Were Dan Uggla about to turn 29, as opposed to 31, this might be a good deal. Were the Braves based in the American League, as opposed to the ol’ Senior Circuit, this might be a good deal. But he isn’t and they aren’t.
The Braves have agreed to re-up Uggla, who hasn’t yet played a game for them, for $62 million over five years. That’s not nearly Jayson-Werth-to-Washington money, but it’s a huge outlay by Braves standards. It’s also the biggest contract afforded any second baseman in baseball, and Uggla is a second baseman in name only.
Uggla’s real position is batter, and he’s really good there. And yes, the Braves needed a hitting upgrade, right-handed hitting especially. So that part makes sense. What makes less is this: To accommodate Uggla, the Braves are willing to weaken an already-crummy defense by moving Martin Prado, who’s better at second base than Uggla, to left field.
Defense in baseball is a funny thing: Almost nobody notices it until they see it’s not there. Then the wailing begins. The Braves just lost a playoff series because they couldn’t play D, but much of that was a function of circumstance: Chipper Jones and then Prado had gotten hurt and poor Brooks Conrad had to play someplace. If the Braves are still lousy defensively in 2011 and beyond, it won’t be an accident: It will be because they’ve made the considered decision to acquire and then extend Uggla.
I know what you’re saying: “What’s the big deal? If he drives in two runs a game he’ll make up giving one back.” But that’s not quite true. Bad D has an erosive effect on a team’s psyche. Let’s recall that the first moves made by John Schuerholz when he arrived from Kansas City were to sign Terry Pendleton, Sid Bream and Rafael Belliard — not so much for their hitting (although the Braves reaped the bonus of having Pendleton lead the league in batting average) but for their defense. Schuerholz knew the heart of his inherited team had to be its young pitching, and he wanted above all to give his young pitchers a chance.
Even with Uggla, the Braves going forward figure to be better at pitching than hitting. The presence of Uggla at second base (and, by extension, Prado in left) could undermine that pitching. We just saw the Giants win a World Series without hitting much — the Braves outhit outscored San Francisco over 162 games, FYI — because of an ability to pitch, yes, but also because of the capacity to catch.
I understand why the Braves wanted Uggla. They’ll need a batting-order anchor in case the post-surgical Chipper doesn’t return to his 2008 form, and they’re tired of one year rentals. (See Teixeira, Mark. Also Drew, J.D.) That said, signing a player of Uggla’s age to such a contract knowing he really doesn’t have a position is a real reach.
Pitching and defense are supposed to go hand in glove. Uggla’s glove is for ornamental purposes only. There are better ways to spend $62 million.
By Mark Bradley