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Assuming the Position 2005: Part 3 - Shortstop
by Derek Smart
As the promise of the 2004 season shone before us, that big weakness we all sensed - that chink in the armor, that hole in the belly of the dragon - clearly, it resided at shortstop. And while it's debatable whether the failure to address the position earlier was the cause of the team's ultimate demise - injuries, inconsistency and, some would say, peevishness ruled the day on that score - there is little doubt that the Cubs suffered from a lack of production at the six hole, particularly through July.
This was partially due to a flaw in design. Alex Gonzalez was the starter going into the season, and despite his high profile bungle in the NLCS, has always been an excellent defender. However, going into 2004 he was a 31 year-old who had never played a full season when he hit above .255 or got on base at more than a .315 clip. Allowing such an obvious liability on the field every day is like holding a formal dinner for your favorite sheep and inviting along the ram who reeks of eau de loup.
The other factor was injury, and when Gonzalez went on the shelf in May the Cubs had to find a way to fill in the blank, and in searching for a solution, signed the most motley collection of middle-infield washouts collected by a Major League team within the bounds of a single season. From Rey Ordonez to Denny Hocking, Damian Jackson to Neifi Perez, Jim Hendry signed them all to minor league deals in hopes of catching lightning in a bottle while a permanent solution was sought.
In the meantime, Ramon Martinez played a lot of short in Gonzalez' stead, and while he had been a solid backup for much of his career, 2004 was his worst season to date. His lack of production triggered the callup of Ordonez, who managed to hurt the team in ways previously unimaginable. Unable to hit or play his theoretically trademark defense, he was given far too many opportunities to get better after it was abundantly clear that what little Major League level talent he had to begin with had long ago been spent.
Seeming relief came on July 19 when Gonzalez came off the DL and Ordonez was relegated to the scrap heap he'd been stinking like for 67 PAs. Yet as horrid as St. Rey's .164/.190/.262 line was, Gonzalez was unable to improve upon it in the twelve games he played in July, posting an equally bad .154/.195/.256 in his 41 après-DL plate appearances. It was just too much to bear. Something had to be done.
Yet, at the end of a dispiriting loss to the Phillies on the afternoon of July 31, no word had come of a deal to fix the problem. It looked as if the Cubs had been thwarted in their quest to bring a respectable shortstop to Chicago.
That is, until word came down that with seconds left before the tolling of the bell, Jim Hendry had managed to execute an intricate, four-team trade that made Nomar Garciaparra a Cub without giving up a member of the 25-man roster. A savior for the season had been found, and on the relative cheap to boot.
Of course, we all know now that Nomar's arrival was not the harbinger of victory it was thought it to be in the moment, and despite the notable increase in production he brought, the Cubs' overall results from the position left much to be desired. Take a look at where they fell using VORP compared to the rest of the National League (These numbers were gleaned by simply adding the 2004 season VORP totals posted by Baseball Prospectus for the players on each team who played the majority of their time at shortstop with no accounting for actual time spent at the position. So, while it's not as precise as I might like, it's accurate enough to still make my point without breaking my brain.).
That's...um...bad. How do I know? A full season of Royce Clayton was more productive offensively than the group the Cubs were able to assemble. That's a true indictment of whatever the plan might have been. So, what do that number's component parts look like?
Acquiring Nomar was certainly helpful, despite a relative decline in his production (his OPS+, where 100 is average, was the lowest since his 81 mark in 93 PAs as a 22 year-old), but look at all that dead weight he had to carry! Even old-style Garciaparra would have had a rough time moving the Cubs up that shortstop production list in the time allotted.
The most productive man at the position from a rate perspective was, by far, Neifi Perez. And now, a pause, while I undergo a much needed exorcism.
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Ahhhhh, that's better. Now that I can, thankfully, no longer see my own butt, let me say that investing in Perez with the idea that his 2004 production was anything other than fluke/aberration/sign-of-the-apocalypse is akin to buying a half-ton skid of tulip bulbs in January, 1637. Not only is it unintelligent, it's potentially disastrous. Let me elaborate: Baseball Prospectus' Equivalent Average (EQA) statistic puts a hitter with league-average production at about the .260 mark, thus it corresponds aesthetically to batting average. Perez' previous high EQA was .243. In Colorado. His Rockie EQAs from 1997-mid season 2001 look like this: .243, .220, .214, .220, .241. In - I can't stress this enough - Col-o-ra-do. If it looks, smells, and tastes like a turkey...
In any case, I've seen nothing to make me think the Cubs will be settling for Neifi as their starter, and since his $1M contract for 2005, while high, isn't exactly Tulipomaniacal, I'll simply resort to praying for the health of whoever mans the six hole on a regular basis next season. Speaking of...
Free Agent Options For 2005
The Cubs are anxious to keep shortstop from becoming the sore spot it was most of last year, but what was once a bumper crop of available plugs for the six hole is inching closer on an almost daily basis to resembling a picked over buffet table six hours into a five hour wedding reception. Nothing's critical yet - there's still plenty of prime rib on the cutting board - but the contracts given out thus far belie the glut on the market in their size, length, and speed of signage.
Not to overexpose my already obvious geekitude, but the quickness with which the initial deals were consummated reminds me of a second-round closer rush during a fantasy draft, with the odd caveat that the players going first aren't so much likely to be among the best, as they are among the cheapest. Judging from what the gents who should have been relative bargains got in cash and time, things could get nuts higher up the ladder.
Nomar Garciaparra - There's something odd going on when a person reaches a level of fame that garners the one-name treatment ("Michael!", "Ichiro!", "Zamfir!"), yet due to the region in which that fame was procured, a dialectically inspired misspelling emerges as the preferred stylistic choice. Really, don't you think achieving that level of stardom should at least cause people to deal with your name the way your parents intended? Although, when your given name is simply another name spelled backwards, I suppose all bets are off.
In any case, what's encouraging about Garciaparra's injury history is that it has caused him to express interest in a one-year deal, the theory being that he can build his worth and get a larger contract like, say, the 4-year $60M deal he supposedly turned down from Boston before the start of last season.
What's not encouraging about his injury history is that he has an injury history - a long one - and any contract he signs comes laden with risk, no matter what the length. Considering that Neifi! would be filling in whenever Nomah! got injured, the possibility of signing last year's trading deadline bounty leaves me a might queasy. However, if he stays healthy, he's likely to the most productive option available, at least for that first year. It just depends how lucky you feel.
Edgar Renteria - If the idea of nabbing a well-liked and respected member of the St. Louis Cardinals and using him as a weapon against his old comrades doesn't appeal to you on some base, mean-spirited level, then please turn in your Cubbie Creds on your way out the door.
However, just because the concept of signing him is fun doesn't mean it's the best idea. After 2003, it looked like Renteria's career was moving in a pretty smooth arc. Even if one believed that season was his peak, which would be a pretty reasonable assumption based on his age, it would also be reasonable to assume that the coming decline would be gradual. Instead, he fell off a cliff in 2004, going from his 2003 peak OPS+ of 131 down to a comfortably below average 90. His batting average, OBP and SLG all saw drastic dips, and while his strikeout rate was spiking, his walk rate was cratering.
While I don't think 2004 established a new lower level of performance for Renteria, I certainly don't know it, and the level of uncertainty is such that I would be wary of handing out a big, long-term contract. He'd be fun to have from a sticking-it-to-the-Redbirds point of view, but I have enough second thoughts to think my way into a migraine.
Orlando Cabrera - While having an appallingly bad year in Montreal, Cabrera was still on the mind of Jim Hendry at last season's trading deadline. The long sought-after deal for Nomar Garciaparra might not come through, and despite his poor play for the Expos, conventional wisdom said that once he was out of the clutches of that abysmally depressing franchise he would improve simply due to the change in atmosphere.
CW was right, to a point, because he did improve greatly after eventually landing in Boston, hitting .294/.320/.465 in 248 PAs. The problem from the Cubs' standpoint is that his work in Beantown is as good as it's likely to get. Cabrera has still only had one year when his OBP was over .325 (his .297/.347/.460 in 2003), and has never had an OPS+ over 97. He's now 30, and while the occasional player improves after they tack a zero to a three, those fellas are rare birds. His defense is a plus, but so was the case with Alex Gonzalez, and we all know how well that went. For the money Cabrera's likely to demand, I'd rather take a chance on a Renteria renaissance.
Rich Aurilia - When ruminating on single-year aberrant performance peaks (ah, can't you just see the smoking jacket and snifter of brandy?), few targets are as inviting as the Angels' Darren Erstad and his OPS+ of 137 in 2000, flanked by marks of 74 and 78. Yet, in discussions of this phenomenon, Aurilia tends to escape opprobrium despite an OPS+ of 148 surrounded by a 104 and a 95. Perhaps it's because Aurilia's career year came a season after Erstad's, or perhaps it's because when he came back to Earth he was about average instead of being downright awful. Most likely it's both of those factors merged with a need to debunk the value of Erstad's "grit and hustle" reputation.
As for Aurilia's current value, it's minimal considering the Cubs' needs. Or, considering anything, really. He hasn't had a full season OBP over .330 since his boom-boom year, and he seems to have lost the ability to hit for average or power. Defensively, he's middling at best, so the only real selling point for him is his price tag, which is likely to be lower than most of the shortstops available that one would consider starting without gun-barrel-style motivational techniques. The only reason to sign him is to keep Neifi out of the lineup, and frankly, there are made men who can handle that job for cheaper.
Jose Valentin - First, a couple of things in his favor: Valentin is still possessed of prodigious power, and despite making a few too many errors defensively, he makes up for it by getting to a lot of balls. He's been one of the most underrated defensive shortstops in either league for years, and it's been a shame how he's been mistreated in that respect by the White Sox and some of their fans. He's deserved better.
However, while there's something to be said for the possibility of a successful run in blue pinstripes for a former South-Sider, the fact remains that there's not much success likely in Valentin's future. He'll be 35 next season, and he's been experiencing a steady decline in EQA since his peak in 2001 - coming in at .274, .261, .257, .244 from 2001-2004 respectively. This is, for the most part, due to a an increasing inability to make contact. His walk rates have remained steady, and his isolated power has actually gone up, but 2004 marked the fourth consecutive campaign in which his batting average was lower than the previous year, bottoming out at .216 last season. There's just no reason to think he's going to get better than that, and the last thing this team needs is a guy who beats the crap out of the ball but gets on base less than 30% of the time.
The more I look at this, the more frightened I get. There's no clear choice, and while most have some upside, every last one has big downside. Aurilia and Valentin are too far gone for their cheapness to be an asset, and for all the money they're likely to ask, Renteria and Cabrera seem too risky. A one-year deal for Garciaparra looks to me to be the one most likely to bring an appropriate level of production for the investment, even with the potential for injury. But no matter what the Cubs end up doing, I have a feeling I'll be spending most of the 2005 season holding my breath.