2013 Dodgers in Review #10: SS Nick Punto

90topps_nickpunto.255/.328/.327 335pa 2hr .296 wOBA 1.9 fWAR A

2013 in brief: Surprisingly valuable backup, especially when filling in at shortstop.

2014 status: Free agent.

Previous: 2012

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You know, credit where credit is due: Nick Punto was really, really useful this year. We joked about 2012′s massive Boston deal being “the Nick Punto trade” because you just knew that Ned Colletti was going to get his gritty utility infielder somehow, but Punto paid off for this team and then some.

And really, that’s not how I thought it would go early in the season, when I was busy telling anyone who would listen than BABIP was a real thing and that it was going to get real ugly, real quickly. Still, in mid-May, when things were really bleak and I was desperate to find some positive things to talk about, Punto made the list:

I will be the first to admit that there’s no way in hell that Punto is sustaining a .417 BABIP. When he falls, and he will, he’s going to fall hard. But maybe that won’t be so important later in the season, when Mark Ellis & Hanley Ramirez & Jerry Hairston are healthy, and Dee Gordon may have shown enough to stick around, and ownership has bought Chase Headley and 1987 Ozzie Smith and 1964 Brooks Robinson.

It’s important now, with everyone hurt and Cruz atrocious. Hitting .333/.418/.423… well, it matters a lot.

That uppance did come, of course, because Punto hit an absolutely awful .162/.202/.192 in June & July. But a funny thing happened: after spending most of the first two months spotting at second and third as Gordon & Justin Sellers each tried and failed to fill in at shortstop, he became Hanley Ramirez‘ caddy… and he was really, really good at it. When the bat wasn’t always there, the defense absolutely was, and as the BABIP pendulum swung back the other way, he hit .294/.371/.412 over the last two months.

Due mostly to that stellar defense, Punto was worth two wins over replacement, but even that probably doesn’t give him full credit, because “replacement” assumes that there’s a replacement-level option in the system. As Gordon & Sellers showed us, that’s not always the case.

I’m not sure if we’ll see Punto back next year, but he’s at least made me say something I thought I never would: come on back, Shredder.

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Next! Justin Sellers, for some reason!

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Dodgers 7, Rockies 4: The Nick Punto Show?

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Sit Yasiel Puig, sit Hanley Ramirez, sit Juan Uribe, sit A.J. Ellis, hit Michael Young cleanup… still score seven runs. Just like you planned, right? Sometimes it just never stops working, and while it helps that the Rockies are a train wreck and that converted infielder Charlie Culberson‘s huge ninth-inning gaffe directly contributed to three of those runs, you just can’t help but shake the feeling every night that this Dodger team is always going to find some way to win, no matter how it happens.

Tonight, it’s because Nick Punto got four hits (!), Carl Crawford got three, and Andre Ethier reached four times. It’s because Ricky Nolasco pitched six effective innings, continuing his streak of not allowing more than three runs in any of the 11 starts in his Dodger career, and because Chris Withrow relieved a struggling Ronald Belisario for his first career save. It’s not because of Young, who made five outs in his first four plate appearances before singling in the ninth, or because of Paco Rodriguez, who allowed a Josh Rutledge homer in the eighth, but it didn’t need to be. The train just keeps on rolling, endlessly, and it’s wonderful.

Since it no longer matters what the lead is in the NL West — I’ll note that Arizona is losing 6-3 to Toronto in the seventh inning at the moment — the true chase is for the best record in the National League. The Dodgers entered the day two games behind Atlanta, and that’s where they’ll remain, since the Braves beat the Mets 3-1. It’s that kind of success, now including yet another six-game winning streak, that allows you to actually start Edinson Volquez in a “sure, why the hell not?” situation tomorrow.

The Nick Punto Trade With Boston, One Year Later

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A year ago tomorrow, I was riding the bus to Boston, of all places, and freaking out about the enormous trade that was coming together with the Red Sox that would bring the Dodgers Nick Punto, three other guys, and more than $250 million in contract responsibilities, all while sending Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster out of town. The next day, I managed to put some more coherent thoughts to it:

So how am I feeling about it today? I think Adrian Gonzalez is going to be an incredible fit in LA, especially considering that reports of his demise in Boston seem overblown (he was outstanding last year and has been very good for much of this year after a slow start) and that he never seemed to want to leave Southern California in the first place. It’s a high price to pay, but if he is what we think he is – and don’t forget, there was little available in the first base market next year, so if you’re spending money, this is how you do it – and the team becomes a consistent contender, I think it’ll be a price we can live with.

We may still be a day or two short of a full year later, but as the Red Sox come in to town to face the Dodgers tonight in what many expect may be a World Series preview, it’s an appropriate time to look back. Today at ESPN, I offer the opinion that it’s been a win/win, one that neither side would take back. It’s behind the paywall, and a man’s got to eat, so I won’t excerpt much of it here, other than to say that this is how it ends:

The Dodgers wouldn’t be in this position without Gonzalez, and the Red Sox wouldn’t be here with him. It’s hard to think of a better outcome for both sides than that.

Let’s take a look at what’s happened with a year’s worth of knowledge on our side.

To Los Angeles

Josh Beckett (0.4 WAR with Dodgers)
We tried our best to both not get bummed by Beckett’s declining velocity while also not get sucked in by the not-at-all-representative 2.93 ERA he put up in seven starts for the Dodgers last year, all while hoping he could merely be a fourth starter. Instead, Beckett was atrocious in eight starts this year (somehow while missing more bats than he had in years) and was eventually lost for the season after undergoing surgery to relieve Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. He’s under contract for 2014, but his role is unclear.

Carl Crawford (2.3 WAR with Dodgers)
Obviously the biggest question mark of the deal, not only because of how awful he was with the Red Sox, but because of the Tommy John surgery he underwent just beforehand, Crawford has been a pleasant surprise. After fixing his batting stance, he filled the long-time hole at leadoff and was arguably the team’s best hitter for the first six weeks, though he’s since dealt with both slumps and hamstring injury. Overall, he’s hit .289/.340/.413 with plus defense, and while he’s certainly not what he was at his peak in Tampa Bay and terrifies me about how the rest of his contract will play out, he’s been a net positive for this team in 2013. Considering how much uncertainty he brought with him, I’m guessing we all take that.

Adrian Gonzalez (3.2 WAR with Dodgers)
The whole point of the trade for the Dodgers was to get Gonzalez, of course, and he’s been worth it, though it depends on how you look at it. On one hand, his .346 wOBA is the same as it was last year, each of which is tied for the worst of his career. On the other hand, the last Dodger first baseman to have a more valuable season than he is was Eric Karros, way back in 1999, and he was one of the few productive Dodgers over the first two months of the season. He is, according to WAR, the seventh most productive first baseman in baseball this year, and I can’t really complain about that — especially when Joey Votto & Prince Fielder make well over $200m and the alternatives were…. who, exactly?

Nick Punto (1.8 WAR with Dodgers)
We derisively call this “the Nick Punto” deal, because it’s fun to imagine Ned Colletti insisting on adding yet another gritty veteran infielder or he’d kill the deal entirely, but Punto has been an asset in Los Angeles. Punto has played far more than anyone expected he would as injuries & ineffectiveness hit second, third, and shortstop, and he was the choice over Dee Gordon & Justin Sellers when Hanley Ramirez missed recent time with a shoulder injury. He was valuable, too, hitting .340/.427/.420 through May 25. That was never, ever, ever, going to last, and it didn’t — he’s just .199/.265/.270 since — though he’s at least provided value on defense.

To Boston

Ivan De Jesus, Jr. (-0.3 WAR with Red Sox)
De Jesus was absolutely never going to get a shot with the Dodgers, fairly or not, then struck out in six times in eight hitless appearances for Boston. After the season, he was traded to Pittsburgh as part of the Joel Hanrahan / Mark Melancon deal, and while he’s hit well with Triple-A Indianapolis (.323/.383/.462), he hasn’t seen any time in the big leagues. Heading into his age-27 season next year, he’s running out of time to make a career.

92topps_rubbydelarosaRubby De La Rosa (-0.2 WAR with Red Sox)
It’s safe to say that this was the part that hurt the worst, because De La Rosa had been a very highly regarded prospect with the Dodgers before blowing out his elbow in 2011, and he’d made it back for one appearance with the team before the trade. So far, RDLR has had a pretty rough season with Boston, making only five big league appearances (all in relief) while struggling to find his control in Triple-a (5.08 BB/9 in 21 games, all but one as a starter). As we remember, control was never his strong suit, and guys coming off Tommy John surgery often need some time to get it back.

James Loney (-0.1 WAR with Red Sox)
Our favorite punching bag hit just .230/.264/.310 in 106 plate appearances for the Red Sox, somehow contributing even less than he had with the Dodgers. That earned him a mere $2m on a one-year deal from Tampa Bay over the winter… where he’s now hitting .311/.360/.439 and has nearly the exact same wOBA and WAR that Gonzalez does. Baseball is a weird, weird, game sometimes. But I think we all know that for whatever reason, he was never going to succeed like that in Los Angeles.

Jerry Sands (n/a for Red Sox)
Man, remember when we all thought Sands was going to be, well, not a star, but at least a quality major leaguer? Sands never played with Boston since he was a “player to be named later” after the season, then went with De Jesus to Pittsburgh. In 99 games for Triple-A Indianapolis, he’s hit .212/.318/.340 with seven homers. What happened?

Allen Webster (-0.3 WAR with Red Sox)
Like De La Rosa, losing Webster hurt, especially with how much hype he got as he impressed during spring training. But while he’s been good in Triple-A, he’s struggled terribly in six starts for the Red Sox, putting up a 9.57 (!) ERA with massive homer problems. He’s still only 23, of course, and has plenty of time to work things out.

Of course, it was never really about the players for the Red Sox, it was about changing the culture and clearing the bad payroll — which they have done successfully, as WEEI’s Alex Speier goes into painstaking detail about here. As you’d expect, the Dodgers are better off in the short-term for the deal, while the long-term is uncertain; the Red Sox are definitely better off in the long-term, but surprisingly have been far improved this year, too.

I still wish the Dodgers didn’t have to give up De La Rosa and Webster, because it’s hard to imagine that the Red Sox really would have balked at, say, Chris Reed & Chris Withrow, if they were getting rid of all that money. Still, the Dodgers did at least hang on to Zach Lee & Joc Pederson, so while it’s not a perfect trade… it’s one I’m not unhappy about a year later. Considering the massive risk involved, that might be all we can ask for.