Indians Sign Julio Lugo: Yet Another Utility Infielder

The Cleveland Indians’ minor-league deal bonanza continued this weekend, as the Tribe inked veteran infielder Julio Lugo to a contract that includes an invitation to spring training.

In a vacuum, any minor-league deal with a potentially useful player is worth pursuing; there’s no real monetary obligation unless he makes the team, in which case he’ll have to have done something right. But this is just another example of a worrisome trend we’ve seen this winter: the repeated acquisitions of inferior alternatives to the Tribe’s young, higher-upside in-house candidates for utility infield roles.

Let’s get this out of the way: Lugo is 36 years old. He hit .136/.208/.136 (good for an appalling -3 wRC+) in 22 games the Braves last year after managing a still-meager .249/.298/.282 triple-slash (51 wRC+) in 93 games with the Orioles in 2010. Baseball-Reference has had him below replacement-level every year since 2007, and per OPS+ he’s been a below-average hitter in 11 of his 12 MLB seasons.

Nor is Lugo a particularly adept fielder. Sabermetric fielding stats are suspect, but UZR, DRS, and Total Zone all agree that he is a below-average glovesman at shortstop (his primary position) and second base, the only two positions at which he has had significant playing time in his career. Per FanGraphs, he’s cost his teams more runs than he’s saved with his glove in five of the last six years.

Is Lugo better than Jason Donald? Donald is 27 and hit .318/.364/.402 in the limited action he saw last year. By wRC+, Donald was roughly as good a hitter in 2011 as Lugo was in his best season…which was seven years ago.

How about Cord Phelps? He’s 25 years old and is widely seen as one of the Indians’ top prospects. He posted an .868 OPS in Triple-A last year, and an .892 OPS in 2010. He had a rough MLB debut, hitting .155/.241/.254 (thanks largely to a .189 BABIP), but still showed strong plate discipline and solid power amidst inconsistent playing time. Oh, and even in his much-maligned big-league stint he was still a better hitter than Lugo.

Why does this matter? The only reason for the Indians to sign Lugo is if they think he has a chance to make the team. The starting infield spots are pretty much accounted for, plus Jack Hannahan is all but guaranteed a roster spot. So that leaves Donald and Phelps to fight it out for the sixth infielder job with not just Lugo but also the recently signed Andy LaRoche and Jose Lopez.

Do Chris Antonetti & Co. really think Lugo will be better than Donald and Phelps? Anything’s possible, I suppose, but that would mean both a breakout season for a rapidly declining 36-year-old as well as catastrophic collapses for two players in their mid-20′s. I’d have a hard time seeing Lugo as even the third-best candidate with LaRoche and Lopez also in the mix.

It’s possible (though by no means certain) that Lugo would be the best defensive option at shortstop, but except for maybe Lopez he’ll almost definitely be the worst hitter. And it won’t be particularly close.

Faced with a true worst-case scenario in which most of the starting infield and a couple of the backups get hit with injuries, Lugo might come in handy. It’s highly unlikely, but it’s technically possible, and in that regard I suppose it’s good that we have another option in the fold.

But if the Indians are bringing Lugo in with the expectation that either he, Lopez, or LaRoche will end up on the Opening Day roster because one of them would truly be the best choice, I can’t see that at all. What have Donald and Phelps done to inspire so little confidence?

Despite what you might infer from the moves the team has made this winter, there are plenty of solid backup infield options already in Cleveland. I’m not sure why Donald and Phelps can’t get the benefit of the doubt from the front office.

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Topics: Cord Phelps, Jason Donald, Julio Lugo

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