Creeping Inexorably Toward A Worthwhile Sub-Heading.
Monday, January 26, 2004
Assuming the Position - Part 9 - The Bench
In this, the ninth and final installment of the Assuming the Position series, I'd like to spend some time with the guys who make sure that everyone coming in from the field between innings has a nice warm place to sit, and since the Cubs are part of a league where the pitchers hit and the hitters field, that can only mean one thing: The Clubhouse Staff The Bench.
Last year, the Cubs' bench was a motley collection of solid backups, young players deprived of their rightful starting job, and old men being paid for little beyond their semi-celebrity. There seemed to be nothing resembling a cohesive plan in the way 2003's group of second-stringers was assembled, and even if there was such a design, the fact that it was impossible to derive from simple observation is damning evidence of its lack of clear intent. Can the through-line missing from last season's group be seen linking 2004's part-time warriors?
Ramon Martinez - My favorite type of bench player. He's not good enough to threaten anyone for an everyday job, but he can hold his own defensively anywhere on the infield that doesn't require a mask, and his work with the bat hovers around the mean. He hits for a decent average and makes good contact, is willing to take the occasional walk, and has some surprising pop, so when he comes up to pinch hit, the thought doesn't give you an ulcer. He is the embodiment of competence without excellence, which is all you can ask from someone who gets under 300 PA's a season. What's actually a bit frightening is, at this point in both of their careers, he's actually a decent comp for Roberto Alomar. Don't believe me? Here's a look at their hitting lines over the last two years.
I'll admit it's not entirely fair to compare two players with such disparate playing time, as it's entirely possible that over 500+ AB's Ramon would have more of his weaknesses exposed and fare worse when held up to Robbie. However, the fact that I can put some numbers up and make this comparison with a straight face speaks volumes about how far Alomar has fallen. The sad part is, he might actually be less valuable off the bench than Martinez, since he can only play second base.
I suppose this doesn't have a lot to do with Ramon, other than to say that in him, the Cubs have the closest thing to a perennial keeper one can find in a reserve player.
TorkGrudzieker - Besides the relatively slight possibility of a closer controversy, the only personnel usage issue going into the spring will be centered around the Cubs' pair of opposite-handed second sackers. Looking at plate performance, a strict platoon seems in order, as neither Walker nor Grudz fares particularly well against like-handed hurlers, and pitting them exclusively against their opposites yields a second baseman who hits in the .300/.360/.450 range. I'll take that from the keystone anytime.
Two problems arise, however. First, Grudz signed with at least a tacit understanding that he was the starter. If he gets used in a strict platoon, that notion goes quickly out the window. Would this make for a Grumble-Grudz, or will he just be happy as an important part of a winning team? And if he does start to complain, does it matter so long as his play remains unaffected? Second, while Walker is a superior hitter against righties, he's an inferior defender against everyone. A strict platoon puts him in the field for the majority of games, and while that may not mean as much to pitchers like Wood and Prior whose strikeouts make for easier absorption of poor infield play, Carlos Zambrano had a 2.28 GB/FB ratio last year, and the thought of seeing a lot of balls emerging from a cloud of Diving-Walker-Dust into the green grass of the outfield must be keeping him up many a night this winter. Matt Clement wasn't far behind in ground ball production at 2.04, and if the Cubs were to sign Greg Maddux you might have three compelling reasons to give Grudz a few more starts.
With a career line of .276/.333/.442, Hollandsworth offers more power than [Orlando] Palmeiro at the expense of OBP and defense. The disparity in the field isn't really a source of concern for me, as we're talking about the difference between someone who can be about average anywhere in the outfield, versus someone who's well above average. I'll take average defense if the bat's there, particularly with the Cubs' strikeout heavy staff. No, my worries stem from Hollandsworth's ability to get on base. Of course, he's not bad for a guy coming off the bench, and the power is definitely a plus, but I'm looking for a guy I can run out there for 100 games if I have to. Is a .333 OBP with moderate power enough for that? If he cost the same as Palmeiro, I might say yes, but last year he got $1.5M from the Marlins for 224 AB's, and if someone wants to pay him that, I think the Cubs have to let them.
Well, the Cubs got him for $1M, and if they can keep him off the field when a lefty's on the mound, he'll actually be pretty valuable. His power is the best part of his game at the plate, in addition to the fact that he's left-handed. He'll be the one to come into the game when it's late, the Cubs need a hit with a tough right-hander on the mound, and someone like Barrett or Gonzo is due up. That, and spelling anyone in the outfield who needs a day off will be the main source of his playing time. There are likely to be a lot of games when Alou and/or Patterson need to sit, so being able to replace them with someone who can hit a little bit, and in the case of Alou, play better defense, sure makes it an easier sell.
Paul Bako - There are two schools of thought on backup catchers. The first says, get yourself a catch and throw man, someone who can handle the defensive chores better than your regular, and quality at bats be damned. I'll call this the Blanco School. The second says, get yourself a little offensive boost, someone who gets on base and has a little pop, but don't sweat the defensive stuff. I'll call this the Pratt School. Then there are those who seem to belong to a third school, populated by those who are devoid of either of the first two school's positive qualities. I'll call this the Uecker School, and Paul Bako is a prototypical student.
No, really, I'm serious.
I wasn't at first. When I initially thought of the Uecker analogy I felt I would have to temper the "hilarity" of the joke with statements like, "Of course, I'm being cruel to make a point," or, "Obviously, I'm exaggerating for effect," or, "Certainly, there isn't any direct correlation between Bako and Uecker, I was merely making a hyperbolic statement for humorous purposes."
Except it's no joke. Bako and Uecker make a frighteningly apt pair.
I've used some more advanced metrics (meaning I couldn't calculate them myself with a step-by-step instruction booklet) from their DT Cards over at Baseball Prospectus, because some adjustment for context is warranted. Uecker, bad as he was, also played in a far less friendly hitting environment than Bako (namely, 1962-1967), so comparing their stat lines without some adjustment for era would be cruel and unusual punishment. Even in doing so, poor Bob comes out looking slightly worse with the stick than Our Man Paul, but only slightly, and they look to be very comparable defensively, each playing at a level over the course of their career which was 3% below league average. The only thing to recommend Bako over Uecker is his higher batting average (when adjusted for era it's Bako: .241, Uecker: .207), but that's tempered by Uecker's far superior walk rate (Bob: 6.9 AB/BB, Paul: 10.0 AB/BB).
The two are not mirror images of each other, but their overall production levels nearly are. So this is my point. The Cubs are on the hook for $865K in 2004 for the services of a player who's production levels are on the same plane as a man who has made part of his living since leaving baseball making fun of how bad he was while he was in it. When similar players like Todd Greene and Kelly Stinnett sign for over $300K less, you have to ask yourself, why? I know the Cubs are short on lefties, but it's a lousy reason to overpay for an easily replicated, and none too valuable, skill set.
Jose Macias - I didn't get a chance to weigh in on this signing when it happened, but my reaction upon first hearing the news was befuddlement, and I remain in that state as I write this. I know that Jim Hendry understands there are these things called NRI's, and that you can invite a bunch of players who are qualified to be the 25th man to Spring Training without having to sign them to a Major League deal or, God Forbid, trade someone for them. I know he knows this because he's done it before, and he's even doing it this year with some pitchers who could fill out the back of the bullpen. Why, then, would you trade anything, even a sack of magic beans, for a guy like Macias?
The answer is, you wouldn't. But the Cubs did, and I suspect the reason was because Macias has that elusive "flexibility" that can be so valuable off the bench. He can play any position on the field other than one of the Battery Twins very nearly as well, and in some cases considerably better, than the player starting there. I'll admit, that in itself is worth something. However, toss in being positively Bako-esque at the plate, and the value of being able to fill in for anyone on the field diminishes significantly. Look, having someone available with a lead in the late innings to spell whichever defender looks most vulnerable on a particular day is worthwhile. Making a trade for him and inking him to a deal for $750K is not.
Tom Goodwin - *sigh* Tom Goodwin is a very fast man. There, I said something nice.
I'm reserving judgment on the overall composition of the reserve corps until I see some usage patterns (specifically in the Walker/Grudz case), but in general, it's a decent group. I'd love to see a catcher who could either hit or play great defense, but besides that there are solid defensive replacements, platoon options, and fast guys. The only other thing that seems lacking is a significant power source. Lose one of either Goodwin or Macias, and suddenly you have an open spot for a no-defense corner infield/outfield masher to make your opposite number think twice about which reliever he brings into a tight game. Give me that, and I think we're done.