Creeping Inexorably Toward A Worthwhile Sub-Heading.
Tuesday, October 28, 2003
Assuming the Position - Round 1 - First Base
Well, the season is over and it's not even November yet, but there's no rule that says I can't fire up the Hot Stove now, so I'm gonna, dammit! I'll spend the next few weeks taking a position by position look at the 2003 Cubs with an eye for what should stay and what should go in order to build on this past year's success. It only seems natural to begin with the only position on the field called First.
The Cubs received approximately two-thirds of their plate appearances at first base from the combination of Eric Karros and Randal Simon, who in those 475 PA's combined for a .285/.331/.456 line. Pretty nice numbers for a good defensive shortstop, but not what you want to see from one of your corner positions. On the surface, Hee Seop Choi doesn't look much better, with a .218/.350/.421 line over 245 PA's. However, it's important to note that Choi suffered one of the scariest injuries I've ever seen on June 7 against the Yankees, and before his subsequent trip to the DL, he had hit .244/.389/.496 in 168 PA's. Pretty solid numbers, particularly for a 24 year old.
I think it's reasonable to postulate that Choi could have continued his established level of production had the injury not intervened. Assuming that, I believe the usage pattern that Baker had established would have continued, with Choi in the lineup against most right handers, and Karros getting the lefties and any righties he had significant previous success against (yes, they do exist). Dusty seemed fairly comfortable with what Choi was doing judging from the fact that he received nearly two-thirds of the plate appearances up to that point, and his usage pattern seemed consistent until the collision with Kerry Wood. It was that collision, and the stint on the DL that followed, that set the stage for what happened with Cubs first basemen over the rest of the season.
While it's somewhat misleading to say that Choi's absence was the cause of the unfortunate mishandling of him that happened once he returned, it is appropriate to say that it opened the door to the silliness that followed. Perhaps the most significant factor is Dusty Baker's penchant for the "hot hand," and wouldn't you know it, the moment Choi goes down, Eric Karros catches fire. In June, Karros hit .318/.376/.494, making him nearly as valuable as Choi was over the previous two months, and then followed it up with a .362/.400/.536 line in July. There are plenty of managers who are susceptible to forming preferences or dislikes based on small sample sizes, but Dusty may well be the king of them all. So when Choi came back, his playing time was spotty at best.
During the month of July, Choi started two games in a row only once, and saw that happen on only two more occasions during the rest of the year, both of them in August. There were only three times in July when Choi had two games in a row where he even got to the plate. I'd like to insert a caveat here. Initially on his return, Dusty was using Choi in a very similar pattern to the one he used before the injury. Some of the lack of playing time can be attributed to the Cubs facing a plethora of left handed starters, as well as time off for the All Star Break. However, it was during this period that Baker obviously soured on Choi, and it's Choi's poor play during this period that seemed to cause it.
In the last three games not started by lefties before the ASB, Baker started Choi and he went hitless in nine at bats, lowering his average from .253 to .239, the first time since May 1 that he'd been under .240. He then went 2 for 13 in his first four starts after the ASB, and it looks like that's when Baker had had enough. Choi didn't even see defensive duty for a week, and while he got a few starts in the first half of August after it became apparent that Karros had fallen off the cliff (his August line was an abysmal .182/.237/.255), he didn't perform well after the extended layoff, going 4 for 25 and striking out 11 times. In the middle of August, the Cubs acquired Randal Simon, and Choi was sent down to Iowa.
It had been apparent for a while that Choi had been uncomfortable at the plate, but he was given no opportunity to iron it out. I'm not advocating starting him on a Major League team in the middle of a pennant race to get his stroke back, but I do believe that since Karros was playing well during Choi's time on the DL that it would have been a fine opportunity to give Choi 50-75 PA's in Iowa to make sure he'd shaken the rust off. He's a young player with a lot of potential, but with relatively little experience at the Major League level. To assume that he can be out for a significant period of time due to injury and then come back to the lineup after a short rehab stint and produce at the level he'd established before his absence is just plain silly. Instead, he could have been sent down to Iowa with the understanding that he was there to hit and get healthy so he could come back and contribute to the big club. Once it became clear that he was back to his old self, he could have been brought back up and inserted into his rightful spot in the lineup. Unfortunately, he was put in situations at the Major League level which were not ideal for his success. In need of playing time to reacquaint himself with a league he had little experience in, he was played sparingly and nonconsecutively, giving him little chance to reacclimate and approach his previous level of play. Eventually, he was sent to Iowa to figure things out, which he did, but too late to insinuate himself into the lineup of a team with a shot at the postseason and a serious case of risk aversion because of it.
My point (which you have waited so patiently for), is that I believe all the rending of hair and gnashing of teeth regarding Choi's future with the Cubs that I've heard and read from members of the sabremetric community (among whom I hope to one day be worthy of counting myself), may be a tad premature. Up until the time of his injury, Choi had been receiving regular playing time in situations which arguably gave both him and his team the greatest chance for success. For the game in which his injury was sustained, he was in the starting lineup against Roger Clemens, a future Hall of Famer who was trying to get his 300th win on that day. While this proves nothing, I have a hard time believing that Choi would be in the lineup against such a pitcher with that much on the line if Baker didn't have confidence in him (in contrast, Mark Bellhorn, who is brought up as an example by many who see sinister forces at work in Baker's treatment of Choi, didn't even sniff the lineup that day). I agree that when Choi came back, he was mishandled and put in situations that almost inevitably led to his demotion, but I firmly believe that all it will take for Choi to get back into a regular role, and Baker's good graces, is for him to perform as he is capable. I am not of the opinion that Baker has a general problem with young players, I think he, like many Major League managers, gives them a shorter leash than veterans (perhaps too short). That, and his old school fascination with batting average, seem to be the root of his discontent with Choi, post-concussion. I sincerely believe that if Choi can hit in the .260's with good power (and I see no reason why he shouldn't), he will be given plenty of playing time and will be a big contributor for the 2004 Chicago Cubs.
So, what to do about the other members of the 2003 Chicago Cubs First Basemen's Society and Gentlemen's Club? Randal Simon is an enthusiastic ballplayer who is left handed, makes a lot of contact, and is surprisingly fun to watch. He also never walks, doesn't hit for much power, and plays only one defensive position. Poorly. If there were room on a Major League roster for an all-around-fun-time-guy who could occasionally come in to pinch hit in situations where some sort of contact is needed (a great example being his pinch hitting stints in this year's Division Series), I'd say keep him around. But there isn't room on a 25 man roster for such a limited skill set. Much as I like him, I think he has to go.
There's a part of me, however, that would like to see Karros return. As I stated earlier, I think that Choi will perform at a level that will be convincing enough for Dusty to leave him in for 400-500 at bats, and I guess I just don't see a reason to spit on a guy who hit lefties at a .366/.441/.545 clip last year (besides, for those of you who subscribe to the Sunday Chicago Tribune, I have a real soft spot for guys who will take out a full page ad in the Sunday sports section to thank the fans of his team. Total class.). I say keep him.
So, that's it for the first sackers. Choi should start most games, with Karros spotting him against tougher lefties and occasionally pinch hitting in critical situations with a southpaw on the mound.