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2014 in Review: The Infield Backups

Ramon Santiago and Kris Negron surpassed all reasonable expectations for the 2014 Reds

You had a season to be proud of, Ramon
You had a season to be proud of, Ramon
Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

Just about everything went wrong for the 2014 Reds, but the backup infielders were one of the few exceptions.  Ramon Santiago and Kris Negron bore the brunt of the infield backup duties, and both provided performances that honestly have to grade out somewhere around the top percentiles of their projections.  In doing so, both have made cases for remaining with the club for 2015, especially given the lack of other interior options and what is likely to be a limited spending budget with other priorities this offseason.  Due mainly to the extended absence of Brandon Phillips, their performances were much needed in 2014, perhaps giving the team just enough of an edge to beat out the lowly Cubs as cellar dwellers of the division.

Ramon Santiago was signed to a one-year contract this offseason to be an insurance policy for the middle infield.  What's more, it was a minor league contract which was worth only $1.1 million when Santiago was on the 25-man roster.  The deal made sense given Santiago's career.  From 2008-2011, Ramon had proven to be a solid defensive backup all around the infield with a bat that was respectable at worst for a utility infielder.  But 2012 and 2013 saw the hitting basically go over a cliff into the territory that typically relegates such players to roster filler on minor league contracts, and at 35 years old, there is typically not a lot of leeway for that kind of decline.  However, Santiago proceeded to make his Reds contract look like a steal, posting the third best OBP on the team (and the fifth best batting line overall) while playing very good defense at both SS and 2B.  He also played 3B well enough for the eye test, though the metrics didn't like his defense there, and the fact that he played more innings at 3B than anywhere else deflates his WAR value due to that rating.  Either the Reds just very luckily witnessed the dead-cat bounce of Santiago's career, or else Walt Jocketty astutely realized that his previous offensively depressed years were largely BABIP fueled, and that Santiago was a decent bet for some positive regression.  I am inclined to believe the latter, and on a minor league deal, the signing was inscrutable in any case.

Kris Negron's performance was similarly positive, and similarly beyond expectations - probably even moreso.  A minor league journeyman since 2006, Negron had a cup of coffee (only 5 PAs) with the Reds in 2012, and it would have been reasonable to think that might end up being the extent of his MLB career.  Negron had a bit of a mixed track record, but had hit solidly overall up through AA in 2010, with expectations tempered somewhat by his being slightly old for the levels as far as prospects go.  But then Negron hit injury trouble, including a torn ACL which ended his 2012 season, and his hitting was, to be blunt, very bad.  Entering the 2014 season Negron was a mere afterthought; the quintessential minor league roster filler.  But he spent half the season hitting well in Louisville, and when Phillips got injured, the Reds had no one else to turn to and Negron got the call.  He responded by providing the team a 126 wRC+ in his 49 games - a number bettered only by Joey Votto and Devin Mesoraco in 2014.  Kris played primarily 2B and 3B, with very limited trials at SS and CF.  The metrics loved his defense everywhere except CF.  So much so, in fact, that in just those 49 games, Negron posted the 4th best fWAR of all position players.  This is at once a celebration of Negron as well as an indictment of the 2014 Reds.

Jack Hannahan received 50 PAs, Neftali Soto 31 PAs, Donald Lutz 16 PAs (in the infield), and Jake Elmore 12 PAs, to round out the infield backups.  These bit players combined for horrendous performances.  Brayan Peña was forced into duty at 1B during Votto's injury, making him the de facto regular at 1B, and his value, in my opinion, is unfairly maligned.

I don't believe anyone expects Santiago or Negron to repeat these performances in coming seasons.  Especially Negron, whose charmed season included an unsustainable BABIP and moreso an ISO that is completely off the charts given his track record over nine professional seasons.  Surely, this is owed in good measure to the fact that the league had no track record on him yet - a condition which Reds fans are familiar with from various other players in recent years.  In all, Santiago and Negron combined to play 124 games with 372 PAs, and they absolutely made the most of it, adding up to about 2.5 WAR (by either calculation) in just over half a season's worth of playing time.  With no infield depth in the Reds minor league system even close to contributing at the MLB level, it is hard to imagine the team not moving forward with at least one of these players on the opening day roster for 2015, and they have certainly earned it.