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Assuming the Position, 2005: Part 5 - Outfield
by Derek Smart
The Cub outfield for 2004 was set well before opening day - Moises Alou in left, Corey Patterson in center, and Sammy Sosa in right - but while there wasn't reason to question who would be playing, there were plenty of reasons to wonder how often they might take the field together.
Alou came to the Cubs in 2002 with a well earned reputation for being an injury risk, and his first season reinforced that perception as he played in a mere 132 games. But he broke the mold in 2003, rebounding by playing in 151 contests, the second highest total of his career. That was wonderful, especially since he posted a very respectable .280/.357/.462 line that year, but as it was only the fourth time he played 140 games or more in twelve seasons, it was reasonable to fear that 2004 would not bring such good fortune.
But Alou wasn't the only possible DL resident lurking in the Wrigley Field grass. Center fielder Corey Patterson had injured his left knee on July 6, 2003, and while his surgery and recovery had all gone well, no one was sure if he would be fully ready to play by the end of spring training, and if he was, how often the knee would dictate he rest. Long term, the outlook was positive, but the short term impact was unknown.
Ironically (yes, Alanis, I'm using actual irony), the one man in the Cub outfield who wasn't an injury concern coming into the year was the man who was felled in mid-season by a back injury, reportedly brought on by the phrase, "Ah-CHOO!". It sounded funny but the results were serious, landing Sosa on the shelf for a month. And you thought sneezing powder was good clean fun.
Much as the Salomon Torres pitch to the head split 2003 into periods of "Good Sammy" and "Bad Sammy", 2004's mucus expulsion related trauma broke last season into similar sections. Before the sneeze, Sosa had compiled a .291/.385/.590 line, and was having a terrific May, going .320/.414/.640 over his thirteen games of action in the month. After his return, Sosa struggled mightily, hitting .238/.311/.488 through the end of the year, on the way to his worst overall showing since 1997.
Despite the mitigating factor of injury recovery, it's clear that Sosa has been in a state of decline since his remarkable 2001 campaign. The days of a Sammy who hits over sixty home runs while getting on base nearly 44% of the time are clearly over, but is there reason to expect improvement over his numbers from the last two seasons?
Above are Sosa's numbers back to the year before he broke out. Two things are easy to see: the power surge, and the tremendous rise in walk rate. Both of these continue to improve, minus a slight power hiccup in 2000, through that monster 2001. We see a drop in power for 2002 which is likely to be more a function of how ridiculously good the previous year was than a substantial loss of skill, and we also see the walk rate deteriorate, but only slightly. It looks like a gradual decline is on the way - one that will allow Sosa to still be well above average through the life of his current contract.
But then, in 2003, the wheels come spinning off. Not only do his power numbers continue to drop, but his walk rate takes a massive hit, returning to 1998 levels, which aren't bad at all, but no longer qualify as elite. He's still very productive, nearly posting an Equivalent Average at .300 or above for the sixth consecutive season, but the decrease in his selectivity is troubling. These decreasing numbers continue through 2004 and leave us where we are today.
Anecdotally, the walk rate decline and increase in strikeout rate seem to be tied to a returning proclivity to swing at bad balls in the dirt and above his head. My guess is that we're seeing a decrease in bat speed causing him to need to start his swing slightly earlier, thus leaving himself open to deception. Before, he could wait back and see more of the break on a good slider, but now he's started his swing before he's completely aware of what's coming.
I have no way of proving or disproving this, it's only a theory, but it strikes me as the most plausible explanation, and if this is the case - rather than, say, Sosa being negatively affected mentally/emotionally by Wrigley Field boos - we're unlikely to see a substantial rebound. This, along with the well documented clubhouse issues, have brought the Cubs to the point where they're trying desperately to trade the former heart of the ballclub.
However, with his hefty contract, and now the revelations regarding specific players involved in the BALCO case and the subsequent taint that travels from it to Sammy, the possibility for a deal that would be to any advantage for the Cubs seems remote. Hope that the Sosa of early 2004 makes a year long appearance in Chicago, because like it or not, he'll almost certainly be roaming right in 2005.
Assuming Sosa's a Cub next year, joining him in one way or another will be the young, talented, and extraordinarily frustrating, Corey Patterson. Whether offseason acquisitions move him to left field, or he's patrolling the familiar territory in center field, the Cubs appear committed to Patterson. And why not - he's got speed, power, plays good defense and consistently hustles. He is, and always has been, a scout's dream.
And a sabrematrician's nightmare:
Even as he was breaking out in 2003, his walk and strikeout rates were atrocious. What he did do, however, was hit for a good average and for excellent power. That's certainly useful, if not ideal. Combine that with his defense at a difficult position, and you've got a solid to good Major League player on your hands.
He doesn't have the patience right now to be a leadoff hitter, but while he regressed in other areas in 2004, his walk rate was the one thing that showed significant improvement. That's what I choose to hang my hat on. He may never be a guy that takes a free pass ten percent of the time, but if he can hit around .300 and get in the vicinity of 50 walks a year, he can be a very good player.
But there's always the issue of consistency with Patterson, and if there's one thing that will drive supporters and critics alike absolutely nuts, it's his inability to play somewhere in the middle. Observe this month by month breakdown of Corey's 2004:
No real pattern, no middle ground, he's either great or gruesome, and you never know from month to month, week to week, day to day what you'll end up with. His June was great, but his August was even better, and if it wasn't for the nasty July sandwich they make I'd be inclined to entirely write off his poor performance in September/October to fatigue.
Bear in mind, Patterson didn't get any rest from the beginning of spring training in 2003 until the end of the 2004 season, as all of his time between the injury in July 2003 until the spring of 2004 was spent on grueling re-hab. I think the performance at the end of the year was due in part to tiredness, but because of the other random fluctuations I can't fully attribute the falloff to a need for respite.
Corey is an enigma, and until he shows an ability to play at a high level the majority of the time, I'll always be just a little bit afraid of - and a little bit excited about - what he might do.
The final piece of 2004's outfield puzzle was Moises Alou, and while he had one of his most productive power seasons ever, there were aspects of his play that never sat right with me.
I'm going to forgo rational analysis for a moment - although there are plenty of such reasons that I've partially expounded on why I think his departure is warranted - to tell a little bit about how Alou affected me last season.
I've always enjoyed being a Cub fan. Despite the frustration of losing, the ability to find new levels of ineptitude, there has been something enjoyable about the experience. Call it likeability, call it the romance of the game, but even when I wished field events were different, even when I wished the players were more talented, I never wished the team had different people. Even guys I'd never want to meet in a dark alley, like Glenallen Hill, had something that allowed me to warm up to them.
Never was this more the case than in 2003. Men I was inclined to dislike on their arrival, like sausage assailant Randal Simon, or men whose talent I consistently derided, like Tom Goodwin, were still fun for me to watch. I can't explain why, but beyond rooting for the Cubs, I was rooting for these men. I wanted the team to win so badly, but I wanted those people to win even more. When they didn't, when they fell apart at the end, it broke my heart because it wasn't just a failure for the Chicago Cubs, it was the painful end to a wonderful dream for a bunch of guys I dearly loved.
I don't know what happened last year, but for much of the season I was ashamed to be a Cub fan, and fair or not, I blame much of what made me feel that shame on Alou. There were others who exhibited similarly execrable behavior, but his blowups were the most consistent, and I always felt he was the ringleader; the one who made it okay for the others. Not only had the end of 2003 taken the chance for a Cub World Series from me, but now it had taken some of my love, and for that, I'll always be a little bitter.
In any case, he's gone now, and while I thank him for the good things he did on the field, I'm glad to see him go. Now, there's a hole to fill, and if there's excitement to be had this offseason, it's from contemplating the possible additions to a team that should already be very good.
While there are a couple different configurations the Cubs could wind up with, the basic fact is that there's a spot in the outfield to fill, and it doesn't matter what part of the grass they play on: if they're good enough, the Cubs will find a way to accommodate them.
Carlos Beltran: If he were any more breathlessly pursued by Major League GMs this winter, one could be forgiven for confusing baseball's suits for screaming teenage girls and Beltran for Paul McCartney circa 1964. There is a palpable frenzy surrounding this player that, despite his prodigious skills, I fail to fully understand.
I'm aware of his youth, his fine bat, his excellent glove, his superlative base-stealing abilities, and his postseason exploits, yet I still don't see how that combination of factors has changed frothing at the mouth from a sign of rabies to an acceptable state of being among baseball executives.
I'd be lying if I said I didn't want Drac (my pet nickname for Beltran in the event of a Cub signing - origin found toward the bottom of this entry at my old digs) on board. He's a good to great hitter from both sides of the plate, his speed would be a welcome addition to a mostly plodding Cub ballclub, he has no lingering injury issues to cause concern, and his addition to the outfield defense along with Patterson would nearly be enough to allow whoever might be playing right field to assume a softball-style short field position just behind second base.
But even with all the positives, the fact remains that Beltran is coveted by several teams who seem willing to break the bank for him. The Astros made a pretty sane offer of $70M for five years, but that won't come close to getting it done with teams like the Yankees and Angels in the mix. He has become overvalued before he's even signed a deal, and that alone might merit a pass.
Add in that he's almost certain to be the last start-worthy outfielder to sign this offseason, and the risk balloons from the simple possibility of overextending financially, to negotiating for months only to lose out and find that what you're left with at the end is the desiccated remains of Juan Gonzalez. It is that last fear that might eventually push the Cubs in a different direction.
Magglio Ordonez: Ah, speaking of desiccated remains...
Alright, that might be going too far based on available information, but the problem, of course, is that the available information goes little beyond the word of Scott Boras that Magglio's knee will be in working order by spring, and if we're going to start calling the whatnot that pours from Boras' maw "information" then I suppose we should grant the same courtesy to the Weekly World News, and I'm not ready to take that leap.
Before last season, Ordonez looked to be heading for a big payday when he became a free agent. He was one of the more consistent players in the league, hitting above .300, getting on base in the .380s, and slugging well over .500 for the last few years. His glove and arm were solid if unspectacular, and his speed was above average for a man of his size and power. He was going to be one of the most sought-after free agents coming into 2005.
The Mystery Knee has changed all that, and now any team that brings him on board is taking on a huge risk. It would be easy to dismiss if the reward weren't so potentially great, but since no club is likely to give him a contract that isn't heavily based on incentives, the opportunity to get a fantastic player at a bargain price is what will keep teams like the Cubs interested.
Extra caution, though - his workout that had been scheduled to take place during the Winter Meetings in Anaheim was cancelled, with the only reasoning being that any proof anyone should need of Ordonez' health was contained in the doctor's reports. It may be that he's already close to signing somewhere, making a workout unnecessary, but my neuroses say otherwise, and nothing they say is nice. He could still be a fine pickup, but treading carefully is highly recommended.
J.D. Drew: While some Phillie fans may view his troubles as karmic payback for the spurning they received at his hands, Drew's inability to fully capitalize on his talent due to seemingly constant injury problems has been frustrating to watch. He gets on base better than Ordonez or Beltran, and he has at least as much raw power as either of his main rivals, if not a little bit more. One could argue that, if healthy, he has a chance to be the best hitter among this crop of free agent outfielders.
It's that caveat that makes things sticky: "if healthy" indeed. Before last year, Drew hadn't accrued 500 plate appearances in a single season, nor had he played more than 135 games. Had he stuck to the steady diet of DL time it would be easy to pass on him, but of course he had to make things difficult on folks by not only staying healthy enough to log 645 PAs in 2004, but by positively raking all year long, hitting .305/.436(!)/.569 during that span while clubbing 31 home runs and walking 118 times.
The Cubs would benefit greatly from his ability to consistently get on base, and 145 games or so of his career .287/.391/.513 line would be worth some nice money, but if a contract to Ordonez has the potential to be a Titanic-like disaster, one to Drew could be like being pecked to death by hovering bands of hungry seagulls.
Richard Hidalgo: When writing a preview of the Astros last year I said of Hidalgo, "Like a Superball in a room with cobblestone walls, Richard Hidalgo's career has lacked any predictable direction." Sadly, this is still the case, as Hidalgo once again followed up an excellent year with an inexplicably dismal one, hitting .239/.301/.444 over the course of his time in both Houston and New York.
As a low budget alternative or final resort, he's an intriguing possibility, and I'd expect he'd land with a team that was looking for a remainder-bin bargain, or whose other pricier options had moved elsewhere. The first option doesn't describe the Cubs, but the second option could. That said, I'd be extremely surprised to see Hidalgo in Chicago, especially since the Rangers are rumored to be close to a deal.
Austin Kearns: The Reds could be interesting in dealing Kearns if the wacky experiment of teaching him to play third base fails to yield results. Of course, he's another player with tons of potential and a long injury history, and his issues have piled on before he's reached his 25th birthday.
The good news is he's hugely talented and wouldn't cost a lot of money, the bad news is that his near inevitable mid-season injury replacement would be less talented and more expensive. Toss in the players that would have to go to the Reds to make the trade come to pass, and it looks like a deal that only gets done out of desperation. I'd say Kearns as a Cub is extremely unlikely, but I never thought Derrek Lee would play for Chicago either.
Jason DuBois: It's always risky for me to write about DuBois because inevitably I return to my admittedly disproportionate hangup with the pronunciation of his last name. Before you know it, innocent bytes are spilled everywhere, loudly declaring, "doo-BOYSS? doo-BOYSS!?!?! I mean, I'm no Francophile, but come on people!!!" All anyone can hope for is that the carnage will last for only one paragraph.
If the first three names on this list fell by the wayside, I'd be inclined to give DuBois a shot rather than sign someone like Hidalgo. He knocked the snot out of the ball in Iowa last year, posting a .316/.389/.630 line, and I don't care if the PCL's a hitter's league, that's some good work in the lumber yard. He's no great shakes in the field, but it's not like Moises "Short Legs" Alou was any better the last three years, so I'm inclined to ignore that shortcoming.
He'll be 26 next year, so if the Cubs are going to get any use out of him they'd better start, lest he be consigned to the fate of Roosevelt Browns of this world. I think it's more likely that he's used as a fourth or fifth outfielder, but as a fallback position, the Cubs could do a lot worse.
If I had to pick one of these guys to join the Cubs next year, it would be Beltran. He's the best combination of talent, youth, and health to be had. The issue, of course, is cost, and if the eventual price is too dear, there are worse things than rolling the dice on one of the very fine, but flawed, players that remain.