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February 24, 2012

Prospectus Hit and Run

Big Shoes to Fill

by Jay Jaffe

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Earlier this week, Mariano Rivera arrived at the Yankees' spring training facility in Tampa, Florida, and caused a stir by strongly hinting that the 2012 season would be his final one. The 42-year-old, who has served as the Yankees’ closer since 1997, has shown no signs of slippage, with four straight seasons of ERAs under 2.00 backed by stellar peripherals—strikeout and walk rates better than his career numbers, even—and high save totals. Late last season, he surpassed Trevor Hoffman as the all-time saves leader, and with five World Series rings in hand, the only real challenge that remains is for him to convince manager Joe Girardi to allow him a cameo in center field.

I'll save the career wrap-up for when Rivera actually hangs up his spikes. For now, "Greatest Reliever of All-Time" and "Greatest Post-season Performer of All-Time" will suffice as shorthand, and anyone wishing to debate me on either front can do so after buying me a few beers at a Brooklyn watering hole to be named later. It will be a sad day for Yankee fans when he does retire; as one put it in Monday's chat, "I'm leaning towards setting myself on fire and running around the block while weeping/rending my garments."

Whether it's David Robertson, Joba Chamberlain, Rafael Soriano, newly-signed David Aardsma, or another hard-throwing reliever, whoever follows Rivera as New York’s closer has a huge pair of shoes to fill. However, he won't be the first player charged with replacing a legend. What follows is an All-Star squad of greats—most of them at least presumed to be Cooperstown-bound at the time of their careers—who had served at least 10 years as a regular for their teams, and how their respective clubs dealt with their departures. All of the players are from my timespan as a fan, so you'll have to tug on the pants leg of Uncle Steve Goldman if you want to be regaled with the plight of poor Babe Dalhgren, who hit .235/.312/.377 as the first baseman given the monumental task of succeeding Lou Gehrig.

Catcher: Carlton Fisk
Tenure: Red Sox, 1972-1980; White Sox, 1981-1993
Hall of Famer Fisk debuted in 1969 and spent 24 seasons in the majors, making his mark in two different pairs of sox. When he left Boston as a free agent following the 1980 season—because general manager Haywood Sullivan missed the deadline to mail him a contract, the Sox initially turned to backup Gary Allenson, a 1976 draft pick who had won International League MVP honors in 1978, and who had received the bulk of the reps in 1979, while Fisk was on the disabled list. The 26-year-old Allenson started 24 of the first 26 games in 1981 but hit just .207/.316/.390 before landing on the disabled list with a groin tear. The Sox called up 21-year-old Rich Gedman, who seized the starting job and hit .288/.317/.434 the rest of the way, good enough to finish second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting; Allenson was again relegated to backup status. Gedman remained the team's regular catcher until being traded to Houston in early 1990, earning All-Star honors twice and helping the team make the 1986 World Series and 1988 ALCS.

Fisk remained strong in Chicago through his age-40 and -41 seasons, ranking among the game's three most valuable catchers in both years. He fell off at age 42 in 1991, and the following year was relegated into a part-time role as Ron Karkovice, a light-hitting 28-year-old who had backed him up since 1986, took the reins for the first of five seasons as the team's starter. Karkovice was nowhere near the hitter that Fisk was (.221/.289/.383 career), but he threw out 41 percent of would-be base thieves, helping him carve out a 12-year career.

First Base: Steve Garvey
Tenure: Dodgers, 1973-1982
After debuting as a pinch-hitter in 1969 and a third baseman in 1970, Garvey was moved across the diamond in 1973, where he would earn All-Star honors for eight straight years (the first one in 1974 as a write-in starter), take home an MVP award, and anchor "the Longest-Running Infield," with second baseman Davey Lopes, shortstop Bill Russell, and third baseman Ron Cey, a unit that remained intact through the 1981 season. Lopes departed as a free agent following the Dodgers' World Series win, while Garvey broke for San Diego following the 1982 season.

While he donned the fry cook uniform of the Padres, the Dodgers turned over first base chores to Greg Brock, a 1979 draft pick who had walloped 44 homers and hit .310/.432/.663 at the team's Triple-A Albuquerque affiliate in 1982, a performance that caused scouting director Ben Wade to tout him as "the best power-hitting prospect we've had since Duke Snider."

Though Brock had more raw power than Garvey, as well as a good batting eye, the Dodgers had been conditioned to years of Garvey's .300 batting averages, and were ill-prepared to appreciate the secondary skills that accompanied Brock's low batting averages. He hit .224/.343/.396, for a .269 True Average as a rookie, higher than Garvey's .262 the year before, but he buckled under the weight of expectations and was sent back to Albuquerque in 1984. Coach Monty Basgall observed, "Sometimes he acts like he hates to come to the ballpark."

Brock did return, and lasted through the 1986 season, compiling a respectable .273 True Average with LA despite a less impressive-looking .233/.326/.412 line. Alas, he was forced into another shoe-filling role when he was traded to the Brewers, who asked him to succeed popular four-time All-Star Cecil Cooper. D'oh!

Second Base: Ryne Sandberg
Tenure: Cubs, 1982-1994, 1996-1997
The Cubs were forced to replace Sandberg not once but twice. After a dismal start to his 1994 season—.238/.312/.390 through 57 games—the 10-time All-Star and nine-time Gold Glove winner abruptly retired in June, three months shy of his 35th birthday. Given the surprise, the Cubs didn't exactly have time to prepare, so they turned the job over to 26-year-old futilityman Rey Sanchez, who served as the regular until the strike hit in August, and batted a thin .285/.345/.337. Legitimately strong with the leather (11.7 FRAA that year), Sanchez remained in place the following season. Though he declined to .278/.301/.360—albeit with a career-high three homers, which you'd think might have required quite the wind in the Windy City, except he hit them all on the road—he was worth 17.4 runs in the field, but just 1.6 WARP overall.

Sandberg mounted a comeback in 1996, and was modestly successful, with a 2.5-WARP campaign the first year thanks to 9.9 FRAA, but both his offense and defense declined in 1997, and he hung up his spikes for good after the season. To replace him, the Cubs traded center fielder Doug Glanville to the Phillies for 32-year-old Mickey Morandini, who gave them one solid year (.296/.380/.385 with average defense, for 1.6 WARP) and one terrible year (.241/.319/.329 with below-average defense, for −0.9 WARP). He left as a free agent, and since then, the Cubs haven't found a second baseman who could last for more than two seasons as a regular.

Shortstop: Cal Ripken Jr.
Tenure: Orioles, 1982-1996
From July 1, 1982, through July 14, 1996, Ripken started 2,216 consecutive games at shortstop for the Orioles, but with the team 10 games out of first place, manager Davey Johnson made the move that had been in the works for two months, shifting his iron man to third base. Starting in place of Ripken at shortstop was one Manny Alexander, a 25-year-old with a lifetime .225/.288/.296 line in 314 PA; not exactly working to get an extra bat into the lineup, our Davey. Alexander went exactly 1-for-18 in six starts before the experiment was abandoned and Ripken returned to short; the Orioles won the AL wild card and made it to the ALCS, their first playoff appearance since 1993.

Over the winter, the team signed free agent Mike Bordick, who took over shortstop in 1997; he was brutal both offensively (.236/.283/.318) and defensively (-7.7 FRAA) for a staggering −1.9 WARP, but the Orioles made the ALCS again. While he rebounded to be worth a combined 9.5 WARP over the next 2 2/3 seasons, the Orioles fell below .500 and haven't been above again since. Bordick escaped via a July 28, 2000 trade to the Mets—only to return the following winter as a free agent, and things worked out less well for everybody involved, including Ripken, who served through 2001 as the O's third baseman but had just one season with a True Average higher than .260 out of his final five.

Third Base: Pete Rose
Tenure: Reds, 1963-1978 (third base 1975-1978)
Rose had already bounced all over the diamond, racked up 3,164 hits, made 12 All-Star teams, and won two World Series and an MVP award when he left his hometown Reds as a free agent following his age-37 season. He signed a four-year, $3.2 million deal with the Phillies, while the Reds turned to 26-year-old Ray Knight, who had been drafted in 1970 and gotten a cup of coffee as a 21-year-old in 1974, the year before Rose's midseason move from left field to third base blocked his progress. To be fair, hitting .227/.272/.330 at Triple-A Indianapolis did him no favors.

Knight whiled away two more seasons in Indy, and spent two as an all-purpose defensive replacement with the Reds (163 games, 171 plate appearances) before finally inheriting the starting job upon Rose's departure. He acquitted himself well at the plate (.318/.360/.454) in 1979 but was 14.6 runs in the red on defense, and proceeded to tail off from 2.1 WARP to 1.2 to 0.7 over a three-season span before being traded to the Astros for former All-Star Cesar Cedeno.

Left Field: Barry Bonds
Tenure: Giants, 1993-2007
Aside from a mostly lost 2005 season in which he was limited to 14 games by knee surgery, Bonds patrolled left field for the Giants for 15 seasons, putting up some of the most eye-popping numbers in baseball history. In 2005, manager Felipe Alou at first attempted to replace him with the anti-Bonds, Pedro Feliz, a glove whiz at third base but a hacker with a career on-base percentage below .300; he hit .250/.295/.422 for the year and was worth just 0.9 WARP.

Alou also had the luxury of calling on his son, Moises, an outstanding hitter who split his season between the two outfield corners and batted .321/.400/.518 en route to a 3.6 WARP season. When Bonds departed after the 2007 season, manager Bruce Bochy (who had just completed his first year at the helm) turned to Fred Lewis, a speedster with good on-base skills; he batted .282/.351/.440, but his value was dragged down by subpar defense (-5.8 FRAA), and he was worth just 1.8 WARP. He fell off somewhat the following year (1.2 WARP) and was traded to Toronto after the season. Since then, left field has been nothing but a revolving door for the Giants.

Center Field: Kirby Puckett
Tenure: Twins, 1984-1993
The combination of Puckett's weight gain and the toll of the Metrodome's artificial turf led Twins manager Tom Kelly to experiment with moving his superstar out of center field as early as 1990. Following the 1993 All-Star Game—in which he had earned MVP honors—Kelly upped the ante, moving Puckett to right field and shifting left fielder Shane Mack over to center. The 29-year-old Mack, who had hit a searing .316/.383/.486 from 1990-1992, tailed off to a .276/.335/.412 line in 1993, and when he went down in mid-September, Kelly restored Puckett to the position.

Mack was set to go in center field the following season, but despite tearing up the Grapefruit League with a .436 average, he was sidelined by a sore shoulder and missed all of April. With Puckett now installed in right field, the team turned to Rich Becker, a third-round pick in 1990 who ranked 37th on Baseball America's top prospect list after a strong season in Double-A Nashville. Despite hitting .303/.410/.394 through April, Becker was sent down to Triple-A Salt Lake City. Mack played more left field than center upon returning, while Alex Cole got the bulk of the reps in the middle pasture, hitting .296/.375/.403 in what was effectively his career year. The 23-year-old Becker took over the following season but struggled (.237/.303/.296), though he would fare better in 1995, when Puckett hit a strong .314/.379/.515 before a broken jaw ended his season, and 1996, when blurred vision sidelined Puckett late in spring training and ultimately led to his retirement after a diagnosis of glaucoma.

Bonus: Don't tell any of this to Torii Hunter, who believes that Puckett moved to accommodate him, despite the fact that he didn't debut until August 22, 1997.

Right Field: Tony Gwynn
Tenure: Padres, 1982-2001
Though he could still rake, Gwynn's late career was dogged by injuries. After batting .338/.381/.477 in 111 games in 1999, his age-39 season, he played just 36 games the following year due to knee woes that required him to undergo season-ending surgery in late June. In his absence, the Padres initially shifted light-hitting center fielder Eric Owens over to right and played Ruben Rivera in center, but Mike Darr and John Mabry split the final two months there.

Gwynn began the 2001 season in right, but further knee troubles sidelined him; after missing all but two games between April 20 and July 3, he was relegated almost exclusively to pinch-hitting. Padres manager Bochy turned to Bubba Trammell, who hit 25 homers while batting .261/.330/.467, and also gave some time to Darr. Trammell served as the regular the following season, but slumped to 17 homers and a .243/.333/.414 showing. He was gone the following season, and Bochy turned the job over to rookie Xavier Nady, who didn't particularly distinguish himself (.267/.321/.391), and missed six weeks due to injuries. Fortunately for the Pad people, Brian Giles would take over the following season, and hold the job for five years.

Designated Hitter: Edgar Martinez
Tenure: Mariners, 1995-2004
Though he established himself as a third baseman, injuries forced Martinez into a more-or-less full-time DH role by 1995, and he built a pretty fair Hall of Fame case over the next decade. Upon his retirement following the 2004 season, new manager Mike Hargrove turned incumbent left fielder Raul Ibanez into his primary DH, starting him there 101 times and limiting him to just 55 games in left field, half of his previous season's total. Ibanez didn't do badly (.280/.355 /.436), but his slugging percentage represented a 36-point drop from the season before. He rebounded (.289/.353/.516) upon a return to left field the following year, while Carl Everett (.231/.295/.361) and Ben Broussard (.215/.262/.354) absolutely stunk up the joint as the primary DHs. Jose Vidro would briefly restore some honor to the position in 2007 with a superficially shiny .308/.374/.385 line, but more often than not, it's been the bane of the Mariners' existence since.

Closer: Trevor Hoffman
Tenure: Padres, 1994-2008
The fluidity of a given team's rotation makes it tough to keep tabs on replacements, so I've chosen to forgo them here. Closers are more easily tracked. Hoffman took over the closer's job in 1994, during his second season with the Padres. Except for a 2003 campaign in which he was limited to just nine games due to shoulder surgery, he held the job through 2008, broke Lee Smith's all-time record for saves in 2006, and became the first pitcher to reach both 500 and 600 saves. During Hoffman's 2003 absence, the Padres used a closer-by-committee arrangement until mid-June, when Rod Beck, who had just been released by the Cubs, took over. Beck converted all 20 of his save chances through August, when Hoffman returned, pitching to a 1.78 ERA.

In 2009, following Hoffman's departure as a free agent, the Padres turned to set-up man Heath Bell, who responded by leading the league with 42 saves and putting up a 2.71 ERA. Bell spent three years as the Padres' closer, averaging 44 saves and earning All-Star honors all three times before departing for the Marlins as a free agent this past December.

The Yankees should be so lucky as to have as solid a replacement following in Rivera's footsteps as the Padres had in Hoffman's. But as the other examples above have shown, it certainly isn't easy to live up to such expectations, and it's doubtful that the transition will be seamless.

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

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