December 4, 2002
The Daily Prospectus
Knowing What's Important
Among the numerous feats Bill James accomplished as an analyst in the 1980s, his greatest achievement was the way in which he legitimized the importance of minor-league batting statistics. Where once the remark "Yeah, but just because he hits in the minors doesn't mean that he'll hit in the majors" was an accepted, unchallenged claim, James' work on the subject proved decidedly otherwise--eventually spawning an industry of minor-league analysis that still flourishes to this day.
Still, more than 15 years after the publication of his final Abstract, and seven years after the release of the inaugural Prospectus, major-league organizations appear to be just as reluctant to trust the validity of minor-league performance as ever before.
Take the Chicago Cubs, for example. Yesterday afternoon, everyone's favorite group of Lovable Losers sent catcher Todd Hundley to the Dodgers in exchange for Mark Grudzielanek, a light-hitting second baseman, and Eric Karros, a first baseman who's been imitating a light-hitting second baseman for the last two years. (The final reported terms of the deal had Chicago including former top prospect Chad Hermansen and the Dodgers sending $2 million the other direction.)
The problem with this acquisition, aside from the obvious? How about the fact that the Cubs already have Hee Seop Choi, the best first-base prospect in all of baseball, as well as Bobby Hill, one of the best second-base prospects in all of baseball, waiting in the wings? By obtaining such immovable objects as Karros, Grudzielanek, and the $15.5 million remaining on their contracts for the coming season, Jim Hendry and the Cubs have managed to put yet another obstacle between the 23-year-old Choi, the 24-year-old Hill, and the starting lineup--a position that both prospects had rightfully earned.
Of course, the jury's still out on exactly how much playing time will go to these HACKING MASS All-Stars in exchange for a developing youth movement. Preliminary reports suggest that Karros will platoon against lefties, while Grudzielanek will spot-start around the infield. That said, given manager Dusty Baker's penchant for the over-30 crowd, one wonders how closely the handling of Grudzielanek and Karros will mimic Baker's previous experience with players of their ilk, JT Snow and Shawon Dunston--both of whom collected more at-bats than they probably should have over the past two seasons.
Starting productive veterans over unpolished rookies can, at times, be a justifiable act. After all, a flag flies forever, and if your turn on the success cycle is coming to an end, developing the young 'uns should really take a backseat to other, more notable priorities.
None of that fits the situation of the 2003 Chicago Cubs. This is a team that nearly lost 100 games last year, fired its manager mid-season, and finished in the bottom half of the National League in runs scored and runs allowed. Even accounting for injuries suffered by various key players last year, the Cubs simply won't be ready to contend in the NL Central until 2004. Giving youngsters like Choi and Hill the maximum amount of playing time while still trying to mitigate their transition to the majors should fall right next to "Keeping Darren Off The Field" atop Dusty Baker's list of things to do.
After all, Choi can flat out rake; he hit an impressive .287/.406/.513 with 245 total bases last season in Triple-A. And Hill's no slouch either, batting .280/.382/.429 with 29 stolen bases in 34 tries at Iowa. Compare those totals with Karros and Grudzielanek combining for just 22 homers in more than 1,000 times up last year, and it becomes pretty clear both veterans would be better suited as bench players.
The ability to interpret and project minor-league performance is one of the most overlooked attributes of a successful major-league organization. It is something that every franchise must do, but few have managed to perfect. Until the Cubs begin to recognize where their strengths and weaknesses truly lie, and stop worshipping at the altar of Veteran Presence, you can expect their run of Octobers-at-home to stay intact.
Ryan Wilkins is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.