Time to Spin the Shortstop Roulette Wheel Again…

The question here, I think, is not: “do we still have a shot this year?” – even though I think that’s a pretty fair conversation to have. With this team only being 4.5 games out of first place despite just about everything that could possibly go wrong having gone wrong (seriously, just look at the list of DL’d players on the roster on the right sidebar), I can’t imagine Ned Colletti’s going to do anything but be a buyer in the upcoming weeks. And while we all hold our breath that this doesn’t include anything silly like “Matt Kemp for Matt Holliday” or “top young players for an expensive starting pitcher we really don’t need“, there is one position that clearly needs an upgrade: shortstop, because Angel Berroa just isn’t going to cut it, and I particularly like how Baseball Prospectus’ Jay Jaffe put it:

Ned Colletti doused the problem in gasoline by trading for 2003 AL Rookie of the Year Berroa, who in the four years since winning that award hit .255/.292/.364 while fielding at a clip 55 runs below average. The Dodgers have been held to one run or less in four of his first eight starts, and are averaging 3.2 runs per game with him in the lineup.

Now, as you may remember, I was strongly against the Berroa deal when it first happened, and his .194/.286/.226 (in an admittedly small sample size of 31 at-bats) hasn’t swayed my opinion. But okay, I figured. We’d only have to put up with him for a week or two before we all got the hilarious enjoyment of seeing Nomar trying to play short again, and then hopefully quickly after that Rafael Furcal would return. Except that Nomar woke up feeling sore after his very first rehab game the other day, and is once again on hold – and really, should we ever be counting on him for anything, in any situation, ever? And as for Furcal…

Rafael Furcal (60 DXL/$4.6 million)
Whatever’s going on with Furcal’s back, it’s not getting better. The Dodgers don’t think they’ll have Furcal back in action until the All-Star break, and it doesn’t sound as if they’re sure about even that. ESPN is reporting that Furcal has a bulging disk, though earlier reports, including examinations from back specialists, never mentioned this condition. The complicating factor has always been Furcal’s shoulder, but if there is a bulging or herniated disk at the heart of this, and since this has been such a slow-healing and complex issue, then surgery would become a consideration. None of my sources have indicated this is the case, so I’m not ready to latch on to the idea that the problem is disk-related. In the meantime, Furcal continues to have treatment, with the goal of getting him back in the lineup around the All-Star break, a goal that seems very aggressive given the current pace.

Great. The All-Star break is nearly a month away, and even that’s not a given. Even if he does make it back, there’s no guarantee that he won’t suffer a flareup. As far as I’m concerned, if making the playoffs right now is a longshot, playing Angel Berroa every day is going to make them an impossibility. So who’s around that we could target at SS? There’s no need to get an All-Star caliber player, not that guys like that are available anyway. What we need is a veteran guy who can come in and just be league-average on offense and defense, because just that is lightyears ahead of what we’re looking at now. Hopefully, it’d be someone who’s only signed through the end of the year and wouldn’t require an A-level prospect to get, but we’ll see how possible that’s going to be. Also, of course, it can’t be a guy who’s a starter on a contender, since they’re unlikely to want to move him. I took a look around the majors, and here’s what I’ve come up with, in no particular order:

Christian Guzman, Nationals
Profile: Is there a more confounding player in baseball? He put up an excellent season in Minnesota in 2001 at 23 (110 OPS+), then spent the next three seasons being the model of consistent mediocrity (OPS+ of 79, 77, and 78 ) before somehow conning the Nats into giving him a 4-year, $16.8 million deal in 2005. In Washington, he’s been: historically awful (53 OPS+ in 2005), missed an entire season to injury (2006), excellent in limited play (124 OPS+ in 2007), and good so far this year as a starter (107 OPS+ in 2008).
Pros: Besides the fact that he’s played well since missing 2006, a big benefit here is that he’s cheap, only being owed the remainder of his $4.2 million this year before he goes free agent.
Cons: He’s been so up and down in his career it’s hard to ever know what you’re going to get from him. Also, he’s exclusively played shortstop, so he might not be of much use as a utility guy if Furcal ever comes back.

Jeff Keppinger, Reds
Profile: Bounced around from the Pirates to the Mets to the Royals before getting any real MLB time in 2007 with the Reds. He sure can hit, with OPS+ scores of 123 and 112 in Cincinnati the last two years, and he seems to be a good fielder, with only 2 errors in 85 career games at SS. He hasn’t played since May 13th after fracturing his left kneecap against the Marlins, but according to yesterday’s Cincinnati Enquirer, he’s hitting .429 on his minor league rehab stint - though it appears he still needs to work the stamina in his legs.
Pros: Can definitely hit, seems to be at the very least a league average-fielder, and is versatile: in parts of 4 MLB seasons, he’s seen time everywhere except for catcher and center field, making him a great guy to have around after Furcal’s return. He’s also cheap, making the minimum thanks to only having just north of a year’s worth of service time.
Cons: He’s a cheap, low-service time, versatile, productive player. Although it seems like he’s never really been valued by the Reds (Alex Gonzalez was going to be their starting SS this year before he got injured too), what would it take to acquire him? Also, how much longer will he need to rehab before being ready to handle short every day?

Jack Wilson, Pirates
Profile: I’d always had a pretty good perception of Jack Wilson until I looked at his stats and realized that he’s really two different players – one being the guy who put up OPS+ of 104 and 105 in 2004 and 2007; the other being the guy who’s put up 4 seasons of OPS+ in the 70s (2003, 2005, 2006, 2008). Dodger fans, say what you will about Ned Colletti, but be happy you never had to deal with former Pirates GM Dave Littlefield, who for some reason awarded Wilson with a 3 year, $20.2 million deal for ’07-’09 after his lousy 2005 and ’06 seasons.
Pros: Although he’s shown absolutely no power this year (just 3 extra base hits in 90 at-bats, which is keeping that OPS down greatly), a .289 BA/.330 OBP is something you can live with from a last-ditch shortstop. Also, as he’s expensive (see cons below), perhaps taking his contract off the Pirates’ hands would mean either that it won’t take much of a prospect to get him or that he could be part of a larger deal for someone like Jason Bay?
Cons: He’s signed for $7.25 million next year, plus a $0.6 million buyout of an $8.4 million team option for 2010. Despite being a local boy, he’s never hit well in Dodger Stadium: .228/.297/.261 career. Also, he’s had lingering leg issues all season.

David Eckstein, Blue Jays
Profile: I hate myself for even bringing him up. But the Blue Jays are in dead last in the AL East and just fired their manager, so they’re clearly going nowhere fast. For a GM who loves veterans like Colletti does, you don’t think he’d love to add his “grittiness” or “hustle” or whatever euphemism you want to use for “short, modestly talented white guy”? Of course he would.
Pros: Let’s see… “pros”. Well… he’s cheap? Only signed for 2008 at $4.5 million, and no commitments afterwards. Actually, he’s not as terrible as I would have thought; while he has zero power, the .361 OBP he has so far this year is pretty good.
Cons: The ramifications of Juan Pierre and David Eckstein hitting 1-2 in a lineup may end the free world as we know it.

So what do you think? I really like Jeff Keppinger, but his return from the knee injury may present a problem. Christian Guzman scares the hell out of me, but he has been productive this year. At least we can all agree on one thing: it can’t be Angel Berroa.

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

The MSTI Master Plan for Third Base

Over at the Big Blue Wrecking Crew, my preferred Dodgers discussion board, a discussion began recently which really pointed out the amazing progression of the third base situation over the last six weeks or so. We’ve gone from having the main two competitors getting hurt in the same game; to scanning the trade winds for anyone resembling a third baseman; to having an untested rookie forced into a situation which he had no business being in; to now having a surplus in the coming days.

So let’s take a look at what’s going to happen here in the near future. With Blake DeWitt having the 2nd-best OPS on the team and a sterling glove, how can we really send him down? Now that Andy LaRoche is healthy and hitting well in Vegas, how long can we keep him down there? What to do about Nomar Garciaparra, who is likely to begin a short rehab assignment this week? Finally, Terry Tiffee is still hitting .430/.471/.630 in Vegas, and just how long does he have to keep that up before we consider this more than a fluke?

Let’s go with the process of elimination. 

I like Terry Tiffee as much as anyone, but while I’m more than willing to dump Mark Sweeney and bring him up to be a bat off the bench, what he’s doing is so far off his career history that I can’t really see him as a real option to be the everyday starter. That said, I don’t particularly like the idea of letting this guy waste the hottest streak of his life in the minors, so I’d like to either bring him up or try to trade him – but I’m not exactly ready to install him as “the guy”. So he’s out.

Then there’s Nomar. He’s cooked. There’s no way around it. He’s probably the 4th best hitter right now of the 4, and while I guess I really have no idea how good of a defensive 3B Tiffee is, I think I can safely say Nomar’s 3rd at best of the 4, behind DeWitt and LaRoche. Look, I know we all like the guy. Angelenos love him because he’s a local boy, and I personally enjoyed his dominance for years, as his peak coincided with my college years spent in Boston. But he had a 78 OPS+ in 2007, and in between two DL stints already, he’s at 66 this year. (Remember, 100 is the league average for that year. This means he’s 34% worse than your average NL hitter this year.) It’s tough for everyone to admit it, but he can’t hit, field, or stay healthy.  But he does have the biggest name, and makes by far the most money – so of course I have no doubt he’ll get the most playing time when he’s healthy.

Really, to me, it’s between Andy LaRoche and Blake DeWitt. I think we all agree that LaRoche has the higher ceiling, but how do you move DeWitt when he’s got the 2nd highest OPS on the team? Think about that for a second: other than Rafael Furcal, who is probably one of the top 5 players in baseball thus far in 2008, Blake DeWitt has the highest OPS on the Dodgers. Plus, I know I’ve been through these stats before but they continue to amaze me every single time:

Blake Dewitt, 2008, as compared to all MLB 3B with at least 75 at-bats
BA: .323 (3rd)
OBP: .398 (5th)
SLG: .479 (8th)
OPS: .877 (5th)
Range Factor: 3.42 (1st)
Zone Rating: .835 (5th)
VORP: 9.2 (6th)

Remember, that’s in all of Major League Baseball. Do you remember at the beginning of the season when we seriously wondered if he’d be able to manage .200, whether the crushing disappointment he was sure to receive at the MLB level would torpedo the entire rest of his career, and whether we could possibly live with such a player until Nomar/LaRoche were healthy? Now he’s practically an All-Star. Right now, I just cannot see moving DeWitt. Will he keep it up? Who knows? But at this point, anything is possible.

However, we also can’t just let LaRoche sit in AAA; he obviously has nothing left to prove there. He’s also proving that he’s healthy; in 12 games in Las Vegas, he’s got a .324/.500/.676 line with 4 homers and a fantastic 2/12 K/BB ratio. Leaving him there is letting a good talent stagnate, and he deserves his shot in the majors too.

So what to do? You can’t move DeWitt, yet you can’t deny LaRoche his chance any longer. Here’s what I do: absolutely nothing until Rafael Furcal proves he is healthy. In the meantime, get LaRoche some playing time at 2B in Vegas. No, I’m not so sold on DeWitt that I’m willing to tell LaRoche he’s completely off of third base, but as a college SS it’d be worth it to see if he can handle it – I’ll explain this more in a second. Once Furcal is back and shows he can play every day, send down Chin-Lung Hu and activate Nomar; DFA Mark Sweeney and bring up LaRoche. This benefits Hu by letting him play SS every day in preparation for an everyday gig in 2009, either in LA if Furcal isn’t signed or elsewhere if he is. This also benefits the Dodgers by no longer having Mark Sweeney taking up a roster spot – he’s hitting .154 (4-26) and provides no defensive value whatsoever. On a team with a roster crunch like this squad is about to have, there’s just no place for a dedicated pinch-hitter who can’t even do that.

If LaRoche shows he’s not a total butcher at 2B in AAA (I don’t believe he would be, as he was a college SS, and besides, Delwyn Young did start at 2B on Sunday and there’s no way he’s worse than that) we get him time at both 2B and 3B. I agree with those who say that a week or two at 2B in the minors isn’t enough for a full fledged position switch, but he just has to be Kent’s caddy there, not an everyday thing. Figure DeWitt starts 4-5 days a week at 3B, LaRoche gets 2-3 starts a week at 3B, 1 at 2B, and more time subbing for Kent in the late innings.

Here’s the tricky part: it makes Nomar our backup SS (and 1B, without Sweeney, which is fine by me). When Furcal is healthy, he plays every single day. I’m sure Nomar’s not great at SS these days, but I think I could live with a former All-Star at the position having to play there, in a very limited capacity, every once in a while. If anything happens to Furcal where we need more than a one-day replacement at SS, Hu is only a short trip away in Vegas. Where Terry Tiffee remains in this scenario, I suppose, as even more depth if (okay, when) Nomar hurts himself again.

And hey, after writing this but before posting it, I see Ken Gurnick agrees with me!

What would you do when Garciaparra returns?
– Glen W., Hollywood, Calif.

Assuming DeWitt continues to handle the position well, I would turn Garciaparra into the versatile utility infielder that the Dodgers desperately need. During the offseason, when it was assumed that LaRoche would make a strong bid for the starting third-base job, Garciaparra was being readied for moving all around the infield. Clearly, second baseman Jeff Kent at age 40 needs more rest than in earlier years. Rafael Furcal just missed a week with a bad back and the offense really sputtered without him. Garciaparra’s ability to play all four infield positions would make it easier for the Dodgers to keep 12 pitchers. Plus, Garciaparra has been injured repeatedly since coming to the Dodgers and spot duty might help him avoid injuries. And regardless of DeWitt’s relative inexperience, he’s done nothing to show that he doesn’t deserve to keep playing.

The benefits of this plan include:
* Seeing if Blake DeWitt keep this performance up; if not, simply stop playing LaRoche at 2B and recall Hu
* Finding out if Andy LaRoche can prove he can hit in the majors
* Discovering if LaRoche can prove to be adequate at 2B; if so, we might have our post-Kent plan right there
* Letting Chin-Lung Hu play every day in AAA rather than man the bench in the bigs
* Relegating Nomar to backup 1B/3B/SS/vet bat off the bench, which is really where he ought to be anyway
* Upgrading the offense from the bench (Hu/Sweeney to Nomar/LaRoche is just no comparison)
* Improving defensive flexibility, as we’d have three 3B candidates instead of our current one, and Sweeney is almost a non-factor in the field anyway.

Really, the only downsides here are a defensive downgrade off the bench, as obviously Hu is far superior to anyone else, and the possibility of Nomar being unhappy with his bench position. I suppose you could also point out that losing Sweeney’s left-handed bat and replacing him with two right-handed bats hurts the pinch-hitting strategies, but I find that to be a non-issue as Young is a switch-hitter and either Either or Pierre are usually on the bench anyway.

As for me, I love this plan so much that I know it will NEVER EVER HAPPEN.

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

The Legend of Blake DeWitt

This is unprecedented around here: just about 24 hours after I made a post singing the praises of Blake DeWitt, I pretty much need to make the same post again. Sure, I could just update last night’s post, but what would the fun be in that?

I’m not going to reiterate his great story; you can see all that in the previous post. But I am going to point out what he did in his first three at-bats tonight.

1st inning: singles to right, scores a run
3rd inning: singles to right, drives in two
5th inning: hits inside-the-park homer, drives in two

That’s right, an inside-the-parker. Kid gets his second MLB home run in two days, and it’s one of the most exciting plays in baseball. Stats aside, when’s the last time you saw a Dodger Stadium crowd latch on to a young player this quickly? Even with all of the great new faces this team has had over the last three years, I can’t remember any of them becoming such fan favorites.

You know what, I don’t usually do this, but I just have to interrupt this post with another full-spread picture.

That’s DeWitt celebrating with Martin and Hu after plating that inside-the-parker, and I can’t get enough of it.

Anyway, he’s 3-4 with 4 RBI and 2 runs scored. Remember when we were praying that he would at least be mediocre at best at third? He’s carrying the team tonight. Sure, he did commit an error that led to a run, but I’d say he more than made up for it, no? He’s now hitting .321/.402/.494 on the season, and I still can’t even believe I typed that. About Blake DeWitt. What is happening in the universe right now?

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.

I still haven’t decided if he’s for real or not. Players who OBP .338 in A-ball in 2007 don’t raise that 70 points upon jumping three levels right to the bigs. They just don’t. But the fact is, DeWitt has. It may be highly unlikely that he keeps this up, but he’s only gotten better in the last week, so I don’t care whether it’s Nomar or Andy LaRoche at his heels, DeWitt deserves the chance to play everyday until he proves otherwise.

Speaking of “deserved chances”, I can’t say how depressed this story from today’s LA Times makes me:

Torre said Garciaparra might need to complete a minor league rehabilitation assignment depending on how quickly he progresses. Is his spot as the everyday third baseman secure upon his return?

“He really didn’t do anything wrong, he just got hurt,” Torre said. “I think he certainly needs an opportunity to pick that up.”

Didn’t do anything wrong? What do you call the .226 batting average, 66 OPS+, and 2 errors in 8 games (plus, even from that small sample, at least 2 others I recall that were generously not called errors.) Like I said, I’m not convinced that Blake DeWitt is the real-deal, long-term solution at 3B. But I am convinced that Nomar is not, so by all means just leave the kid be, the way he’s playing. Deal? Deal.

Also, Hong-Chih Kuo in relief of tonight’s one sore spot, Hiroki Kuroda? 3.2 hitless innings – that’s 11 outs, 8 of which came via the strikeout. Simply dominating, and a hell of a lot of fun to watch.

Remember folks, early game tomorrow! Let’s go for the sweep.

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

Starting At Third Base: Russell Martin?!

So, explain this to me: Ned Colletti is sitting in his nice, cozy office at Dodger Stadium and pondering the future of Blake DeWitt. Now, with Nomar about ready to come back, he sends him down for Cory Wade, because we somehow NEED a 12 man pitching staff. Now remember, Chin-Lung Hu, Delwyn Young, and the rest of the team? They don’t play third base. So, knowing this, Nomar will become the full-fledged starter for at least the next three weeks or so, until Andy LaRoche gets back..

Yeah… here’s how that worked out:

Top of the 9th inning:

  • T Saito relieved J Broxton
  • C Hu at second base
  • R Spilborghs hit for M Corpas
  • R Spilborghs walked
  • W Taveras ran for R Spilborghs
  • S Podsednik doubled to left, W Taveras to third
  • G Bennett catching
  • R Martin to at third base
  • W Taveras scored, S Podsednik to third base on passed ball by G Bennett

What the…?

That’s no typo. For those who didn’t tune in, as Podsednik doubled to left, Nomar popped his calf trying to get the ball, thus removing himself from the game and bringing in our backup third baseman Bl… uh… An… oh wait, Russell Martin.

Once he goes to third base, Bennett comes in to catch and on the very first pitch from Saito, Bennett botches it, bringing in the tying run.

Now, you see, this begs a much bigger question: just how fucking brain dead do you have to be to send down your young, hitting third baseman when he’s the ONLY POSSIBLE ALTERNATIVE??!! It is beyond stupid to put yourself in this position with any third baseman, but the Stupid Meter goes up infinitely when that third baseman is a man who has been DL’d about 29238472309482903840923983488^2 times in the past few years and is expected to man the position every day for the next three weeks. Not only do you kill your depth, but this lack of depth caused the team to have no other choice but to move their starting catcher to third base, only to have their backup catcher come in and give up the tying run in the 9th inning. Now, sure, I don’t think anyone expected Nomar to go down THIS soon, but you should never put yourself in this position to begin with. It’s like Theo Epstein one day saying: “You know what? We don’t need any other right fielders for now… we have Drew to hold fort!” The good news is that, DeWitt will be able to be called up immediately, rather than waiting the standard 10 days. The reason is that Nomar will almost certainly have to be DL’d with what Joe Torre said was a pop in his calf, something similar to last year.

Thanks, beautiful.

- Vin vinscully-face.jpg

“Can We Shake Left-Handed?”

- Chip Caray, in the top of the 7th inning on TBS in today’s game, relating what Nomar Garciaparra requested of him in the clubhouse on Saturday.

Because of his right hand. Which still has a microfracture. I think we all knew that Nomar was pushing it a little to get back before Andy LaRoche does, but that surprised me quite a bit to hear that it was still hurting him so much.

Nomar’s now 1-for-10 since his return. You can sell me on the small sample size argument at the plate, but have you seen him in the field yet? 2 errors in 3 games – but even that is misleading, as on Saturday he misplayed two crucial balls that didn’t go down as errors, which could have easily changed the outcome of the game. So he’s not hitting, he’s not fielding… how is he helping?

And it’s not just me, the lowly jaded blogger, who’s asking this question. Tony Jackson writes,

Just a thought, but I think the question has to be asked whether Nomar needed a longer rehab assignment. He is 1 for 10 (zero for his past nine) at the plate, and yesterday, he made three fielding gaffes (only one was an error, but one of the non-errors cost the Dodgers two runs). After the game, Torre said Nomar was “still getting his legs under him.” When I pressed him and asked if that suggested he should have had a longer rehab — because, really, when you come off the DL to play in games that actually count, your legs should be under you by then, IMHO — Torre seemed to push it off on Nomar, saying that with veteran players, you have to trust them to tell you when they’re ready.

Considering that Blake DeWitt – you know, the rookie who we all feared would have a severe case of deer-in-the-headlight-itis if he had to play every day – has played exactly 110 more innings than Nomar while committing one less error, I think it’s pretty fair to say that Nomar is in no way prepared to be the everyday third baseman.

I don’t want to place all the blame on this team’s current woes on Nomar. It’s obvious that Andruw Jones has been a disaster (3 more K’s today!), Martin’s still under .200 (though he did take one deep today), and no one seems to be able to hit with men on base. The fact is, though, that this team has enough issues going on right now. Blake DeWitt, while by no means an All-Star, is not currently one of them. Why create another new one? I’ll accept that it’s because of Nomar’s hand, even though he hadn’t been good before that in quite some time. But if he’s not even healthy enough to shake hands with a guy who looks like this, how can we expect him to perform at the highest level?

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