Is The Fascination With Juan Castro Going to Cost the Dodgers Chin-Lung Hu?

As you’ve probably heard, the Dodgers signed infielder Juan Castro to a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training. Normally, this would be no big deal – like every team, the Dodgers hand out more than a dozen non-roster invites to veterans each year – but the association between Castro and the Dodgers has never been normal. This will be his 4th stint with the team since he originally arrived in 1991, and he’s managed to be on the team in each of the last two seasons despite signing a minor-league deal in 2009 and being cut by the Phillies in 2010. For whatever reason, the Dodgers have an infatuation with Castro that defies reason.

I say it defies reason because Castro may be the least valuable players in baseball. Now, I’m hardly breaking any major news by saying that he can’t hit, because everyone knows he can’t hit. He’s never come within sniffing distance of even a league-average OPS+ of 100, and he’s never actually even hit 90, and that’s what happens when you’ve never had a season where your OPS has topped .678. So Juan Castro is not a major-league quality hitter. We all knew that.

But what I was very surprised to find out is that Castro is one of the worst hitters in the entire history of baseball.

No, really.

Castro has somehow accumulated 2,834 plate appearances over his 16 big league seasons. 1,664 other players since 1901 can say they’ve had as many or more, lead of course by Babe Ruth’s superlative 206 OPS+. Castro, on the other hand, checks in with the 4th-lowest OPS+ of all time. Of all time!

Rk Player OPS+ PA From To Age G H BA OBP SLG OPS
1 Bill Bergen 21 3228 1901 1911 23-33 947 516 .170 .194 .201 .395
2 Hal Lanier 49 3940 1964 1973 21-30 1196 843 .228 .255 .275 .529
3 Tommy Thevenow 51 4484 1924 1938 20-34 1229 1030 .247 .285 .294 .579
4 Juan Castro 55 2834 1995 2010 23-38 1096 597 .228 .268 .327 .595
5 Bobby Wine 55 3467 1960 1972 21-33 1164 682 .215 .264 .286 .550
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 12/12/2010.

This isn’t the first time we’ve talked about Bill Bergen, since he came up with Garret Anderson was making his assault on the worst offensive season in Dodger history last year. He’s still thought of as one of the better defensive catchers in history, but was of course abysmal at the plate in a career that ended before World War I. Lanier and Thevenow were middle infielders playing in eras that valued fielding from the shortstop position and thought of any offense as just a bonus.

And then there’s Castro. I think it goes without saying that with offensive performance so bad, there’s no amount of superior glovework that can make that okay. Still, if your fielding is that good, you can almost see how – in the right situation – a manager might make space at the back of the roster. I guess.

But that’s the problem here. Castro, 39 in June, is no longer the plus fielder he once was. Going by UZR/150, he’s far below average at 3B (-15.8), and while his career mark is still plus at SS (7.3), he’s living on his past since he’s not even come in as average there since 2007.

Which brings us back to Chin-lung Hu. He’s never managed to repeat his 2007 success, when he had an OPS of .871 between AA and AAA and looked to join the wave of top Dodger prospects headed to the big leagues. He flopped miserably in a 2008 trial with the big club, and he’s received just 31 MLB PA over the last two seasons.  Despite that, his glove has consistently been looked upon as excellent – certainly above-average for a big league shortstop. At the plate, he’s not hopeless – he just finished his 3rd full season at AAA, and he’s improved in each year leading up to a .317/.339/.438 showing this year – but I don’t think any of us look at him as more than a starter on a second-division club or a backup on a better team.

While that’s hardly not what we expected from Hu back in 2007, it’s also not without value. That’s a plus glove, with the chance to be a bit below league-average at the plate, and the hope for more since he still doesn’t even turn 27 until February. But for the second year in a row – surely you remember the Dodgers choosing Nick Green over him last year, right? – rather than giving Hu a spot as a backup, they’ve brought in a clearly inferior veteran who offers no value to fight for the spot instead. While that was merely annoying last year, since Hu was headed back to ABQ and we all knew Green wouldn’t last, this year has the potential to be much more dangerous, since Hu is now out of options and must be kept or lost.

Sure, it’s possible none of this comes to pass. Perhaps they do sign Bill Hall (more on him in a second) to plug the LF hole and decide his infield experience means that they don’t need another dedicated backup infielder alongside Jamey Carroll. Perhaps Ivan DeJesus, coming off a solid AFL stint, impresses in spring to the point where he claims the 2B job and Juan Uribe is pushed to 3B, with Casey Blake rounding out the bench. But the Dodgers didn’t sign Castro to be veteran depth at AAA; that never seems to happen with him (he’s played just 45 minor league games since 2001), and an Isotopes squad that may have DeJesus, Dee Gordon, and Justin Sellers up the middle next year doesn’t really have a need.

So tell me, would you prefer a plus glove with a mediocre bat who’s about to be 27? Or a mediocre glove with historically bad offense who’s about to be 39? Seems like a no-brainer to me, especially because some other team will claim Hu on waivers, but it’s hard to not see how this is going to turn out based on past history. Besides, Hu’s already lost this battle once before, because you may remember that Castro spent the entire 2009 season with the Dodgers, while Hu & Blake DeWitt languished in AAA, and out-of-options Delwyn Young was traded to Pittsburgh.

******

According to Tony Jackson, the candidates for the left field opening are down to four, two of whom are Hall and (sigh) Scott Podsednik. My guess is that Austin Kearns is one of the other two, as we heard rumors about that during the winter meetings, and I’d like to think that Lastings Milledge is the other, though that’s based on nothing but my own speculation. Perhaps Ryan Ludwick, who’s another name we’ve heard, but he doesn’t seem like a great fit because he has a definite reverse split – that is, despite being righty, he’s always been better against them than lefties. Doesn’t fit on this team.

I was asked on Twitter how I’d rank those four options if I had the choice:

Milledge, Hall, Kearns, not having a LF, folding the team, Podsednik

Yep.

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