Ahh, shortstop. Or as we like to think of it in 2008, “the Valley of the Damned.”
Angel Berroa (D+)
(.230/.304/.310 1hr 16rbi)
I have to say, I never expected to be reviewing Angel Berroa as the shortstop who got the most at-bats for the Dodgers this season. To be honest, I think this grade might be the one that differs the most from the mainstream perception. How many times did we have to read stories saying how great Berroa was in stepping in for Rafael Furcal? In particular, there was the heart attack I nearly had in August when Joe Torre started spouting insanity like “I tried to reason who was going to give me the better at-bat – Berroa or Loney.”
On the other hand, you’ve got me, who thought acquiring him was a terrible idea in the first place, laughed when he went his first 21 games without an RBI, and campaigned in August to give Chin-Lung Hu another shot.
Look, I’m not blind to the circumstances that caused Berroa to get such playing time in the first place, and sure, I enjoyed his decent hot streak where he hit .333 in 20 games between 8/24 and 9/17. I just don’t understand why so many people considered him to be, well, good. I mean, we’re talking about a guy who was so bad that even though the Royals signed him to a 4-year contract and had indisputably the worst shortstop in baseball (Tony Pena), they still wouldn’t let Berroa out of Triple-A. Despite that track record, he still underperformed in 2008 – his BA and SLG was far under his career averages, and while his OBP was almost identical to his career number, at .304 that’s hardly anything to be proud of. Putting up a 62 OPS+ when the career average that got you demoted was 77 is hardly a good thing, nor is the fact that of the 42 shortstops who had at least 200 plate appearances, Berroa’s VORP was 35th, at -3.7. That’s right, negative.
“But MSTI,” you might say. “Everyone knows he can’t hit. At least he was a good fielder, and that’s what was most important.” Which is all well and good, except that it’s not particularly true. Baseball Prospectus has his FRAA (Fielding Runs Above Average) at 0, which makes him exactly average. I suppose that’s a nice step up from his career -44 number in that regard, but it’s certainly not the sublime level with the glove that Chin-Lung Hu offers, which is basically what I was saying in August when I wanted to replace Berroa with Hu.
Really, there’s a reason that Berroa gets a D+ and not a straight F, and that’s because we all knew he was a terrible player as soon as he was acquired, so it’s hard to act surprised when he was terrible and somehow underperformed his already lousy career marks. If anything, it’s the media that deserves the F for trying to fool people into believing that Berroa was a useful player. His 2009 option was declined, but that doesn’t neccessarily mean the end of Berroa in LA – it just means that he’s clearly not worth $5.5 million. Let’s hope the front office realizes he’s not worth a roster spot, either.
Rafael Furcal (I take the 5th)
(.357/.439/.573 5hr 16rbi)
Well, I don’t even know where to start with this one. After the worst season of his career in 2007 (thanks, Jason Repko!), Furcal got off to an absolutely blazing hot start. Just how good was he over the first month? Remember, VORP is a counting stat, and despite playing in just 36 games, Furcal still was the 14th-best shortstop – beating out guys like Miguel Tejada and Orlando Cabrera, who played full seasons. I don’t need to tell you what happened after that, with his back injury keeping him out for nearly five solid months, and nearly taking the Dodger season along with it.
But you know what the worst part was? The uncertainty. It’s one thing when you see a guy blow out his knee or break his arm, because you know right then and there he’s out for quite a while. You mourn the loss, but you move on and start making plans to get by. However, with Furcal, at first he was just kept out as a “precaution”; then it was “he’ll be back this weekend”, and then “in a week”; and then the next thing you know we’ve been watching Berroa, Nomar, and Hu suck the life out of shortstop until practically October. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that of everything that didn’t go right for the 2008 Dodgers, this one stung the most – even more than Andruw Jones’ epic chokejob.
It really makes you wonder what a Dodger offense with a healthy Furcal and a happy Manny could have looked like, right? I’m still holding out hope that we’ll see that in 2009, but it sounds like we’ll at least get Furcal back, since interest in his return is mutual. Hey, maybe we’ll get one benefit out of Furcal’s injury and it’ll drive his price down a little.
Nomar Garciaparra (D)
(.264/.326/.466 8hr 28rbi)
Man, and I thought Jeff Kent’s 2008 was eventful. Remember, at the beginning of camp, the biggest question was, “who’s going to win the third base job – Nomar or Andy LaRoche?” Well, that lasted as long as March 7, when both Nomar and LaRoche got hurt in the same spring game, with Nomar suffering a microfracture of his right wrist.
So okay, Nomar’s season debut is delayed until April 16th (injury #1), at which time he reclaimed the starting 3B job from Blake DeWitt…
…which Nomar kept for all of 9 days before injuring himself again. But hey, at least during those 9 days he hit .226 and asked Chip Caray if he could shake left-handed because that’s how much his right hand hurt! On April 26th, Nomar popped his calf (injury #2) and missed over two months. Okay, so far: nothing crazy, because Nomar gets hurt all the time.
But this time, Nomar returns on July 4th….as the starting shortstop! Which is doubly hilarious when you remember that half the reason a red-hot James Loney couldn’t get out of AAA in 2007 is that first baseman Nomar was deemed too fragile to move across the diamond and replace Wilson Betemit at third base. This time Nomar lasts all of 18 games before injuring his knee on July 27th (injury #3). He returned on August 12th and regained his starting SS job for the next few weeks until August 29th (hitting .167 over that time) before being benched for Angel Berroa’s one sign of life. He miraculously made it all the way until September 27th before…
…injuring his knee again (injury #4), though this one didn’t land him on the DL, thanks to expanded rosters. Finally, other than one start at 1B against Jamie Moyer in the NLCS, he was last seen riding the bench for all of the playoffs and striking out feebly to end games. In the rare moments Nomar was actually able to play this year, he wasn’t completely terrible: a 105 ERA+ is actually slightly above average, and his .466 SLG was higher than anyone except for Manny, Ethier and Furcal. He did also mash lefties (1.067 OPS), although I’m hesistant to call that a repeatable skill because in 2007, he was actually markedly worse against lefties than righties.
I don’t like to blame Nomar for all the injuries, but he gets the grade he does simply because he wasn’t there when we needed him to be. We needed him to hold down third base at the beginning of the year with LaRoche hurt, and his absence contributed to the Dodgers having to turn to Blake DeWitt (and remember, DeWitt’s success doesn’t make it right – there were plenty of us who thought he was going to put up Jonesian numbers). We needed him to take over from DeWitt when the league started to catch up, and Nomar couldn’t answer the call. We needed him to prevent having to play Berroa at shortstop every day, and he was unable.
As for the future? Well, Nomar hasn’t decided if he’s retiring or not. But if he chooses to return, I can’t imagine there’s a whole lot of other teams clamoring for his services; conversely, I would think he wouldn’t want to leave his young family and his hometown. If he’s willing to play on a one-year deal at a markedly reduced salary, with the understanding that he’s the backup at 1st and 3rd (i.e., the new Big Sexy), I would find that acceptable – if only so I can keep using that picture!
Chin-Lung Hu (F)
(.181/.252/.233 0hr 9rbi)
This, I must say, is one review I’ve really not been looking forward to, because I had such high hopes for Hu entering the season, and he couldn’t possibly have failed more miserably. Just to show I’m not above bashing myself, this is what I said in last year’s season reviews after Hu had a breakout 2007 in the minors, which won him the Dodgers Minor League Player of the Year award:
So now in the space of one season, Hu has gone from “great glove/might not hit enough to stick” to “great glove/may be one of the better hitting SS around”. So much so that I wouldn’t mind seeing Furcal get dealt for something good and letting Hu get a crack at SS.
Hold on a second, it’s hard to type with all that egg on my face. There we go. After starting the season as Jeff Kent’s caddy at second base, Hu got the first crack at the shortstop job when Rafael Furcal was lost in early May… and it’s hard to overstate just how badly he fared. At the time of his first start at SS on May 6th, Hu was hitting .229/.325/.229 in mostly part-time duty. 76 at-bats later, he’d nabbed just 10 hits and was at .159/.224/.206 when he was sent down on June 7th. Really, if Hu had been able to just be decent, we might have been able to avoid the Angel Berroa era entirely. On the plus side, his glove was as good as advertised – in 75 career games, he’s made just 2 errors.
Hu’s brutal 2008 clearly torpedoed any chance of him getting the starting gig in 2009, but I’m not ready to give up on him yet, and there’s two reasons why (besides for his fantastic defense):
1) Hu’s lousy hitting might be traced back to vision problems. In last season’s review, I noted that Hu had a terrible offensive 2006, was diagnosed with an eye issue, and had a monster 2007. In August of this year when I campaigned for his return, we’d heard that the exact same thing had happened this season:
Hu hit the minor league DL with vision problems soon after he got there, and since getting that taken care of has been killing the ball, putting up a .361/.400/.475 line. There’s precedent for this with him, too; after struggling through 2006 (.660 OPS) problems with his vision were first made public, and after getting his eyes healthy in the offseason, he busted out with an .871 OPS in 2007.
Now I know it’s a small sample size, but in eleven plate appearances after his recall to LA in September, he reached base six times. I don’t know what keeps going on with his eyes, and obviously if he can’t get this taken care of more permanently it’s going to seriously impact his career, but it really seems that there’s a clear cause-and-effect relationship here, now that it’s happened twice. If he can get this fixed, he might be able to return to his 2007 form. Besides, while no one expected him to OPS .871 in the majors this year, I have a hard time believing that the same guy who did that in the minors in 2007 could only put up a .485 mark in 2008 unless there’s some other issue involved.
2) He’s only had 145 career at-bats, and is still just 24. I hope that Hu’s absurdly poor showing at the plate hasn’t completely poisoned him to the average Dodger fan, but 145 at-bats is hardly enough time to give up on a player who could be a rare blend of excellent defense and productive offense. That said, his lousy 2008 has almost forced the Dodgers to try and retain Furcal, but it remains to be seen what that deal will be. If it’s only a one or two year deal, then maybe Hu gets a chance to regain his prospect standing in AAA or on the LA bench until Furcal is gone. But if it’s longer than that, Hu probably will have to get his shot elsewhere, and personally I don’t wish to see that – regardless of my including him in a trade in my offseason plan.
- Mike Scioscia’s tragic illness