Juan Uribe, unlikely bargain

Juan Uribe takes care of business in the field - Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

The Dodgers aren't known for giving out bargain contracts, and you rarely get good value signing a player who is about to turn 35 coming off a career year, but there's a first time for everything.

A couple of days ago, the Los Angeles Dodgers did arguably what they do best; they spent some money. More specifically, they spent $15 million. Even more specifically, they spent $15 million on two years of Juan Uribe's services. This deal is an interesting one because Juan Uribe is a pretty tough player to project going forward. On one hand the Dodgers are giving a player who will be 35 next year and has put up a wRC+ below 60 in two of the last three years a multi-year contract worth a not entirely insignificant amount of money. In that sense this deal is a little bit insane. The Dodgers are also a little bit insane, and they've also been known to spend a dollar or two, so it seems to fit with our understanding of the world. Luckily the whole story line here isn't "the Dodgers signed someone because they are rich and don't really care about efficiency." That's a boring narrative, we've seen it before and it doesn't apply here. In fact, they might just have found themselves a bargain.

The 2013 season was an excellent one for Juan Uribe. With an fWAR of 5.1 Uribe ranked 7th among 3rd baseman, only 0.1 behind Adrian Beltre, and 24th among all position players. Uribe hit a more than respectable .278/.331/.438 on the way to a career high 116 wRC+. It goes without saying that Juan Uribe is not expected to replicate this performance. He is turning 35, and last season he benefitted from a .322 BABIP, well above his .282 career average. It's not even as if he made great strides with his approach or had a power breakout. Uribe's 7% walk rate and 19% strikeout rate were very similar to his performance in previous years of offensive ineptitude and his .160 ISO was actually below his career average. There's not a lot out there to suggest some whole new Juan Uribe emerged from a mid-thirties cocoon last year to become a star.

The thing is that Juan Uribe doesn't have to be a star to justify this contract. The market rate for wins likely lies somewhere between six or seven million dollars this offseason. If we conservatively say that a win costs six million dollars, Uribe would have to accumulate 2.5 WAR over the next two years to justify his contract. In order to accomplish that, Uribe doesn't have to be as good as he was last year. In fact, he doesn't even have to be an average starter. According to FanGraphs he provided $25.4 million dollars worth of value to the Dodgers in 2013, so there is a substantial amount of drop off that is anticipated by the Dodgers in signing this deal.

While a drop off from 2013's lofty heights would be acceptable for Uribe, a free fall would not. Although the Dodgers aren't paying him an enormous amount of money in the scheme of things, they do expect him to start and they do expect to contend, so they'd like to see some value. Luckily for them there is a good reason to expect Juan Uribe will provide value and that reason is his glove. Defense has traditionally been a young man's game but Juan Uribe has been something of an exception in his thirties. Uribe had a monster 2013 season defensively according to UZR with +24.0 in 900 innings at the hot corner. When it comes to defensive statistics is always best to look at a multi-year sample but Uribe still comes out looking pretty if we take a look at his entire tenure with the Dodgers. In fact he looks better than good. Here are the top position players in the major leagues since 2011 according to UZR:

Num Player UZR
1 Jason Heyward 44.8
2 Carlos Gomez 42.0
3 Josh Reddick 39.7
4 Dustin Pedroia 38.9
5 Juan Uribe 37.3
6 Manny Machado 36.5
7 Adrian Gonzalez 35.9
8 Andrelton Simmons 35.6
9 Alex Gordon 35.4
10 Darwin Barney 33.0

The players here all play different positions and were in the field for a different number of innings so there are some big time apples-to-oranges concerns. However, the goal is not to compare Juan Uribe as a defender to a player like Alex Gordon, but rather to indicate that in the last three years UZR sees him as one of the elite defenders in the league. Even between 2011 and 2012, when Uribe hit a pitiful .199/.262/.289, he had a positive WAR of 0.5 over 474 plate appearances. It takes a very special glove to do that.

Going forward it's hard to see Juan Uribe recapturing his 2013 season with the bat. His career wRC+ is 83 and Father Time is lurking behind every corner. That being said, he's unlikely to hit as poorly as he did between 2011 and 2012 where he was plagued by a .241 BABIP. Projection systems like Oliver and Steamer have Uribe finding a happy medium. The charts below show where the two projection systems perceive that happy medium to be:

Projection System AVG OBP SLG
Oliver .243 .302 .387
Steamer .239 .301 .385

You can't get much similar than that. This doesn't mean that you can write those numbers in stone but they are a fair approximation. On the surface they are pretty uninspiring but when combined with high grade third base defense you get WAR projections of 2.9 from Steamer and 2.0 from Oliver. The more conservative 2.0 WAR projection includes 6.9 runs of defensive value from Uribe, who has produced more than that four years consecutively and in nine of the thirteen years of his career.

It's true that Juan Uribe's bat is something of a question mark from this point on, but his glove is as close to a sure thing as you are going to find in this business. If Juan Uribe hits well, he's a star. If he hits averagely, he's a very good player, and if he hits at a below average rate, he's probably still a solid starter. Uribe is at an age where the injury risk is higher than average and his skills are eroding, but all players carry their own risks.

Juan Uribe has enough warts that it's understandable that he didn't generate a ton of interest on the open market or score a massive free agent contract. That doesn't mean he won't be well worth the deal he signed with the Dodgers. When the offseason started, Juan Uribe wasn't really on many people's radar as a potential bargain. Guys coming off career years at his age rarely are. With the kind of glove Uribe has, perhaps he should have been. Uribe could be literally half as valuable in 2014 as he was in 2013 and be worth the value of his entire contract in one year. That's a pretty rare thing. Just because the Dodgers have money coming out of the proverbial wazoo it doesn't mean they don't know their way around the bargain bin.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.

Nick Ashbourne is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Nick_Ashbourne.

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