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Assuming The Position 2006: Shortstop
by Derek Smart
No risk, no reward. It's an axiom for a reason, and when it came to solving the Cubs' long-time issues at shortstop, the organization adopted the proverb as a mantra for 2005, signing the potentially dreamy, but perennially damaged Nomar Garciaparra to man the six hole.
It was sound reasoning. The Cubs had no one in the organization ready to take over the position, and the other available free agents were demanding years and dollars well out of line with their likely production. Rather than take a long term risk on one of the expensive and faulty toys on the market, the Cubs opted for the short-term gamble that, incidentally, had a much higher possible reward from the offensive end in particular, if only Garciaparra could stay healthy.
Of course, if ifs and buts were candies and nuts, then Nomar would have a metric ton of chocolate-covered almonds instead of a surgically repaired groin. But there it is, that wince-inducing word Cub fans heard again and again since April 20th, and nary an after-dinner snack to be seen.
So, with the Cubs' up-the-middle savior sidelined until at least August, the club was forced to resort to measures that, should they be described as desperate, would make the final car ride of Thelma and Louise seem like the logical conclusion to a well thought out plan.
What followed was the basic scenario of any teen slasher movie: twenty minutes of raised expectations and irrational exuberance followed by an hour and a half of blood and carnage. Only in this case the standard third-of-an-hour of adolescent sexcapades was replaced by the ridiculously productive April of Neifi Perez, and the blood and carnage was replaced by......well......it wasn't replaced by anything. See below.
One great month, followed by four absolutely abysmal months with a solid one mixed in. You'll notice that the two good months were the ones in which he had the fewest trips to the plate, and in fact, if it weren't for his bad but not excruciating May, you could sort his at bats from highest to lowest and see a natural inverse sort in his OPS.
In other words, the more he swung, the worse he got, and while I think it's a stretch to assume a causal relationship between the two, especially since the monthly splits themselves are fairly arbitrary, at the very least it effectively brings home the idea that when it comes to Neifi!, less is more to the point where one could be excused for thinking that a total dearth of Neifi! would bring infinite riches, true love, and enlightenment.
Adding insult to injury (pun very much intended) was the constant and ridiculous usage of Neifi! at the top of the Cubs' order. It's one thing to accept your fate and use a player of Perez' caliber due to the direness of your straits, but it's quite another to take this individual who has the dubious distinction of being, not just one of the least productive hitters in the game today, but in the modern history of the game, and consistently bat him in front of the man on your squad who is plainly having an MVP-type season.
There are a great number of issues that one can raise with the tenure of Dusty Baker, but he is apparently unable to recognize that a man with a career .301 OBP - a horrific number nonetheless inflated considerably by having over one quarter of his plate appearances on the Planet That Pitching Forgot - is about as far from the correct choice to hit in front of the team's best player as Keanu Reeves was to play Don John, a fact that may be the most damning indictment of Baker's time as Cub manager due to its sheer, unencumbered stupidity.
Then, as if Misfortune hadn't piled on enough already, once Garciaparra did manage to return to the Cub lineup, it didn't take long for a combination of a cascade injury to his back, a season-ending quadriceps injury to Aramis Ramirez, and Ronny Cedeno's broken hand, to not only force Nomar to the hot corner, but leave the aforementioned Neifi! as essentially the last man on the roster capable of manning shortstop (Ryan Theriot joined the team shortly after Cedeno's injury, but he was only there in case Perez was struck by a meteor. Twice.).
So what began as a calculated risk ended as a worst case scenario, which is, I suppose, why the phrase 'calculated risk' contains the word 'risk' rather than 'guarantee', or 'promise', or 'invulnerability'. As I said before, it was a good gamble to take, and just because it didn't work out doesn't invalidate the thought process that said it was worth a roll of the dice.
However, I think it's safe to say that the Cubs aren't likely to speculate in a similar fashion in 2006, and with that in mind, let's go over some of the more likely options the club has at their disposal:
Nomar Garciaparra - I've already gone on about how I wish I could get behind his possible return - after all, besides already being extremely likeable, now he's some kind of real-life super-hero - but the fact is, a poor defender with a declining batting average, precious little plate discipline, and an apparent penchant for hospital food, isn't a luxury the organization can afford for the sake of a few warm fuzzies.
What recommends him is that he appears to be very interested in staying in Chicago, still looks to have some lovely pop in his bat, and what with his injury foibles, is unlikely to demand much in the way of compensation. Because of this, he's fostered some speculation about a position switch, with left field being mentioned most prominently, if purely in a speculative fashion.
I have some issues with putting Nomar in the lineup ahead of the likes of Matt Murton, but since this piece is supposed to be about the shortstop situation, I'll cut that rant off and say that while I'd be at least willing to listen to proposals for alternate places to put Garciaparra on the field, he's not the right man to play short for the Cubs.
Neifi Perez - If having Neifi! thrust into a starting job last year was a Doomsday Scenario, what would you call purposefully handing him that level of responsibility? Stupid? Incompetent? Suicidal?
Certainly it wouldn't be a move worthy of laudatory commentary, especially since his offensive contributions over the course of his career have been bad enough to force him out of a regular job, not just in this time of powerhouse shortstops, but even during eras when the likes of Larry Bowa could post a .248/.283/.301 line and make the All-Star team (Bowa's career OPS+, by the way, is 71 - Neifi!'s is 65. Daddy says, "Ouch!").
There are few events that would make me give up on the 2006 season before it even began, but signing Neifi! with the express purpose of playing him everyday at shortstop just might be one of them.
Ronny Cedeno - If forced to choose between the previous two candidates and Cedeno, Ronny gets my vote. Not only doesn't he come with the injury baggage that Nomar brings, but he's a better defender, and has the added bonus of being completely Neifi! free.
The problem is, that while he was decent offensively at West Tenn in 2004, and rather impressive during his 65 games for Iowa this year, when combined with his time spent in Chicago, that's only about 700 at bats of usefulness weighed against more than 900 at bats of utter futility at various levels of A-ball from late-2001 through 2003.
Granted, he was only 22 last year, making that excruciating work in the early part of his career almost entirely during the tender ages of 19 and 20, so cutting him some slack on his learning curve is reasonable, but the question is, how much? Expecting the .355/.407/.518 line he posted at Des Moines last year would be the height of folly, especially considering the twin deflaters: sample size and PCL offensive levels.
So what should we expect? This will sound like a copout, but I think the most precise assessment I can make without a sophisticated forecasting system at my disposal is that Cedeno will land somewhere between Neifi! and Nomar on both offense and defense - which, admittedly, is kind of like saying a storm system is likely to strike between the north and south poles. Try to pin me down, and I'd say that Ronny would be safely above average in the field, while posting something akin to a .270/.320/.400 hitting line.
How does that make him more desirable than Garciaparra? The fact that he would be his clear superior in the field, would have the potential to improve on those offensive numbers, and with #5's injury history, might just get the lion's share of the playing time anyway, is enough to make me think cutting out the middle man and saving some cash is, like discretion with valor, the better part of this deal.
Julio Lugo - While not a bad option, as he sports a passable OBP, solid defense, and decent speed, the fact that he's coming off his best year thus far, that he'll be turning 30 next year, and that it's dubious how much the Devil Rays are interested in parting with him (he is, after all, still not prohibitively expensive, all while the option of using B.J. Upton and his Magical Error Machine at short becomes less and less viable), make him less desirable than he might be (men without replacements who have just had their peak season tend to be on the spendy side trade-wise).
Still, the expense could be absorbed if Aubrey Huff were in the deal as well, thus killing two proverbial birds with one non-extant stone. So the question with the unknowable answer becomes, what would such a bauble cost? My guess is, 'too much', but then I'm still operating in a world where initiating discussions about a certain team's solid but unspectacular late-twenties left-handed power bat with dubious defensive utility elicits a request for one of the better young pitchers in either league.
If the price is right, Lugo's an appropriate option, but since I have trouble envisioning a world where dealing with the Devil Rays doesn't induce a seven-day drinking binge, I'll be surprised if anyone lands him.
Rafael Furcal - Furcal is this season's pipe dream, at least for me, and if there's a factor that makes his possible signing more of a candidate for sleepy-time ruminations than concrete reality, it's that with the dearth of useful shortstops available, and the monies and time given to his inferiors last year, he figures to be one of the most hotly pursued and most expensive commodities this winter.
That makes him a difficult catch for anyone, but even more so for the Cubs, who have actively distanced themselves from bidding wars in the recent past, despite having the financial wherewithal to make megadeals happen. In general, this is a strength, allowing the team considerably more financial flexibility, but Furcal's case is one where the level of shortage combined with the team's immediate needs could make overpayment appropriate and prudent, should it become necessary.
Why should the organization be willing to open their wallets in this case in particular? The Cubs' biggest failing in 2005, and in general over the last few seasons, has been in the OBP department, that particular failing being most egregious at the top of the order.
Furcal represents the closest thing to a prototypical leadoff man available on the market, and with the only other viable internal option for such a job being a very young, very inexperienced Felix Pie, adding a player who gets on base decently, has good speed, and plays their position with aplomb has considerable value.
Some of you will, understandably, express concern about the relatively modest .348 career OBP Furcal sports, and you wouldn't be wrong. Ideally, one would see a man at the top with at least another 30-40 points tacked onto that figure, but I dare you to find me that guy. Or rather, I dare you to find me that guy in a form that Dusty Baker would be willing to put in the leadoff spot.
What's that? Johnny Damon, you say? Fair enough - he's at least been closer to ideal the last two seasons, posting .380 and .366 on base figures during those years - but not only is his career OBP only 5 points higher than Furcal's, that boost comes from 6 more points of batting average over his career. Look at their walk rates, and they're nearly identical (actually, slightly in Furcal's favor).
Damon is four years older, looks to be losing a step in center field, lost ground in his walk rate and power last year, has seen his stolen base numbers decline for several seasons, and is likely to get an even more outrageous contract than Furcal. Add in that Pie is likely to take over center field, if not this year, than almost certainly next, and a Damon signing looks considerably less attractive.
In addition, as I briefly alluded to above, there's the Baker Factor. Like it or not, Baker will be managing the Cubs for the forseeable future, and as that's the case, one of the most important things for Jim Hendry to do this offseason is, for lack of a better term, Dusty-proof the roster.
Simply put, Furcal is a man that Baker can write into that top spot without thinking, and having seen the horror inherent in a lineup conceived entirely in the twisted mind of an improvising Johnnie B., removing thought from the process should be a priority for the organization. Furcal brings that type of security - an assurance that there's one less critical decision for Baker to screw up - and in my mind, combined with the needed speed and defense he brings, that's worth the pot of gold.
A lot of the Cubs' offseason hinges on what happens at shortstop, not only affecting that position on it's own, but having ripple effects through the infield and the lineup in general. While this is far from the only issue the Cubs must deal with, it could wind up being the most important.