Looking to win immediately and move beyond the endless rebuilding mode, the Kansas City Royals brought in another veteran last night by signing second baseman Omar Infante to a four-year contract worth $30 million. What are they getting? Let's find out with a Prospect Retrospective and a look at his career in context.
Omar Infante was signed by the Detroit Tigers as a free agent in 1999, from Venezuela. He made his pro debut in the Gulf Coast League, hitting .268/.309/.325 in 25 games. At this point his defense was ahead of his hitting, but at age 17 he was capable of developing into anything. He also had to grow up very quickly: Omar's brother Asdrubal (a pitcher in the Tigers system) was murdered in Venezuela that year. Observers felt that Omar used the tragedy as a motivator.
He was advanced enough to play 75 games in High-A in 2000 at the tender age of 18, hitting .274/.324/.340, not spectacular but very credible for such a young player in the Florida State League. While the bat needed some work, his glove stood out as a huge positive. His throwing arm wasn't great, but his range, hands, and instincts all rated above-average. I gave him a Grade C in my 2001 prospect book, noting that he wasn't much of a hitter yet, but that the defense was solid and he was very, very young. I projected him as at least a utility infielder, but noted "if his hitting picks up, and it might, he could move beyond that."
The Tigers continued advancing him aggressively, putting him in Double-A in 2001 at age 19. He handled it very well, hitting .302/.355/.367 with 27 steals, 46 walks, and 87 strikeouts in 540 at-bats. He was named the Best Defensive Shortstop in the Eastern League by Baseball America. He still didn't have much power, but his plate discipline improved and he looked a lot more like a future regular. I bumped him up to a Grade B- entering 2002.
For Triple-A Toledo in '02, Infante hit .268/.309/.369 in 120 games, not great but he was just 20 years old. His glove continued to draw praise, and he looked good during a late trial with the Tigers, hitting .333/.360/.417 in 18 games. This is the scouting report I wrote on Infante after seeing him play late in the season, verbatim from the '03 Baseball Prospect Book.
A good-field, might-hit shortstop, Infante will be given a chance to win a middle infield job in Detroit in '03. He can handle second base or shortstop very well; fielding won't be a problem for him. He has good range, a strong arm, and is reasonably reliable. Hitting is another matter. He's shown some ability to hit for average at a young age, particularly at Double-A Erie in '01. He makes contact. But his strike zone judgment is inconsistent, and he can be overpowered. I could see Infante hitting .270 in the Show right now, but he won't hit for much power or post a good OBP. He is extremely young, though, and should have a long career. It wouldn't be a surprise to see him develop decent offensive skills in his late 20s/early 30s.
Infante spent about half of '03 in Detroit, playing 69 games. He wasn't able to hit .270, batting just .222/.278/.258, but his glove was good and he showed the potential to improve. He did just that in '04, hitting .264/.317/.449 with 16 homers, but he slumped in '05 and was only in the lineup sporadically until being traded to the Atlanta Braves, where he blossomed in 2008. As you know, he was eventually re-acquired by the Tigers after a stopover in Miami.
Overall, in 1209 games over a 12 year career, Infante has hit .279/.319/.402, OPS+ 93, wRC+ 92, with a 14.2 fWAR. He's had some rough years with the bat, but he's also had some very solid ones, particularly in 2013 when he hit .318/.345/.450 with 10 homers and a career-best 117 wRC+. His defense at second base is quite good and has kept his fWAR values positive even when his bat has sagged. His overall game has improved with age, with '12 and '13 being his two best seasons (2.9 and 3.1 WAR).
So what happens now?
Infante turns 32 the day after Christmas, and while he has been very valuable the last couple of seasons, decline is inevitable. But how soon will that happen? How much of a risk is the contract?
Through age 31, Infante's list of most comparable players:
Dykes would be a nice outcome: he was an All Star at ages 36 and 37, and while his bat declined with age, he remained a regular due to his defense all the way through age 39 and was still playing in the majors at age 42.
On the other hand, Adam Kennedy's last good year was at age 33. Hudson collapsed at 34. Ray's last year was age 33. McNair collapsed at 32. Belliard was good through age 34 but fell apart at 35. Brooks collapsed at 35. Polanco is still around at age 37 but with a steady fade in his skills beginning at 34. McDougald's last year was age 32. Walker was a solid hitter through age 32 but didn't have the defensive ability to stick in the majors once his bat began to die.
Based on the historical examples, I'd expect Infante to be effective the first two years of the contract, but with a drastic increase in failure risk beginning in the third year.
Like their other off-season moves, this contract is designed to help push the Royals over the top in 2014. If Infante stays healthy, he'll help him do that. They'll worry about 2016 and 2017 later.
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