s choice” decision befitted rookie league. Per Washington: "He should have took the out [at first] right there," Washington said. "That's Baseball 101."

My quick take assigned some of the blame to a third party:

Am I right? Actually, I’m not certain that I am. Not completely right, anyway. The situation is definitely too nuanced for 140 characters. How did the Rangers and Arias find themselves in this position?

Baseball America ranked Arias fourth among New York’s prospects in early 2004, prior to his trade to Texas. For the next three seasons, he ranked between third and sixth in the Texas system, and in 2005 he earned a spot within the lower half of baseball’s top 100 prospects. Always an excellent defensive shortstop with contact skills and speed, the only question was how much power and (especially) patience he would develop in his ascent to the Majors.

The answer: not much. Arias has been a perversely consistent hitter in his seven healthy minor-league seasons:

Category Minimum Maximum
Average .266 .315
OBP .295 .344
ISO .069 .125
XBH/H 16% 23%
BB Rate
SO Rate

Aside from the ability to move up the organizational ladder, Arias hasn’t progressed an inch as a hitter in eight seasons. His best skill is avoiding strikeouts, giving him enough hits on contact to appear useful. He hits .280-.300, won’t take a pitch, and can leg out some doubles and triples. Period. Outlying seasons are just the vagaries of BABIP.

Worse, during an intended conversion to a utility role in 2007, he suffered a shoulder injury while practicing in the outfield. Arias effectively missed the entire season and spent most of 2008 at second base. While he returned to shortstop full-time in 2009, his arm has never fully recovered.

Considered a liability on the left side of the infield, athletic but lacking “baseball sense,” Arias entered 2010 minus options and unlikely to avoid waivers or a trade. Indeed, Texas tried very hard to find his replacement:

  • The Rangers signed Khalil Greene as their fifth infielder in January, but his anxiety issues prevented him from showing up to Surprise.

  • The Rangers claimed Joe Inglett off waivers from Toronto in December 2009 but lost him in the same fashion to Milwaukee the next month. (Inglett made way for Colby Lewis, an upgrade, to say the least.)

  • Esteban German rejoined the team on a minor-league contract after finishing 2009 in Texas. German’s MLB on-base percentage is .358 -- far above any of his competitors and most starting MLB middle infielders-- and can play anywhere but catcher. Unfortunately, while versatile, he’s a poor defender everywhere. Though I believe management would have liked German to win the fifth infielder battle, they were emphasizing defense, and German’s defense in March was especially deficient. (I saw it with my own eyes.)

  • Also signed over the winter were Hernan Iribarren and Ray Olmedo. Iribarren had never played shortstop professionally, so he represented no improvement over Arias. Texas parlayed Olmedo into catcher Matt Treanor.

  • The Rangers traded for Gregorio Petit on March 24th. Petit is a stalwart defender but a slightly weaker hitter and much slower on the basepaths than Arias.

  • Finally, Texas acquired Andres Blanco from the Cubs for cash. Blanco rivals Petit at the plate but has more MLB experience and, critically, displayed MLB-quality defense in the final week of Spring Training. He won the fifth infielder job almost instantly.

Yet Arias survived and even thrived. Kinsler’s sprained ankle temporarily opened second base, and management preferred Arias’s just-good-enough bat and just-good-enough defense to the unbalanced skill sets of his rivals. He would garner the majority of starts in April, while Blanco filled in less often and could cover the left side of the infield as needed.

Arias started 13 games at second base to Blanco’s nine during Kinsler’s absence, but that’s not to say he was trusted. Five times, he was pulled for a defensive replacement. Conversely, Blanco was replaced only by pinch hitters.

In an amazing coincidence, Arias hit the DL with a back strain the day Kinsler returned. He was seemingly destined for waivers or at least a protracted rehab stint, but events conspired to save him again. Ryan Garko had batted his way off the roster; suddenly, the spot reserved for the backup 1B and right-handed bench bat no longer existed. Also, Texas had only twelve position players when Arias’s mandatory 15 days expired.

Garko’s dismissal and lack of replacement bequeathed the minor roles of backup 1B, interleague pinch-hitter, and sixth infielder to none other than Arias. Between mid-May and late July, a span of 68 games, Arias came to the plate only 32 times. He started five games at first but finished none, always replaced by a pinch-hitter. Arias also started twice at second when Kinsler injured his groin in late July.

In another amazing coincidence, Arias hit the DL with a neck strain the day Texas acquired Cristian Guzman. Again seemingly facing the waiver wire or a rehab assignment that would extend until rosters expand on September 1st, Arias returned quickly when Nelson Cruz was disabled. And, with Guzman also disabled and Michael Young out with his own neck strain, Texas had to use Arias defensively in the late innings of a close, important game. Twice, in the span of a few minutes, Arias’s lack of baseball sense trumped his athleticism to calamitous effect. Now, Arias is a pariah, demeaned by fans, writers, and the very manager who begged for his retention (along with Blanco) despite a roster constricted enough to force his surrender of the DH in a May game at Seattle.

This season, management has ruthlessly jettisoned players not meeting expectations. Texas has replaced its ostensible #1 and #2 starters, its first baseman, its closer, both catchers, and (to an extent) its center fielder. Yet once Arias back-doored his way onto the active roster in April, the Rangers have been curiously faithful to him. He’s been an injury-replacement second baseman (but not trustworthy enough in the field to finish several games), a backup first baseman (but unable to hit through an entire game even once), a pinch hitter, and a sixth infielder with only 11 innings to the west of second base.

Only the first role makes much sense. I wonder if Texas would have been better served by Esteban German once Kinsler returned and Garko departed. Yes, Arias was batting .321 through April, but he was certain to regress to the mediocrity of his narrowly defined historical performance. German could have pinch-hit for Treanor (and now Teagarden), hit lefties well enough be a legitimate substitute for Davis/Smoak/Moreland at first (career .289/.365/.408), pinch-run for anyone, and fielded just about anywhere.

Given that Arias wasn’t trusted or even needed at short or third with Blanco around, Arias’s superiority over German was reduced to one attribute: marginally better defense at second base. Back in May, when Kinsler returned, that attribute lost its significance. Monday’s catastrophe in the one allegedly superior aspect of his game only emphasized the pointlessness of his place on the roster during the last three months.

Posted by Lucas at August 17, 2010 11:57 PM