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Placed SS-R Nomar Garciaparra on the 15-day DL (torn groin muscle) [4/21]

There’s no great satisfaction to be taken in hedging your bets and then having to admire the topiary you’ve created for your troubles. But here’s the reason why Jim Hendry signed Nomar to an incentive-laden deal, made manifest through misfortune.

Let’s set aside the petty bitchiness of those in the chattering classes given to tut-tutting about how Garciaparra’s fussing over the money lost because of the time he’ll spend on the shelf. I don’t remember anything quite so mean-spirited being said about Freddy Lynn back in the day, but crocodile tears seems to be about all that journalism gives us these days.

Instead, ponder what losing Garciaparra does to the Cubs and their already difficult road to a division title. Already handicapped by the loss of second baseman Todd Walker, the Cubs are on the spot in a way the Red Sox never were last year. Where Theo Epstein and company lacked certainty about Garciaparra’s ability to contribute down the stretch, as Will Carroll has noted, the question for now isn’t when Nomar will be back, but if. The Cubs’ opportunities aren’t merely being maimed by their shortstop’s shredded groin–they’re now forced to confront the damage done as a result of catering to their manager and giving him the bench he wanted, arguably the worst bench in the game. Dusty Baker might feel comfortable turning to Neifi Perez as his shortstop in the breach, but is that really the best the Cubs can do?

First, let’s try to evaluate the cost of losing Garciaparra. Because we’re not sure if he’ll be gone two months, or three, or all year, let’s talk in terms of some easy measures: 60 games, 90 games and 120 games. Taking the Equivalent rate-based Marginal Lineup Value projected by PECOTA for each of the Cubs’ shortstop options for 2005, and then projecting their values over those periods, let’s get a sense of what the exchanges mean if the Cubs let Dusty play with the toys he already has:

PECOTA-projected Runs Above Average (Projected Weighted Mean EqMLVr * G)

Player                60g    90g    120g
Nomar Garciaparra     5.6    8.4    11.2
Neifi Perez         -17.8  -26.6   -35.5
Ronny Cedeno        -19.0  -28.5   -38.0

The numbers generated are a sort of runs above average, where average is zero. If ten runs equals a win, the differences between Garciaparra and his probable replacements are pretty debilitating. Surprising nobody, Perez and prospect Ronny Cedeno clock in as below average. Not just a little, but enough so that even if Nomar is only out for two months–roughly 60 games–you could end up with two fewer wins. Stretch it out to the remainder of the season (or roughly 120 games), and the difference could be as many as five wins.

Now, on this score, the Cubs have really sort of been hoisted on their own petard. Baker wanted to have a certain kind of player on his bench, and he seems to suffer from an unwarranted faith in Neifi Perez. General Manager Jim Hendry knows this about his manager. When he hired Baker, he knew that he wasn’t just hiring a manager, but committing to hiring the kinds of players Baker likes having around: experienced ones. On that level, we can basically discard Cedeno as a serious option; not only is he just 22, but last year was the first in which he’d shown even a glimmer of potential at the plate. So with Garciaparra out for however long, it’s going to be Neifi Perez, and it’s going to hurt.

Now, in some ways, this is a similar predicament to last season’s, when shortstop Alex Gonzalez suffered a broken hand in the first week of May. Baker, true to form, turned to the old hand he had handy, elevating Ramon Martinez to a full-time job he couldn’t really handle defensively. Hendry, in pursuit of an alternative, dug up Rey Ordonez; that definitely didn’t help. The road ended at the trade deadline, with the acquisition of Garciaparra.

Now that the Cubs have to turn to another inadequate in-house reserve, perhaps Hendry should go shopping. Unfortunately, with none of the really good shortstops going into the last year of their contracts, there aren’t rentable stars at the position, not this early in the year, and probably not in general. Given that he’s stuck with Baker and his predilections, if Hendry wants a replacement, he’s going to have to acquire someone old enough for Dusty to play over Perez. Looking outside of the house, here’s a list of potential alternatives who might be acquirable, in order of tastiness:

Player                60g    90g    120g
Alex Cora, CLE       -0.2   -0.3    -0.4
Tony Graffanino, KC  -4.4   -6.7    -8.9
Alex Gonzalez, TB    -5.9   -8.8   -11.8
Jose Hernandez, CLE  -6.2   -9.3   -12.4
Alex Cintron, AZ     -6.4   -9.6   -12.8
Ramon Martinez, DET  -8.6  -13.0   -17.3
Chris Woodward, NYM  -8.8  -13.1   -17.5
Deivi Cruz, SFG      -9.7  -14.6   -19.4
Chris Gomez, BAL    -10.6  -15.8   -21.1
Augie Ojeda, MIN    -10.7  -16.0   -21.4
Juan Castro, MIN    -10.9  -16.4   -21.8
Desi Relaford, COL  -11.8  -17.7   -23.6

Yes, it’s an ugly bunch, but they’re experienced. Admittedly, I discarded the really good ideas from the start. Placido Polanco or Ramon Vazquez might be swell, but their employers are using them and harbor their own hopes for contention. Similarly, I doubt that the Reds would decide to be pals and just fork over Rich Aurilia; by extension, I tossed the notion that any of the other five teams in the division would take pity on the Cubs.

Even so, not everyone on this list is all that available, but they do highlight how hard it is to get so low as to wind up with Neifi Perez as your everyday option. I included Juan Castro for grins, since I think it would be brilliant for Terry Ryan to move him now, but I doubt the Twins would give the idea a moment’s thought. Alex Gonzalez, Jose Hernandez, Augie Ojeda and Ramon Martinez all have the advantages of being familiar to the organization; of the four, only Hernandez hasn’t played for the Cubs under Baker. Martinez would be something of a bitter pill to swallow, but he did play for Dusty in San Francisco and in Wrigleyville.

So Alex Cora is the best choice from this group, and perhaps the best possible solution, both in the lineup and afield. The Indians might even be convinced to part with him, although it’ll probably cost the Cubs a pitching prospect/suspect/live arm. That’s more sorry still since the Cubs could have given thought over the winter to snagging Cora on waivers, or offering the Dodgers a stale muffin or two for his services.

In such a circumstance, the difference between Cora’s projected value and Garciaparra’s might not add up to a win, and even if Hendry had to settle for bringing back Gonzalez, it might only mean two games in the win column. Ideally, Hendry would shop for one of these guys to staunch the runs that will be hemorrhaged if Perez is playing on a daily basis. To do more than close the wound, he should still keep a feeler out for a top-shelf hitter for either outfield corner. And then pray like a preacher in a whorehouse on a Saturday night that Mark Prior and Kerry Wood and Carlos Zambrano all stay healthy, because even then, the Cards won’t be easy to keep up with.