So, Why Not Josh Fields?

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been receiving ever-increasing quantities of variations on the following question via email and comments and Twitter, most of which take a form similar to this:

Hey, Mike, why not bring up Josh Fields? He’s hitting .349 in Albuquerque, and he hit a bunch of homers for the White Sox once, and no matter what he can’t possibly be worse than the atrocious Juan Uribe, right?

It’s a totally fair question, considering how awful Uribe is, and since it’s coming up so often lately let’s take a few minutes on a slow Monday morning to investigate it.

Fields was a first round pick of the White Sox back in 2004 and spent parts of four seasons with the club, mostly remembered for hitting 23 homers in just 100 games in 2007. Held back by an inability to get on base (.303 career OBP), Fields was traded to Kansas City before 2010, where he missed nearly all of the season due to hip surgery before getting into 13 September games. He hasn’t seen the big leagues since, having bounced from the Pittsburgh organization to Colorado’s Triple-A club to a brief stint in Japan in 2011 and finally to Albuquerque this year.

That right there is a huge red flag – if a player who is nearly 30 can’t find a home in three organizations with massive talent holes like Kansas City, Pittsburgh, & Colorado, it tells you a lot about how big league clubs view that player. If he was really that good, someone would have bothered to give him a shot, right? Of course, it’s understandably difficult to see Uribe hitting .190 and not think that Fields, hitting .349/.415/.531 entering Sunday, couldn’t be at least as productive.

Yet we should know by now, I would hope, not to take Albuquerque numbers at face value, because he has one of the largest home/road splits I think I’ve ever seen. In the friendly confines of New Mexico, Fields is hitting a ludicrous .422/.489/.642; outside of ABQ – and let’s not forget that the rest of the PCL is pretty hitter-friendly too – he’s at only .269/.332/.395. That would still be better than Uribe, but of course a drop in production would be expected upon moving up to the bigs; even keeping his absurd ABQ numbers in the equation, the major league equivalency for his total line would come out to just a .299 OBP, hardly someone worth pining for.

The funny thing is, this isn’t the first time people have debated Uribe vs Fields, since they were formerly teammates in Chicago. In 2008, regular White Sox third baseman Joe Crede missed much of the season due to injury and played in only 97 games. Even coming off his 23 homer 2007, it wasn’t Fields who got the call to fill in, it was Uribe, who made 52 starts at third base. (Even Pablo Ozuna, another mediocre veteran who briefly played for the Dodgers, made more starts at third that year than Fields.) Four years later, Uribe is worse, but it’s hard to say that Fields is clearly better.

Further exacerbating matters is that Fields is not regarded as a plus third baseman defensively, which is a serious concern given the ongoing worries about whether Jerry Hairston can overcome his fielding woes. (I asked occasional MSTI contributor Chris Jackson of the Albuquerque Baseball Examiner about this, and he said that Fields has a strong arm, but not a ton of range, which I suppose is similar to Uribe.) Uribe isn’t a great defensive third baseman, but he’s rated as above-average by most defensive metrics, and those pass the sniff test for me.

So while Fields might possibly offer slightly more at the plate than Uribe – though hardly a given considering his minimal big-league history and lack of production away from Albuquerque – he’s probably giving at least some of that back on defense. The emotional part of me totally understands the “anyone but Uribe!” lobby, because he honestly makes me a little sick every time he comes to the plate, but my rational side says that it’s really probably not worth the trouble to eat the rest of Uribe’s contract in order to promote a guy without much of a big league track record who hasn’t hit away from Albuquerque.

Besides, Fields is not on the 40-man roster, and the Dodgers are unlikely to make a move to squeeze yet another player on there right now, considering that Ted Lilly will be back soon along with any potential additions that come between now and July 31. It’s possible that over the next eight days Ned Colletti makes a move for a third baseman like Chase Headley or Aramis Ramirez or someone else, and if that’s the case then suddenly no one cares about Josh Fields.

Now if that doesn’t happen, and they do decide to cut bait with Uribe in August and give Fields a shot, I don’t want anyone to think I’d be unhappy to see that. I can’t stand Uribe, and I’ll be absolutely thrilled when he’s gone; I’d love to root for Fields, simply because he’s not Uribe. I just don’t think that our all-consuming distaste for Uribe suddenly makes Fields a better player, because I’m struggling to see him as a productive major leaguer at 29 when he’s rarely been one before.

There may yet be hope coming from Albuquerque, though; I don’t want anyone to jump to any conclusions, but it wasn’t Fields starting at third base for the Isotopes last night, and it wasn’t Elian Herrera or Ivan De Jesus or Joe Becker either. It was Alex Castellanos, making his first start at the position on a night where Ned Colletti just so happened to be in attendance. Castellanos had three hits, including his tenth homer of the year, and Isotope manager Lorenzo Bundy had this to say about it (from Jackson’s game recap):

Castellanos made his first start at third base this season, but it will not be his last. “You’re going to see quite a lot of that,” Bundy said. “We’ve worked him really hard the last three days. Even today we were taking groundballs on the warning track in front of our dugout.”

I’m not sure if this means they’re abandoning the second base experiment or simply trying to add another skill to Castellanos’ potential future as a multipositional utility player, but it’s interesting and encouraging to see. Let’s just keep in mind that it’s going to take him some time to be comfortable there, so I don’t want to hear anyone calling for Castellanos to be the starting third baseman in Los Angeles a week from now. As much as we despise Uribe, that wouldn’t be best for either Castellanos or the Dodgers. It’s the same for Fields; Uribe is awful, but that doesn’t make Fields great.