The Marlins have quite a few arbitration decisions to make, and one of them will involve corner infielder Jorge Cantu. Cantu has been on the team since last year, coming in during spring training with a minor league contract after quickly losing favor with the Tampa Bay Rays. When he came to the Marlins to compete for the third base job, he was only two years removed from completing his best offensive season, when he hit 28 home runs, 40 doubles, 117 RBIs, and a totally anticlimactic .343 wOBA because he drew only 19 walks that year and had a .311 OBP.
However, Cantu left spring training with the third base job for the Marlins and took off with it, hitting 29 home runs, 41 doubles, and an equally anticlimactic .346 wOBA because he only had a .327 OBP. Now, none of that was bad and in fact it was totally acceptable; Cantu posted a .204 ISO (no triples, so no adjustment necessary) and, even without getting on base a whole lot, he was just a bit below average in that department and provided a powerful punch in the lineup.
It seemed like this year, something similar would occur, but apparently it was not to be. After a hot, power-packed start in which he socked seven home runs in a span of two weeks, Cantu proceeded to hit nine home runs the rest of the season, in part thanks to an injured wrist and hand. To compensate, Cantu walked a little more this year and was a bit better with his BABIP (.310 this year as opposed to .293 last season) and as a result he was able to get on base at a .345 clip, the highest season mark of his career. A dip in home runs and a climb in walk rate and OBP brought him to a yet-again anticlimactic .343 wOBA.
All in all, Cantu has been solidly productive the last two years. He’s put up 2.9 WAR and 1.6 WAR in 2008 and 2009 respectively, and players of that caliber usually hold jobs for a good amount of time. However, in the last few years the Marlins made away with production and not much pay; Cantu earned $500K last year and $3.5M this season, meaning the team paid $4M for about $20M of free agent production. That won’t be the case this year, when Cantu is estimated to make approximately $6M when compared to other corner infielders in similar situations (estimate provided by Lou over at SoFlaMarlins).
The question then is whether or not Cantu would be worth the approximate $6M that we’d have to pay for him. The great news is that this endeavor does not appear to be all that difficult to figure out. As I just prefaced in the previous paragraphs, each iteration of the best Cantu has shown us (that is, discounting his two injury-riddled and ultimately terrible seasons between 2005 and 2008), he’s pretty much provided the same sort of production. Due to Cantu’s high ROE totals this year, I actually have his 2009 park-unadjusted wOBA as .351. A projection using four years of previous data and a wOBA regression of 220 PA of .330 average yields a .340 projected wOBA using a 5/4/3/2 method (Marcels I believe does something close to this) and a .347 wOBA using 8/4/2/1 (I think ZiPS is more like this). For the sake of argument, let’s use a .347 wOBA, which compared to a .330 average over 650 PA would be around 9.4 runs above average before park adjustment. Given my difficulties with park adjusting, I’d say you could estimate that to be actually around 11 runs above average.
Where Cantu has actually hurt the Marlins is on defense, where he is just plain awful. Well, that isn’t entirely true, as he’s actually appeared to be an average first baseman, but your typical first baseman is a terrible defender anywhere else, so awful seems like a good term to use. Keep in mind also that Cantu’s position only matters to the team’s defensive arrangement, and not his overall value, which is what we’re measuring here. Cantu is a career -14.0 UZR/150 third baseman, a career -14.0 UZR/150 at second base, and 1.8 UZR/150 at first base, which comes out to a difference of around 16 runs per 150 games between the 2.5-run positions and the -12.5-run first base, close to the seasonal position adjustment totals we see in UZR and that are used in WAR. Cantu’s differences in TotalZone also mostly match up to the positional adjustments as detailed by Sean Smith here.
So let’s take the easy way out: rather than projecting how well Cantu will play around at third base and first base, plus estimating the amount of time he’ll split between the two positions were he to play for the team next year, let’s just assume that in 150 games, he posts -14 runs between the two positions including the positional adjustments. That seems fair to me, considering this season Cantu made 137 starts at either position and totaled -13.8 runs between them. So far, we have a player who in total is about 4.6 runs below average between first base and third base.
Finally, adding the replacement level adjustment gives us a player who is about 17 runs above replacement, worth about 1.7 WAR. That would be quite similar to what he posted this season, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least bit. But the question remains whether this is enough production for $6M for the Marlins. Based on my calculation of the Marlins’ free agent WAR rate, absolutely not. Given modest increases in the free agent WAR rate this coming season, I suspect that 1.7 WAR should be worth around $8M in the open market. For $8M of production, you’d expect to pay $4.8M to a player in his second arbitration year. That’s actually below what we expect to pay Cantu, so it would not even be worth it at the free agent rate. For the Marlins, they’d actually expect to pay around $2M based on that and the 60% scale for second year arbitration players. Neither value adds up to a good deal for the Marlins.
Cantu has been a solid pickup for the team since he came over in 2008, and he’s provided nice surplus value for the dollars we paid, even if you consider the Marlins depressed WAR rates. However, this season, if he’s expected to jump to the ballpark of $6M for arbitration, that price would be too steep for the Fish to pay. Luckily, there are teams in the National League who would be interested in a decent hitting first baseman (say hello to the San Francisco Giants), and the Marlins should be more than happy to get something in return for a viable starter but below average player.