When the Marlins traded Dan Uggla and received a package involving a control-challenged reliever and a utility player, none of us Marlins fans were happy. When we found out the names involved were Mike Dunn and Omar Infante, we still couldn’t feel good about the deal. After all, Dunn was a converted outfielder who still hadn’t pitched all that effectively in the majors, and Omar Infante is, well, Omar Infante.
Last season, Infante made the All-Star team, but his selection was met with great snark. He was batting .332/.358/.404 at the All-Star Break, which does not necessarily translate into the best of overall slash lines (after all, it is a .762 OPS). Infante had done this while primarily playing average defense at any position the Atlanta Braves put him. Infante eventually earned himself a starting job due to injuries and his own play and was a solidly average or above average player.
Yet this is the same guy we were complaining about receiving in the Uggla trade. Why is that, necessarily? Much to the surprise to everyone, it turns out Omar Infante is a decent major leaguer.
A Brief History
Infante was signed as an amateur free agent in 1999 by the Detroit Tigers, and he was moved quickly up the organizational ladder. Despite compiling a two-year Triple-A slash line of .261/.315/.354, the Tigers promoted him to the big leagues in 2002 and made him a full-timer in 2003 at age 21. Infante clearly was not ready; through 2007 his career line in Detroit was a meager .253/.298/.386. It is no surprise that he was then dealt away from Detroit before his second arbitration season; Infante was sent away twice, once to the Chicago Cubs (for Jacque Jones, a hated Marlins name) and to the Braves as part of a deal for Jose Ascaino.
Once with the Braves, however, Infante flourished mostly under the radar. In his first season, he tallied 317 PA and batted a quite respectable .293/.338/.415 (.327 wOBA). In 2009, he accumulated only 229 PA but hit an equally respectable .300/.361/.389 (.336 wOBA). Then in 2010, he hit his career bests in the form of a .321/.359/.416 slash line (.340 wOBA) in over 500 PA, culminating in a 2.7 fWAR season.
The Dirty Little Secret
I first looked into Infante for a Hot Spots article for Baseball Prospectus Fantasy. Thinking of Infante as a journeyman utility player who has been around in the league for parts of almost eight seasons, I thought that he was in his early 30’s in terms of age. But here is the first secret about Infante’s success: in 2010, he was actually 28 years old. Because the Tigers brought him up at age 21, Infante is actually young enough to be in his prime right now. But because of his early career struggles (almost certainly due to the fact that he was not ready for the majors just yet), he has acquired the label of utility player and “feels” older than he actually is.
Because Infante has played primarily in the role of utility player, his relative success at the plate has mostly gone unnoticed. In that time period, Infante has batted .309/.353/.411, a respectible .335 wOBA (108 wRC+) in 1083 PA. Part of the reason why that feels slightly fluky is due to Infante’s high BABIP, which stands at .343 for the period. However, there are 14 other batters since 2008 that have posted a .340 BABIP or above in at least 1000 PA, and those names do not seem questionable (David Wright, Hanley Ramirez, Ichiro Suzuki, and Joe Mauer among others). It may just be that Infante has the necessary skills to maintain a high BABIP, which is not unheard of in some hitters. In addition, Infante has the added advantage that, unlike guys such as Justin Upton or (more pertinent to Marlins fans) Cameron Maybin, Infante makes plenty of contact. Infante’s 13.6% K/AB rankes 43rd in the majors among players with at least 1000 PA in the last three seasons, and has remained mostly steady throughout that time period. Both of these factors lend themselves to the high AVG that Infante needs to provide value.
A Brief Comparison
The Marlins were initially interested in getting Martin Prado from the Braves, and rightfully so. Prado was just coming off a deserving All-Star season, and he is a player under longer team control. However, when comparing Infante and Prado, you get two guys with surprisingly similar skillsets (stats since 2008):
Tale of the Tape
|Omar Infante||Name||Martin Prado|
|29 in 2011||Age||27 in 2011|
Clearly Prado is the better player, but Infante should not be sold short. Both players share almost identical skillsets (high BABIP, low K%, below-average BB%) outside of the power category, where Prado reigns supreme. In addition, while Prado is under team control for a longer period of time, he isn’t terribly younger than Infante either, such that the two should expect similar numbers to their respective three-year totals heading into the 2011 season.
Infante’s track record of .300/.350/.410 slash lines should be expected to continue. My crude projection for Infante’s 2011 performance had him hitting .290/.344/.404, good for a .331 wOBA and just about +0 runs above average. ZiPS is not too far off, projecting a .300/.348/.402 line that represents an equally solid .332 wOBA. In other words, Infante should project as a perfectly average hitter in the majors, which is quite a far cry from what he used to be in Detroit.
Part of the reason why Infante was acquired is because of his defensive versatility and ability, and both are on display when you look at his UZR totals for his career. In eight seasons, Infante has logged over 600 innings in outfield, 2750 innings at second base, almost 600 innings at third base, and just over 1730 innings at shortstop. Surprisingly, Infante has rated between -2 to +2 runs per 150 games when compared to the average defender at each infield position. His outfield numbers are a little uglier, but you have to figure that some of that is small sample size problems as well. Combined with the fans labeling him an average defender in 2009 and 2010, and I feel confident in saying that, regardless of whether he plays second or third base, he would be a +0 defender at the position. In other words, Infante is a perfectly average defender in the majors.
What does add up to? If Infante records 650 PA this season, I have him projected for 2.5 fWAR this season, a value of around $12.5M in free agent money if you think teams are spending $5M per WAR. Compare that to Uggla’s 3.6 WAR projection and you have a loss of about one win going into 2011. However, the team would have paid Uggla between $10-12M, while Infante will only cost the Fish $2.5M in 2011.
Comparing their surplus values, the Fish actually broke about even depending on what $/WAR value you use. With the $8-10M the Marlins saved, the Fish were able to acquire Javier Vazquez, who could easily add 2.5 – 3.0 WAR to the team. That would have been a decent improvement of at least 1.5 wins over a guy like Alex Sanabia or Sean West, who would have otherwise manned the fifth rotation spot for the Marlins. In that respect, the Uggla trade essentially works out correctly; the Marlins were able to use the money saved on the free agent market to make up for the win that was lost in the transition from Uggla to Infante. As a Marlins fan, this one of the rare instances in which we witnessed the Fish utilize the savings made on a trade in a way that would continue to keep the organization competitive for the following season. You cannot ask for too much more than that.