Chicago Cubs Placed LF-R Alfonso Soriano on the 15-day DL (calf); recalled 2B/OF-L Eric Patterson from Iowa (Triple-A). [4/17]
We’ve seen this sort of thing from Soriano before, and despite some initial yips that came with relative unfamiliarity–how can we forget those exciting days in center field?–the Cubs now seem to know how to cope with Soriano’s capacity for nagging leg woes. If this really is a matter of being aggressive in getting him back that much closer to his best, it’s a two-week hit in the lineup, or 14 games or so, that’s 60-plus PA, and the difference between Soriano and whoever the Cubs employ in his place over roughly that much playing time.
It’s that last bit that represents both a quandary and an opportunity. Now that the everyday left fielder’s down, the obvious question is to ask why they didn’t call up Matt Murton? If this isn’t a situation made for him, what scenario would ever involve getting the carrot-top back from the cornfields? Certainly, in light of the decision to not call up Murton, there’s been an awful lot of sabermetrically-minded preening, as we all race to talk about how aggrieved and grievous this latest slight of Matt Murton is. Everybody likes to be smart, and everybody likes to “find” ignored talent. Beware the grieving stathead, they go feral fast.
I doubt they’ll take my decoder ring for saying this, but not calling up Murton makes all the sense in the world. First off, there’s the little matter that he ain’t hitting. The I-Cubs have gotten the benefit of seeing Murton on first base a lot, and that’s never a bad thing, but as an essentially left field-only outfielder, the fact that Murton hasn’t delivered any extra-base hits is a bit of concern, so no matter how gaudy his .333/.458/.333 his line is for that hump in the middle, that’s a left fielder in the middle of his career not pasting the pitching in the PCL in the early going.
Now, certainly, that’s small-sample cheating as arguments go, and I feel as most of you do, that Murton can hit well enough to be an adequate starting left fielder. But it’s one thing to talk about what he might hit if handed a regular job, but remember again that no matter how he well he might hit over the next two weeks, he will not land a regular job in Wrigley Field, nor should he. Soriano will return after his latest little hiatus, meaning that the Cub corners in the outfield will once again feature two everyday players. So, even if he managed to stick as a result of some heroic feats in Soriano’s absence, the simple facts are these: on the bench, Murton’s merely an alternative to Reed Johnson, except that he can’t play center and Johnson can, he can’t run like Johnson can, he doesn’t make consistent contact the way Johnson does (the way you might want from a pinch-hitter)… in short, Murton does none of the things that are handy on the shorter benches of the present. Would Earl Weaver find a way to get Matt Murton 400 at-bats? Sure, in the DH league, in the ’70s, in a radically different competitive environment. In today’s competitive ecology, however, who needs a second-string pinch-hitter against lefties in the National League?
Then there’s the question of whether they need Murton given what they have in the lineup, even in Soriano’s absence. As Caleb Peiffer noted today, Murton’s best employed as a platoon bat. That’s not a bad thing, but think about what else Lou Piniella can put into the lineup. It isn’t like Kosuke Fukudome is wilting against lefties as a lefty hitter, and with Johnson starting in the outfield against lefties, Piniella has seven bats that do just fine against southpaws starting against them, with the lone position of concern being in left. In contrast, when a right-hander’s on the mound, there’s the decision between Mark DeRosa and Mike Fontenot at second to make, there are a couple of hitters in the lineup who take a hit, and there’s the ongoing concern over whether or not Felix Pie is going to get on track. And you need to replace Soriano, which if you’re talking Murton, involves starting a guy who, in his big league career, gets on base against right-handers at a .346 clip, and who slugs .425 against them. And you get that at left field, and only left field. Does that sounds like a left fielder to you? That’s not useless, but it’s also not something you choose, not if you can avoid it, not if you want to contend.
“Avoiding it” is exactly what GM Jim Hendry has done, and it’s to his credit. Picking Murton because he has the most experience would have been the easy choice, but it wouldn’t have been the one that really helps the Cubs in terms of who’s making the majority of left-field starts during Soriano’s absence. In contrast, calling up Eric Patterson does exactly that, while offering other possibilities as well. Patterson can play center and second, and while nobody wants to condemn him to the Jerry Hairston Jr. career path, the more important single-season consideration the Cubs might have to resolve in terms of their lineup isn’t who plays left over the next two weeks, but who’s going to be their center fielder. If Patterson hits, he’s versatile enough to keep around after Soriano comes back, but if he really makes an impression, there comes a point where the Cubs might have to decide whether having Felix Pie platooning is their best play to win now, let alone whether or not it’s the best way to help him become their center fielder of the future.
To put it another way, railing about where GPS is telling us that Matt Murton is located for the next two weeks is significantly less important to the Cubs’ 2008 season than sorting out what they’re going to do about the one lineup position where they have (and should ask) questions. The debate shouldn’t be about who’s in left, it should be about whether or not the Cubs can have their Pie and eat it too, or if they might want to explore their in-house alternatives. Giving Patterson a two-week trial to see if he can earn his keep helps answer that larger, more significant question, and if he racks up some knocks, it isn’t hard to see how that might additionally make the yammering over Brian Roberts that much more irrelevant by giving the club both an alternative to Pie in center but also possibly an answer to that naggy complaint about who’s atop the order. I don’t particularly care if Patterson’s leading off or batting second behind Soriano, but that on top of the choice they have between DeRosa and Fontenot at second sounds pretty solid, and it doesn’t involve packing up the farm and sending it to Baltimore to get a 30-year-old second baseman.
In the same way the Cubs have already decided that Murton is a bargaining chip, not a keeper, they need to figure that out about Patterson and Pie as well, because it will have a much larger impact on the remainder of the season than getting two weeks out of Murton in the majors right now. Better to invest the time to look at Patterson, let Murton see if he can finally hit with any authority to improve his value in trade, and see if Pie can get turned around. Two weeks from now, they’ll have a better idea of what they’ve got and what they might want to do than they would if they simply catered to what a segment of the analysis community believes.
Stepping outside of the analysis box for a second, I want to thank everyone for their comments about “Transaction of the Day” over the last couple of days. I’ve been wrestling for a while with how to balance my responsibilities as the managing editor and my creative impulses as a writer; teammates come first, so writing has tended to come last lately, and that’s no fun for any of us. The ability to deliver the kind of completist’s fancy that Transaction Analysis was eight or nine years ago just isn’t as easy when I’ve got a day job that I’m motivated and enthusiastic about.
I wanted to try “Transaction of the Day” out as an exercise of sorts, to see if it’s something I can deliver on. So far, the answer appears to be ‘yes,’ and as a result it’s going to be something we plug into our articles lineup on the site. It’ll almost certainly always run in the afternoon–after our Newsletter goes out, subscribers, so consider yourselves forewarned–and after we’ve gotten just about everything else up in terms of the day’s content slate. It’s about the right size for me to be able to deliver something that I hope contributes something to the discussion, and with a regularity that contributes more effectively to the team it’s my privilege to be a part of. Of course, there’s also no harm that it also beats seeing another gaggle of second lefties demoted to make way for third lefties and then wonder what I could possibly say about each move–transactions that might stick for all of 72 hours–that was funny and insightful, let alone interesting.
Going forward, this doesn’t mean that I won’t be writing full Transaction Analyses about trades or major contract extensions; I still plan on writing those as well as saying something about a move that day that I fancy I have something to say something about that might be semi-clever. Similarly, I have every intention to contribute the same blow-by-blow analysis you’ve come to expect at the trade deadlines, and which I enjoyed delivering for last year’s Winter Meetings as well. I know how much of a change this represents from TA as it was originally conceived, but change is not something to fear, and sometimes it’s absolutely for the best.