March 30, 2009
Settling for Sub-Replacement
It was about a year ago that the Giants, down one Omar Vizquel after the veteran shortstop suffered a knee injury in spring training, opened the season with Brian Bocock in his stead. He was coming off of a .243/.312/.344 season in 2007, which would be problematic enough, but that line came in the Sally and California Leagues. It was an indictment of the Giants that the best replacement shortstop they could scare up internally was a guy who, defensive skills notwithstanding, was overmatched by High-A ball.
Predictably, Bocock was awful, batting.143 with one extra-base hit in 93 plate appearances. He did draw a dozen walks, which appears to have been the result of a plate approach best described as "take until I can't take any longer." The walks were paired with 29 strikeouts-nearly 40 percent of his at-bats. Sent to Fresno in early May, he hit .163/.254/.187 in 35 games. In retrospect, Bocock may have been the least-qualified major league player of the decade.
The Orioles also opened 2008 without a major league shortstop, instead running Luis Hernandez out as the regular to start the season. Hernandez had hit a stone-fluke .290 in a late-season cup of coffee in '07, with one walk and three extra-base hits in 71 plate appearances. I can say this was a fluke because in nine separate stops over six minor league seasons, Hernandez had never batted higher than .273, and had cracked .270 just twice. At the time the Orioles anointed him, it wasn't clear that he was qualified to play at Triple-A. His career batting average at the level was .217 in 108 plate appearances, without a single walk or stolen base, and just five extra-base hits.
Hernandez played better than Bocock did, starting 26 of the Orioles' first 35 games and batting .243/.304/.257 in that time. He lost his job to Freddy Bynum at that point, and was demoted two weeks later, never to return. Like Bocock, he failed at Triple-A last season, with a .185/.216/.220 line. We can talk about defense all we want, but teams simply aren't going to play players who are as limp with the bat and as unqualified to face major league pitching as Bocock and Hernandez are.
I'm not sure I can scare up any examples that are quite so ugly this year, but there are a number of teams that are heading into Opening Day with some unimpressive solutions, ones that could very well end up being sub-replacement before the year is out. For all of the focus on, say, Cody Ransom, the Yankees' patch for the absence of Alex Rodriguez is actually an acceptable workaround for an injury case. Ransom has a career major league line of .251/.348/.432 in 214 PA, and the worst thing you can say about him is that he's a former shortstop without much experience at the hot corner. He would never have the job if not for the injury, but he's not likely to fall below replacement level while he does have it.
No, a team with a real problem at third base is one of Ransom's former employers, the Astros. Having allowed Ty Wigginton to leave as a free agent, and lacking any kind of prospects at most any position, the Astros will run Geoff Blum out there every day. A platoon with Aaron Boone was the original plan, but Boone will miss the season after being diagnosed with a heart ailment. Blum had an interesting peak after making the majors as a 26-year-old in 1999, with doubles power, walks, and some dexterity in the infield. Since 2003, however, Blum has deteriorated into an inadequate option even off of the bench: he's been under a .300 OBP in five of six seasons, batting .247/.300/.371 in that stretch, covering more than 2,000 plate appearances. The idea that he can be a regular third baseman is ridiculous. The Astros would be better off moving Miguel Tejada over and starting Tommy Manzella's glove at shortstop. That alignment would be a significant defensive upgrade, something a team with the Astros' low-strikeout rotation could use. (Come to think of it, we could include that rotation, which includes Mike Hampton, Brian Moehler, and Russ Ortiz, as a segment unto itself within this piece.)
Staying in Texas, the Rangers have moved Michael Young to third base to make room for shortstop prospect Elvis Andrus, a decision that may have come a year too soon. He's a strong prospect with excellent tools, a player whose upside is that of an All-Star. However, some strong batting averages in good hitters' environments since he was traded to the Rangers (.300 at Bakersfield, .295 in Frisco) have given the impression that he's ready to make the leap to the majors, and that's just not the case. He's 20 years old and still learning how to hit. He strikes out far too often (91 in 482 AB last year) for a player who neither walks much (38) nor hits for power (25 extra-base hits and a .072 ISO). The combination of a lack of power and issues with contact do not bode well for Andrus, who is also a raw shortstop prone to errors. Upside is one thing, but putting an unready player on the field will cost the Rangers wins and possibly slow Andrus' development. There's very little reason to believe he's capable of playing in the majors right now.
Here are some other particularly notable weak spots as we get set to begin the season: