Andrelton Simmons Starts His Uncertain Winter a Week Earlyon September 24, 2020 at 2:00 pm

Andrelton Simmons Starts His Uncertain Winter a Week Early

The 2020 season has been an exercise in constant risk calculation. Attempting to play baseball in the middle of a pandemic introduces a daunting list of potential issues, but athletes have come up with plenty of sensible reasons to play anyway. Some wish to avoid losing a year of service time or aren’t in a position financially to stop collecting paychecks. Some don’t want to feel like they’re letting their teammates down. Some would simply rather play baseball than not. The decision whether or not to play, however, isn’t one that athletes made once in July and then forget about. Players face that same decision every day as new variables come into play, the environment around them changes, and the upside in pushing forward shrinks. If you’re a star shortstop on the cusp of hitting the market for the first time, playing for a team barely clinging to life in its postseason chase, the upside in playing is next to nothing, while the risk in doing so is as great as ever.

That’s the situation Andrelton Simmons found himself in this week when the Los Angeles Angels entered Tuesday 4 1/2 games out of the final Wild Card spot with just five games left on the schedule. Simmons, a 31-year-old shortstop and a free agent this winter, decided those five games would take place without him.

Simmons is set to hit the market now after five seasons with the Angels, who acquired him when the Braves made the somewhat shocking decision to trade the star shortstop just two seasons into a seven-year, $58-million extension he signed in 2014. Atlanta was entering a rebuild and acquired Erick Aybar, Sean Newcomb, and Chris Ellis in the deal, a group that has produced a combined 2 WAR total for the Braves (with Newcomb being the only player remaining with the team). Simmons, meanwhile, was worth 15.5 WAR in his five years with Los Angeles, receiving MVP votes and Gold Glove awards in 2017 and ’18. The Angels, for their part, posted losing seasons in every one his five years with the team. Simmons told The Athletic’s Fabian Ardaya that he hasn’t been contacted by the team about extending his contract past 2020. If that remains the case, he should be one of the most interesting free agent cases of the coming offseason.

Simmons has been famous for his defense throughout his career, but it’s sometimes difficult to give proper context to a great fielder’s glove. Simmons is a terrific defensive shortstop who makes all kinds of flashy plays, but the same can be said about the likes of Francisco Lindor, Jose Iglesias, or Javier Baez. When you imagine what separates these players in the field, you might struggle to imagine how much of a difference there really is. When you look at Simmons’ career defensive numbers next to those of his peers, however, it doesn’t even look like they belong in the same sport.

That dominance over his peers has helped Simmons rack up a ton of value in his career despite not even being a league-average hitter. Our WAR calculation puts him at 25.6 for his career, and we’re on the low end of his evaluation — Baseball-Reference has his career WAR at 36.7, which puts him well over halfway to the average Hall of Fame shortstop’s JAWS (35.5 versus 55.3) after nine seasons in the majors.

Simmons would look even better in the context of not only his peers, but also baseball history, if not for recent injuries and the shortening of the 2020 season. He was limited to just 103 games last year by multiple IL stints caused by left ankle sprains. That ankle hobbled him again this season, sending him back to the IL in the first week. After his decision to opt out, his 2020 season is over after just 30 games played. His DRS total in his last two seasons stands at just 10; before 2019, his lowest two-year DRS total of his career was 49.

All of this puts both Simmons and his prospective employers in a difficult negotiating position. Simmons, as arguably one of the best defensive shortstops in the game’s history and a potential Hall of Famer one day, would love to secure another significant deal — as well as a long-term home — as he enters his early-30s (he just turned 31 this month). That’s a perfectly reasonable desire for someone who, when healthy, can easily be worth 3-4 wins even when he’s not hitting well, and substantially more than that when he is.

The past couple of seasons, however, have robbed Simmons of being able to claim the high floor he once did. He’s slowed down noticeably according to Statcast, who reports his sprint speed to have fallen from the 62nd percentile in 2017 to 54th in ’18, to 38th in ’19, and 32nd in ’20. Simmons never owed his defense to elite speed — his sure, quick hands, rocket arm, and advanced situational awareness play bigger roles — but that lost speed is still a warning sign that he is rapidly losing his athleticism or, more likely, hasn’t been fully healthy in two years. Neither option is particularly reassuring to a team considering signing him.

Also working against Simmons this winter could be the number of star shortstops who are poised to hit the open market next year. Simmons’ only current significant competition at his position among other free agents are Marcus Semien and Didi Gregorius. Next winter, however, the list of star shortstops who could be available for nothing but money is staggering: Lindor, Baez, Corey Seager, Trevor Story and Carlos Correa are all on schedule to hit free agency, to say nothing of Kris Bryant and, if he opts out, Nolan Arenado. If a team sees itself having a hole at shortstop in the next couple seasons — and there are plenty, from the Brewers to the Reds to the Mets, on top of the holes opened by whichever of the aforementioned shortstops leaves their current team — they may prefer to save their money and lineup spot for the 2021-22 free agent sweepstakes.

Simmons might be able to benefit from a one-year pact similar to the one signed by Gregorius last winter after the former Yankee had his own future cast in doubt by injuries in a contract season. Gregorius’ deal has seemed to serve him well — his offense has rebounded to previous levels, his glove has looked fine, and he seems likelier to land a multi-year deal this winter (if, of course, we’re to assume this offseason can be treated anything like a normal one). Simmons, with a healthy season of restored defensive superiority and a league-average bat like he showed from 2017-18, could do himself the same kind of favor.

But if that isn’t Simmons’ first choice for a contract setup, it’s hard to blame him. He was just 24 years old when the Braves told him he would be their starting shortstop for the next seven years. They traded him a couple of years later, but the money and job security on his new team was the same, and Los Angeles doesn’t sound like the worst place to live when you do your work outdoors. Perhaps for the first time since he broke into the majors, Simmons can’t be sure what the future holds, and it’s happening in a year that has already introduced more uncertainty than many of us were prepared to reckon with. You might not know the feeling of playing baseball with a sore ankle on a bad team during a pandemic. But you, too, may be growing tired of waiting anxiously to find out what your next step is supposed to be and wishing you could skip ahead to whatever is supposed to come after all of this.

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