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April 14, 2010

Problem Positions

The Never-ending Churn

by Christina Kahrl

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You know them, you rue them: the positions your team doesn't properly know how to stock. Some of these have been historic: Yankees shortstops until Derek Jeter arrived, for example. The most infamous of these was the Cubs' situation at third base, as they tried to replace Ron Santo, decade after decade, from Opening Day 1974 until 30 years later, when they finally found an even more luckless team to take advantage of, the Pirates, trading for Aramis Ramirez on July 23, 2003.

So, some of these curses get lifted, but some are very much with us still:

1. Red Sox Shortstop

Ugly Fact: $79 million spent on free-agent shortstops from 2005-09, for 19.8 WARP

Replacing Nomar with a two-month rental of Orlando Cabrera to win their first title of the decade in 2004 was a success, but the five seasons since have been a revolving door involving big deals and big mistakes. First, they signed Edgar Renteria for four years and $40 million in December 2004, but he was hounded out of town and traded to Atlanta just one year into the deal. The 2006 solution was a one-year patch with journeyman Alex Gonzalez. Next, a four-year, $36-million deal for Julio Lugo, who almost made people miss Renteria. Jed Lowrie looked like a farm-developed fix before injuries derailed his career. This year, it's the turn of well-traveled Marco Scutaro, cashing in his career year with the Blue Jays for $12 million over two years. After buying high and getting burned with Renteria and Lugo, they've made a smaller but still-big commitment to Scutaro after his two seasons worth roughly six wins apiece for the Blue Jays. Maybe Scooter is the man who breaks the cycle of big money and big disappointment.

2. Cubs Center Field

Ugly Numbers: 38.6 WARP, 1996-2009 (fourth-worst tally for center fielders)

Since trading Rick Monday before the '77 season, the Cubs have had it all: a cycle of busted prospects, from 1989 Rookie of the Year Jerome Walton's flash in the pan, to the pumped, rushed, and dumped duo of Corey Patterson and Felix Pie. They've had their share of placeholders and temps, respectable yet transient—Brian McRae, or Rondell White. And they've made big-money mistakes playing make-believe that some guys could play center, first with Alfonso Soriano, then with Kosuke Fukudome, and perhaps now as well with Marlon Byrd. It's a fun ride that now has prospect Tyler Colvin lined up to get onto next; he's another player scouts say would be better off fielding in one of the corners.

3. Royals Shortstop

Ugly Numbers: 16.7 WARP, 1996-2009 (MLB-worst for shortstops)

This crisis borders on existential, because it's hard to say that the Royals have ever had a good shortstop. Freddie Patek's still the all-time leader in games played—his last season in KC was 1979. Since then, they've had a nice season or two from Greg Gagne, a Jay Bell year to remember... and a whole lot of reasons why Buddy Biancalana might still be the most famous Royals shortstop of all time for his spin on Late Night with David Letterman. By combined Runs Above Replacement—in this case, below—the Royals are proud owners of four of the 12 worst seasons by a team's shortstops from 1996-2009. No other team has more than one.

4. Rangers Center Field

Ugly Number: 306 starts

Here, the problem's a matter of finding a guy and sticking with him. Only one player has started more than 300 games in center for the Rangers—Tom Goodwin, with 306, less than two full seasons' worth of playing time. Julio Borbon could beat that sometime in 2011. You could add the Rangers' left-field situation to the list, since nobody's managed to fill Rusty Greer's shoes since he started breaking down in 2000—in the nine years since, eight different men have led the team in left-field starts.

5. Padres Catcher

Ugly Number: 42, 31.7 WARP, 1996-2009 (fifth-worst among MLB catchers)

Since Benito Santiago caught his last game as a Padre in 1992, the club had run through 41 different catchers in 17 seasons. Yorvit Torrealba just became the 42nd in 18. That's more than three different catchers for every season. It'll be up to Nick Hundley to prove he's more than a placeholder, but even holding his place might be a nice respite from the butter churn behind the plate for the Pads.

6. Expos/Nationals Center Field

Ugly Number: 34.6 WARP, 1996-2009 (MLB-worst for center fielders)

The Expos had Marquis Grissom and then White, two good players, but then they traded White at the deadline to the Cubs in 2000, and things have been almost unrelentingly bad since. From prospects who didn't pan out (Peter Bergeron) to budding stars who withered (Brad Wilkerson) to the players pressed into action to fill the breach (remember Nook Logan or Manny Martinez?), the former wards of the industry have had a bad decade in the middle pasture. The hope is that Nyjer Morgan breaks the cycle of failure, in this as well as other ways.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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