Jhonny Peralta has signed a four-year, $52 million contract to play shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals. Stephen Drew is still out there, but is surprisingly not getting much attention. (Injury history, anyone?) Ben Zobrist could be traded for, but Tampa Bay really loves him and would more than likely ask for a king’s ransom in exchange for Zobrist.
But there is one veteran middle infielder out there who isn’t getting much attention, but he should be getting lots of attention from the Mets. That infielder is Omar Infante. And despite the fact that he’s played only 225 games at shortstop in his career (he’s played over 700 games at second base), he might be the guy to target for the vacant shortstop position at Citi Field.
Omar Infante has played 12 seasons in the major leagues, but is still relatively young (he’ll be 32 in December). He became a regular in the big leagues in his third season, when he hit .264 with 27 doubles, 16 homers, 55 RBI and 13 stolen bases for the Tigers. But his first go-round in Detroit didn’t end well, and he was traded to the Cubs, who traded him to the Braves prior to the 2008 season.
In Atlanta, Infante became an All-Star. He also quietly became one of the best contact hitters in the game. From 2008 to 2010, Infante hit .309 for the Braves, striking out just 134 times in over 1,000 plate appearances. But he didn’t hit for much power or steal many bases for the Braves, so Atlanta decided to move him to the Marlins for power-hitting second baseman Dan Uggla.
Infante hit with more power and stole more bases in 2012, splitting the season between Miami and Detroit. Although his average dipped to .274, he hit 12 home runs, drove in 53 runs and stole a career-high 17 bases for the Marlins and Tigers. He also legged out seven triples and produced his first 30-double campaign.
In 2013, Infante overcame a mid-season injury that kept him out of the lineup for six weeks. Had he not been hurt, he might have had his best season yet. Infante played in 118 games for the AL Central division champion Tigers, batting .318 with 24 doubles, 10 HR and 51 RBI. Had he not been hurt, he probably would have surpassed his 30-double, 12-HR, 53-RBI totals from 2012. He also would’ve finished fourth in the American League batting race had he qualified for it, as his 476 plate appearances kept him 26 short of being considered among the leaders in batting average.
So why am I making such a big deal about a soon-to-be 32-year-old middle infielder being a smart pickup for the Mets to take over at short? One reason is economical. The other is all about the ballpark.
Omar Infante made just $4 million as a member of the Tigers in 2013. The two-year, $8 million contract he signed with the Marlins after the 2011 campaign was the richest he had ever agreed to. That means he’d be a cheap signing for the Mets, as they could give him two years for less money than the Cardinals are committing to Jhonny Peralta per season. Signing Infante would also leave approximately $15-$20 million for Sandy Alderson to spend on a starting pitcher and another outfielder. Had they signed Peralta or continued to be in the mix for Stephen Drew, that dollar amount would be far smaller, as would the talent level of the players Alderson would have to settle for.
The main reason why Infante would be a wise choice for the Mets is because of the ballpark he would call home for 81 games a year. Do you know which opposing player has the highest batting average at Citi Field for all players who have played at least 15 games there? Would you believe the answer is Omar Infante? And we’re not even talking about a small sample size, as the players with the second and third highest batting averages for visiting players at Citi Field (Matt Kemp, Reed Johnson) combined have 14 fewer at-bats at the park than Infante has by himself.
In 117 career at-bats at Citi Field, Infante is a .402 hitter, picking up 47 hits in 30 games (27 starts). Infante has 11 extra-base hits, 13 RBI and 17 runs scored at the Mets’ home ballpark. His batting average is nearly 100 points higher than the Met with the highest average at Citi Field (Jose Reyes hit .319 at the park before joining the Marlins in 2012).
Infante also has the second-most number of hits of any opposing player at Citi Field, four behind Jimmy Rollins, who has 47 more at-bats than Infante has at the ballpark. And for a player who is not a slugger and isn’t among the league leaders in walks, Infante’s .995 OPS at Citi Field has been bested by just two players, Joey Votto and Matt Kemp, both of whom are considered to be among the best players in the game. The Met with the highest OPS at Citi Field is David Wright, but his .842 mark is nowhere near Infante’s OPS.
Mets fans have been waiting for years for Sandy Alderson to make a splash in the free agent market. But it’s not always the free agent with the highest price tag that has the biggest positive impact on the team. Sometimes, it’s the smart move that pushes a team in the right direction (see Red Sox, Boston, circa 2013). Omar Infante isn’t a sexy signing. But he’d sure be a smart one. And he may just be the right guy at short and the player who would give the Mets the most bang for their buck in 2014.