Braves seek safety in numbers at shortstop

January, 13, 2012
1/13/12
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The Braves signing Jack Wilson may not seem like especially big news. However, credit Frank Wren and company for making a sensible low-cost insurance move by signing him to a one-year, $1 million (base) deal. This seemingly ticky-tack addition is one that you shouldn’t reject out of hand, just because it’s “just” Jack Wilson.

Wilson
Wilson
Perhaps part of the problem may be that “Just Jack” Wilson has gotten more than $30.2 million over the past five seasons from the Pirates and Mariners. The perceived imbalance between his paydays and his production and value might inspire instant disgust over seeing him show up on anybody’s roster, but a lot of that is related to his weaker track record as a hitter than as a fielder. Give him due credit for his value on both sides of the ball, and you understand why FanGraphs’ valuation model had Wilson worth $25.7 million from 2007-2009, but that was before he lost more than half of the 2010 season to hamstring and hand injuries.

More fundamentally, Wilson makes for a nice insurance policy for top prospect Tyler Pastornicky, the rookie who’s the expected starter at short. Wilson isn’t a threat to the organization’s long-term commitment to Pastornicky, and the kid should have the job to himself at some point in 2012. But if he has a bad camp, or, worse yet, gets hurt early on, the Braves will need an immediate alternative to help sustain their bid for contention. This is without cynically getting into the other incentive in place for the Braves -- to bump Pastornicky back to Gwinnett, keeping him from reaching arbitration as soon as the winter after the 2014 season.

There’s also the matter of expected production. Pastornicky is only projected by Dan Szymborski of ESPN Insider to hit just .245/.302/.331 in 2012; he’ll get better than that eventually, but that projection is a yardstick for where expectations should be. You can see how it wouldn’t be very hard for him or the Braves to get frustrated with his performance at the plate if he does worse than that at the outset. Wilson isn’t projected to be significantly better (.258/.299/.349), but it provides the Braves with an element of certainty -- exactly what you want from an insurance policy.

Finally, there’s the likely benefit of Wilson’s glove at short. Although metrics like Baseball Info Solutions’ Plus-Minus and Total Zone suggest that Wilson lost a step last year, that’s going off just 22 games. His 2008-2010 run of being worth a win or more in the field per year each season seems like a reasonable basis for expecting him to be a cheaper alternative to another year of the always-glovely Alex Gonzalez, who is already gone to Milwaukee.

So, credit Frank Wren and company for understanding as much in spending what’s effectively a pittance on the payroll. This isn’t a matter of setting Pastornicky up to fail, or harboring low or reasonable expectations. It’s about making sure that the team gets a certain amount of production from their shortstops as they move quietly to contend in the division where the Nationals, Phillies and Marlins have been making so much noise.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

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