MSTI.com’s 2008 In Review: Third Base

Blake DeWitt (A+!)
(.264/.344/.383 9hr 52rbi)
Dig this: Blake DeWitt had a 91 OPS+, meaning he was 9% worse than the average ballplayer. He had a month (June) in which he hit just .182 with two extra base hits. He ranked 25th in VORP among third basemen, behind such notables as Martin Prado and Ramon Vazquez. Worst of all, he got demoted to AAA for over a month in the heat of the pennant race. This sounds exactly like the prescription for a “F-, let’s get rid of this guy” rant, right?

But no: Blake DeWitt gets an A+, and if anything that’s too low.

In order to really judge how DeWitt performed in 2008, you have to go back to the beginning of the season and see how frightened everyone was at the prospect of him being forced into the job after injuries to Nomar, Andy LaRoche, and Tony Abreu (remember him?). This is what ESPN’s Rob Neyer had to say:

DeWitt’s just not ready. He spent most of last season in the Class A California League before moving up to Double-A. Also, he wasn’t great at either level, and in 128 games he drew 27 walks and struck out 88 strikeouts. The major league wolves would eat him alive.

This wasn’t a case of Neyer being biased or anti-Dodger; this was a very reasonable outlook, because how could you expect a guy who flopped so bad in AA in 2006 that he had to start 2007 in A-ball to have a prayer? More importantly, there was no backup plan. If he couldn’t hack it for the first month until Nomar “returned”, we’re looking at… what? Chin-Lung Hu? A highway robbery trade for Joe Crede? It may seem crazy to say it, but Blake DeWitt may have been the most vital player for the Dodgers this season (non-Manny division), because if he doesn’t come up and perform to some level of adequacy, the season is over before it starts.

Here’s the best part, though. He wasn’t just passable; he was good. In April he OPS’d .761; in May it was .896. I mean, I went so far as to say this on May 6:

Let’s make it as simple as possible: the kid who was decent but not great in A/AA ball last year is statistically one of the top 5 offensive third baseman in MLB right now. He’s 2nd in batting average at .321, behind only Chipper Jones’ insane .425. He’s 4th in OPS, behind only Jones, Aramis Ramirez, and David Wright.  How about this? He’s on pace for 101 RBI this season. Think about that for a second.

Not only that, DeWitt showed a plus glove at third base – Baseball Prospectus has him down for 11 runs above average on the season. Now it’s true, he went off a cliff in June and July as the league caught up and ended up with his demotion to Las Vegas. And you know what? If it had ended there for him, that would have been fine. He would have played a large role in the Dodgers’ success, proven to himself that he has what it takes to succeed at the top level, and gone into the offseason with a lot to work on. I mean, it couldn’t get any crazier for him than being the Opening Day 3B and having two hot months, right?

But no, DeWitt had to go top it all by coming back up from Vegas having reinvented himself as a second baseman, and not only that, became the team’s starter at the keystone through September and the playoffs with Jeff Kent recovering from knee surgery. Even better, DeWitt’s bat returned, as his September OPS of .872 was his second best month of the season. Finally, for a guy who’d tried the conversion to second in the minors once before and had failed, his fielding was a pleasant surprise – just two errors in 27 starts.

Really, I’ve got nothing but good things to say about Blake DeWitt, and that’s really odd for me. Maybe, however, we shouldn’t have been that surprised, because he was a first round draft pick, so it’s not as though he was a completely unknown commodity. It’s just that he’d shown so little of his talent in the minors, to the point where his huge increase in the bigs just floors you. I mean, his OBP was higher than that of James Loney, Jeff Kent, and Matt Kemp. For 2009, it remains to be seen if DeWitt will be a second baseman, third baseman, some combination of both, or if he’ll even get a shot at a starting job. But here at MSTI, you can consider us: Big Blake DeWitt Fans. Now let’s get rid of all those positive thoughts and move on to…

Casey Blake (B-)
(.251/.313/.460 10hr 23rbi)
You know what? I don’t even need to go back and find previous posts in which I said I hated the Casey Blake deal, because I have no problem with saying it again: I hated the Casey Blake deal from day one. Oh, it’s not so much that I didn’t like the idea of acquiring Blake, with DeWitt struggling, Nomar unreliable, and LaRoche apparently untrustworthy. It’s just that the price of catcher Carlos Santana and reliever Jonathan Meloan was so astronomically out of line with what Blake was worth – and his BA and OBP, by the way, were each lower than what Blake DeWitt put up over the course of a season in which he never should have been in the bigs in the first place and got demoted to AAA. Don’t forget, Santana got named MVP of the California League (and he’s a catcher!) after putting up a .994 OPS, and then proceeded to put up a 1.042 OPS with Cleveland’s affiliate after being traded. Meloan completely dominated the minors on his way to making his MLB debut at just 22 in 2007, before struggling a bit this year thanks to the ill-advised attempt to make him a starter. And for that? We got 211 at-bats of league-average (100 OPS+) performance from Casey Blake, although I do hear his charisma can be seen from space.

I keep trying to remind myself while writing this to not be unreasonably hard on Blake, because he didn’t make the trade (but you better believe this is coming up again in Ned Colletti’s review). So Blake gets a B-. He really deserves a C-, because we had a certain expectation for him when he came over from Cleveland, and he didn’t quite live up to it. After starting 2008 with a line that was more or less similar to the player he’d been in the last few years, he came over to the NL (the easier league, remember) and lost 48 points off his batting average and 52 points off his OBP, although he did keep a nice amount of pop. However, even that was still an improvement over how lousy DeWitt was playing and the dearth of other 3B options, so for providing some measure of stability – and for being the most interesting man in the world - we’ll bump him up a bit to a B-.

You know what? I can’t do it. Any time I think of Casey Blake, I think of how much I wish we still had Carlos Santana and Jonathan Meloan. Because it’s not like any team ever has need of a young slugging catcher and a fireballing reliever, do they? So long, Casey. Enjoy going back to Cleveland or whatever other outpost you end up in – just don’t come back to Los Angeles.

Andy LaRoche (inc.)
(.203/.319/.322 2hr 6rbi)
And thus ends the short, complicated Dodger career of Andy LaRoche. Unlike the other members of the highly-touted Dodger farm system, LaRoche was never able to turn his minor league potential into major league performance. But there’s no simple solution as to why; in 2007 he was kept down with a bad back, and when he did get a shot in LA, his performance was uneven (a .365 OBP is outstanding, but a .211 BA isn’t really getting the job done).

2008 looked to be the year he finally broke out; unfortunately, we know that didn’t happen for a variety of reasons. First and foremost would be his inability to stay healthy, because after 2007′s back problems, his 2008 was dealt a huge blow with Danny Ardoin’s errant throw into his thumb on March 7. It’s almost impossible to imagine how much that one throw in a meaningless game changed the entire course of the franchise. If that never happens, then LaRoche is likely the Opening Day 3B. Which means: maybe we never see Blake DeWitt; maybe we never have to deal for Casey Blake; maybe LaRoche isn’t included in the deal for Manny and another young player like Andre Ethier is. You want chaos theory? Danny Ardoin might have been the most important player in the last ten years of Dodger history.

After injury, you’ve got lack of opportunity. It’s absolutely incredible how much LaRoche was jerked around by the Dodgers over the last two years, but especially in 2008. After his rehab stint at the end of April, LaRoche was optioned to AAA for over a month until June 10. At the time, DeWitt was still playing great, so no one was suggesting that LaRoche be handed the job back. But as you can see in any number of our posts at the time, there was no reason for LaRoche to be stuck in the minors. He had absolutely nothing to prove, and with the eternally useless Mark Sweeney taking up a roster spot in LA, it seemed more than reasonable to let Andy get a few starts a week between first and third base. It took just barely a week for me to make this post asking for more playing time:

Why isn’t Andy LaRoche playing more? He’s been back up for over a week now, and he’s gotten all of 8 plate appearances, in which he’s garnered a homer and two walks. I thought the entire point of recalling LaRoche after letting him get some time in at 1B and 2B in the minors was to be somewhat of a super-infielder – the righty yin to the lefty yang of Loney and DeWitt at the corners, and as a way to keep Luis Maza from playing whenever Kent needs a rest at second. But what have we gotten so far? One start at first base, one start at third base, and two pinch-hitting appearances.

And it never got any better, because nearly a month later (July 14) I was writing this for him in my first half review:

Seems like LaRoche is shaping up to be part of the next Dodgers holy war, following in the footsteps of Juan Pierre and Hee-Seop Choi. No, he hasn’t done much in the bigs. But the people who want to write him off are insane – he’s gotten just 44 at-bats this year. Look, he’s got nothing more to prove in the minors (career .895 OPS). The Dodgers need power. Blake DeWitt is slumping badly. So then why can’t LaRoche ever start more than two games in a row? Why has he been benched the day after hitting a home run both times? Some things, I’ll never understand.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, he got sent back to the minors on July 27 in order to make room for… that’s right, Mark Sweeney, which is just indefensible, especially when you still had Pablo Ozuna and Angel Berroa sucking up roster spots. I will never know why it was that Andy LaRoche was never given any sort of decent shot as a Dodger, but for a player who had a track record such as he did, it really stands out as a glaring mistake for this team – especially since we yet again have no idea who’s going to be the third baseman next year.

And then he was gone. Yeah, it’s true, I did say before the fact that I didn’t want to see him get moved for Manny, but it’s hard to pretend that this wasn’t a worthwhile deal in retrospect. Really, it didn’t matter what LaRoche did in Pittsburgh with how Manny performed here, but in the first chance Andy’s had to play on an every-day basis in the bigs… he was absolutely terrible. Amid whispers about his work ethic, he put up a brutal .152/.227/.232 line with the Pirates and made 9 errors in just 45 games. So I can’t absolve Andy of all blame here, because in 316 career at-bats he’s hitting just .188, and at some point you have to stop coasting on that minor league record and start producing. I just know that if and when he does, I’ll be a little sad that it’s not going to be happening in Dodger blue.

- Mike Scioscia’s tragic illness msti-face.jpg

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