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Assuming the Position 2005: Part 2 - 2nd Base
by Derek Smart
[derek:] In 2003, Mark Grudzielanek had his best season since 1999, posting a solid .314/.366/.416 line in 531 plate appearances. His work was a large part of what made the Cubs successful that season, but a glance at his career statistics would tell most sentient observers that the performance was not likely to be repeated.
To that end, the Cubs GM, Jim Hendry, went looking for some help at second base - the ideal being to find someone who could not only cover the defensive duties, but could act as a high OBP leadoff hitter, and in a perfect scenario, a much needed source of speed.
It didn't take much looking to see that options were few, and the only one that came close to fitting the mold the Cubs had in mind was free agent, Luis Castillo, who had just won a World Series with the Florida Marlins. However, despite making what Jim Hendry later called a "competitive" offer, Castillo wound up re-signing with the team he done gone to the dance with, to the tune of 3 years for 16M, with an option for 2007.
With precious few alternatives available, the Cubs decided to give Grudz another chance to surprise them, signing Mr. Unspellable to a one-year deal with a team option for 2005. This transaction appeared to mark the end of the 2004 Cubs' search for a keystone caretaker. But then, just before Christmas, a gift fell into the Cubs' lap.
Todd Walker had received more lucrative offers from lesser teams to be their full-time second baseman, but Walker wanted more. He wanted a shot at a ring, and he was willing to sacrifice money and playing time to get it, so bucking history and, some would say, metaphysics, he signed with the Chicago Cubs. It was strange and invigorating to hear it, but Walker viewed the Cubs as a contender with a legitimate shot at the World Series, and he was the rare player willing to make significant concessions to be part of such a group.
The Cubs were lucky to get Walker on board, and they found out just how lucky when Marky G went down early with an achillies injury that kept him out until mid-June. During the G-man's absence, Walker got the bulk of the playing time - much of it in the leadoff spot - and the team was rewarded handsomely with his .275/.362/.483 line from the season opener through June 18, the day before Grudz came off the DL. In fact, it doesn't take much to look at Walker's line to that point and Grudzielanek's 2003 numbers and conclude that Walker was the better option at that moment, an idea made all the more certain by the flukishly productive nature of the G-man's previous season.
Naturally, this conclusion was not the one reached by Dusty Baker. Almost immediately, Grudz became a semi-permanent fixture at second, starting five of the next ten games before completely taking the job over from July 1 on. After a slow start, Mark went on to post a .307/.347/.432 line in his 257 ABs, but Walker's first half was markedly superior, and instead of riding his fine season as far as it would take him, Baker decided to give the job back to Marky G. While loyalty is a lovely trait, and serves well the "Legend of Dusty", in this case it was strategic failure.
Just to illustrate how poorly Walker was used apres-Grudz, and to note some of the impact the sporadic play had on his production, here are a couple of quick facts about his in-season usage:
After Grudz went down, Walker started games in consecutive streaks of 13, 11, 1, 1, 5, 1, 9, and 10.
After Grudz returned, Walker started two games in a row six times, and never started on three consecutive days.
Pre All-Star - 244 ABs, 87 G, .283/.367/.496
Post All-Star - 128 ABs, 75 G, .258/.324/.414
While those numbers prove nothing, they imply that Walker's usage pattern had a negative impact on his production - production which, particularly in the OBP category, the Cubs could ill afford to lose. It's one of the failings of Baker's stewardship that when confronted with a decision between a superior player and a guy he likes, Dusty's pal reaps the benefit nearly every time. Some would argue that his ability to inspire and give loyalty is what gets quality free agents to be interested in his teams in the first place, and there's likely some truth to that. I simply believe a balance can and must be struck, and unfortunately, Dusty seems unable to find that equilibrium.
But enough with the manager bashing, as last year is through, and now the Cubs are confronted with a vacancy at the keystone and multiple options available to fill it. Let's take a stroll through some likely and unlikely culprits and discuss their relative merits.
Mark Grudzielanek - The Cubs declined his option a couple weeks ago, and while it's theoretically possible that he could be re-signed for a lower price, bear in mind that it was also theoretically possible for Gary Coleman to become Governor of California. What I'm trying to say is, when a team like the Cubs is unwilling to pay $2.5M for their starting second baseman, the issue isn't the money so much as the man.
Todd Walker - After his fine season with the Cubs in 2004, and what is likely to be a reasonable price tag, Walker looks like the favorite to man second for 2005. Ideally, he would come equipped with his very own right-handed caddy to remove that .258/.315/.367 three-year split against port-siders from the lineup. Yet, in what was and still could be a very right-handed roster, it is his wrong-handedness that makes him appealing, even if he hasn't adjusted to similarly equipped pitchers.
The other knock on Walker has always been his defense, and while it didn't draw comparisons to Bill Mazeroski, it wasn't nearly as poor as I had heard or feared. It's reasonable at this point to ask two things: 1) Was his defense actually decent this season? 2) If it was, would said decency be categorized as unusual?
The answer to the first question appears to be yes, as his 2004 RATE2 over at Baseball Prospectus was 96. This means that Walker's defense was about 4 runs under what you'd expect from an average second baseman over 100 games. Not great, but not horrible either. I think that falls firmly into the "decent" category, confirming what I thought I observed. Now, for the answer to question two (you knew I couldn't get through a post this long without at least one table):
What we saw last year from Walker defensively is what we can expect to see from him for the near future. He had an excruciating year in Boston, but outside of that he's a below-average but not completely brutal defender. With his handedness and potential with the stick, I think the Cubs can live with the dropoff on defense, particularly with their strikeout-heavy pitching staff. Like I said at the top, I think Todd is a Cub in 2005.
Neifi Perez - Already (shudder) signed to a one-year deal for $1M, if he winds up starting more than twenty games anywhere on the field, something has gone seriously wrong. He's also a theoretical option at shortstop, but again, one would hope this would require that all other men who had played the position in the Majors - ever - had been eaten by an alien life form that feasted exclusively on the flesh of humans who had known the joy of an assist from the six hole. One would then immediately recruit this being as a clubhouse towel boy and give him exclusive purview over Neifi's locker.
If you're curious about Neifi's ability to act as that desired helpmeet for Walker, know now that Mr. Perez believes in being an equal opportunity offensive black hole. From 2002-2004, he hits an anemic .249/.279/.313 against right-handers, and does little better against lefties with his .241/.273/.355 line. Look again at that line against righties. Neifi does that while switch hitting (he's a natural right-hander), and if going to the trouble of batting in an ambidextrous fashion is actually making him hit better, then heaven help the club that fields him when he stops the flip-flop act.
Jeff Kent - While still a dangerous hitter, particularly for a second baseman, Kent has begun to look more like the player that toiled for the Mets and Indians, rather than the masher he was while stationed by the Bay. He still shows a bit more power than he did while in Flushing, but that looks to be fading as he edges toward forty, and while he's reasonably patient, it's become clear that his 90 walk 2000 campaign was the outlier. He's only had two other seasons where he's drawn a number of walks at or above 10% of his at bats - bookends to his faux-millennial MVP year.
I also have some serious doubts about his defensive ability, although I'm shocked at how good his defensive statistics are at Baseball Prospectus. His Range Factor at second is also consistently above league average (anyone who has UZR stats over the last few years, I'd love to see them for comparison). This is in stark contrast to what I see on the field - a defender with a solid enough glove, an average arm, but the range of Buddha - the statue, not the man. It's not often that I'll toss a "pshaw!" at what the stats tell me, but knowing the limited nature of current defensive metrics, I'm going to have to go with my eyes on this one (I know, I know, BAD Derek!).
It may be that Kent is excellent at positioning himself, and that's worth a lot, but without knowing for sure I have to say his contributions without a bat in his hand are questionable at best. Add in that he's right-handed, likely to be considerably more expensive than a lefty like Todd Walker, plus, comes with an unfortunate clubhouse reputation, and I think he fits poorly into the Cubs plans.
Placido Polanco - Not a terribly likely option, but if you're interested in a second-sacker who will bring the leather, Polanco's your man. He's also decent at the dish, and his power has improved over the last couple of seasons, but he leaves something to be desired with his plate discipline, walking only once every 19.4 PAs over his career. The flip side of that being that he puts the ball in play a ton, striking out only once every 13.8 PAs over his MLB lifetime. Of course, if you're like me and think that being right-handed is a bit of a handicap for anyone applying for this roster spot, Polanco doesn't even give you the opportunity that Kent does to excuse his handedness in view of potential production. While it wouldn't be the worst signing ever, there are more appropriate options readily available, so I just don't see this happening.
Alfonso Soriano - He's not a free agent yet, but he keeps getting the occasional mention as part of a trade involving Sammy Sosa and - gack! - Chan Ho Park, a deal mostly formed in the highly delusional mind of Phil Rogers. While Soriano is a coiled spring of baseball talent, much like that spring, one never knows where all that energy will be released, or if its discharge will be constructive or simply dissipate into the atmosphere.
The Rangers are, indeed, looking to deal him, as he's likely to get in the vicinity of $8M from an arbitration hearing, and this is one of the reasons the Cubs won't interested. With a lot of money already committed to current team members, and their eyes on Carlos Beltran and a capital "C" closer, the club is unlikely to spend that kind of money at second base, especially when he doesn't do a thing to alleviate the team's main offensive issue - a lack of OBP. Toss in his defensive shortcomings, and you've got a man who, had he the speed of Jody Davis, would represent the exact player the Cubs don't need.
Jerry Hairston, Jr. - After JHJ's injury issues, the Orioles seem to be committed to keeping Brian Roberts at second, which leaves Hairston in a bit of a bind. Up until this season he'd only ever played the four hole, but with his Pipp-ing in full swing, he was moved all over the diamond, including all three outfield positions. The Orioles need to finally trade one of these two gents, and the smart money would be on Hairston.
He's a good defender, an improving hitter, and while he doesn't have much power, his plate discipline has been getting better every year. He also has the speed the Cubs have been lacking for so long. Or rather, he had it. If there's been a problem with Hairston of late, it's been his proclivity for catastrophic injury. In 2003 he missed much of the season with a broken foot, at the beginning of last year he was on the DL for an extended period with a broken finger, and then in August of 2004 he broke his ankle while playing the outfield. There's no telling how that sort of injury will affect his wheels, and the only thing I can say for certain about his future is that he won't be appearing in any "Got Milk" ads.
One would guess that the Orioles would be willing to part with such a fragile beast for the price of a middling pitching prospect, but such a deal would require that the Cubs have a solid backup plan in place. Either that, or use Hairston himself as the backup, and if that's the idea, I can see little reason to trade for him. Why cough something up for a fella you don't even intend to use? Anyway, while he could be an asset if healthy, he looks to be too risky to get the gig.
Options abound for the keystone, but because he's left-handed, can get on base, and is just plain-old familiar, I think the position goes to Todd Walker. If nothing else, it will be cosmic justice for getting jobbed in 2004, and I for one, will look forward to seeing him in the lineup, making up for lost time.
[alex:] A couple more ideas at second:
Tony Womack - You know it's bad when the Smart guy leaves you off his list of potential options. Unfortunately, he appears to be very much on the Cubs' radar.
Last year, when the Cardinals got Womack, Brian Gunn over at Redbird Nation labeled it the "Womackalypse". Gunn summarized his thoughts, "you'd have to say that Womack is a ticking time bomb on the Cardinals roster."
Lucky for the bastards in Red, Womack had his best year... ever. While noting that this hallowed ground was reached with a merely innocuous line of 307/347/385, I'll venture that his year looks like an anomaly, feels like an anomaly, and most likely was an anomaly.
How did Womack avoid the -alypse suffix in 2004? By getting extremely hit-lucky. According to Ron Shandler, Womack's expected batting average, based on such variables as his contact rate, speed, and power, was .268.
Drop 40 points from Womack's line, and you've got your Womackalypse in spades: 268/308/345. The truth sometimes hurts, and the truth in this case would sting the Cubs like so many hornets were they to sign Tony for next year.
Ray Durham - The Giants may or may not be looking to shop Durham, but I bet a decent offer would surely tempt them.
Durham is pretty pricey (around $7M next year), but he also still manages to be pretty underrated. Steals aren't much of his game anymore, but he gets on base (.366 and .364 OBP the last two years) and has some real pop in his bat (.441 and .484 SLG).
The knock: his poor little legs give him a rough go of it, resulting in a good amount of time spent on the DL.
Considering his price and health, Durham is probably too much of a risk. But oh how a healthy Ray could help the Chicago lineup.
Bret Boone - Is Boone singing the Even Year Blues?
He's more expensive than Durham ($8M next year), and even less of a sure thing. I'm sure Seattle would love, love, love to dump Bret on some optimistic soul, but at that price I sure wouldn't want to be the guinea pig hoping for a rebound.
Jose Vidro - I have a few fetishes, and I suppose I should just out with it already: Jose Vidro is one of them.
I think Vidro is the bomb. He signed a $30M, 4-year contract last year to stay with the Ex-Expos, but it now looks like Washington may be in the mood to trade him.
Knee surgery finished off Vidro's season, but the offensive upside is fantastic: a line-drive machine, Vidro consistently hits around .300 (or better), draws enough walks to push his OBP into the .370s, and hits enough doubles and homers to make power-hungry Cubs fans happy. He plays a decent second base, switch hits, and rescues fluffy kittens from tall trees.
Frankly, I'd rather have Vidro at his $7M or so salary than any of the free agent shortstops at the prices they're likely to command.
The Expos have Brendan Harris just beggin' for a starting role, and they've already signed Vinny Castillo for third, so moving Vidro wouldn't be as impractical as it might seem. Would the Cubs have a package that could entice the Expos?
The Washies need pitching. You could start with Mitre and/or Wellemeyer. See if there is interest in Farnsworth and/or Dempster. If it takes another premium prospect, so be it--as long as their name isn't Pie or Dopirak (or Greenberg! Greenberg! I love me some Greenberg!).
Given Washington's need for financial flexibility, I think expectations for a return on Vidro may be lower than in years past. Now might be the time to pounce. After all, I have a fetish that needs feeding.