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April 28, 2011

The BP Broadside

Impatience II: More Springtime Slumpers

by Steven Goldman

After I expressed impatience with Miguel Olivo’s slow start in yesterday’s column, he muscled up and laid a 3-for-4, all singles, performance on the Tigers in the Mariners’ 10-1 victory. He now carries lofty .217/.263/.290 rates into his next start. The most horrifying thing about those rates is that Olivo is now just .019 away from his career on-base percentage. Imagine Ted Williams having a bad year and reaching base only 46 percent of the time instead of 48 percent. That’s Olivo now. As such, it is probably no longer fitting that we retain Olivo on the list of springtime slumpers, as by his own standards he’s just a little bit off. Unfortunately, we still have several ice-cold players to be frustrated with, among them this group culled from the National League.

Chris Johnson, Astros-3B: .190/.238/.278
There is a famous moment in Casablanca when Claude Rains says, “Round up all the usual suspects.” Johnson is one of the usual suspects. He was an over-age rookie at 25, had hit .277/.315/.429 in the minors, and benefitted from a .387 average on balls in play in the major leagues. His regression was among the most predictable developments of the past offseason.

Trading an immediate post-rookie like Johnson on the basis of a statistically- or scouting-based intuition would be dangerous for most general managers, but I wish there were more examples of this kind of trade, in which the selling GM gambles that the Latest Fashion is a flash in the pan and the acquiring GM bets that he is not. I’m sure there have been such trades in the past, but I can’t think of any. Walt Dropo won the 1950 Rookie of the Year award for the Red Sox hitting .322/.378/.583 with 34 home runs and a league-leading 144 RBI, but he was 27 and his minor-league numbers weren’t nearly that good. What if they had dealt him then? In 1984, Dan Gladden came up to the Giants when Jack Clark got hurt and hit .351/.410/.447 in half a season. He was 26, and though he had hit .300 in the minors, he did it in the hothouse hitting environment of Phoenix. He wasn’t a bad player in the long run, but he also didn’t come within 50 points of that average over the rest of his career, hitting .264 from then on. What if the Giants had moved him for the best possible return that winter, when someone might have perceived him as a star?

Johnson, Dropo, and Gladden aren’t cases of hindsight being 20-20; their regressions were predictable with information available at the time. Maybe 29 other GMs were above being fooled, but it seems unlikely. Stick or make a change? Well, the cat’s out of the bag now, so no use trying to sell low. In any case, the Astros’ farm system is about as well-stocked as the toy section at my local Target—in a recession, the toys are always the first thing to go. Sitting Johnson would likely mean something like a Joe Inglett-Matt Downs platoon at third base. Given that the Astros are playing for the long term, they might as well keep playing the incumbent and hope that last year was real in spite of all the evidence.

Raul Ibanez, Phillies-LF: .169/.250/.229
Ruben Amaro Jr. almost got away with it. His signing of the then-37-year-old Ibanez to a three-year, $31.5 million deal in December 2008 was widely mocked, but even if the veteran wasn’t quite worth the money, he did give the Phils value at times, torching the ball for the first two months of 2009 before getting hurt (.322/.394/.684 with 17 home runs) and in the second half last year (.309/.375/.494). Given that Ibanez was mediocre the rest of the time and is far from Tris Speaker in the outfield, it probably wasn’t quite enough, though the Phillies did go to a World Series, and Ibanez killied the ball. No one should hang their heads.

Now Ibanez is on the cusp of turning 39 and the bat is a dead train. If these are small samples, let us make the most of them: He’s hitting .143 against left-handers and is just 3-for-42 away from Philadelphia. Stick or make a change? Ibanez is in the last year of his contract, so he won’t be troubling the budget in the future should the team move on. Unfortunately, they are not very well positioned to do so at the moment. Domonic Brown is just starting his rehab assignment, and there is no guarantee that he will rebound quickly from wrist surgery. Ben Francisco is already in the lineup for Brown. The Triple-A outfield is a collection of vets from your nightmare closet: Rich Thompson, Cory Sullivan, Brandon Moss, and Delywn Young, none of whom are in danger of getting carded when ordering a beer at the local Applebee’s. Tyson Gillies, the closest outfield prospect after Brown, has yet to play this year due to hamstring problems. They can’t make a move until Brown proves himself ready to go, and even then, sitting Ibanez cements Francisco as a regular, which may not solve the problem, but only relocate it.

Miguel Tejada, Giants-SS: .200/.241/.300
Signing older players is like participating in a multimillion-dollar game hot potato. The Giants just lost, having been the team holding Tejada when the music stopped. On paper, it wasn’t a terrible gamble—in a shortstop-poor environment, why not gamble that the signs of life Tejada showed with the Padres were real? The chance to steal that kind of upgrade on the Emmanuel Burrises of the world was too great to resist. Yet, it was still a gamble and sometimes, often, gambles don’t pay off. In the early going, Tejada has looked deader than disco both at the plate and in the field. This last is not too surprising given that Tejada could barely hold his own at third for the Orioles, never mind short. That he performed acceptably there for the Padres must be chalked up to one of those little jokes the Gods of Baseball like to play every now and again.  

Stick or make a change? Since the offensive choices may wash out in a sea of mediocrity, the impetus must really come from defense. Burriss is playing well at Triple-A Fresno, and while he isn’t a future Gold Glover by any means, if he can reach more balls than Tejada can, the Giants may eventually have to live with the outs on offense in return for a few extra plays in the field. Since Burriss may be the best the champs can do, there is no harm in letting Tejada try to hit his way out of it for a little longer. As with Ibanez, it might be time to accept that Tejada’s day is done, but acknowledging the truth doesn’t do any good if there are no alternatives.

Brad Hawpe, Padres-1B: .143/.191/.190
Going into Wednesday’s game, the Padres were hitting .211/.293/.316. After Tommy Hanson and friends held them to four hits and two walks, recalculating their rates seemed to be an act of sadism so I gave up. On the plus side, Hawpe had one of the four hits. Sadly, his inability to field a hard-hit grounder by Martin Prado in the top of the second gave the Braves an opening that led to their scoring approximately 47 unearned runs. As if this were not already the pinnacle of one-game malachievement, he climaxed his afternoon by grounding into a double play to end the game.

Hawpe’s miserable performance last year (.245 /.338/.419 split between the Rockies and Rays) seems less miserable all the time given his 2011 travails, and it seems fair to wonder if he has anything left in his age-32 season. We’ve all heard the old line about old-player skills and how those players who fit that description age quickly. Hawpe might be a case in point; injuries were supposed to have been behind last year’s slump, but perhaps he was simply fading.

Anthony Rizzo, acquired from the Red Sox in the Adrian Gonzalez deal, is off to a scorching start at Triple-A Tucson, hitting over .400 with seven home runs. He’s not that good, of course—no one is—but he doesn’t have to be great to be more productive than a hitter whose current OPS+ is seven (7). Hawpe is owed $2 million for this season, plus a $1 million buyout on 2012, which must have seemed like a good idea at the time, though it’s hard to say why. Stick or make a change? Save the season! Go, go, go!

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

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