To paraphrase Jane Austen (you guys read my stuff for the classy references, right?): “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a baseball team in possession of title aspirations, must be in want of a backup utility infielder.” Now, as you have guessed, Jane Austen never really said that, since baseball had not yet invented when she died; the original quote was actually about cricket, and it was a backup gully she was discussing.
But was she right? The Braves won a World Championship this season with three* backup infielders, two of whom were Orlando Arcia (-0.3 WAR) and Johan Camargo (-0.4). This was because the Braves starting infield was incredibly durable: Freeman and Riley played in 159 games, and Swanson and Albies played in 156. So both Arcia and Camargo were used far more as pinch hitters, and most of Arcia’s fielding time was actually spent in left field, a position he’d never played before.
So the good news is that we never needed a backup infielder, and the better news is that it’s a good thing we didn’t, because we didn’t have one. Look: I understand that people run hot-and-cold on Dansby Swanson, but that’s not in comparison with Orlando Arcia, who had one good year at shortstop, in 2017 as a 22 year old, or with Camargo, who is overmatched when playing shortstop, though he seems perfectly serviceable at third.
Arcia is re-signed and Camargo is gone. Do we care?
I really wanted Johan Camargo to be good. He just kept getting worse. After an OPS+ of 103 in 2017 terminated by a freak hyperextension of his knee while running onto the field and 115 in 2018 he had a terrible 67 in 2019 (and no place to play with Donaldson at third spelled by the phenomenal first six weeks of Austin Riley) an eminently forgettable 58 in 2020 (OK… it was only 35 games, but he was both hurt and lost the third base competition to Riley, who really wasn’t a lot better) and a truly awful 2021: a -67 OPS+. He had no hits and two walks and 6 strikeouts in 18 plate appearances, almost all in April, without ever starting a game. (He was also 0-4 as a pinch hitter against the Dodgers in the NLCS with two strikeouts.) Now some of this has to be luck. He spent most of 2021 in Gwinnett and OPSed .958 there. But I don’t watch Gwinnett’s game and I don’t recall Camargo making a single good swing in the bigs this year.
With the emergence of Riley, the only position he had to play was Martin Prado’s old supersub position. As I said in my Panda review, he’s the guy who would have been around if Sandoval hadn’t, but I don’t think anyone thinks he would have done much better.
So the Phillies have taken on the opportunity to turn Johan Camargo around. I would wish him the best except I have no good wishes to spare on the Phillies. The first hit Camargo gets against the Braves next year is going to make me grit my teeth.
The supersub position has now gone to Orlando Arcia, but he’s not super, either. He was the regular shortstop for Milwaukee in 2017-2020 and they traded him before last season for Chad Sobotka and Patrick Weigel. If you’re trading a starting shortstop for Chad Sobotka, your assessment of him is “Oh, what the heck: let’s go with Luis Urias…. Oh, never mind, let’s go get Willy Adames.” (And it worked out!)
Arcia was better than Camargo last year, but since I would have been just as good as Camargo, and I’m 65 years old and fat, that’s not saying much. His 63 OPS+ is noncromulent. He’s an insurance policy against an infected Dansby Swanson hangnail for which we are paying somewhere between $2 million and $4 million for the next two or three years. (Interestingly, the Phillies are paying Camargo just about the same thing next year that the Braves are paying Arcia in 2023.) To pay him that kind of money means they don’t think he’s a 63 OPS+ player, and they’re way better at judging these things than me; on the other hand, I think they were pretty sure Johan Camargo wasn’t a -67 OPS+ player, either.
I would love to get the 2010 Martin Prado back, or even the 2018 Camargo. Or I can once again put my hope in the indestructibility of Freeman, Swanson, Albies and Riley. As of right now, that seems like the best bet…. And it’s really not a good bet. Maybe Sean Kazmar, Jr. should have stayed ready.
* Calling Pablo Sandoval a backup infielder is an insult to baseball players everywhere, and I’m not covering Adrianza here who is as of now a free agent and was better than either Arcia or Camargo this year, so I’m sort of ignoring him for the purposes of this review.