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The importance of signing Nick Punto

The Athletics made a swift move and signed infielder Nick Punto to a deal. His signing opens up doors, and options often lead to prosperity.

Thearon W. Henderson

Earlier this week, two free agents came off the board. First, the Phillies signed Marlon Byrd to a two-year, $16 million contract with a vesting option for a third year that could turn into a team option. Then, the Oakland A's signed Nick Punto to a one-year, $3 million contract with a vesting option for 2015. Neither deal made big news anywhere except for Philadelphia and Oakland, and while these specific transactions lack grandeur, the rumors and possibilities that ripple from such signings have greater significance.

Since the Phillies signed Marlon Byrd to play right field for the next two seasons, two rumors have sprung up in Philadelphia. The first came from Howard Eskin at Philly sports radio station WIP, in which he claimed that the Phillies and Blue Jays were discussing a trade that would send Jose Bautista to Philadelphia, and move Domonic Brown and others to Toronto. The second and more recent rumor involved the Phillies discussing a trade with the Rays to move Ryan Howard and others to Tampa in exchange for David Price.

The fact remains that neither of these rumors seem likely to come to fruition and that locking up a free agent early on in the offseason can allow GM's to better facilitate other moves like blockbuster or multi-team trades. It not only provides the front office with some security, quick decisive moves allow other players to become expendable, or at least dangle(able). Ruben Amaro can now field more phone calls, make more insane offers, and who knows, maybe one of these days he'll feel a tug and reel in a big fish. Deal making begins with possibilities. Opening up a GM's possibilities provides for more "out of the box" thinking, gives teams more leverage in negotiation, and can improve their chances of selling a deal to the higher ups.

When the A's signed Nick Punto, most thought that this represented another move that the A's could afford, and given their recent history, would likely improve their position in 2014. Punto posted a 90 wRC+ last season in 335 plate appearances, played above average defense (at three positions), and has good baserunning acumen. He's a veteran utility player (more value) who came at a small cost, yet the A's made this deal quickly.

thanks to Sam Miller's analysis of the Punto acquisition, we have a good prompt with which to work:

"Now the A's have options, in every direction. They can spend the winter shopping Alberto Callaspo or Jed Lowrie (or Eric Sogard) (or, heck, Josh Donaldson!) in an infielder-thin economy. Or they can keep everybody. Punto doesn't do much, but what he does do--a little bit of everything--is especially valuable at this time of year."

The Athletics already have a number of infielders, most of whom play multiple positions. They include Jed Lowrie, Josh Donaldson, Alberto Callaspo, and Eric Sogard. Add in Punto, and that's four players who can play third base, four at shortstop, and four at second base. Given that Donaldson is coming off a career year, and represents one of the A's big bats, there's a good chance the team won't move him. Still, if a team truly desiring a third baseman was willing to offer the A's a clump of young, controllable, talented players, I'm sure Billy Beane and company would not only listen, but strongly consider the possibilities.

Let's leave Donaldson alone for a moment. Eric Sogard, who won't enter free agency until 2018 is the cheapest middle infield option the A's have, leaving me to believe that he will remain an Athletic. He can play both second base and shortstop, he hits from the left side, and using the "compare stats to similar" function on, compares to Nick Punto. While a couple teams might like to acquire Sogard, the cost/benefit analysis would most likely tell the A's that he's best kept in Oakland.

That leaves two interesting players, Jed Lowrie and Alberto Callaspo. Callaspo, acquired from the Angels last season in exchange for infielder Grant Green, has one year left on a two-year contract that pays him $4.875 million in 2014. He can play third base, second base, and shortstop -- and apart from last season, played those positions well. In my mind, especially after comparing their statistics between 2006 and 2012, Callaspo represents Martin Prado with a better glove and less power. Both players play multiple positions, are about the same age, have almost the same number of plate appearances in their respective careers, but Prado has a higher career ISO, more home runs, and a higher overall wRC+. Nonethless, Callaspo trails him only by a little in many hitting categories, and actually strikes out less than Prado, walks more, and also makes an incredible amount of contact (> 90%).

Callaspo, or Prado-lite, represents a nice trade chip if the A's wanted to move in that direction. Moving him could actually free up some salary, but the issue remains that he has only one year of team control, after which he becomes a free agent, so he represents, most likely, a short-term solution to the team acquiring him. This makes him a possible mid-season trade possibility mores so than this offseason, but if a team came knocking, the A's would have to, and should consider him as a trade piece.

That leaves Jed Lowrie. The young, yet team-hopping Lowrie has yet to disappoint any of his former employers, but hasn't impressed them enough to secure his stay in one spot for more than a season or two. Lowrie's value last season came predominantly in the form of hitting, as seen from his career high 121 wRC+. He also had a career high in BABIP (.319), plate appearances (662), and thus fWAR (3.6). Lowrie can play shortstop, third base, and second base, and while he isn't a great defensive shortstop, he holds his own enough to not warrant a move from the position. He's a switch-hitter, of which there are fewer and fewer, in his hitting prime, who is in his second year or arbitration, after which he will become a free agent.

Last season, Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma hit for a 50 wRC+. That isn't a typo, he truly was that bad at the plate. While some defensive metrics rated him higher than others, overall Kozma's lack of productivity, and originally the injury to Raphael Furcal, has left the Cardinals searching for a shortstop. Rumors fly all over the place, and with the Rangers looking to move a middle infielder (take your pick), and even Troy Tulowizki's name floating around, all the cards (pun intended) are on the table. The logical move for the Cardinals revolves around acquiring a young talented shortstop, but at the same time the team won't dispense of numerous assets in order to acquire one.

Yes, the first goal of the Cardinals should be to look for a Profar, Andrus, Tulowitski, or Starlin Castro. Young, controllable, and talented, the holy grail of player characteristics, and exactly what the Cardinals should look for if considering exchanging said shortstops for a young starting pitcher. Well, my question is why not, if the more preferable rout fails, go after Jed Lowrie? Lowrie will be 30 years old in 2014, and will become a free agent in 2015. One might say that the Cardinals aren't getting any younger when in comes to position players, but I'd point out that prospects Kolton Wong (2B), and Oscar Teveras loom as starters with the big club, if not in 2014 than surely in 2015. Say the Cardinals acquired Lowrie, signing him to a three-year deal might work for both sides. The Cardinals would eat Lowrie's lone remaining arbitration year as well as two free agency years. Lowrie, you might argue would be getting screwed out of making more money on the open market, but at 32, if he produces in St. Louis, he could still get a nice deal on the open market seeing as he can move to second or third base with relative ease.

The Cardinals could trade Lance Lynn for Jed Lowrie straight up, and immediately negotiate a three-year deal. Since Lowrie is expected to make about $4.8 million in arbitration this season, have the deal worth $26 million, $6 million in 2014, and $10 each in 2015 and 2016 with performance incentives for reaching playing time goals. No one, including me, thinks this conglomeration of moves is perfect or even completely realistic, but it sure makes sense. The Cardinals get a shortstop (multi-positional infielder) who can hit well, switch-hit, and might be willing, given his injury history, to take a shorter deal. Moreover, while letting Lynn go might prove tough, the team holds on to Shelby Miller, Carlos Martinez, and Trevor Rosenthal. The A's and Cardinals certainly have no fire under their metaphorical asses pushing them to make this deal, by signing Punto the A's have opened up more possibilities, which leads to a better place for everyone.

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All statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and Baseball-Reference.

Ben Horrow is a writer at Beyond The Box Score and The Good Phight. You can follow him on Twitter at @Summerpastime.

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