When the Tigers reacquired Omar Infante from the Florida Marlins in July, 2012, they finally brought stability to the second base position that had been in turmoil since they allowed Placido Polanco to leave as a free agent after the 2009 season.
The trade for Infante was no small deal. Detroit also acquired pitcher Anibal Sanchez, who would win the ERA title in the American league the following season, and sent their top pitching prospect, Jacob Turner, as well as major league ready catcher Rob Brantly and relief pitcher Brian Flynn.
While Sanchez was a pending free agent who would later be resigned to a five year, $80 million contract after the 2012 season, Infante would settle in as the Tigers’ everyday second baseman through the 2013 season.
Infante would not disappoint in his second stint with Detroit. After hitting a modest .257/.283/.385/.668 with four home runs and 20 RBI, mostly batting at the bottom of the lineup in the second half of 2012, Infante was an inferno in 2013, batting .318/.345/.450/.795 in 2013. He was one of the most productive hitting second basemen in the league.
Infante’s wOBA of .346 ranked fourth in the league behind Robinson Cano, Dustin Pedroia, and Jason Kipnis, and ahead of players such as Howie Kendrick, Ian Kinsler, and Ben Zobrist. Infante's .795 OPS ranked behind only Cano and Kipnis. Defensively, he ranked fourth in UZR/150, and had the highest RZR (percentage of outs made within the 2B zone) in the league (minimum 1000 innings).
Fortunately for Infante, and maybe unfortunately for the Tigers, in a way, Infante had a career season just as he was about to become a free agent. He has had his best season in slugging, and OPS since becoming a regular in 2003, and he stands to cash in on his success this winter.
Infante’s career path has come full cycle. His twelve seasons in the major leagues began with Detroit in September, 2002. After signing with the Tigers out of his native Venezuela in 1999, he was called up to the majors at just 20 years of age. He was the Tigers’ starting second baseman for most of 2004 and started over 100 games in the infield between second and shortstop in 2005. He switched to a utility role in 2006, still seeing plenty of playing time behind Carlos Guillen and Placido Polanco, and was the primary backup at three infield positions.
The Tigers traded Infante to the Chicago Cubs for Jacques Jones after the 2007 season, in what will go down as one of Dave Dombrowski’s worst trades in his time with Detroit. The Cubs, in an equally ill advised move, traded Infante to the Atlanta Braves for infielder Jose Ascaino, who never started a game in the major leagues.
Infante hit .309/.353/.411/.763 in 300 games over parts of three seasons for Atlanta, being selected as an All Star in 2010. The Braves cashed in, dealing him to the Florida Marlins for All Star second baseman Dan Uggla.
The decision that the Tigers have to make initially is whether to make Infante a qualifying offer of $14.1 million for one season, or whether to risk losing him via free agency and get nothing in return. The offer must be made by five days after the World Series. He would then have a week, or until 12 days after the end of the World Series, to accept or reject the club’s offer. If he declines and signs with another club, the Tigers will receive an extra draft pick between the first and second rounds. If he accepts, he will earn $14.1 million for one season, and be in the same position after the 2014 season unless an alternative contract is agreed upon.
The market for second basemen this winter features some prominent names. Robinson Cano is widely regarded as the top free agent on the market, and his new agent, Jay- Z, has reportedly asked the Yankees for $300 million over ten years. He won’t get it, but he will get a lot of money.
Free agents include the Orioles’ injury plagued Brian Roberts and backup Alexei Casilla, the Jays’ Kelly Johnson, Dodgers’ utility man Nick Punto, the Cardinals’ Skip Schumaker, Yunieski Betancourt, and a number of other journeymen. The Rays have a $7 million option on Zobrist and the Dodgers a $5.75 million option on Mark Ellis that are likely to be picked up. This crop would seem to leave Infante as the best free agent second baseman after Cano, who is in a class by himself.
Trade candidates might include Zobrist and Ellis. The Angels’ Howie Kendrick, the Reds’ Brandon Phillips, and Dan Uggla of the Braves are believed to be available, each of them under contract for multiple seasons with seven figure salaries.
The L.A. Dodgers and the Yankees figure to be in the market for a second baseman, with Cano under consideration in both cases once his salary demands fall into the real world. If the Dodgers were to acquire Philips, that might relieve pressure on Detroit, but there will still be some market for Infante’s services.
HOW MUCH IS A GOOD SECOND BASEMAN WORTH?
The value of a free agent player is whatever the highest bidder will pay. The following chart shows what starting second basemen who have reached at least six years of service time are earning.
Salary Chart - starting second basemen
|4/18 + 2 Options
* denotes pending free agent after 2013 season
** denotes club has an option for 2014
This chart shows that a good second baseman will make $10 million per season or more, but only three of them earned above $14.1 million last season. Judging by these numbers, Infante should be worth a multi-year contract in excess of $10 million, but less than the qualifying offer of $14.1 million. Also noteworthy is that not one of the above players was signed by his current team as a free agent. Hill and Uggla were traded, and then extended the following winter.
Dombrowski is not going to make a contract offer unless he would be comfortable if it were accepted. Infante surely would like to receive a multi-year deal, but if potential suitors have to give up a first round draft pick in addition to a multi-year contract in order to sign him, he may find himself holding the bag without a contract as the season approaches. He might feel better off to accept the qualifying offer and be eligible for free agency after another season.
Two notable players, Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, went through the same scenario last year after declining qualifying offers. Both wound up signing with the Cleveland Indians, who had a protected first round draft pick since they finished in the bottom ten teams during the 2012 season. Cleveland gave up their second and third round selections, while their former teams in Atlanta and New York received their supplemental first round draft picks.
There are no sensible internal options. Hernan Perez, Danny Worth, and others in the organization are not major league caliber starting players. At least not yet. There are some who could do the job defensively, but none can hit a lick.
So here is the decision the Tigers are faced with:
- Infante is a free agent coming off a career season. While he has been very good, history suggests that he will probably regress some over then next few seasons.
- Infante is very likely to sign a multi year contract for $10 million per season, maybe more.
- Other options to replace Infante are very limited. They would likely have to give up a starting player or a couple of top prospects if Infante leaves.
- If he leaves as a free agent, the Tigers will get nothing for him unless they offer him $14.1 million for one season. Chances are, he would accept that offer.
By the time a decision has to be made on whether to make a qualifying offer, the Tigers will have some idea what Infante expects to receive in terms of an extension. His agent could force the Tigers to make the offer or not, with the result that he will have greater leverage in negotiating an extension whether or not the offer is made.
It would seem that the best option is for the Tigers to try and extend Infante for somewhere in the $27-30 million range over three seasons. There is always risk in giving a middle infielder three years, starting at age 32. But a review of the second base market shows that teams tend to hang on to a good second baseman when they find one. If Infante leaves, the Tigers should seriously consider trading any prospect they have, or Rick Porcello, to find a replacement.