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Assuming The Position 2006: Outfield - Part B
by Derek Smart
I talked on Tuesday about last season's disastrous outfield situation, rehashing all the horror that was.
Which brings us to this offseason, which finds the club in a similar state of outfield instability. It's clear that something must be done to alleviate the situation, but the question is what, and it seems to me the best way to go at it is to look at what parts are available to do the fixin'.
Corey Patterson - There are those who would say that Patterson is less of an option and more of a lead weight tied to a block of cement attached to an aircraft carrier anchor hurtling downward through time and space toward the irresistible gravitational pull of an offensive black hole.
Certainly it's a hyperbolic statement, but it's closer to the mark than the Cubs may want to admit. Last year, for the first time in his career, he could no longer get by on his talent alone (and even when doing some of his best work, he was usually only "getting by"), and the organization seems to have finally reached the point where they need him to do something about it, or get gone.
Patterson will get a chance to make good on the work he put in at the Cubs' facility in Mesa this fall, but he won't have nearly the leash length he's had in the past, and even if he turns it around it may only serve to hasten his exit via trade. After all, he's worth almost nothing now, and if he manages to show something it may be prudent to make a deal while other teams might perceive him as having value. You never know when that window might close, and if the Cubs wait too long, they could get their fingers caught.
Felix Pie - All indications are that Pie will be given every opportunity to win the center field job out of spring training, and while I'm enthusiastic about his future, one could make a case that being so willing to give the starting job to a 21 year-old with only 240 ABs above A-ball is the very definition of rushing a prospect.
Of course, guys with great speed and defensive ability who hit .304/.352/.554 as 20 year-olds in AA don't come along very often, either, so if you're willing to ignore cautionary tales of 21 year-olds with dubious plate discipline and a penchant for whiffitude being thrown into the Majors with only a few hundred ABs at their AA stop (note the gentleman discussed directly above for said sad story), then Pie looks like your man.
Matt Murton - Murton would be in a similar situation as Pie - competing for a starting job with few high minors at bats under his belt - if it wasn't for the time he got to spend with the big club at the end of 2005. Truthfully, he still is in that situation, just with 140 very successful Major League ABs as an additional bargaining point. He's also older (he'll be 24 next year) with better secondary batting skills (higher walk rate, and much lower strikeout rate), and from what I've seen in his time with the Cubs, a very mature approach at the plate.
In fact, he works very well with my previous statements on Dusty-proofing, in that he strikes a nice balance between patience and aggression in the same way that Derrek Lee does - able to wait if the pitches aren't there, but willing to go after a pitch he can do something with early in a count rather than wait for a perfect pitch that may never come, all while exhibiting good contact skills. This is how a high-OBP guy can function under Dusty Baker, and why men like Mark Bellhorn and Hee Seop Choi were never given a chance.
I don't think it's any secret to regular readers that I'm fairly high on him - not necessarily as a star, but as a very useful regular - so it may be appropriate to salt this. Still, I think he's ready to go full time in one of the corners (he doesn't have the arm for right, but he's got everything else), and with the dearth of really worthwhile free agents out there the Cubs would be silly not to give him his shot.
Jerry Hairston - He was surprisingly competent in center last year, and solid enough on the rare occasions he played the corners, too. Too bad his offensive game is a series of almosts - he's almost an on base threat, he almost has a speed game, he's almost got decent pop for an up-the-middle guy.
He might be on the roster next season, but it would indicate extreme desperation or the critical failure of a poorly thought out plan if he got the majority of starts at any position.
Nomar Garciaparra - I don't personally consider Nomar a viable option for the outfield, but there's been just enough weird talk about the possibility to make it something I can't ignore. The only reasons to do this are because he seems to want to play here, he can still hit a bit, and the market for outfielders - like all free agents this offseason - is painfully thin.
Beyond that, I can't see a way to make it work. Left field may be the place a lot of teams hide a big bat that can't play defense, particularly if they already have first base covered, but the idea of seeing Nomar try to play out in the pasture every day makes me cringe. Besides, in my mind left field is Matt Murton's, and while I could see shifting Murton to the other corner if the right man was found to take his nominal place, I don't think Nomar's that guy.
Brian Giles - He's easily the biggest name available among the outfielders, and he'll deservedly get a nice payday from someone. While his numbers over the last two years don't look impressive on the surface, it appears that the impact Petco Park had on his results is well understood by the men who'll be competing for his services. Shoot, all you have to do is look at his road split from this year (.333/.463/.545) to know he can still hit.
The problem is, he'll be 35 in 2006, and even when taking his home park into consideration there's reason to be concerned about his power decline. He still gets on base like a demon, though, and I'd love to see him as a Cub next year. However, his age and the team's desire to focus on the Rafael Furcal sweepstakes likely means he won't be part of the picture.
Johnny Damon - While I don't necessarily think Pie's time is now, I do think it will be soon, and so for my money, going after an aging center fielder of declining defensive and offensive value who is likely to command a contract ridiculous in both years and cash is an exceedingly bad option.
Would Damon help immediately? Probably, but I don't think he's the type of player to put a team over the top, and in order to really get good value out of the endeavor you'd best be walking away with a ring after season one, because whether it's yours or not you'll be paying the mortgage on it for the next three years or so.
Juan Pierre - Let me start by disclosing that I simply don't see what all the fuss is about. Never have, never will. I get that he's fast, and gee willikers that's great, but when that's your only discernible skillset aren't you required by the laws of physics to morph into Tom Goodwin?
Reckless aspersion casting you say? Perhaps, as it's true Pierre is slightly better with the stick, but his superiority in that regard hinges almost entirely on his batting average - a career .305 compared to Goodwin's .268 - while everything else is essentially the same or a little worse.
Goodwin had a better walk rate - Pierre walks once every 16.6 PAs in his career, while Goodwin took a pass every 11.8 - and nearly identical isolated power, all while having a higher stolen base success rate (75.8% to 73.6%) and playing better defense in center field according their career RATE2 (99 to Pierre's 97, where 100 is average). In fact, Pierre's 2005 was essentially Tom Goodwin V2003, only with a lot more opportunities to waste outs.
The unfortunate word at this point is that the Cubs will go after Pierre if the Marlins are smart enough to non-tender him. Considering the expense and likely performance, in addition to the Pie situation I've already mentioned innumerable times, signing Pierre would be a disaster of epic proportions.
UPDATE: Once again, my lack of imagination bites me in the behind. Just after I posted this, I read a throwaway paragraph here that said the Cubs and Marlins were in preliminary discussions of a three-team trade that would involve Pierre and Patterson.
Despite what I wrote above, I'd be fine with this scenario. I'd actually prefer Pierre to Patterson at this point, and if I've got the facts straight, Pierre is in his final year of arbitration, which if he were acquired via trade, would allow the Cubs to only keep him for this year.
My biggest problem with Pierre would be if he were given a long-term deal, and since the theory of this rumor would allow him to be used as a stopgap, that would eliminate that issue for me.
Kenny Lofton - If the Cubs are looking for a one-year stopgap to save them from Corey Patterson, yet allow Felix Pie the chance to develop at a more leisurely pace, Lofton is the only reasonable free agent option out there.
He was surprisingly good for Philadelphia last year, posting a .335/.392/.420 line in 367 at bats, and stealing 22 bases in 25 attempts. Of course, he'll be 39 next year, and he's had his share of injuries of late, so every time you give him a job you're playing Russian Roster Roulette. Still, he might be worth the risk if it keeps Pie in Iowa avoiding the fate of his predecessor.
Jacque Jones - He might just be exactly the sort of player the Cubs cannot afford to take on. For a club that's already short on OBP, to bring in a man with a career .327 mark - who hasn't been at or above that level since 2003 - would be suicide. He has some pop and some speed, but not nearly enough to make up for his problems reaching base.
He also has a platoon split so bad that anyone playing him against lefties should be brought before a court martial on charges of dereliction of duty. Partner him with a lefty masher and you've nearly got a complete player (he still has on base issues), but his expense is likely to eliminate that as a possibility.
Preston Wilson - Second verse same as the first, except Wilson has a bit more pop than Jones, no discernable platoon split, and less speed and defensive utility. He hasn't been the same player since he left Florida, in large part due to injuries, but again, the production of outs is really his most prominent feature as an offensive player, and the Cubs are simply not in a position to absorb them all in exchange for a few trots around the bases.
Aubrey Huff - The bad news is, 2005 was a significant down year for Huff, as he posted what were easily his worst rate stats since 2001. The good news is, 2005 was a significant down year for Huff, and if one factors in that along with the leadership change in the Devil Rays' front office, it's clear that anyone interested in shopping for him is likely to experience significantly less sticker shock.
I still like Huff, but I'll admit his down year has me a bit yippy. After all, his only real skills to this point have been hitting for average and power, and while that combination is absolutely lovely to see, when a player is creeping up on 30 and those skills begin to take on the look of decay it can be worrisome, particularly when his plate discipline is modest and he can't run much or play great defense.
Yet, Huff is left-handed and seemed to rebound nicely after a rough start, and while he's not a defensive whizz anywhere, the fact that he can cover all four corners with at least a hint of competence is a plus - being able to give days off to Lee or Ramirez without having to deal with whoever's being Jose Macias that afternoon is an undeniable positive.
If the price is right, the Cubs could strike a nice balance between risk and reward with Huff. The free agents available are generally risky, or expensive, or not very good - or worst, all three - so if the D-Rays' new brain trust is up for being reasonable, I think a deal could get done that would work out well for everyone.
Kevin Mench - Like Huff, he doesn't walk a ton, and like Huff, he makes pretty decent contact. Unlike Huff, he's right-handed, is a year younger, will only just become arb-eligible this offseason, and has less defensive utility.
He's also played his entire career in a hitters' paradise while sporting an absolutely brutal platoon split, so while he would make an excellent player off the bench, or even a great platoon partner with a lefty who had troubles with his port-sided brethren, he is not a good option to start full time.
Reportedly, the Cubs have expressed interest in acquiring him via trade, so one can only hope that if he is brought on board he's used in a manner that befits his skillset. I would also like a pony.
The above is by no means a complete list. I've left out options too putrid to mention, those too far fetched to imagine (without a change of leadership I'll refuse to believe any Cincinnati outfielders are available until they're actually dealt), and those I simply forgot.
There are useful players out there, and ways to combine men and cobble together such a beast (put Mench and Jones together and you've got an acceptable, if expensive, alternative). One of the bigger questions the Cubs will have to answer is who exactly they're looking to replace?
They pretty clearly will be finding someone to fill Jeromy Burnitz' shoes, but what of Patterson? What of Murton? I'd like to see Murton get the shot, and I'd like to see another center fielder in camp to spot Patterson if he fails to deliver. I don't trust that he can get it done, and I don't want to see Pie succumb to the same fate after being rushed along.
I'd love to see Giles, despite the age risks, but an outfield of Murton, Huff, and perhaps one last season of Kenny Lofton as Corey's safety net (or Juan Pierre as a one-year stopgap in Patterson's stead) would suit me just fine. Perfect it ain't, but perfect's not out there.