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Assuming The Position 2006: Outfield - Part A
by Derek Smart
The Cubs entered 2005 with an outfield in transition. What was once a threatening threesome of Sammy Sosa, Moises Alou, and Corey Patterson, became a Seven-Headed Out-Beast whose most familiar face (Patterson) spent significant time in Iowa due to his lack of production.
That the previous season's successful troika was broken up was certainly understandable. Alou was heading into his age 38 season after having a resurgent offensive year, and with his age and recent performance record, any skepticism as to the repeatability of his excellence can be excused. Add in that the option the Cubs didn't exercise was for $11.5M, and sending him away with a thank you and a cookie made a ton of sense.
Sosa's situation was different, but his departure was no less necessary. In fact, it was considerably more urgent, as his huge salary and rapidly declining production combined with a horrible decision to leave the ballpark during the season's final game to forever transform him from a fan favorite into a symbol of everything that was wrong with the 2004 club.
However, even with all of that fine reasoning the team had a lot of production to replace, and the biggest shoes to fill, at least in total stature, were obviously those of Sosa. Despite the hard feelings associated with his actions toward the end of 2004, he was still the team's all time leader in home runs as well as being arguably the most popular Cub since Ernie Banks. He was, for the years between the organization's playoff appearances in 1998 and 2003, just about the only reason many people came to the ballpark. After all, it's not often one gets to watch an inner-circle Hall of Famer at his peak.
Yet Sosa was miles away from being that player by the time he was sent away, so while the task of replacing his charisma would be tall indeed, that of replacing his production was not nearly so steep. There were some high profile players available who would have more than done the job - Carlos Beltran chief among them - but prices were high, and many of the better players were gone before Sosa's situation was handled. Plus, once he was dealt, with over $16M going to Baltimore along with him, the big boys were simply more than the organization wanted to afford.
So with time and dollars short, the job wound up falling to 36 year-old Jeromy Burnitz, who had spent the previous season in the hitter friendly climes nestled at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. It was a deal that made the best of a bad situation in a way that was reminiscent of a movie-style spy biting down on his handy-dandy cyanide tooth when confronted with the alternative of an equally inevitable, yet longer and more painful death. No good option was available, but at least one was preferable.
However, despite the desperation inherent in signing him, Burnitz was generally useful in right. His .258/.322/.435 line left a lot to be desired, particularly in the power department (anyone expecting much more batting average or OBP was fooling themselves), but in comparison to the man he was replacing (Sosa hit a disturbing .221/.295/.376 in 424 PAs for the Orioles), he was practically a god. Tack on the fact that he played excellent defense in right, and he was a solid signing for a team with at least one outfield star.
The problem, of course, was that the Cubs were sending men who were distinctly on the other side of the starlight spectrum to man the remainder of the pasture. Asking Todd Hollandsworth and Jason Dubois to handle the duties in left was a plan that was doomed to failure from the start. Dubois was likely the better option, but the job was handed to Hollandsworth, based mostly on the excellent work he had done off the bench in 2004.
The issue with that bit of reasoning was pretty obvious, the main question being, why should 148 at bats that spun tales of this 31 year-old's hitting prowess trump the other 2,516 at bats that told a story of consistent, unrelenting mediocrity?
The answer from the Cubs was essentially, "because," and when Hollandsworth predictably struggled, Dusty was given little choice but to bench his guy and give Dubois a shot. Unfortunately, while he showed flashes of power, Dubois was unable to adjust when the league stopped throwing him yummy, yankable fastballs on the inner half.
As the opposition kept tossing him pitch after pitch low and slow outside, he kept swinging and missing, ever trying to pull the unpullable, and if that wasn't enough to dig his proverbial grave, his defense was Geneva-Convention-violation brutal. When he was performing offensively it was worth enduring, but without any ameliorating factor, torture of this kind would not stand.
So the Cubs were left without a viable option for one of their corners, and once it became clear that these men weren't up to the task, multiple alternatives were tried in an attempt to get something out of the position. First it was Jody Gerut, who was given fully 16 PAs before he was sent on his way and replaced by Matt Lawton, who had all of 83 PAs of relative uselessness before he was parceled elsewhere.
It wasn't until the Cubs looked inward that they finally found a solution, albeit once all was essentially lost. Matt Murton, 23 years old, only a few hundred at bats over A-ball, and all he did once he joined the club was hit. He almost instantly became the team's best offensive outfielder, putting up nearly the same VORP as Burnitz (14.7 to Burnie's 17.5), in less than a quarter of the plate appearances (160 to 671).
That he also seemed capable of consistently having the kind of intelligent at bats that most Cubs appeared to actively avoid only brought his superiority into starker relief. Laying off pitchers' pitches and pouncing on balls he could drive, Murton showed remarkable maturity for a player of his age and experience, and with every at bat, put the lie to Dusty Baker's contention that young players should be eased into a more prominent role.
There was little that Murton could have done earlier in the year - it was asking enough for him to make the jump as early as he did - but once he was on board the team should have been more aggressive about putting him in games. That it seemed appropriate to the organization to demote him for a few days in August to make room for some DL refugees returning to a sinking ship speaks volumes about the club's attitude toward experience and its relative lack.
Still, Murton didn't let it get to him, and once he returned, answered legitimate questions about his power by hitting 6 homers in 77 at bats. It took a while for everyone to catch on, but by year's end, Murton had made it clear, at least to me, that he belonged in the Majors.
And then there was Corey Patterson, whose modus operandi in previous years had always been to sprinkle flashes of brilliance among larger stretches of trouble. Yet there was digression from the norm in 2005, as Corey managed to put together a completely brilliance-free season, getting himself sent to AAA in the process, and bringing his career with the Cubs ever closer to an end.
It looks like the club is going to give him another shot this spring, but that's a courtesy based almost entirely on the perception of potential lingering in the mind of Jim Hendry like the memory of first love lost. Take a gander below for the shock of a cold shower.
That, ladies and gents, is what it's like to stare into the ugly maw of regression. There was some reason for hope last year with the increase in his walk rate, but all of that progress is gone, replaced with whiffs and weak pop-ups. If one is searching for reasons to be optimistic about Patterson's future, his performance record is a lousy place to look.
The one thing Corey can still do is play defense, despite occasionally odd routes to balls. His speed and athleticism help to make up for a lot of the misreads he makes, and when he's able to set up properly, his arm is surprisingly strong and accurate.
However, unless Patterson wants to be a fifth outfielder, forever coming off the bench to pinch hit in the hopes that he might find a hint of his old power stroke, playing defense in the late innings for a man who can actually swing the bat, he needs to make some big, fast changes.
It was sad to see how quickly Patterson deteriorated, but in the end he was only a smaller version of the Cub outfield as a unit. How badly did this mitxture stink up the joint? Look no further than the chart below, which details the cumulative team VORP of all players listed primarily as outfielders by Baseball Prospectus for the 2004 and 2005 seasons, with each team listed from highest to lowest according to their rank in the Majors during the corresponding year.
For the uninitiated, let me take a quick spin around what this VORP stuff means: it's an acronym that stands for Value Over Replacement Player, and without getting into the all too mathy mechanics of the thing, it's the number of runs contributed beyond what a replacement-level player (read: standard scrub) at the same position would contribute if given the same percentage of team plate appearances.
It's also important to note that ten runs of VORP generally corresponds to one win for the team, and I mention this so I can make a point: The Cubs finished 2004 with a record of 89-73. They finished 2005 with a record of 79-83, a difference of 10 wins. The Cub outfield finished 2005 with 123.1 VORP. They finished 2005 with 29.2 VORP, a difference of 93.9 VORP. Divide that by 10. Get the picture?
As horrible as it was to have the middle infield flux the club experienced all year, as damaging as all the pitching injuries and bullpen blowups were, the outfield's complete lack of anything resembling usefulness was almost entirely responsible for the difference between where the club was last year, and where they were this year.
For those of you wondering what standing pat would have done, the answer is not much. Alou came up with a solid 48.8 VORP for the Giants, but Sosa was a stunning -1.4, making their overall contribution 47.4. Figure that the men who replaced them combined for 34.1 VORP, and you're only looking at picking up one and a half wins for your trouble. In other words, without fresh blood - different fresh blood from what they brought on board - the Cubs were screwed.
So what can the organization possibly do to fix this mess? Tune in Thursday, when I'll go over some of the options at the Cubs' disposal.