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October 6, 2010

Prospectus Perspective

Goodbye, Old Pal

by Steven Goldman

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As a rule, the Baseball Prospectus annuals are forward-looking, focused on what you can expect to see in the season ahead. Squeezed for space despite a 600-page waistline, we don’t have room for lengthy farewells to players who have stated their intention to hang up their spikes and wave goodbye. It’s always tempting to squeeze in a look back at a departing great or two among the mid-career veterans and 20-year-olds, but we just can’t lest the book require a “two-man lift” warning on the cover. That is why I’m going to say my farewells here to a few fellows who won’t be in Baseball Prospectus 2011. While we still don’t know if we’ve said farewell to grizzled chaps such as Jim Edmonds, there are a few players who seem to be certain in their intentions. Here is what I would have said had we been able to bump a few Bryce Harper types from the book.

Brad Ausmus, C
.251/.325/.344, .236 TAv, 33.7 WARP
Despite decent plate judgment and contact skills, Ausmus was never much of a hitter. That may be putting it too lightly. Ausmus wasn’t Kevin Cash bad, but he was far below the average hitter and tended to spike his numbers by banging into many a double play. In 2002, he whacked into 30 twin-killings, 12th-most all time (the single-season record is 36), despite getting only 496 plate appearances. He did that by taking advantage of 28 percent of his opportunities, a figure that has been exceeded just once in the last 50 years by a player with 400 or more PAs—Ivan Rodriguez did it this year (28.4 percent). When Jim Rice set the single-season GDP record, he was only doubled up in about 18 percent of his chances. Ausmus did nearly as much damage in 107 chances. From 1993-2000 he was vaguely acceptable hitting in the eight hole, with a .263/.338/.370 line, but from then on he dropped to .241/.313/.319, sub-replacement production.

Despite the dwindling offense, the Astros used him as their primary catcher for seven of those seasons, the vet always ending up on the field when prospects like Mitch Meluskey and J.R. Towles failed. That Ausmus failed, too, never seemed to send them looking for another choice, and the Astros turned a player who would have been a quality backup into a subpar regular. Still, when you’re around so long that you catch more games than Al Lopez (1,938, seventh-most all time), you must be doing something right. But his reputation as a superior backstop was well deserved, especially when it came to controlling the running game. Both his career rate of 35 percent of attempting basestealers thrown out and his four seasons of over 40 percent caught stealing are impressive. Ausmus’ glove didn’t make up for his bat, and the return on his playing time was increasingly negative.

Ausmus won’t make the Hall of Fame, but he has three claims on history: (1) His rank on the games caught list; (2) he had one of the best careers of any player taken with the 54th pick in an expansion draft; (3) how many players can say they were traded five times by the same general manager? Ausmus went from the Rockies to the Padres (1993), from the Padres to the Tigers (June, 1996), from the Tigers to the Astros (December, 1996), from the Astros to the Tigers (1999), and from the Tigers to the Astros (2000). Randy Smith was the GM of the Padres in the first deal and the Tigers’ GM in all the subsequent transactions.

Mike Lowell, 3B
.279/.342/.464, .275 TAv, 39.6 WARP
In the winter of 1998, the Yankees had a difficult choice to make, albeit one in which the decision was inevitable given the proclivities of owner George Steinbrenner. They had just finished a season in which they arguably were the greatest team of all time. Third baseman Scott Brosius was a big part of that, hitting .300/.371/.472 with excellent defense. The problem was that he was going on 32, wasn’t actually that good a hitter, and his contract was up. Simultaneously, the Yankees had minor league third baseman Lowell, who had just completed his second season at Triple-A. Lowell, 24, had signed at 21 and hadn’t done much his first couple of years in the system, but in 1997 he busted out in a season split between Double- and Triple-A, hitting .315/.401/.562 with 30 home runs. The Yankees being the Yankees, they looked at Lowell’s numbers and said, “No, we’d rather have the 30-year-old who just hit .203 for the A’s, and snagged Brosius as the player to be named later for the thoroughly despised lefty Kenny Rogers.

A year later, they were back in the same position. Given a full year at Columbus, Lowell hit .304/.355/.535 with 26 home runs. BP’s pre-PECOTA forecasting system of the time saw him as a .269/.320/.433 hitter, which (A) turned out to be a pretty good guess given what he did in the majors in 1999, and (B) wasn’t too far off from Brosius’ career averages at that time. The Yankees again proving to be the Yankees, they thought the situation over and re-signed Brosius to a three-year deal. Lowell was thereafter dealt to the Marlins for three pitching prospects (two of them former first-round picks), none of whom ever did anything in the majors. Brosius played out the rest of his contract, never hitting as well again, and retired. In the short term, the Yankees weren’t hurt much given that they won another two World Series with Brosius around. In the long term, they paid more than they needed to Brosius, Robin Ventura, Ron Coomer, Aaron Boone, Todd Zeile, and eventually Alex Rodriguez. Lowell went on to play for four post-season teams, one of which, the 2003 Marlins, went through the Yankees to earn its ring. The Yankees paid for missing on Lowell, not once, but several times, and not just with money.

Mike Redmond, C
.287/.342/.358, .249 TAv, 8.9 WARP
Mike Lowell’s teammate on the 2003 championship Marlins, Redmond could hit for average, particularly against left-handers, and threw well until the last few years of his career, nailing 32 percent of attempting basestealers in his career, but peaking at 53 percent (albeit in limited playing time). That was all he could do, but in a world where Cash has a job, Redmond was highly skilled for a reserve catcher. He was the rare player who never played for a team that either due to ignorance or injury asked him to do more than he was capable of, so his weaknesses were rarely exposed. He hit .325/.380/.422 against portsiders, which made him the ideal short half of a platoon. There is no Hall of Fame for backup catchers, but if there were one, Redmond would make it in on the first ballot.

Ken Griffey Jr., CF
.284/.370/.538, .300 TAv, 75.9 WARP
The only bad thing you can say about him is that he didn’t stay healthy enough to break every record in the book. The second-worst is that after his mid-20s, he was vastly overrated in center field and should have been exiled to a corner years before it finally happened. It would have been better for team defense and better for his durability. The third-worst thing you can say about him was that he never got to a World Series, although he hardly deserves all the blame for that, both in the sense of regular season and post-season performance. In 1995 he was a hurricane, particularly against the Yankees, hitting .391 with five homers in five games. If his departure isn’t being met with quite the level of sadness he deserves, it’s only because his stardom really came a generation of fandom ago. After 2000, he was just another guy, and though offensive performances kept going through the roof, his declining skills meant that he was headed in the opposite direction. There are many baseball fans today who cannot remember when Junior Griffey was one of the most exciting, most loved players in the game. 

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:  Yankees Prospects,  The Who,  Brad Ausmus

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