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April 27, 2009

Prospectus Today

Changing Gears

by Joe Sheehan

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Baseball is not a meritocracy. The assignments of playing time is often a complex and occasionally inscrutable process that can drive outsiders, even informed ones, quite mad. Simply playing better than the other guy isn't always enough; there are roster and contract considerations, for one, and we know that the industry has an infatuation with experience that all too often becomes self-destructive. Throw in imperfect evaluations of performance, and a tendency to undervalue on-field traits at the expense of off-field ones, and you can see how sussing out why Player A is in the lineup instead of Player B can be almost impossible.

As we near the end of April, though, some fairly simple contrasts are developing, situations that teams won't be able to ignore much longer if they want to put their best foot forward to win, to contend, or just to convince the fan base that those two things might be possible someday.

For instance, Felix Pie has yet to take advantage of the big break he got in being traded to the Orioles. Installed as their platoon left fielder, Pie has started 14 of the 16 games the Orioles have played against righty starters, batting seventh or eighth in those games. He has not hit at all: .167/.259/.229, with 13 strikeouts in 48 at-bats, and one steal in three attempts. I wrote in the offseason about how adding Pie to an outfield that already included Adam Jones and Nick Markakis could be a boon for a pitching staff that lacked talent, and while that still holds true, no amount of defense is going to warrant playing someone who can't post a 500 OPS.

Pie is just 24, and he was jerked around by the Cubs for the past couple of seasons. They called him up before he was ready in April 2007, largely because he had a gaudy batting average at Triple-A, and he hit .224/.240/.388 in three weeks before being demoted. Three weeks later, after Pie tore up Triple-A some more, they tried him again, this time for five weeks: .211/.290/.322, with six steals in seven tries. His walk rate was actually pretty good in that time, but the batting average killed his chance to stay. The Cubs went to Pie again at the start of last season, but dumped him for Jim Edmonds in May after an opening .222/.286/.286 run. I'm not going to say that I know for certain what the optimal break-in path for a prospect is, but I know that ain't it.

The Orioles have been patient with Pie, but that patience is being sorely tested not just by his performance, but that of prospect Nolan Reimold. As Kevin Goldstein noted earlier today, Reimold hit three homers over the weekend and is now batting .417 at Triple-A. He's not the defender Pie is, and he doesn't have a high upside, but this is the third straight season and third straight level at which he's hit. Although the Orioles are scoring 5.5 runs per game but allowing 6.5, and so may not want to trade defense for offense, the gap between Pie's production and Reimold's may force their hand soon. The Orioles tabbed Luis Montanez for a bench role, but it's Reimold who is the better player and prospect.

Left field should be a concern for the Indians as well; like the Orioles, they've seen a credible offense hampered by lousy pitching in the season's first three weeks. Like the Orioles, the Indians have gone with a glove man in left field, Ben Francisco. A product of their system, Francisco has the skill set of a fourth outfielder, providing good defense on the corners, decent speed that doesn't translate to basestealing, and some power. He doesn't have a large platoon split to exploit-795 career OPS against lefties, 752 against righties-though his walk and strikeout data do indicate a greater level of comfort against southpaws. The Indians have failed to surround Grady Sizemore with worthy players for some time now, and need to do better than Francisco, who is about 90 percent of Juan Encarnacion at the latter's peak.

Enter Matt LaPorta. The main prize in the CC Sabathia trade last summer is killing Triple-A in his first visit there, batting .400/.478/.767, with more walks (seven) than strikeouts (five) in 67 plate appearances. He's handling the outfield corners well enough to have undercut the idea that he can't stay out there, so while he'd be a defensive downgrade from Francisco, he wouldn't embarrass himself. Unlike Pie and Reimold, there's no platoon to be had here, but there is an offense/defense fit. Francisco is best used as a defensive replacement and spot starter for Shin-Soo Choo or Travis Hafner against lefties. With LaPorta in the majors, the Indians would have the big righty bat that they're currently missing. A team that's going to have to win a lot of 7-6 games would be one step closer to doing so by promoting LaPorta.

It was two years ago that the Brewers were the focus of this type of argument. Although off to a good start and leading the NL Central, they were getting nothing from third base while prospect Ryan Braun was batting .825/.990/2.640 at Triple-A. (Statistics approximate.) Braun arrived May 25 and won the Rookie of the Year award by ripping 34 homers in just 113 games. His defense at third base was ghastly-enough to push him to left field by Opening Day 2008-but his bat would have played even had he played third with a blindfold and a bullet wound.

Well, the Brewers are back in the same boat this year, though the details are not quite as extreme. Mat Gamel is a proto-Braun in that he has hit at every level, including a .403/.481/.806 start at Nashville this year, and that he plays third base like Keanu Reeves plays Willy Loman. His long-term spot, like Braun, will be somewhere else, but right now the Brewers have young stars on the three other corners and show no signs of trading any of them-they sold off LaPorta last summer in part because of the logjam. However, the Brewers don't have quite the same need for a third baseman, as Bill Hall has reclaimed the job and is batting .281/.328/.456 while playing strong defense.

Or more accurately, they don't think they do. I'm going to choose this moment to run stats that I run about every three months or so. Ladies and gentlemen, Bill Hall's 2009 platoon split: .205/.279/.333 against RHP, .444/.444/.772 against LHP. For the umpteenth season in a row, Bill Hall is not qualified for a regular lineup spot against righties, and is one of the biggest lefty-mashers in the game. And for the umpteenth season in a row, the Brewers are going to hamstring themselves by pretending this isn't the case.

Bill Hall simply can't hit righties (.300 career OBP, .242 last year, .305 in 2007). Mat Gamel is one of the best left-handed hitters in the majors. Do you see... where I am going... with this? The Brewers have had issues with lineup balance for years, and the solution has a 1200 OPS one level down. The upgrade from Hall to Gamel over five months-actually, to a Hall/Gamel platoon-would be 40 to 50 runs, and with some giveback on defense, that's still three to four wins. There's not a team in baseball that shouldn't take that kind of upgrade. The Brewers have deluded themselves about Hall for years. It's time they stop doing so and get their best lineup on the field.

Sometimes, the decisions are difficult. In these three cases, though, it's easy to see that teams can dramatically improve with just one transaction, one move that adds runs to the scoreboard, aligns the talent better-and in all of these cases, a promotion would effectively improve the bench as well-and allows a good young player to play.

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

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