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April 3, 2014

Skewed Left

The Revolving Door Rankings

by Zachary Levine

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When Derek Jeter took the field for the season opener at Minute Maid Park, it was the first time since 1996 that he’d done so coming off a year in which he was not the Yankees’ primary shortstop. In 17 consecutive seasons before Eduardo Nunez took the title from him in 2013, Jeter had played the most games at the cornerstone position on the infield.

Across the diamond from Jeter on Tuesday was a team with no such stability. In 2009, Miguel Tejada played the most games at shortstop for the Astros. In 2010, Tommy Manzella. In 2011, Clint Barmes, followed by Jed Lowrie in 2012 and then Jonathan Villar last year as a rotating cast keeps the seat warm for Carlos Correa’s arrival in the majors. Five years, five different primary shortstops, as measured by games played.

Not quite a record, though. And far, far from even the longest active streak of total inability to find a consistent regular at a position.

Even if we take out DH, which has shifted in use over the last few years, there are plenty of longer active streaks. Three teams have gone the last seven years with seven different primary third basemen. Start looking at outfield spots, and the longest streaks grow. Eight years. Nine years. Ten years. And finally, a team that’s gone 12 years with 12 different regulars in left field.

A look at the revolving-est doors shows that there can be many reasons for this phenomenon. Some teams haven’t been able to fill the shoes of a star, and others don’t even try, while still others simply consider the low end of the defensive spectrum to be a storage area for veterans.

White Sox: 7 primary third basemen in 7 years
Last multi-year starter:
Joe Crede from 2003-2006
Since then: Josh Fields in 2007, Crede again in 2008, Gordon Beckham in 2009, Omar Vizquel in 2010, Brent Morel in 2011, Kevin Youkilis in 2012, Conor Gillaspie in 2013
What happened? When the locals are heralding Matt Davidson as “the South Side’s next Joe Crede,” you know something must have gone wrong in the last several seasons. They’ve just never found any continuity, with a couple of guys playing out of position and not all that well, a couple of stabs at finding the next young guy, and a couple of trips through the veteran scrap heap including Jeff Keppinger, who didn’t even make the list.
2014 stability? Davidson is starting the season in Triple-A Charlotte, meaning that Gillaspie could have a chance to be the first repeater, but the trade acquisition from the Diamondbacks should be up at some point soon, which could lead to an eighth different primary third baseman in eight years.
Long-term stability? Davidson is the likeliest, even if it’s not this year—there’s very little on the radar beyond that and nothing to push another infielder over short of a big free agent signing.

Marlins: 7 primary third basemen in 7 years
Last multi-year starter: Miguel Cabrera in 2006 and 2007
Since then: Jorge Cantu in 2008, Emilio Bonifacio in 2009, Wes Helms in 2010, Greg Dobbs in 2011, Hanley Ramirez in 2012, Placido Polanco in 2013
What happened? Unlike the White Sox, it’s clear that the Marlins were for the most part not really looking for a new third baseman. The instability has just been a result of treating the position like a leftover – either when Ramirez was moved off shortstop or when the job was given to a pinch-hitter extraordinaire like Helms, Dobbs, or worse, Polanco. Also, a terrible trade back in the summer of 2012 didn’t help…
2014 stability? Nope. Polanco is somehow not back on the Phillies but is not on the Marlins either, so Casey McGehee or some Casey McGehee-like figure will make it eight in eight years here too.
Long-term stability? There certainly should have been, but the Marlins gave up their only shot at an everyday third baseman in 2013 and beyond when they traded Matt Dominguez for a half-season of Carlos Lee when they were already sort of out of it on Independence Day 2012. Colin Moran, the no. 74 prospect in baseball and no. 2 in the Marlins organization, is the next best shot, and Jason Parks called him a safe bet to be a major league regular.

Athletics: 7 primary third basemen in 7 years
Last multi-year starter: Eric Chavez from 1999-2007
Since then: Jack Hannahan in 2008, Adam Kennedy in 2009, Kevin Kouzmanoff in 2010, Scott Sizemore in 2011, Brandon Inge in 2012, Josh Donaldson in 2013
What happened? Don’t worry, they’re not all third basemen. This is a third distinct type of case—a small-market team’s failure to fill the shoes of an All-Star and attempt to piece the position together. This spot hasn’t been terrible, aside from Sizemore’s inability to stay healthy, although he might have played second base, which hasn’t exactly been steady either. Things are looking up, though.
2014 stability? Yes, the streak will end this year. Donaldson will never repeat his 2013 performance, in all likelihood, but even with severe regression, he is a more than capable starter.
Long-term stability? Donaldson is still making the minimum. He’ll be a Super Two next year, which means he won’t hit free agency until 2019. You never know with those flippin’ A’s, but he looks like the long-term answer.

Rangers: 8 primary center fielders in 8 years
Last multi-year starter: Gary Matthews Jr. in 2005 and 2006
Since then: Kenny Lofton in 2007, Josh Hamilton in 2008, Marlon Byrd in 2009, Julio Borbon in 2010, Endy Chavez in 2011, Craig Gentry in 2012, Leonys Martin in 2013
What happened? This probably should have been posed as a trivia question—who was the last multi-year primary center fielder for the Rangers? I would have gone back through my mental account of their history and probably come up blank all the way to the 60s, because it’s been a complete black hole of a position throughout their lifespan. Nobody has played even four full seasons’ worth of games in center field, and the only two players to be the primary center fielders for four years were Oddibe McDowell (1985–88) and Don Lock in the Washington days (1963–66). Gary Matthews Jr. would have been nowhere in the memory bank, and since then it’s been a pretty typical situation for the franchise.
2014 stability? It’s Martin’s to lose and Michael Choice to lose it to, but it’s a safe bet to say the streak will end this year.
Long-term stability? Don’t count on Martin to eclipse either of the “long” running center fielders of years past, though. The club will retain his rights once the deal ends in 2015, but the odds that a team like Texas doesn’t go out and upgrade over the next few years feels slim.

Dodgers: 9 primary left fielders in 9 years
Last multi-year starter: Jayson Werth in 2004 and 2005
Since then: Andre Ethier in 2006, Luis Gonzalez in 2007, Juan Pierre in 2008, Manny Ramirez in 2009, Reed Johnson in 2010, Tony Gwynn Jr. in 2011, Shane Victorino in 2012, Carl Crawford in 2013
What happened? Hard to say. This one actually could be the easiest to explain. The Dodgers are just using left field as left field probably should be used—a place to put your big bat of the year who’s aged past his fielding prime. There were a couple of rough years in the McCourt era there, but this is a heck of a collection of players, just a few years too late in a lot of cases.
2014 stability? Pass.
Long-term stability? Not really. There are so many directions that the future of the Dodgers outfield can go even as constructed now, let alone if they trade Matt Kemp or Ethier or if they lose and go make another acquisition or three. That they have Carl Crawford under contract until 2017 is barely part of the calculation.

Nationals: 10 primary center fielders in 10 years
Last multi-year starter: Endy Chavez in 2003 and 2004
Since then: Brad Wilkerson in 2005, Marlon Byrd in 2006, Nook Logan in 2007, Lastings Milledge in 2008, Willie Harris in 2009, Nyjer Morgan in 2010, Rick Ankiel in 2011, Bryce Harper in 2012, Denard Span in 2013
What happened? Baseball’s second longest-spinning revolving door is multinational, as Chavez played a regular center field for the Expos and has been followed by nine more in nine seasons. Who has played center field appears to be almost a perfect correlation with how good the team is since the move to Washington.
2014 stability? When the Nationals acquired Span from the Twins before 2013, it was portrayed as the team’s finally getting that center fielder and leadoff hitter that had eluded them since the move. This is still accurate.
Long-term stability? The Nationals have a club option on Span for next year, so it would take an extension to make him a real long-term candidate. Brian Goodwin, no. 3 on the Nationals Top 10 Prospects list and no. 86 overall in baseball, is another longer-term possibility.

Athletics: 12 primary left fielders in 12 years
Last multi-year starter: Terrence Long in 2001 and 2003
Since then: (Deep breath) David Justice in 2002, Eric Byrnes in 2004, Bobby Kielty in 2005, Jay Payton in 2006, Shannon Stewart in 2007, Jack Cust in 2008, Matt Holliday in 2009, Gabe Gross in 2010, Josh Willingham in 2011, Seth Smith in 2012, Yoenis Cespedes in 2013
What happened? It’s no coincidence that the A’s are on the list twice and certainly no coincidence that they occupy the top spot. Billy Beane will trade three nickels for two dimes and then flip them for a quarter the next year. And even the quarter doesn’t stay around. I’ve lost track of the metaphor, but that level of tinkering, combined with a position where washed-up players tend to end up, has led to a conga line of pretty much every type of player you can imagine.
2014 stability? At long last, yes. Expect Cespedes to get another year of starts in left with Coco Crisp holding down center, and expect an end to this 12-year streak.
Long-term stability? Unless the bat continues to fall off as pitchers learn him, the position continues to belong to Cespedes. He’s not really a good enough defender to justify a move to center, and the A’s could do more with the DH spot. So until the day he’s traded…

Honorable mentions

6 different regulars in 6 years:
Blue Jays LF
Orioles 1B
Pirates RF
Rangers C
Red Sox LF

5 different regulars in 5 years:
Astros SS
Brewers SS
Giants LF
Mariners LF
Nationals C
Orioles 3B
Pirates 1B
Twins SS

Thanks to Baseball-Reference.com for research assistance.

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

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