Omar Infante is a conspicuously average second baseman, hitting .288/.318/.414 with a 97 OPS+ in the past three years. He had a career year with the Tigers in 2013 and was far better than other available second basemen.
Infante may not be a flashy upgrade, but he’s better than Kelly Johnson, obtained by the Yankees as a backup plan, if they didn’t get Infante; Skip Schumaker, who went to the Reds and hits like Emilio Bonifacio, but with a worse glove; or Willie Bloomquist, a capable utility fielder at best, who was signed by the Mariners. There’s a good argument that Omar Infante was second only to Robinson Cano among second base free agents. Unfortunately, that is not a testament to Infante’s talent, but an indicator of the weak market for Major-League-quality second basemen. Still, an average second baseman is a massive improvement over anything the Royals have had for years.
Royals second basemen ranked 28th out of 30 for OPS in 2013, 24th in 2012, and 26th in 2011. Even after upgrading on the Chris Getz/Elliot Johnson/Miguel Tejada fiasco, the Royals didn’t have a legitimate hitter at the position.
Unlike Emilio Bonifacio, Infante can actually hit the ball hard. Infante’s SLG is more than 50 points higher in the past three years. Infante hits more fly balls at an average of at least 16 feet farther than Bonifacio and those can find more gaps in Kauffman Stadium. About seven-to-ten per year go over the fence. Conventional wisdom is that Infante will hit fewer home runs at Kauffman because the fences are so far away. However, this fails to take into account the type of hitter Infante is.
From the image above, we can see that Infante has driven multiple balls deep to left-center, center, and right-center-field that could have been home runs at Kauffman stadium. He’s primarily a pull hitter, but he can spray the ball around those big Kauffman gaps.
Much like his offense, Infante’s defense is precisely average. He makes and misses plays exactly as often as one would expect. He’s a smoother fielder than Bonifacio, but doesn’t have Bonifacio’s arm or speed, making him a slight defensive downgrade. Infante does not have the range to make the occasional spectacular play like Bonifacio, Getz or Elliot Johnson did, but he is the only batter among them with over a .400 career SLG…so no one should care.
Infante will almost certainly not have as good a year as he did in 2013 (.313/.345/.450). He had a line drive rate of 25%, which was 5% higher than his career average. His strikeout rate has been dropping steadily throughout his career and he touched a career best 9.2% while his home run rate was up, too (2.1%). At least he has the potential for an excellent year, which is something that has been missing from Royals infielders for a while now.
Also important to the left-handed-heavy Royals Roster, Infante is right-handed. With Aoki at the top of the lineup, Infante would fit nicely between Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas after the heart of the order. There’s a definite possibility that Ned Yost will bat him second in the lineup, between Norichika Aoki and Eric Hosmer. With a .319 career OBP, this is not a good idea, but at least it will prevent Yost from putting Alcides Escobar in that slot (that, by itself, cost the Royals around 12 runs in 2013).
Even though he’s an average hitter, Omar Infante adds massive value to the Royals lineup that had too many holes last season. The Royals started the 2013 season with Jeff Francouer (.536 OPS in 2013) in right field and Chris Getz (.561 OPS in 2013) at second base. They combined for a total of 430 plate appearances before being replaced and the team still won 86 games. Now the Royals have Nori Aoki (.763 Steamer-projected OPS) and Omar Infante (.744 Steamer-projected OPS). No question, for 2014, this is a good move.