Jul 19, 2013; Arlington, TX, USA; Texas Rangers designated hitter Jeff Baker (15) is congratulated by teammates in the dugout after scoring a run against the Baltimore Orioles during the fourth inning at the Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. Mandatory Credit: Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

Indians Offseason Target: Jeff Baker

Jeff Baker Provides Low Risk Versatility

WHAT? Jeff Baker? Why should he be a target of the Indians?

I understand any potential frustration you might have. But things like this can only be understood by reading on (hint hint), so let’s proceed.

For all of the drama surrounding the free agent cases of Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir (and the subsequent need to replace them in the starting rotation), many have seemed to ignore another of the team’s needs: a corner infielder, preferably one that can hit near the middle of the lineup. Many of the names being kicked around are likely to break the Indians’ bank, so alternatives need to be discussed.

As has been the case here at Wahoo’s on First over the winter, we’ll be discussing a variety of potential free agent targets who could fill certain needs for the Indians. As our own Ed Carroll recently explained in a piece of his own, these free agents have been grouped into three categories based on their apparent market value: the Sexy List, the Ruggedly Handsome List, and — for all of you thrifty folks out there — the Ugly List. Up next in the series is former Rangers utility man Jeff Baker.

Free Agent List: Ugly

2013 Salary and Contract Status: After signing a minor league deal with the Rangers last offseason that paid him $1.75 million in 2013, Jeff Baker finds himself in a similar position this winter. The 32 year old Baker is by no means a household name (nor is he even an everyday player), but he knows what his role is: to hit left-handed pitching. One can certainly admit that Baker’s .236/.288/.358 career line against righties isn’t that impressive, but after hitting .314/.407/.667 against southpaws in 2013, his career line against lefties currently stands at .298/.353/.522. It’s also worth mentioning that 10 of his 11 home runs last year came against southpaws.

Past Three Seasons: First, we’ll start out with a little bit of background information. Jeff Baker was originally drafted in the fourth round of the 2002 draft by the Rockies, who traded him to the Cubs in 2009 for current Tigers reliever Al Alburquerque. In five seasons with the North Siders, Baker hit a combined .280/.326/.421 (against both lefties and righties) while splitting time between first base, second base, third base, and the outfield. In 2011, Baker hit .314/.349/.463 against southpaws. He had a down season the next year, hitting .240/.277/.388 against lefties, being traded twice in the process (from the Cubs to the Tigers, and later from the Tigers to the Braves). As a result, Baker had to settle for a minor league deal in 2013, signing with the Rangers and continuing his usual trend of terrific numbers against left-handed pitching.

Jeff Baker

Jeff Baker could be another instance of a low-risk move paying big dividends. (Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Why Cleveland? Baker’s numbers against right-handed pitching are, for the most part, not worth repeating. However, Baker’s value is traced back to both his positional versatility and his ability to hit left-handed pitching, two important yet undervalued skills in a major league hitter. At this point, Baker is a platoon player and not much else. However, he’s a pretty darn good one.

I get it. The Indians already have plenty of role players. They have versatile guys with platoon splits. In fact, they even hit lefties well as a team in 2013. But small, under-the-radar moves like this can sometimes pay huge dividends (as I’ve said here), especially considering the fact that I doubt teams are lining up at Jeff Baker’s door. If used properly, Baker could become 2014′s Ryan Raburn. Baker is capable of playing anywhere in the infield except shortstop and the outfield, so there would be plenty of possibilities to play him if he were to be a part of the Indians in 2014. A deal like this could also be worthwhile to Baker because of the Indians’ recent track record of success with minor acquisitions and the potential he would have to crack the big league roster.

Expected Contract: Here’s another cool thing about Jeff Baker: he could probably be had for a minor league deal. He had a great year with the Rangers in 2013, but doesn’t have the name recognition and track record that other free agent hitters have. The Rangers outrighted him off of their 40-man roster in early October and he elected free agency, which was essentially a formality, as the Rangers don’t seem too interested in bringing him back for 2014. Role players like Baker aren’t typically signed to guaranteed deals, making the idea of the Indians signing him even better. I’m a huge fan of minor league deals because there is practically no risk involved, but the potential for a great value is still there. If a minor league signing isn’t impressive in Spring Training, you can get rid of him and move on without giving up a major league roster spot. But if he impresses during camp, he could very well find himself on a major league roster. Besides, even if he were not to make the major league roster, he would provide vertical depth in the minors in case of an injury. And here at Wahoo’s on First, vertical depth is very important.

Signing Jeff Baker may not be the sexiest move, but building a baseball team isn’t about making sexy moves. It’s about making smart moves.

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