Jays not any better with Eckstein
December, 14, 2007
When I ranked David Eckstein among the top 20 available free agents, I assumed that he'd sign a contract to play second base for his new club. It never occurred to me that anyone still thought he could play shortstop, but apparently, someone does. They'll be disabused of that notion in Toronto shortly -- perhaps after Roy Halladay tries to strangle Eckstein after the 500th ball gets through the hole between the shortstop and the third baseman -- but in the meantime, he's the Blue Jays' leadoff hitter (despite a career-long aversion to the walk) and their everyday shortstop. Toronto had the best defensive club in baseball in 2007, and that defense was a huge part of the success of some of its young pitchers last year, especially Shaun Marcum, Casey Janssen and Jesse Litsch, each of whom relies heavily on the fielders behind him to record outs. Even Halladay himself has become more reliant on his defense, as his strikeout rate has dropped over the past few years. Shortstop John McDonald may be an automatic out at the plate, but he saves enough outs in the field to be a positive contributor despite his lack of offense, so any replacement for him would have to bring something more to the table. Eckstein doesn't. Even after the switch to the more difficult competition in the American Legaue, Eckstein's bat is an improvement over McDonald's; it's just not enough to make up for the massive defensive downgrade. Eckstein's range has always been limited, and his arm is below-average for the position, to say the least. At 33, he's going to get worse at the position, not better. The Jays added about two wins at the plate with this signing, but cost themselves two wins in the field, perhaps more if it means that low-strikeout pitchers like Litsch suddenly can't stick in the big leagues. The problem for the Blue Jays is that once they realize Eckstein can't play shortstop on an everyday basis, their only other option is to make him a highly-paid utility player. Their second baseman, Aaron Hill, is also a great defensive player, and he hits for average and power despite some deterioration in his plate discipline since he reached the majors; he's young enough for that skill to return, which would make him one of the best second basemen in the American League. This doesn't leave Toronto with any course of action that makes their club better in 2008. The signing of Eckstein doesn't make the Blue Jays worse; it just doesn't make much sense.