Unlike many or most moves you’ll hear about in an offseason, this one looks perfect. Small, but perfect. The Tigers had an urgent need to find a replacement after losing a longtime fixture to free agency, and they did just that yesterday in signing Josh Prince to a minor-league deal to replace the departing Don Kelly.
When your team is seeking a utility player, what do you want them to look for?
1. Low cost
2. Low risk
3. The ability to play multiple positions
4. The ability to play the most difficult positions
5. Offensive tools that give value off the bench
Assuming this is the minor league signing for league minimum (Prince has only a few games to his name at the major league level), that covers the first two bases. If your team has to pinch pennies, you’d rather $2 million went to the ‘pen than to a backup infielder.
Remember that utility guys are basically fringe major leaguers by definition, as they are not considered to have enough of any particular tool or tools to start. Any player can do better than or worse than you’d expected, but fringy guys play themselves out of the big leagues (or out of baseball) entirely when things don’t go well. You don’t want to be stuck with a bunch of guaranteed money in these cases.
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Prince has – in the minors – primarily played center field and shortstop. Those are the two most difficult and scarcest positions. He has also played second, third and left field. Definitely a check for multiple positions, and an improvement over Don Kelly in that Kelly wasn’t considered able to play short and was rarely entrusted with second.
To the extent that you can trust advanced metrics for minor league fielding (thank you, claydavenport.com for their mere existence) Prince has graded as a plus shortstop and second baseman, but a below average center fielder. His time at third and left of late has not been enough to make any fair statements.
What Josh Prince offers offensively is stolen bases (37 in AA last year) and selectivity at the plate, with a BB% over 10% of his plate appearances. Unfortunately, he also strikes out way too much for a guy with little raw power (though like Kelly he’s capable of the occasional dinger) – which is why you’re not seeing anyone calling to give the man a starting job despite the low offensive output of the average shortstop. He has the possibility – as a bat off the bench – to be valuable both as a pinch-runner (who can sub for almost anyone) or as a rally starter.
Reserves like Don Kelly and Ramon Santiago have been on the wrong side of the all-important age curve for the Tigers and this is something that smart management should try to avoid. A utility guy is only barely worthy of being on a 25-man roster and only in the best years of their playing career. If he loses a little bit of skill, he loses the ability to justify his playing time and job. Prince is 26, right in those peak years. Check on that count too.
There are negatives too… he’s not likely to hit as well as Ramon Santiago (though we’d certainly hope he can outhit Andrew Romine) and he’s not likely to play the same caliber of outfield defense as Don Kelly. Guys that draw walks without intimidating pitchers in the minors can struggle to draw any walks in the big leagues.
Still, all the bases I want covered in a utility signing are – with little financial risk – so I’m all in favor.