Aaron Miles, Starting Second Baseman?

I’m just joking… but only mostly, because only six weeks after an otherwise nondescript signing, many of the pieces are falling into place for the unthinkable to come true. In order for Aaron Miles to have had even a prayer of making the team upon signing, he was going to need to play out of his mind, get lucky with injuries to others, and have his competition for the bottom of the roster fall together in precisely the right way.

So far, that’s exactly what’s happening.  Follow the steps towards the apocalypse:

Piece #1: Casey Blake‘s back/ribs, which he tweaked on Saturday trying to bunt (ugh), sounds like they may be worse than we’d originally thought. Ken Gurnick:

Casey Blake said Sunday his back was “not great,” a day after suffering lower back spasms in the Dodgers’ game with the Giants.

The 37-year-old third baseman was injured trying to leg out a well-placed sacrifice bunt in the first inning Saturday. Blake missed four games last year with lower back pain, but he said this is in a different place, then reaching for the lower right side of his back.

Blake didn’t speculate how long he’d be sidelined, but the club considers him day-to-day.

“This is more on the ribs,” he said. “I don’t know enough about it to know whether it’s serious or not. We’ll know pretty soon. We’ll treat it and it can go away. They [team trainers] were relieved where it was, but they don’t know exactly what it is.”

Blake again said he was disappointed that he would miss games because he needs the at-bats and, with four split-squad games in two days, the rosters are thin. Blake also said he needs to adjust his warm-up routine because of the unique scheduling in the Spring.

Blake’s not wrong about needing the at-bats; coming off a lousy 2010, he has just one hit in eight spring games.  We keep saying that it’s early in the spring, but with each passing day that comfort becomes less true – the season opener on March 31 is only about two and a half weeks away. Back injuries can be tricky, and it’s not at all hard to see a scenario where it takes Blake long enough to get back in the lineup that he won’t have enough time to be ready for the season and starts the year on the DL. (This is 100% pure speculation, of course.) If that happens, Juan Uribe would almost certainly slide to third base, opening up a hole at second.

Piece #2. None of the other contestants for the last spot on the bench have done much to distinguish themselves. (Yes, I’m about to quote spring stats. Yes, I know they are basically meaningless, but let’s not pretend they won’t be considered in the battle for this job.) Justin Sellers, my early preference, entered Sunday hitting .250/.400/.375 with several errors. Ivan DeJesus, the choice of many to play 2B if Uribe had to move, is at just .250/.286/.300, hardly distinguishing himself. Russ Mitchell, who can play 2B in theory and was noted by Don Mattingly as the likely 1B if James Loney was lost, has been awful, at only .091/.125/.091, getting the 6th-most PA on the team. Juan Castro, who I thought had the inside track entering camp, is at .250/.250/.500, thanks largely to that one inexplicable homer. If anything, the prospect of additional time opening up may hurt Castro, whose age track record don’t argue for additional exposure. That all opens up a spot for…

Piece #3. Miles has been pretty good thus far. He’s received the 4th-most plate appearances on the team, hitting .333/.333/.708, and tied for the team lead in homers with two. Normally, I wouldn’t even dignify a good week or two by a veteran with a history of mediocrity with a notice, but there’s at least a chance there may be something to it; Tony Jackson reports on what’s changed for Miles this year:

First, the veteran infielder is finally, fully healthy after battling right elbow and shoulder injuries for about a year. Second, his eyes have been opened to a whole new way of looking at things.

“I got laser eye surgery this offseason,” he said. “I’m seeing the ball better than I ever have. Right away, it was like night and day. My contacts did fine for me, but I had no idea how great other people could see the ball or just see in general.”

Piece #4. Miles is a switch-hitter. Castro, Sellers, DeJesus, & Mitchell are all righties, as is Jamey Carroll, who would likely see the bulk of the 2B time in this scenario. In addition, DeJesus & Mitchell can’t play shortstop. It’s not hard to see how Miles may be seen as the best choice for roster flexibility.

None of this means that Miles is any good all of a sudden, nor does it mean I really want him on the team. But if Blake really is limited or unavailable (and again, we don’t know the full extent yet, but he doesn’t sound optimistic) and Uribe slides to 3B, it’s all too easy to see a scenario where the pieces have fallen just right to make Aaron Miles a Dodger – and possibly even the Opening Day second baseman.

Oddsmaking For the 25th Spot

Buried within the fifth paragraph of a story about Juan Castro‘s improbable homer yesterday, Tony Jackson may have inadvertently broken some news that could impact how the roster comes together (emphasis mine):

Castro is one of four candidates this spring, along with veteran Aaron Miles and prospects Ivan DeJesus and Justin Sellers, for the second utility-infield spot. Although the Dodgers are up to their chins in outfielders, some of whom can also play on the infield, general manager Ned Colletti now says there will be a second utility infielder on the Opening Day roster.

Though we’d long expected that would be the case rather than carrying a sixth outfielder, this is the first time I’ve seen it laid out so explicitly, and that qualifies as news. It would also seem to doom Xavier Paul to the waiver wire or the trade bin, though more on him in a second. If Jackson is right, that means that one of these four guys are almost certain to make the squad when it heads north. Who will it be? Let’s lay some early-March odds on this quartet.

Juan Castro: 65%. I’ve been over Castro what feels like dozens of times in the nearly four years this blog has been around, since he seemingly comes back more often than Brett Favre. I don’t think much of him as a ballplayer, but the man cannot be killed, and that gets him some credit, I guess. Seriously, though, I think I said all I needed to say about Castro when he signed his minor-league deal back in December:

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.

I went on to explain that while his bat is atrocious, he got on for years by virtue of a plus glove… which is no longer plus. Look, you don’t need fancy stats or in-depth analysis to know that Castro was never very good, and at 38, is no longer a major league quality player. You know that.

So why the 65%? Because he’s a known quantity. Ned Colletti has already added him to the club twice during his tenure, and Castro’s .277 average in 2009 is probably seen as useful, even though it was completely empty (he had just five extra-base hits and drew six walks). Despite the declining defensive metrics, I’m guessing his reputation outweighs the facts, and as I joked on Twitter yesterday, the homer off Jeff Francis almost certainly carries more weight than it ought to. If anything, putting him at 65% might be too low.

Aaron Miles, 20%. With the exception of the Dodger history, you can – and I have – say a lot of the same things about Miles as you can about Castro:

No, really; among players who have had as many plate appearances as Miles had since he debuted in 2003, only three players in baseball have been less valuable. It’s a special kind of “not valuable”, though. If you’re simply awful, you don’t get to stick around for that long. Miles has really hit the sweet spot of being bad enough to hurt his teams for years, yet not so bad that he gets outright drummed out of the game. It must be his A+ levels of “grit” and “scrap”.

Rk Player WAR/pos PA G AB H 2B HR RBI BA OBP SLG OPS
1 Geoff Blum -1.0 2839 902 2592 635 131 59 303 .245 .298 .369 .667
2 Mark Teahen -0.7 2994 753 2713 727 159 63 318 .268 .330 .415 .746
3 Juan Encarnacion -0.3 2653 663 2431 656 136 79 358 .270 .320 .437 .757
4 Aaron Miles 0.6 2574 796 2373 668 93 16 184 .282 .321 .354 .675
5 Shea Hillenbrand 0.7 2647 648 2468 705 139 78 358 .286 .324 .444 .768

Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 2/7/2011But what’s really important here is the last sentence of the dodgers.com story above. Miles is likely competing with Juan Castro and Ivan DeJesus for a second backup infield slot behind Jamey Carroll. Since I don’t believe that DeJesus would get stashed on the big league bench over playing every day in AAA, that means you’re rooting for either the 4th worst player of the last seven years in Miles, or the 4th worst batter in major league history in Castro.

Um, yay. I don’t really see him beating out Castro without a scorching spring, though he does have that creamy veteran pennant-winning goodness Colletti seems to love so much, so…

Ivan DeJesus, 10%. We’ve talked about DeJesus a few times this winter, notably pointing out that he’s fallen completely off most Dodger top prospect lists, nor was he invited to the club’s winter development camp after not getting a September callup last year. Back in October, before Juan Uribe was signed, I looked at whether DeJesus should get a shot at the 2B job and decided that while I wouldn’t totally be against it, it seemed better off to have him in AAA or as utility man.

I’m no longer convinced that DeJesus has what it takes to be an everyday player in the bigs, though it should be noted that he impressed Don Mattingly in the AFL and has put time into learning how to play 3B as well. Still, he’s got an option left, and you know how much the club likes to hold on to as many players as they can. I think there’s also some feeling that after missing all of 2009, it’d be better to have him play every day in the minors rather than riding the big league bench. I’d still prefer him to Castro or Miles, but I can’t argue with that either.

Justin Sellers, 5%. Sellers is someone who I’ve never talked about much around here, and I’ve been meaning to for a while. Despite looking like he’s about 14, his 2010 AAA stats were impressive: .285/.371/.497, with 14 homers. Don’t put too much stock into that, however; while I can’t say for sure because the great minorleaguesplits.com is no longer around, the power displayed is almost certainly a result of the Albuquerque environment, since he had just 17 homers in five previous seasons.

Still, there’s reason to like him. Most of the reports I’ve been able to dig up claim he’s an above-average glove, possibly making him the best defensive choice of these four, and he’s shown improvement in mastering the strike zone. In two seasons as a Dodger minor leaguer, he’s put up OBP of .371 and .360, thanks to a very good K/BB ratio of 115/99. In January, Baseball America gave him the title of “Best Strike Zone Discipline” in the Dodger system, and you don’t need me to remind you how starved this team is for that right now. Though it’s early, he’s off to a good start in the spring, having walked three times without a whiff. Unlike DeJesus, he did attend the winter development camp.

If there’s a knock against him, it’s that he’s been exclusively a middle infielder, though with Jamey Carroll and Juan Uribe both able to handle third base, that wouldn’t seem to be an issue. He’s not a highly touted prospect, clearly, so at 25 and on his third pro organization, I wouldn’t be all that worried about having him riding the major league bench as opposed to playing every day in AAA.

The more I read about Sellers, the more I think he’s my choice, but I still don’t think he’s got any sort of a real shot here. Like DeJesus, he can be sent back to the minors, and with Chin-lung Hu in Queens and Dee Gordon unlikely to start the season at AAA, there’s playing time to be had. Unfortunately, I think we’re stuck with Castro. On the bright side, this roster spot is constantly churning, so hopefully it won’t be for too long.

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As for Paul, this would seem to sign his death warrant as a Dodger. His only prayer is that he plays out of his head and Jay Gibbons totally chokes his job away, but that seems very unlikely. I can’t imagine that a guy with a .302/.380/.502 AAA line slips through waivers, so I expect him to be shipped off in the second half of March for a Delwyn Young-esque return. It’s too bad, because while he hasn’t been able to establish himself in limited MLB chances, he’s done nothing but produce. Is Gibbons really going to be better? Tony Gwynn? I’m not sure that’s so clear.

Dodgers Sign Aaron Miles, For Some Reason

Now this is happening:

The Dodgers signed journeyman infielder Aaron Miles to a Minor League contract Monday with an invitation to Major League camp.

The eight-year veteran batted .281 in 79 games with St. Louis in 2010. He finished fourth in the National League Rookie of the Year voting in 2004 with Colorado and was a member of the 2006 World Series champion Cardinals.

With Jamey Carroll the primary backup middle infielder, Miles will compete for a spot with Ivan DeJesus Jr. and Juan Castro, the latter also on a Minor League contract.

I am constantly trying to reassure people that minor league contracts are never as big of a deal as they seem, and the inherent lack of risk makes them almost a no-lose proposition.

In this case, I’m not so sure, because Miles is atrociously bad. No, really; among players who have had as many plate appearances as Miles had since he debuted in 2003, only three players in baseball have been less valuable. It’s a special kind of “not valuable”, though. If you’re simply awful, you don’t get to stick around for that long. Miles has really hit the sweet spot of being bad enough to hurt his teams for years, yet not so bad that he gets outright drummed out of the game. It must be his A+ levels of “grit” and “scrap”.

Rk Player WAR/pos PA G AB H 2B HR RBI BA OBP SLG OPS
1 Geoff Blum -1.0 2839 902 2592 635 131 59 303 .245 .298 .369 .667
2 Mark Teahen -0.7 2994 753 2713 727 159 63 318 .268 .330 .415 .746
3 Juan Encarnacion -0.3 2653 663 2431 656 136 79 358 .270 .320 .437 .757
4 Aaron Miles 0.6 2574 796 2373 668 93 16 184 .282 .321 .354 .675
5 Shea Hillenbrand 0.7 2647 648 2468 705 139 78 358 .286 .324 .444 .768
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 2/7/2011.

But what’s really important here is the last sentence of the dodgers.com story above. Miles is likely competing with Juan Castro and Ivan DeJesus for a second backup infield slot behind Jamey Carroll. Since I don’t believe that DeJesus would get stashed on the big league bench over playing every day in AAA, that means you’re rooting for either the 4th worst player of the last seven years in Miles, or the 4th worst batter in major league history in Castro.

What that means is that you need to root for Xavier Paul like you’ve never rooted before. The top five outfielders are basically set, with Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Jay Gibbons, Marcus Thames, and Tony Gwynn. Thames and Gibbons can each spot at first base, if needed, so the question becomes whether the Dodgers are willing to live with only Carroll as the backup at second, short, and third. It’s not an ideal situation, I’ll grant, and could prove troublesome when Don Mattingly wants to get Casey Blake out against tough righties or double switch. But the versatility of Juan Uribe and Carroll, who can each play all three positions, helps immensely, and if an injury hits it’s generally not that hard to call someone up from AAA very quickly, if needed.

It basically comes down to this question: do you want to live with the 10% chance that you’re short of infielders for a few innings late in a game? Or the 100% chance that Castro or Miles would be a total waste of a roster spot while Paul has (likely) been shipped off?

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Totally unrelated, but be sure to read Jon Weisman’s interview with GM Ned Colletti. Well worth the time.