April 27, 2011
The BP Broadside
Impatience with Cold Starters
On Sunday afternoon, Derek Jeter went 4-for-6 to raise his rates from a pathetic .221/.289/.235 to a still-anemic .257/.317/.284. Whether this signifies a new birth of Jeter so that shortstop of the Jeter, by the Jeter, and for the Jeter (and emphatically not for A-Rod) shall not perish from the earth remains to be seen, but at least the remote possibility exists. I’m less certain about some of the guys below, the worst hitters in the major leagues as we close out April. Should these teams stick or move on with these drowning hitters?
Dan Johnson, Rays-1B: .131/.185/.197
It’s a matter of religion with me that minor-league statistics mean something and true “Quadruple-A players” are about as rare as Sumatran tigers. Johnson is a career .307/.420/.560 hitter at Triple-A and performed well there as recently as last year. However, as when good things happen to bad people, Johnson’s major-league performances—.222/.328/.391 in over a thousand plate appearances, including .178/.292/.350 for the Rays—provoke a crisis of faith: Johnson is looking more tigerish all the time.
With Casey Kotchman on the roster, Johnson’s hold on the first-base job has been slipping, with Kotchman starting six of the last 10 games in what appears to be a kind of platoon made up entirely of left-handers. Johnson gets to face the southpaw pitchers while fellow lefty-swinger Kotchman sits. This is a weak solution, but the Rays don’t have great first-base options and Maddon has to do something to spark a lineup in which he’s been batting Felipe Lopez cleanup of late. Overall, Rays cleanup hitters have hit .159/.187/.284 on the season, the worst performance of any of their nine batting order slots. That’s an indictment of the players, the manager, and the general manager. It’s time to move on, perhaps by promoting Brandon Guyer, off to a hot start at Triple-A, and giving Johnny Damon some starts at first base—for all the good that would do. Even calling up Chris Carter—not the A’s kid, but the 28-year-old who washed out as a Mets reserve last year—would be better than carrying on with the present approach. Stick or make a change? Move on, and in a hurry.
Miguel Olivo, Mariners-C: .185/.239/.262
Olivo hit a home run last night, his first of the year, and under some circumstances you might figure that this is the beginning of his breaking out. You would be wrong, because (A) Olivo has a career .282 on-base percentage—if you want to associate “breaking out” with his name, you have to redefine what that term means, and (B) note that he hit it on the road, away from Seattle. Olivo has now played 123 career games in two separate stints with the club and is a career .201/.348/.379 hitter at Safeco, including .094 (3-for-32) this year. Mariners catchers hit a spectacular .201/.263/.303 last year, so it’s hard to blame the club for reaching for just about anyone and figuring he would be better, but it’s possible that Olivo’s hitting skills, which are limited to power and nothing else, are just a poor match for the ballpark. Stick or make a change? Stick, if only because the in-house alternatives are few. It’s tempting to wonder if Chris Gimenez would reach base more often than Olivo with regular playing time, but there would be a trade-off, as Gimenez doesn’t throw like Olivo does. Josh Bard lurks down at Triple-A, but been there, done that. When the Mariners get around to this year’s purge of veterans, one hopes they get a catcher back. If not, Olivo is signed for another year.
James Loney, Dodgers-1B: .204/.225/.245
As this column was being written, Loney went 4-for-4 in Tuesday’s loss to the Marlins to move his rates to their present elevation. This is likely not an indication that he’s about to turn back into the slugging first baseman he seemed to be when he was 23; a fairly consistent three years has seen him hit .279/.341/.409. Lyle Overbay, who had to take a contract from the Pirates to stay in the majors, hit .259/.352/.437 over the same period.
Loney had his four-hit night in Florida. No surprise there: As Mike Petriello recently pointed out, Loney is being cut off at the knees by Dodger Stadium. He’s a career .301/.355/.483 hitter on the road versus .264/.328/.369 at home. More troublingly, last season he wasn’t very good regardless of where he was playing. Jerry Sands has played first base in the minors and, as Kevin Goldstein has observed, Trayvon Robinson is hitting very well at Albuquerque, and so there is the possibility of squeezing another bat into the outfield and solving the Loney problem at the same time. Stick or make a change? Make a change, roll the dice on youth.
Alex Rios, White Sox-CF: .169/.253/.213
Stick or make a change? Who knows, and does logic matter when the player is signed through the end of time? Rios gave the White Sox a good season last year, a three-win season. But wait—he really gave the White Sox half a good season, hitting only .258/.301/.383 after the break. After Rios’ weak 2009, it's hard to forget what model of player he is, one largely dependent on batting average. The Cell doesn’t do much for that aspect of his game; it held him to .276 last year (albeit with a .467 slugging percentage) and .269 career. He has also hit for low averages in Detroit and Cleveland, leaving only Kansas City as a friendly home-away-from-home within the division (the jury is still out on Target Field after just 42 PAs; he has averaged .289 with no power). Still, the Sox might as well stand pat. Their internal alternatives are weak, they’re stuck with Rios through 2014, and even in his annus horribilis of 2009 he found the odd hot streak, so even if he doesn’t finish the year in positive WARP territory, he should still be better than this.
Ronny Cedeno, Pirates-SS: .185/.222/.231
Cedeno shouldn’t be fooling anyone at this point. He’s a .243/.282/.352 hitter over nearly 600 major-league games, and at 28 he won’t be getting any better. Since he’s hardly Ozzie Smith with the glove, he’s just not helping. In addition, his BB-Ref comparables manage to include both Rey Quinones and Swede Risberg, but I’m not sure we can hold that against him. The Pirates have brought many promising prospects into the organization in recent drafts, but thus far they haven’t found the future-changing shortstop that is in such short supply right now. Only with several years of hindsight will we be able to say with certainty that they made the correct call last June in drafting Jameson Taillon with the second overall pick in the draft and thereby letting Manny Machado fall to the Orioles. So far, the advantage is entirely with Machado, but then we can only give Taillon an incomplete.
Thanks to their waiver claim of Brandon Wood, the Pirates have a near-term alternative to try at short, and perhaps they can rehabilitate this terribly, terribly lost player. Should Wood fail again, they have another non-hitting alternative in Pedro Ciriaco and perhaps a slightly more robust choise in Chase d’Arnaud, whose bat and glove both tied at Double-A Altoona last year but is presently slugging .424 at Triple-A Indianapolis. That’s not much, but it’s something to hang one’s hopes on, something more than Ronny Risberg Quinones Cedeno. Stick or make a change? With Wood in the fold, it seems as if they already have. Now it’s all up to Wood to make occasional contact.
Chone Figgins, Mariners-3B: .165/.209/.271
In signing Figgins after the 2009 season, the Mariners failed to realize that his value had more often been in speed and versatility than his bat. Perhaps Figgins’ league-leading 101 walks that season were not simply the result of the influence of Bobby Abreu, as was suggested at the time, but was a sign of a 31-year-old suffering from premature slowing of the bat. The M’s then compounded matters by taking Figgins off of third base, where he had been a very good defender, and moving him to second, where he wasn’t. He rewarded them by hitting like a great second baseman—a great second baseman of 1906, slugging .306. With this season’s sorry start, Seattle might hope that Figgins turns into a little butterfly and flutters away, but he’s locked in through 2013 and has one of those vesting options for 2014 that has teams praying for sandbags to drop out of the rafters, Bugs Bunny-style, so that the player doesn’t cross the playtime thresholds and trigger the deal. Stick or make a change? Alex Liddi isn’t a great prospect, but he could give the Mariners something extra at the hot corner, assuming he gets over his own slow start at Triple-A Tacoma. Should that come to pass, it would free Figgins to float around the field, protecting the Mariners from their own reserves. In that manner he might recover some value, even at the reduced level of production that is his new (and old) norm.
Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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