“Dusty and I give [chemistry] a lot of thought in the off-season. It’s not just talent. We try to get as many guys as we can that we feel are winning-type players. As Dusty does such a marvelous job of blending the guys over a 162-game schedule, that’s important.”
–Cubs General Manager Jim Hendry as quoted in the Chicago Tribune on 3/22/04
As some readers are aware, I am at heart a Cubs fan. I will confess, however, to a brief early high school infatuation with the Yankees during a time when they were solidly ensconced in the second division and complete strangers to postseason play. I’m sure that also says something about me related to masochist tendencies but we won’t go there.
Having come fully back into the fold, I’m more than a little interested in the deals that General Manager Jim Hendry made leading up to the trading deadline. Several of our writers have a done a fine job in analyzing the deals of the contenders and mentioning the pretenders. But this week, I wanted to discuss a Cubs front office weakness which seems to be particularly illustrated by one of the two recent trade deadline deals.
Santo, Gutierrez and a Cast of Several
During the Cubs rain delay on August 2nd, Ron Santo joined Len Kaspar and Bob Brenly in the booth to try and kill some time. What was most entertaining (and simultaneously disheartening) was a piece by Skip Parker that parodied Billy Joel’s hit “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by enumerating all of the many third baseman who the Cubs have used over the years in an attempt to replace Santo. Unfortunately, the piece is apparently not available online.
In the Hendry era, however, we have a mini version of that sad history in the attempt to replace–wait for it–Ricky Gutierrez. Now, you may be wondering just why anyone would want to replace Gutierrez, but prior to the Hendry era Gutierrez, acquired from the Astros, posted back to back respectable seasons in 2000 and 2001 as the Cubs shortstop. His fielding was always slightly below average but he made up for it with EqAs of .270 and .264. He had WARP1 scores of 3.9 and 4.4 and ranked in the top third in VORP for shortstops in both seasons.
Since then the Cubs have used the following players as their primary shortstop: Alex Gonzalez (2003 and part of 2004), Nomar Garciaparra (parts of both 2004 and 2005), Neifi Perez (mostly 2005) and Ronny Cedeno (2006 before the trading deadline). Now, it’s hard to fault Hendry too much for Gonzalez outside of not recognizing that at age 30 Gonzalez had in 2003 for him what was a career year. That season he recorded a WARP1 of 5.0 while in only one other season (1996) did he crack 4.0. It’s also difficult to blame Hendry for the injuries to Garciaparra which limited him to only 105 games and 395 ABs in a Cubs uniform over a year and a half. At the time the deal seemed like a decent gamble. It also netted Matt Murton who was at .295/.360/.418 early this week, and is not yet 25 years old–with a little power he could be a worthwhile component to a contending team. And this year giving the job to Cedeno in spring training at 23 years old can’t be considered a mistake, despite the fact that his light hitting (.256/.282/.338) was not entirely unexpected.
No, in terms of the starting shortstop position Hendry (and, by extension, Baker since they work closely together) has largely played the hand he was given, took a risk that didn’t end up working out, and tried a young player who appeared ready and able to handle the position.
One of the biggest problems with Hendry’s roster construction has been the selection of an extremely weak supporting cast to back up Gonzalez and Garciaparra at shortstop, Mark Grudzielanek and Todd Walker at second base, and spelling Aramis Ramirez at third base. This has further hindered an already not very potent offense, a point that was well made in Baseball Prospectus 2006:
“The challenge for Jim Hendry and Dusty Baker is to remember that when you’re not a perennially great ballclub, you have to take your chances to make the best of the shots you might get. The Cubs of 2003-2005 have never ranked higher than 6th in in the league in runs scored, and never higher than 7th for team Equivalent Average. Mediocrity in the lineup has been the most-frequently overlooked facet of a Cubs team that, despite the injuries to its famous pitchers, has seen them provide some of the best pitching in franchise history.”
And of course this is especially damning when you select as your starters injury-prone players like Garciaparra and Walker whom you might reasonably expect would force your hand into using your bench liberally. So just what have Hendry and Baker gotten out of the cast of backups they have stocked this team with?
Year Name PA WARP1 Age --------------------------------------------------- 2003 Ramon Martinez 333 1.7 30 2003 Tony Womack 52 -0.1 33 2003 Lenny Harris 146 -0.8 38 2004 Ramon Martinez 296 1.3 31 2004 Neifi Perez 66 1.1 31 2004 Jose Macias 204 0.4 32 2004 Alex Gonzalez 133 0.0 31 2004 Rey Ordonez 65 -0.4 33 2005 Neifi Perez 609 4.4 32 2005 Jerry Hairston 430 2.0 29 2005 Enrique Wilson 25 0.1 31 2005 Jose Macias 190 0.0 33
If you’re scoring at home, that’s 2,549 plate appearances, over 1,800 outs consumed (the equivalent of 67 games), an average age of 32 years, and a total WARP1 of 9.7. If you take away Perez’s fluky 2005 (only in 1999 did he reach a WARP1 of 4.4) and you have a total WARP1 of 5.3 spanning eleven players over three years. Although 2006 wasn’t included in the table, it should be noted that Womack again resurfaced to play in 18 games.
There’s a pattern here, and it goes something like this: sign thirtysomethings who have reputations as “winning-type players,” or guys who can “control the bat,” or can run a little, or are reputed for playing a little defense, and hope that they’ll suddenly transform into much much better players than their track records of thousands of previous plate appearances would indicate. Oh, and the player in question must also bat first or second in the order when they do play (yes, study after study has shown that lineup position doesn’t really matter much–I’m venting here, so cut me some slack).
Well, at least that’s what one would hope that Hendry and Baker are thinking. In reality, though, in giving playing time to players who fit this mold it illustrates that the Cubs brain trust doesn’t properly value the events that lead to winning and losing, as anecdotally evidenced by this oft-quoted Bakerism:
“I think walks are overrated unless you can run. If you get a walk and put the pitcher in a stretch, that helps. But the guy who walks and can’t run, most of the time they’re clogging up the bases for somebody who can run.
Who’s been the champions the last seven, eight years? Have you ever heard the Yankees talk about on-base percentage and walks? Walks help. But you ain’t going to walk across the plate. You’re going to hit across the plate. That’s the school I come from.
“Everybody can’t hit with two strikes. Everybody can’t walk. You’re taking away some of the aggressiveness from a kid when you tell him to go up there and work for a walk.”
And this doozy:
“I put Tony [Womack] at the top because Juan was having trouble getting on base. … Juan’s a leadoff man, but Tony’s a leadoff man, too. It’s kind of a double leadoff man.
“Tony Womack’s done pretty (darn) good, too, since he’s been here. … Not everybody wants power. I thought we wanted small ball for a while.
“I love power. I love power and small ball. I like the option. It is a valid argument, but at the same time, some of my better defenses were with Womack out there, too, and speed. I’ll try to use them all if I can.”
A career .316 on base percentage does not a leadoff hitter make. And even assuming Womack was a good defender (which he has never been, with a career Fielding Runs Above Average of -51), this belies a misunderstanding of the basic fact that good offensive players are worth far more than good defensive players in the number of runs they contribute towards winning games. Which, incidentally, is why Earl Weaver’s strategy of populating your bench with primarily offensive and not defensive players makes a great deal of sense. A reserve influences the result of a game much more frequently due to a pinch hitting appearances or giving the regular a day off than by making a game-saving defensive play.
But even given that inefficient strategy, the Cubs end up overpaying for performances that could be had for rock bottom prices. In other words, by valuing the wrong attributes they do a poor job of the mining the “freely available talent pool.”
I don’t dredge up this history just to beat an already pretty dead horse, but because it’s instructive for the Cubs going forward as we look at their most recent move.
Let me first begin by noting that in obtaining Cesar Izturis for Greg Maddux that I think the sentiment behind the deal itself was not a bad one. Maddux was playing out his final year in Chicago and exploring all options to obtain value for him was a solid move. The fact that Hendry was able to flip him for a relatively young middle infielder was in and of itself a good thing.
That’s where the accolades cease, however.
In picking up Izturis and his $3.2 million contract for this year, $4.25 million for next year and club option for $300,000 in 2008 (that they’ll likely be exercising), the Cubs have elevated the mistake they’ve been making with reserves to not one but two starting positions.
The core problem is that in Izturis they now have a player who, at his best in 2004, recorded a WARP1 of 3.5. This was when his batting line exceeded his career marks by +.28/+.36/+.43 and he won a Gold Glove. His more typical seasons in 2003 and 2005 were at 2.6 and 2.0, respectively, with his offensive performances actually below the level of a replacement player. In 2005 he ranked 30th of 31 shortstops with 300 or more plate appearances in VORP at -4.2 (Cristian Guzman was 31st with a whopping -14.9)–a trend he has continued thus far in 2006.
Much of the recent hype surrounding Izturis has been built on the strength of a great April and May of 2005 when he hit .342 and earned an All-Star selection. In other words, the likely outcome of the deal is to extend the search for the next Ricky Gutierrez a year and half while enduring Neifi-like production at shortstop to go with above average defense (The Fielding Bible had Izturis at +10, +19, and +4 in 2003-2005 ranking him 7th, 2nd, and 15th respectively and 6th overall during the time period). Of course that’s perhaps even optimistic since Hendry and company may also have repeated their Garciaparra move (“fool me once, shame on me…”) by obtaining a player fresh off an injury (degenerative arthritis in his right elbow that required Tommy John last September).
But the bigger problem is that they’ve now moved Cedeno to second base, where his offensive shortcomings aren’t as easy to hide and his defense isn’t as valuable, even assuming he excels at what for him is a brand new position. The end result is that the Cubs have dug a hole for themselves from an offensive perspective at two positions while gaining relatively little in terms of defense (Perez is already an above average defender at +20 according to TFB in 2005, ranking him 5th, well ahead of Izturis). All of it adds up to something like a swing of around three wins over the course of a season. And if Aramis Ramirez elects to opt out of his contract and test free agency at the end of the season as has been reported (likely extending the Santo search another 30 years or so), three quarters of the Cubs infield in 2007 could be subpar offensively. On a team that also struggles to get production at all three outfield spots, that’s anything but a recipe for success.
So let’s run down the checklist on this latest acquisition. Good reputation? Check. Can handle the bat (he’s a switch hitter after all)? Check. Can run a little? Check. Can play a little defense? Check. And for good measure we’ll install him at the top of the order, since, as discussed by Baker: “It gives me a double leadoff man, a guy who can run, who knows how to play. I think he’ll be a very welcome addition.” Check.
Then just why are many of the pundits seemingly so high on the deal? Fundamentally, I think it can be boiled down to two factors. First, Izturis has the name recognition from winning the Gold Glove in 2004 and the flashes of offensive production he showed in the early months of 2003 and 2005. He is an “All-Star,” after all. But second, and more substantially, there is the promise that he’ll end up like his countryman Omar Vizquel. And that’s probably the ray of hope upon which this column should end.
Our PECOTA system rates Vizquel’s 1993 performance as tied for the best comp for Izturis with a similarity score of 53 coming into 2006. Up to that point in his career, Vizquel, like Izturis, had posted one decent offensive season (1992) and had shown his brilliance on defense winning the first of his ten Gold Gloves in 1993. His steady improvement offensively really began, however, in 1995 with his defense holding steady allowing him to remain incredibly productive beyond his 39th birthday, registering as between a four- and six-win player year after year (this season he’s already at a WARP of 4.8).
So that’s the upside. The downside is that the rest of the players to which Izturis can be compared didn’t fare so well, although a few had solid if unspectacular careers. As a Cubs fan I’ll hope for the former, but not be at all surprised if it turns out to be the latter.
Thank you for reading
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