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July 9, 2010

You Could Look It Up

The Point of Deadline Deals

by Steven Goldman

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In 1935, when Casey Stengel was managing with the Dodgers, the best teams in the league was the Cardinals. The Dodgers weren’t nearly in the same class. That winter, Cardinals GM Branch Rickey released two former starting outfielders, Jack Rothrock and Ernie Orsatti. The Dodgers were not deep in outfielders, or ambulatory humans for that matter, and Stengel was asked if his club would try to sign the two free agents.

“I don’t want them,” he said. “As Brooklyn manager I’m not interested in spending the rest of my life in the second division. I want to beat the clubs that are on top. St. Louis is one of them. How can I beat the Cardinals with ballplayers that can’t make the St. Louis team?”

This response at first seems to have some logic to it, but in retrospect, it’s far too glib. It’s true that players not good enough to play for the Cardinals won’t make you better than the Cardinals on a one-to-one basis—if today's Cardinals released Randy Winn and the Astros signed him to start in left field, Matt Holliday remains the superior player—but if the players being acquired are better than what you currently have, they might make you better as a team. Value is relative in two directions: in relation to your own talent level, and then, secondarily, in relation to the opposition’s talent level. Improving at any position can have a beneficial effect, regardless of who the competition is playing. Their roster is not relevant to yours.

This seems like a very basic idea: if you have a player who is generating X runs per game and there is a player available, whether as a minor leaguer in your own system, on the waiver wire, or in trade from the Marlins during their annual fire sale, who is likely to generate X+1 runs per game, that’s a worthy upgrade. Of course, often the differences between players aren’t that stark, unless you’re moving from the replacement level to an All-Star or MVP-type player, but at that point, the utility of a fractional upgrade depends on the price.

Conversely, if a player isn’t going to provide any kind of upgrade, it might be better just to pass; some upgrades aren’t even fractional. This brings me to Willie Bloomquist, who has been rumored as a potential bench-strengthening acquisition for various contenders. Bloomquist is a replacement-level or below substitute who has been plying his trade in the majors for the Mariners and Royals since 2002. His career WARP for 695 games stands at 2.2, which is impressive given how little he offers at the plate. A career .262/.317/.333 hitter, Bloomquist doesn’t hit for average or power, nor does he possess great patience. His two main talents are defensive versatility—he can do anything but pitch and catch—and he can run well, owning an 80 percent stolen-base success rate.

There can be a place on a major-league roster for that kind of player provided you only ask him to do the things he can do well. Unfortunately, Bloomquist is, in his own way, nearly as limited as a Herb Washington, and with today’s bullpens suffering from dropsy, there just isn’t enough room to carry both a full-function reserve, one who can perform some combination of all or most of the things a player should do, and a Bloomquist, who can only do some of them. If you have the latter, chances are you don’t have space for the former. That means asking a Bloomquist to do things he’s incapable of doing—the reason why he has averaged over 200 plate appearances a season, peaking at a suicidal 468 PA last year.

Perhaps it’s also that some managers don’t have the discipline to restrict players to their proper roles. From 1985 through 1988, Whitey Herzog made room on his bench for a utility man named Tom Lawless. “Room on the bench” is meant to be taken literally, because that’s where Lawless spent the vast majority of his time—Herzog must have enjoyed his company. Like Bloomquist, Lawless’ main skills were defensive substitution and speed. Unlike Bloomquist, he didn’t get to do anything more than that. In a typical year he played 49 games and got about 60 plate appearances. Lawless was even less of a hitter than Bloomquist—.207/.263/.258 career (though at 60 or 70 PA a year after his 176 PA rookie season, all of his numbers qualify as “small samples”), so Herzog limited him appropriately.

Lawless was Herzog’s 25th man. If he needed a sub to actually start a game, he had Jose Oquendo, who appeared everywhere, even pitcher and catcher, from 1986-88, and hit .283/.370/.344 (about a .270 TAv). Lawless didn’t get to play until the Oquendo-bullet had already been fired. Herzog could afford to carry both because his pitching staff was usually only 10 deep. Today, with some teams carrying a baker’s dozen of bad hurlers on their roster, a Bloomquist has to be Lawless and Oquendo and a fourth outfielder rolled into one. Teams not only carry a Bloomquist, they play him as their first substitute rather than their last, all so they can carry an extra lefty or a sixth right-handed middle reliever or some other redundancy. The outs they might gain on defense do not equal the number of outs they give away at the plate, or, in Bloomquist’s case, the possibility that when he does hit, it will be for extra bases.

The worst hazard of the Bloomquist is not the spot starts, but rather injuries, when a Bloomquist might get several starts in a row. In his career, Bloomquist has had 186 starts in the outfield (83 on the corners) and first base. In any season, almost every organization, including last year’s Royals and this year’s Astros, owns some outfielder, prospect or journeyman, who can stand in right field and provide at least the semblance of an outfielder’s productivity. We’ve hit upon the downside of a player whose main skill is versatility—that versatility is utilized as if it were an end itself. Ben Zobrist is versatile, and that flexibility allows his manager to put an above-average bat anywhere on the field he needs it, while simultaneously making room for another good bat somewhere else. Bloomquistian versatility allows you to place a below-average bat at any position. It’s a net loss.

Admittedly, middle infield spots are harder to fill, and if (say) the Red Sox look at their multiple injuries and lack of middle infield depth and conclude that they’re getting .05 VORP per game from Bill Hall at second base and rather than watch him get hurt and get less from Eric Patterson (who might arguably give you more, at least offensively, but we’re playing with a hypothetical here) or Pawtucket’s Tug Hulett, they had better go ahead and lock in Bloomquist’s defensive competency and -.10 VORP, well, perhaps there’s a case to be made that they’d have the right idea, provided it didn’t cost them anything of value. That kind of desperate situation aside, there is simply no defense to adding a definitive replacement-level player to a contender’s roster.

This point sometimes seems to have been forgotten in the discussion of many possible deadline-period moves: the point is to improve your team’s chances of winning, not decorate your ballpark with gaudy baubles like it was a Christmas tree that happens to seat 50,000. If a player, even one specifically intended as insurance, doesn’t insure against a loss but actually exacerbates it, then what is his purpose?

In our next cheery compendium, we’ll discuss why just about all deadline deals are a loss for the selling team.

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

Related Content:  Willie Bloomquist,  The Who

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