It's amazing how much can change in the span of a single year. On Saturday, the Dodgers reportedly gave two years and $15 million to third baseman Juan Uribe, who had been seen as the best option in a thin third base maket. Yet do remember how the Dodgers and the game viewed Uribe just a year ago, as ESPN's Mark Saxon reported last December:
"One of the agendas the Dodgers are pushing aggressively in the lobby is to find a trade partner to take utility infielder Juan Uribe. Needless to say, the Dodgers are garnering little interest unless they're willing to pay his entire contract. Uribe, who has batted .199 the past two seasons combined, is entering the final year of a three-year, $21 million contract."
We need to be a bit more specific here, because "has batted .199 the past two seasons combined" doesn't do justice to Uribe's terrible 2011 and 2012. Over 474 plate appearances in his first two seasons as a Dodger, Uribe struck out 97 times and hit just six home runs. With the .199 batting average, he posted a .262 on-base percentage and .289 slugging percentage. Uribe was one of just five players to take at least 400 plate appearances between 2011 and 2012 and fail to post either a slugging percentage or an on-base percentage over .300. The other four: Chone Figgins, Jason Bartlett, Wilson Valdez and Paul Janish. Only Janish played in the majors in 2013, and he took just 45 plate appearances with Atlanta.
Uribe earned $14 million over those two seasons, and the $7 million he was due for the 2013 season looked like the deepest of sunk costs. The Dodgers poked and prodded with names like Aramis Ramirez and Chase Headley, but struck out on the trade market and ended up stuck with Uribe at third base (after an ill-advised Luis Cruz starting stint) for a third straight year in 2013.
There was zero reason to believe Uribe could be a productive player in 2013. He was among the league's most incompetent regular hitters the three previous years. He was overweight, and preseason work with a trainer prior to the 2012 season did nothing to improve his impotent bat. He was 33 in camp and would turn 34 in July. Every indicator pointed down.
And then Uribe found his pop again. During his best years, first with the White Sox and then the Giants, Uribe was usually good for from 15 to 25 home runs per season. His power was hardly otherworldly, but Uribe was a home run threat typically unseen from a defensive wizard like himself.
And yes, despite Uribe's phsyique, he has repeatedly established himself as one of the league's best defensive third basemen. He was anywhere from 15 to 25 runs above average in 2013 depending on which advanced metric you ask, and such numbers match up with prior accomplishments over his career. Uribe is helped out by the demands of third base -- plays at the hot corner typically must be made so quickly top speed is never reached, and thus reflexes and soft hands become more valuable than what sports fans typically think of as "athleticism."
Still, not too many people are able to run, bend, and throw like this:
And this is the real reason why the Dodgers, even with their vast wealth, can be satisfied with Uribe as their third baseman heading into 2014. Nobody on the free agent market -- certainly not Michael Young, the other main option for Los Angeles -- could offer a skill as refined as Uribe's glovework. Even if Uribe's bat drops off in 2014 -- it probably will if only by default, as he set a career high with a 117 OPS+ in 2013 -- the total package should check in as above-average thanks to his consistent fielding ability.
The Dodgers shouldn't consider their work done at third base. Uribe hasn't ever taken more than 618 plate appearances, and he has just one season over 500 plate appearances since 2007. But the Dodgers needed somebody who can play the position with some skill and do it nearly every day. A year ago, it would have been impossible to believe the Dodgers would actually seek out Juan Uribe to be this person. Now, it's the only move that makes sense.