February 24, 2012
Prospectus Hit and Run
Big Shoes to Fill
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
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
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
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.
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
Third Base: Pete Rose
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
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
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.
Right Field: Tony Gwynn
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
Closer: Trevor Hoffman
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.