We still have roughly eight weeks before position players report to spring training, but the Dodgers infield is still very much unsettled. It appears the hold up is third baseman Juan Uribe, still waiting for his free agent market to materialize.
The Dodgers are used to waiting for Uribe, who provided next to nothing in the first two years of his three-year, $21 million contract. Uribe hit .199/.262/.289 in 2011-2012, and was relegated to nearly permanent bench duty, closing 2012 with one plate appearance in the final 34 games and no starts in the final 45 games of the season.
But despite the lack of production Uribe was almost universally loved in the clubhouse. He kept his teammates loose with his sense of humor, continued to work hard and never complained about his lack of playing time. The Dodgers had numerous opportunities to cut ties with Uribe and eat the remainder of his contract but didn't , and in 2013 were rewarded with a terrific bounce-back season.
Uribe hit .271/.331/.438 with 12 home runs and 22 doubles, setting career highs in on-base percentage and OPS+ (117). He also had a stellar year defensively, rated the best third baseman in the NL by both Total Zone Rating (22 runs above average) and in Ultimate Zone Rating (24 runs above average). Uribe was a finalist for a Gold Glove Award at third base in the National League, an honor that went to Nolan Arenado of the Rockies.
The Dodgers want to re-sign Uribe, but it's hard to blame them if they don't want to commit another three years to the inconsistent infielder, now 34. In fact, it appears the sticking point is a second year, as the Dodgers reportedly offered Uribe a one-year deal plus an option for a second year, per Ken Gurnick of MLB.com during the winter meetings.
Can Uribe top that offer?
During the winter meetings there were rumors of interest in Uribe from both the White Sox, one of his former teams, and the Marlins, but at the same time there were conflicting reports saying those teams weren't pursuing Uribe. On Friday just as quickly as there was a report from Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports of the Rays' interest in Uribe, to primarily play first base and back up at second and third, Tampa Bay brought back James Loney on a three-year deal to play first.
A new report Friday from Joe Frisaro of MLB.com says the Marlins are indeed interested in Uribe to play third base and back up first occasionally.
That Uribe hasn't signed anywhere yet tells us either he doesn't have an offer better than the Dodgers, or simply not one significantly better to leave a place he is familiar with and where he is adored. A line from Gurnick on Thursday summed up the situation nicely:
But [Uribe] wants a multiyear guarantee and is putting pressure on the Dodgers without clear evidence that any other club is seriously interested.
To me, this appears to be a game of chicken, with Uribe waiting for the Dodgers to offer a second year. The Dodgers in theory have other options. The two names engraved in stone in the infield are first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez. The flexibility of Ramirez and his willingness to move to third base if needed mean the Dodgers could pursue a shortstop instead of a third baseman if they so desired, but the only clear upgrade on the free agent market is Stephen Drew, who would cost a first-round draft pick and who has averaged just 96 games played in the last three years.
Second base will likely be filled by Alexander Guerrero, but a left hamstring injury has limited him to just 12 games played so far in the Dominican Winter League. Might the Dodgers bring back Mark Ellis as an insurance policy of sorts, giving them time if needed to ease in Guerrero, or at the very least providing a capable backup infielder?
But whatever happens at second base is mostly independent of the Dodgers' need to acquire a starting position player for either third or shortstop.
On par with the rumor of the Rays interested in Uribe appears to be the latest volley by general manager Ned Colletti, with the threat of what can only be described as the nuclear option:
The Dodgers are considering signing Michael Young as their everyday third baseman.— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) December 14, 2013
Attached to the Michael Young interest for the Dodgers: They believe increasingly that Juan Uribe is going to sign elsewhere.— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) December 14, 2013
Young is on the opposite end of Uribe of the defensive spectrum. The former shortstop in 2013 ranked third-to-last in the majors in both Total Zone Rating (17 runs below average) and Ultimate Zone Rating (14 runs below average).
Think about that for a moment. The difference between Uribe and Young defensively last year was nearly 40 runs.
If the Dodgers want to bring back Young as a reserve, that's perfectly fine. But his days as an everyday player are over, and hopefully this is nothing more than a rumor.
Luckily Gurnick provided a piece of holiday cheer on Saturday morning:
Ned Colletti today said he is still hopeful of re-signing free agent 3B Juan Uribe.— Ken Gurnick (@kengurnick) December 14, 2013
Let's hope it happens. Because the alternatives aren't looking so hot.