Just over six months after he was connected to the Philadelphia Phillies as a free-agent target, Marcus Semien is slated to start for the American League in Tuesday’s All-Star Game.
Granted, Semien – who ultimately signed a one-year/18 million deal – has played second base for the Toronto Blue Jays, as opposed to his natural position of shortstop, where the Phillies likely would have slotted him in at.
Still, Jim Bowden of The Athletic reported in mid-January that the Phillies were among a trio of teams who had been involved in Semien’s free-agent market, and with the benefit of hindsight, they probably would have been better served signing Semien to a one-year/$18 million deal, as opposed to re-signing Didi Gregorius for two years and $28 million.
Two seasons ago, Semien was an American League MVP finalist as a member of the Oakland Athletics, slashing .285/.369/.522 with 33 home runs, 92 RBIs and a 7.6 fWAR. Semien had previously had some impressive defensive seasons at shortstop, but his 2019 season was an outlier in comparison to what he had otherwise done offensively.
Semien’s performance during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season further clouded the picture on what he was as a player. During the regular season, Semien struggled at the plate, slashing just .223/.305/.374 in 211 at-bats. However, the small sample size made it hard to evaluate Semien as he reached free agency (without the attachment of a qualifying offer), especially when you consider that he turned things around in the postseason, hitting .407 with two home runs and four RBIs in 27 at-bats.
Shortly before word broke of an agreement on a two-year pact that allowed Gregorius to return to Philadelphia, the Blue Jays inked Semien to the aforementioned deal. As Mike Petriello of MLB.com noted, Semien has probably been the most productive free agent position player signed last offseason, a class that included J.T. Realmuto and DJ LeMahieu.
Semien, 30, slashed .277/.345/.528 with 22 home runs 56 RBIs and a 3.9 fWAR in the first half of 2021. Most believed last offseason that the Phillies would be sacrificing some offense in the name of improving defensively if they turned to Semien over Gregorius. Granted, injuries have limited Gregorius to just 41 games thus far in 2021, but that calculation doesn’t appear to have been correct given how Semien has hit with the Blue Jays.
As a defender, Semien has been excellent as well, as he’s tied for the league lead among second basemen with seven defensive runs saved. He, of course, wouldn’t have played second base for the Phillies, with Jean Segura occupying that spot.
Between 2018 and 2019, Semien was worth 18 defensive runs saved, the fifth-best mark among shortstops over that period. Last season, however, Semien regressed defensively, posting -6 defensive runs saved. Was that something that would have corrected itself over a 162-game season or just a sign of declining range which often hits shortstops in their late 20s? That’s something that the Phillies front office had to consider last offseason, and we don’t really know the answer because Semien has played second base in 2021.
That said, Gregorius has -6 defensive runs saved in 338 2/3 innings in 2021, which would be tied for the second worst mark among shortstops if he had enough innings to be qualified. Again, we don’t know that Semien would have been significantly better defensively at shortstop, but he would have only been a one-year commitment at the position. Gregorius – who the Phillies may very well have to consider moving to second or third base next season – is due $14.5 million in 2022.
Had the Phillies signed Semien to a one-year deal last offseason and he rebounded offensively but showed to no longer be a shortstop, they would have quite a bit of flexibility this upcoming offseason. Because the Oakland Athletics didn’t extend a qualifying offer to Semien last offseason, he could be offered one this offseason. If he accepts, then you’d have him on another one-year deal with a similar value to what he’s playing on in 2021. If he declines and signs elsewhere, then you recoup draft compensation, something the Phillies could certainly use as they attempt to rebuild their farm system.
Ultimately, this story is less about pointing out that Semien would have been a better signing than Gregorius, although that does appear to be the case. But Semien starting in the All-Star Game Tuesday is perhaps a sign that you’d be better playing the one-year, prove-it deal market every offseason (as you successfully did with Gregorius last offseason), as opposed to making multi-year commitments around Realmuto and Bryce Harper.
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