Right now, David Freese appears to have a healthy handle on the starting 3B job. There’s a substatial number of free agent third baseman who are better than average players over the course of a season: Beltre (3 WAR), Troy Glaus (3 WAR), Mark DeRosa (2.5 WAR), Joe Crede (2.5 WAR). These players and many of their less valuable associates have various concerns that come with them (most often health) but David Freese isn’t a sure product either. Assuming the Cardinals acquire Matt Holliday, and I sincerely hope they do, I expect Freese to be the Cardinals starting third sacker. What should we expect from him?
Freese’s 2009 season was delayed by a foot injury but when he did return to health at Memphis, he posted a line nearly identical to the 2008 campaign. Despite my repeated protests that “I just don’t see it” when I’ve watched him live and on camera, he continues to produce. I’ve always tried to balance what the objective measures tell me with my subjective senses and Freese just happens to be one of those guys who likes to stick it to my senses.
The sunny projection from Baseball Prospectus takes his AAA numbers (good for a .380+ wOBA) and claims that Mr. Freese would have hit a .261/.327/.473 line in the majors. That’s a better line than most projections for Adrian Beltre and would equate to a .350 wOBA. It’s also a healthy bit better than average offensive production (.330 wOBA) for a player.
The less optimistic translation comes from Minor League Splits but even that comes out above average if only by a hair. A .332 wOBA from a (essentially) free player is nothing to sneeze at. The statistical consensus surely seems to be that Freese is decent bet to hold his own in the big leagues offensively.
Assuming that Freese hits the optimistic projection about 20% of the time, the moderate projection about 70% of the time and flames out 10% (.300 wOBA – i.e. Pedro Feliz), you’d wind up with a league average offensive profile. Statistically, I’m having a hard time arguing with those numbers but they don’t feel like a substantial enough risk. Even assuming a much higher downside for Freese, you’re not going to drive his numbers much further south than .315 wOBA. He’s posted very good power numbers with reasonable walk rates — it’s a classic offensive profile.
Rally’s projections regress Freese to a neutral defender at the hot corner despite posting consistently better than average numbers in the minors. The Cardinals have shown that they consider Freese’s glove at third an asset and I’d be willing to (grudgingly) assess him an above average defender. To be conservative, we’ll stick with Rally’s neutral projection.
Putting it together: Offense + Defense + Position + Replacement = 0 + 0 + 2.5 + 20 = 22.5 runs above replacement
The gains between David Freese and any of the 3B free agents seems to be marginal at best. The incremental cost associated with these players is going to be very high. Of the list above, Mark DeRosa makes an immense amount of sense for the Cardinals as someone who offers a failsafe at multiple positions. The wrist injury is a concern and his cost may be prohibitive but he represents a decreased opportunity cost relative to players that are restricted to third base.
Maybe this is a dose of cold water for those clamoring to sign Beltre should Holliday find greener (or more expensive) pastures. Beltre is likely to sign for upwards of 3 years and $25M. His production indicates that he’s worth that in a vaccuum but for the Cardinals, well, not so much. You’d basically be gaining 1 WAR at a $8M cost beyond what Freese would produce for you. Downgrading the projection for Freese and you could get the incremental gains to be at the market rate ($4-$5M per win) around 2 WAR but that may restrict the Cardinals from making additions in other areas where they have a lower baseline to work from (5th starter, LF).
I’m not a David Freese advocate. Never have been and until he produces in the majors, I’m probably going to stubbornly stick with my gut. It’s important to remember that most aging studies presume that Freese is at his peak now so he’s a reasonable bet for the next 3-4 years to hold par but not really see any major improvements. That said, I can’t construct a reasonable argument* for the Cardinals to spend big on 3B given the baseline above. David Freese, regardless of the Holliday signing/non-signing, should play 3B for the Cardinals.
*Unreasonable argument: I don’t want to see the gifs/jpegs that come from having a Mr. Freese on the team.