Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Aubrey Huff Returning to Inferiority

When Aubrey Huff put up a huge 2010, leading the Giants to the World Series and a Commissioner’s Trophy (his 5.7 WAR was second only to Andres Torres on the World Champs), the same two questions were on the mind of nearly every fan of the Orange and Black. First, after an ugly 2009 in which his –1.4 WAR with the Orioles and Tigers placed him ahead of only Yuniesky Betancourt in all of baseball; “Where did this resurgence come from?” Secondly, and most pertinent for a Giants’ front office facing a decision on Huff as he reached the end of his one-year deal, was; “Can he keep it up?” By inking Huff to a two-year, $22 million deal with a $10 million club option for 2013, Brian Sabean and his staff made it clear that they stood solidly in the affirmative.

Up to this point, that hasn’t played out as a shrewd decision. Huff’s –1.1 WAR ties him with Raul Ibañez as the least valuable player in baseball so far in 2011, and all his important indicators are moving in the wrong direction. His walk rate of 12.4% last year has plummeted to 8.5%, equal to his 2009 mark. His strikeout rate has risen by nearly 2%, and his 18.1% would stand as the worst single-season mark of his career if it continues. His current ISO of .124 would tie a career worst, and is nearly a full point below his .216 from last year, and his 9.1% HR/FB equals his 2009 mark in that category, a more than 5% drop from his last campaign. He’s moving in the wrong direction with regard to his batted ball types as well, as he’s currently pairing a (career low) 13.5% line drive rate with a (career high) 49.4% ground ball rate. After an 18% line drive and 44.8% ground ball rate in 2010, both these numbers suggest Huff could be in for more ugly returns as the year continues.

However, Huff’s play isn’t the only indicator that the Giants’ may have made a mistake in offering Huff such a lucrative contract. In signing Huff, the Giants put themselves in a very sticky situation with top prospect Brandon Belt. The youngster, drafted out of Texas in 2009 in the 5th round, is by far the best positional prospect in a somewhat barren minor league organization (weakened more so by the graduation of Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner than anything else). Belt is, by all accounts, a superb defensive first baseman, and he’s absolutely raked at every level he’s faced. Of course, when making the Huff decision, Sabean didn’t have as much information as we do now. Belt was probably the best player on San Francisco’s roster during Spring Training, essentially forcing the team to start him in the Big Show. He’s since been sent back down to Triple-A after struggling with the big club, and has returned to mashing minor league pitching, putting up a 286 wRC+ in 9 games. That’s not a typo. Without watching him in Spring Training, I could understand thinking that he still needs a year to mature. However, there’s no way Giants’ brass could have expected Belt to need two years of seasoning, meaning that the Huff signing directly blocks Belt’s development.

The reasoning behind the signing, then, was that either Belt or Huff could play in the outfield while the other took their natural duties at first. Though some have suggested that Belt be groomed for a corner outfield position, it probably makes more sense for the Giants to avoid disrupting his development if at all possible, especially because of his outstanding glove at first. In starting Belt at first and Huff in right for the first several weeks of the season, the Giants suggested that they would agree, preferring to move the veteran rather than uprooting the youngster. This setup, however, only works when Huff’s outfield defense is passable. There were reasons to think it would be, not least among them Huff’s outfield UZR of 1.5 in 502.1 innings last season, in his first work in the outfield since his 2006 in Houston. So far this year, he’s played 113 innings in the outfield and cost the Giants 7.9 runs, according to UZR. Though it’s a small sample, Huff has been the worst defensive outfielder in baseball so far. This is partially attributable to the fact that he played mostly right field this season due to a Cody Ross injury, as opposed to 2010, when most of his outfield work was in the less demanding left field of AT&T Park. However, if his numbers thus far are any indication, the Huff in the outfield experiment has been an ill-fated one, and the Giants would do better to maximize his value by playing him at his natural position.

On the other hand, Huff has given Giants fans a few reasons to be optimistic. Belt’s recent demotion has returned Huff to full-time first base duties, and he’s responded, adding 1.3 runs with the glove in 119 innings. Though he’s not likely to put up numbers similar to last year’s mammoth production, his .198 BABIP will almost surely rise to a more normal mark, and the gap between his 13.7% career and 9.1% current HR/FB is likely to close as well.

That said, this contract is bad and will only look worse when Belt forces his way back to the majors and once again gives the team the options of playing him out of position and potentially negatively impacting his development, or trying to let their spectacular staff balance out Huff’s poor defense in the outfield. Both are poor options, as the Giants likely would have been better served by making the same decision the Braves did in handing Freddie Freeman their first-base job and allocating their limited resources elsewhere on the free agent market. Even a one-year stopgap at first would have been a defensible move, but by overpaying for Huff, the Giants have given themselves problems they didn’t need. Brian Sabean made the biggest and most common mistake made by any GM trying to put together a team to repeat as champions. By overpaying to retain the players that allowed the Giants to win their first championship in San Francisco, Sabean has made the road to a second that much tougher.

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