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Assuming the Position 2008 - Shortstop
by Derek Smart
Since 2003, shortstop has been, if not an Achilles' Heel for the Cubs, at the very least it's been, shall we say, Odysseus' Oblique?...Nestor's Navel?...Hector's Haemorrhoid? Point is, it's a position that's been sorely lacking in usefulness for the last several years. Long gone are the days when you can expect to put a slick glove man in the six hole and punt offense altogether. In order to field a truly fearsome squad, one that has a chance to dominate rather than merely get by, it's necessary to put players all over the field who can make positive offensive contributions, if not when viewed in a vaccum, at least relative to the rest of the league at their position.
In recent years the Cubs have failed even that modest goal, as the table below describes (all ranks are from among the players on each team who played the most defensive innings at shortstop for their respective clubs).
The first thing that jumps out at me, that leaps in the air, pirouetting, spitting blue fire while singing La Marseillaise in the voice of Ronan Tynan, is the simple fact that despite all his big, positive energy, despite all the spark and life he can bring to a game, in 2007 Ryan Theriot was the offensive inferior of - oh, God, this is going to hurt - the 2005 version of the very symbol of the team's recent shortstop struggles, Neifi! himself.
Now, I realize that I'm using one of Neifi!'s finest seasons in the comparison (Seriously. Look it up.), and that Theriot is still kinda young, but the sad truth is he's not so young that we should expect growth. Rather, as he moves into his age 28 season in 2008, it's more reasonable to foresee something like the status quo, and as you can see above, that's simply not good enough. It might also be something of a reach. Let's take a quick peek at Theriot's monthly splits from last year.
So, tell me, is one of these things not like the others? Take that clearly aberrant July out of the picture, and you're left with .250/.302/.319 for his remaining 490 trips to the dish. That's not just unhealthy, that's barely breathing. It is, in fact, a level of production that the rest of the Cubs lineup is not built to sustain - very few lineups are - but if there's a sizeable contribution from the defensive end of the spectrum, then it's possible some of this horror can be absorbed.
Quick explanation: I've got RATE2, which normalizes BP's RATE statistic for league difficulty, etc. For that one, 100 is average, and anything above or below it is the number of runs lost or gained on average through his defensive contribution over 100 games. In Theriot's case, he's at a 97, so for every 100 games he plays at shortstop, he costs the team 3 runs versus an average defender, or approximately 1/3 of a win. RZR is Revised Zone Rating, which I'll allow the link to more thoroughly explain, and OOZ is the number of balls the defender made plays on that were out of his zone (the same zone for RZR, by the way). What's that? Get to the point? Fine, then.
Ryan Theriot is a sub-standard defensive shortstop, both when compared with a theoretical average, and when compared to the other players in his league. He does alright getting to balls in his prescribed area, but he doesn't work well outside that range, and that's the real damning point. He's dead last among 2007 NL starting shortstops in the total number of balls he got outs on outside his zone, and next to last in those plays per 9 innings. Observationally, he simply lacks the combination of range and arm strength that allows the better defenders in the league to make those extra plays - the plays that make the difference between those who are placeholders, and those who own the place.
So, not only is Theriot a liability with the bat, but he fails to make up for it with his glove. He clearly needs to be replaced as a starter, but then again, might the available alternatives be worse?
Ryan Theriot - If what's above hasn't convinced you that, despite the utility and spirit of "The Riot", he's simply not an everyday player, then there's precious little I can do to sway you. He'll be on the team next year, and he'll certainly play some short, but he should also play second, and third, and if all goes well, only accumulate about 250 plate appearances in the process. As a judiciously utilized super-sub, he's quite useful, but start him daily, and you're simply creating a lineup hole that needn't be there.
Ronny Cedeno - So, what are we supposed to believe? The .357/.413/.528 line he's posted in 532 career Iowa at bats, or the .247/.277/.349 line that tells the tale of his 688 Major League at bats? I'll admit I think there's a sliver of possibility that Cedeno could eventually evolve into a useful Major League shortstop, but I've seen enough of the despair surrounding that fragment of hope to never want to go on that pipe-dream salvage dive again. Besides, if a championship's a log cabin, you don't build it by grabbing 25 toothpicks, adding water, and hoping they grow into big, strong timbers. You just chop down some massive trees and cut out the middle man.
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Miguel Tejada - Here he is, one of those white whale types. Having missed the boat when he was actually available on the market, his name has been mentioned all over the place in connection with the Cubs over the last couple years, with nothing concrete really coming of it beyond a rumored offer of Mark Prior. The question at this point is less about who among the Cubs stash of players can get this deal done, and more, is this deal even worth doing anymore?
He's seen a significant and steady decrease in his power numbers during his first four years in Baltimore, his ISO going from a robust .223 in 2004, and settling in at .146 last year, which, while still healthy for a shortstop, is well below the superstar production level one expects from a player of his stature. He did break his wrist during the season, but his ISO before the injury was actually worse at .116, and his season numbers were somewhat saved by a post-injury monster August in which he hit .300/.374/.609 with 10 homers, so I don't think we can point to his wrist as a factor. He quite simply seems to be getting older.
His defense also appears to be on the slide, with the Orioles making noises at the end of the year about the possibility of shifting him to third to account for his diminished range afield. Statistically, BP has his RATE2 at 88 last season, which is easily his worst full season defensively to date. Add to that equation the $30M left on his deal ($13M in each of the next two years, with $2M in signing bonus payouts in 2010-11, a fact I would never have dug up were it not for the ridiculously fabulous Cot's Baseball Contracts), and you're looking at a more risky proposition than you may have originally thought.
There's the possibility that some of the performance issues on both sides of the ball can be accounted for by malaise, what with the team around him being so clearly unable to compete, but that seems all too convenient. Would Tejada be an improvement over the current situation? Sure, particularly if he could inch a bit closer to average with the glove. I'm not sure he's worth the price in talent and treasure to bring him on board, but then again, he looks like the most complete package available.
Khalil Greene - This idea makes me wince for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is the rumored chit in the deal, one Felix Pie. It seems a steep price to pay for a player who fails to meet any of your needs (not that Pie does, but that's another post). Despite last year's results, this is a club that shouldn't have power issues, yet the only offensive asset Greene brings to the table is that very same pop and zing (and perhaps a soupçon of zaz).
He also has a career OBP of .312 - a number he significantly underperformed last season, and that's the sticking point, isn't it? What we have in Greene is a slightly more powerful version of Alex S. Gonzalez, who happens to negate that brute force advantage with his less-than-impressive glove-work (BP has his career RATE2 at 94, a figure he's been better than only once, in 2006).
Get on base at even a .330-.340 pace, and we'd have something to talk about, but Greene turned 28 a few weeks ago, is about to get expensive (he's in his second arb-eligible year), and has posted sub-.300 OBPs in two of the last three seasons. He's not what this club needs.
Julio Lugo - I've not actually seen his name mentioned anywhere, but I could envision a scenario (unlikely thought it may be) where the Red Sox go on a completely insane post-championship spending binge, re-signing Mike Lowell and bringing Alex Rodriguez on board to play shortstop. That would create a need to get rid of Lugo, and based on his performance last year (.237/.294/.349, with sub-par defense), I'd imagine he could be had for very little talent, with some money coming over to boot.
That said, his career line is still only .271/.333/.395, so any deal would have to be very much on the cheap, thus allowing the club to easily Cesar! him, should his performance merit such a thing. The likelihood of him falling on his face would be high enough, though, that doing this would be inadvisable, and since the necessary scenario is extremely unlikely, I don't think it truly concerns us.
Alex Rodriguez - "This is not the 'droid you're looking for." - Jim Hendry
Kaz Matsui - My first thought here was that this didn't seem like a half bad idea. He was a decent enough shortstop for the Mets in 2004 - it is, after all, the position he'd played all his career to that point - and he looked to have something of renaissance in Colorado, posting a .288/.342/.405 line for the season which I would gladly take from the six hole.
My second thought was that I should look at his home/road splits, and that's where the trouble began. All those theoretical gains just melt away to the tune of .249/.304/.333 when he's removed from Denver's Great Space Coaster. It makes me think his career line of .272/.325/.387 might actually be his upside at this point, and despite my opening statements, I'd rather pay the minimum for a guy like Theriot than pay a few million for that.
David Eckstein - He has no power, and like so many of these other folks we're looking at, is almost entirely reliant on his batting average to keep his OBP at acceptable levels. That said, he'd be a reasonable enough option if he wasn't going to turn 33, and hadn't also gone from being a decent shortstop, to being an sizable liability with the glove. He's fallen fast, though, and at this point in his career, no one should really look at him unless he's willing to take a one or two year deal.
Neifi! Perez - Oh, just stop it.
It may be revealing too much about how unfortunately long the process of writing this has been to declare that when I first began sketching out this piece, the most tantalizing option on the market was Edgar Renteria, who could both be had, and be had without coughing up top tier talent. The Tigers jumped on it, though, so now we're left with what remains, which is a bucketful of flawed options, none of which are particularly palatable.
I'll come right out and say that, short of the fantasyland signing of this year's big fish, there's no free agent option I can see that presents enough of an upgrade to warrant spending extra money. There are other areas where that cash can be funneled more effectively. On the trade side, I only see Tejada as enough of a plus to justify a deal, and even that comes with considerable risk.
Here's where I'm at: if acquiring Tejada does not financially preclude upgrades in right field or the back of the rotation, and does not eviscerate the farm, I think it's worth the risk for a shot at the upside. Other than that, I don't see a reasonable option to supplant Theriot, beyond giving Cedeno another look, and if that doesn't depress you, you're not paying attention.