The trading season got kick-started this week when the Florida Marlins, baseball's current leader in unabashed greed, sent Dan Uggla to their NL East rival, the Atlanta Braves, for Omar Infante and Mike Dunn. Uggla's name has been circling the rumor mill for well over a year, so nobody should've been surprised that the Marlins eventually pulled the trigger. Bu, many were critical of what they got in return: a utility infielder coming off a career year and a rookie reliever who probably profiles as a LOOGY.
Uggla, I grant, is a likable, somewhat under-the-radar run producer. In five seasons he's been utterly consistent - 30 HR and 90 RBI in the bank. And he plays a position, second base, that isn't replete with power-hitters. Since integration (1947), only two second-basemen have had more homers than him at his age: Alfonso Soriano and Ryne Sandberg.
That said, like Soriano, he doesn't play the middle infield very well and is likely headed for a position switch. His UZR in 2010 was -7.4. Only Skip Schumaker, the converted outfielder, was worse among National Leaguers. Uggla has been consistently near the bottom of the league in every defensive metric ever since his rookie year. It seems fairly certain that sooner or later, perhaps as soon as next season, Uggla will be moved to a corner position, where his offensive numbers, while still solid, will no longer dramatically separate him from his peers.
Uggla is potentially a pretty one-dimensional hitter. His .287 average in 2010 was a career high, as was his .369 OBP. He doesn't steal bases. He strikes out a ton. What he does well, however, is hit homers and he sees lots of pitches. Both things the Braves desperately need. Uggla's 4.20 PPA was good for eleventh in baseball in 2010. That, as much as his power, may explain the Braves interest. Among their regulars, only Derrek Lee and Jason Heyward were particularly patient hitters in 2010, and Lee is headed into free agency. Paired with Heyward, Brian McCann, and possibly a healthy Chipper Jones, Uggla might help force opposing pitchers to work a little harder than they did this year.
It is quite possible that Uggla's recent campaign represents the furthest extent of his talents. He'll be 31 before next season begins. He got a relatively late start, as a 26-year-old rookie. So, he's got one more year of arbitration, which will probably cost the Braves somewhere in the vicinity of $10 Million. And he will probably be looking for $10-$15 Million per season for his next contract, which will take him into his late 30s. Considering his defensive limitations and his age, it will be risky to sign him to a long-term deal, especially if he has another relatively big season in 2011.
The Marlins, to nobody's great surprise, prioritized cheapness. Omar Infante, like Uggla, is under contract for only one more season, but at about 25% of the cost ($2.5 Million). He's also two years younger than Uggla. Mike Dunn is still two full seasons away from being eligible for arbitration and will be 26 when the 2011 season begins. So, all told, depending upon who Dunn replaces in the Marlins bullpen, they'll be getting somewhere around $7-$10 Million in salary relief.
In terms of overall production, they may not be giving up as much as it initially appears. Infante's 2010 breakout, which got him elected to the All-Star team, surprised pretty much everybody. But, maybe it shouldn't have. Between '08 and '09 he hit .298 with a 753 OPS, 69 R, and 67 RBI in roughly a season's worth of at-bats (520). From that level, it isn't a ridiculous jump for a 28-year-old to hit .321 with a 775 OPS, 65 runs, and 47 RBI in 471 AB.
Even if Infante can maintain his high average (which I doubt, .300 is probably a reasonable expectation), he's still no match for Uggla offensively. However, Uggla's offensive advantage is balanced to some extent by Infante's advantage on defense, where he is relatively effective and very flexible. Infante logged innings at five different positions in 2010 and was, at least according to UZR, average or better at four of them. Such "utility" allowed Infante to log a WAR of 2.7 in 2010. Uggla has only beat that number twice in his five seasons (including 2010).
Finally, Michael Dunn, I think, is actually the key to this deal. Since being converted into a reliever, Dunn has raced through the minors, dominating at every step of the way. And it didn't stop when he was promoted to big leagues during the second half of 2010. In 19 innings, he posted a 1.89 ERA and 12.8 K/9. It's a small sample size, but combined with his minor league stats it suggests that he will be an effective lefty middleman immediately and certainly has the stuff to pitch in the late innings eventually, especially if he cuts down on his walks. Dominant left-handed relievers are a rare breed, which is why guys like Darren Oliver and Arthur Rhodes are still getting relatively big paycheck in their forties. Every team needs one and the Marlins may have found theirs on the cheap.
While some have suggested that the Uggla trade is an obviously one-sided payroll dump that potentially upsets the balance in the NL East, I actually think both teams got better with this trade. The Braves got a middle-of-the-order presence to bolster their mediocre lineup. It may be exactly what they need to make them a more serious contender next October. The Marlins got better defensively, as they will be able to slide Chris Coghlan in at second base and use Infante all over the diamond. They also filled a key role in their bullpen and gave themselves some payroll flexibility. One could suggest that John Buck got signed with the money the Marlins saved on Dan Uggla.
It bothers me as much as anybody that the Marlins have less than $30 Million in commitments for 2011, even though we're well aware they have at least that much money just from revenue-sharing, but we shouldn't let that prejudice effect our ability to analyze this trade. The Marlins are parting ways with a player who is getting more expensive, but is likely to be less productive. They are getting younger, undervalued players in return. We generally applaud teams like the Rays and Twins for making these types of decisions.