According to WEEI, the Mets and Alex Cora are close to a contract similar to last year, for one year and $2 million, although there is also talk of a vesting option for some silly reason. When I read the news that Omar Minaya values whatever Alex Cora does so well, that he is willing to pay Cora above market value for a backup middle infielder, I have to wonder if there is something I’m missing here that makes Alex Cora so special.
Is Alex Cora a good hitter? If he is, he really hasn’t shown that ability through 12 major league seasons. Three times has Cora produced a wOBA over .300. His best skill has been his ability to draw a walk, with a career walk percentage of 6.8%. He doesn’t hit for power, with only 35 career home runs and 128 doubles in 3,459 plate appearances. He is not a particularly good baserunner (as per Baseball Prospectus’ EqBBR stat, Cora has only four times produced a positive baserunning season, although one of those seasons was 2009). Drawing walks is not an unimportant skill, as both Will and I have emphasized here while ripping on Bengie Molina, but that is the only offensive skill Cora has displayed consistently in ten full seasons in the big leagues.
Is Alex Cora good defensively? This one is a little trickier to ascertain, since Cora has primarily been a backup for most of his career, so he doesn’t really have a strong sample size at either second base or shortstop the past few seasons. However, according to Fangraphs data, Cora has been below average at shortstop in both 2008 and 2009, posting UZR/150 of -5.4 in 2008 and -7.8 in 2009. That’s in 852.3 innings over 125 games, so while it’s not as complete a sample as I’d like, it’s still evidence of at least a decline at short. We don’t have anywhere near that sort of sample at second base, so the jury is out there, although it’s hard to see him being worse there than Luis Castillo.
So what skill does Alex Cora possess that is worth $2 million per season? As Will mentioned on Twitter, Omar Vizquel is perhaps the finest defensive shortstop in baseball since Ozzie Smith retired. He just signed a 1 year, $1 million contract with the White Sox. His defense at short has remained excellent even as he has aged. Adam Everett will be hard pressed to sign for more than $1 million himself in this market. His defense is worth at least $1-2 million per season, even after factoring in how bad he is with the bat. These are players who were available on the open market, who possess actual valuable baseball skills, and those skills are undervalued in the free agent market because great defenders are not yet paid the same as great hitters.
Remember what happened when Jose Reyes went down with his calf/hamstring/whatever it turned out to be injury? Cora was exposed offensively and defensively playing every day. While I know he played hurt, his 2009 season was not wildly out of line with his career numbers. With Reyes undergoing offseason surgery, bringing in a capable backup in case Reyes couldn’t go should have been a priority. At the very least, the team should have identified a player with a quantifiable skill in case they were needed to play a 20-30 game stretch should Reyes miss time. Instead, they are choosing to bring back a player who was not much better last season than Jeremy Reed, who everybody assumes the Mets will non-tender. That they are adding a vesting option to the mix makes things even worse; if Reyes’ calf does force him to miss time, Cora will almost surely be back in 2011, no matter how terrible he is while filling in for Reyes.
I’m sure Alex Cora is a great clubhouse guy. I don’t know the guy, but I have no reason to doubt he’s a terrific guy because so many people say it over and over again. But this team isn’t even paying the manager $2 million for his clubhouse presence, and that’s pretty much the only reason Jerry Manuel currently has a job. If Cora is so valuable on the bench, they should have hired him to be the bench coach and fired Razor Shines. Signing players only for their clubhouse abilities and not their baseball skills is a good way to have a bad baseball team before too long, especially when those players are forced into more important roles due to injuries.
Why does Omar Minaya insist on paying a premium for a non-baseball skill when this team has so many problems on the field? It’s not a huge waste of money all things considered, but this is a team that has constantly had problems winning around the margins, and bringing back a player that will continue that trend shows that Omar Minaya has absolutely not learned from his mistakes and deserves no benefit of the doubt regarding this offseason. My only hope is that Minaya doesn’t ruin things too badly for whomever takes over for him a year from now. My expectations for the 2009 hot stove were already pretty low, but Omar Minaya has somehow found a way to lower them even further.