Thursday, April 07, 2005

So, about that lineup . . .

Two games in, and he's talking about the lineup again?

Well, yeah, sure. Maybe not the batting order, because Cap. Punishment Chris (with a hat-tip to Yuda in the Comments) makes a good case that the "Don't hit Wilky lead-off because it'll 'waste his power'" line is the one of the more oft-repeated misstatements since "Man, why can't this generation's superstars be more like Kirby Puckett!".

(Yeah yeah, Kirby was acquitted of all charges---including one of my long-time favorites, false imprisonment---by 12 Minneapolites, good and true. Speaking of which, I always thought it was strange that the Twins' legend was prosecuted by a woman with the last name "Klobuchar"; sounds like a drunken variation of Knoblauch.)

That digression---alright, random Kirby Puckett blast---aside, let's talk about the lineup's composition. Specifically, let's talk about the best interviewee on the Nats, Ryan "Soul Patch" Church---he of the "tweaked groin.

According to the groin-grabbingly transcendent WaTimes article linked directly above, Church indicated that everything was, uh, set for him to return to the lineup last night. That didn't happen, of course. Instead, Terrmel Sledge played left in his stead again, with the Recycling Cyclist filling in where the feet-footed dudes roam. But Church is certain to resume (or, really, begin) his regular duties in center soon, right? Not necessarily. So sayeth Frank Robinson:

But Robinson may not be so quick to bench Sledge, who hit the first homer in Nationals history, once Church is deemed ready. "It depends on how Sledge is hitting," Robinson said. "If he's hitting the ball very well, he'll stay in there until he slumps. If he continues to hit and we're winning, we'll keep the lineup the way it is."

Also, Robinson indicated he'd rather not Church, a lefty batter, face lefthanded starting pitchers---bad news for Soul Patch, since we'll be seeing a couple of those in the coming few days.

Straight away, let me declare my desire to see Church play. He's earned it, and I'm not even referring to the spring training stats. The guy's 26 years old now, and all he did was post a 1050 or so OPS last season. Sure, it was in the Pacific Coast League. Sure, he's not going to do that, or anything close to it, in the majors. In fact, Joe Dimino recently wrote something interesting at The Hardball Times:

Baseball-Reference guru Sean Forman once told me that the biggest thing he learned from doing the Iowa Farm Report was just how good the minor league stats were from even weak major league regulars. I remember him referencing Mark Lemke as an example. So I looked him up and sure enough, Lemke hit .270-.290 with 16-20 HR each season from 1986-88. Pretty good pop for a great defensive 2B prospect in the mid-1980s.The point of that diversion (other than my finally getting a chance to work it into an article) is that even a player like that only turned into Mark Lemke.

Notice I didn't say "groundbreaking." If you follow stats/sabermetrics stuff at all, you know that the concept of a "Major League Equivalency" is not anything new. Nevertheless, Dimino's point (concerning O's farmhand Mike Fontenot, by the way) is interestingly phrased. I know none of us are expecting stardom from Church, but what can we legitimately expect? What kind of performance could reasonably disappoint us? The point is, I suspect we'll be surprised that the answer to both questions is "rather low."

Which gets me to my point: Robinson, at least according to his public comments, has taken a real shining to Terrmel Sledge; suppose Sledge continues to hit (CONTINUES? We're two games in, and he choked big-time in the first!), and Sledge displaces Church as a regular. If so, I have three questions. These are not normative questions; obviously, many of us think Church should get a clean shot already. I mean, assume it does happen. So, I ask:

---> Can Wilkerson handle center regularly?
---> If Sledge is the regular left fielder, is that the end of the world?
---> If Church is not a regular, what should we do with him?

Well, as for the first question, we kicked that one around quite enough during the offseason and spring training. I don't really know the answer to it, but I'm not spending any more time on the question. I said, "Sure, why not?" when the alternative was 500-600 plate appearances for Endy Chavez; Church's presence does change the nature of the question.

As for the second question, I guess what I'm asking is whether a Sledge/Wilkerson/Guillen outfield---if it indeeds becomes a reality---is such a terrible thing, at least in comparison to Wilkerson/Church/Guillen. (Obviously, neither---or none---of the possible alignments is completely static. Robinson planned to mix-and-match anyway, we've heard, or at least employ a rotational system.) In other words, is Church worth getting a dander up over? (Pardon ending the grammatical unit with not one, but two prepositions.)

I guess I sort of covered the question above by quoting the Dimino/Lemke passage, but the second factor is that we're not talking about a 22/23 year old prospect, either. He's a top five or so prospect in our system, but our system is essentially a septic tank full of Cousin Cletus's midnight snack. Sledge is 28 now; we know he's not going to develop. Church is 26; we have no idea how he'll develop (hell, he doesn't even have a sample of MLB at-bats that would escape Voros's Law), but chances are his development as a hitter is nearing a peak.

Now, be clear: I'm not knocking Church here. Look at his career numbers again. Last year was a bit above-the-norm and he's been consistently a bit old for his level of competition, but we're not talking about a ridiculous fluke 2004, either. He can hit. Plus, if I knock him, I'm afraid that Ryan from Distinguished Senators will send me a letter-bomb or something. I'm just saying that lots of people got excited over, say, Gabe Kapler, too.

I'll state my position: Church should be given a clear and adequate shot. And then I'll leave a question open: In the event Church doesn't get a clear and adequate shot, is this something to inspire pitch forks and soccer riots? I'm trying not to say one way or the other definitively; you make the call.

As for the third question, that's probably the best evidence that it would be folly to screw over Church; we'd be talking about a guy who's six months away from turning 27 and who just creamed Triple-A, yet whose best use would be to go back to Triple-A again (sure, different league). That's because, if you're going to go with a Sledge/Wilkerson combo, there's little reason to keep Endy Chavez sulking in New Orleans; he could be used, to some effect, as a pinch-runner (Church is not a base-stealer) and late-inning centerfielder (with Wilkerson sliding back to left).

(Speaking of which, strategy question: Let's say you're a low-scoring team with---presumably---okay pitching. Is there more value in stretching out extra offense at the expense of optimal defensive placement, or in amping up the defense and focusing on winning a lot of low-scoring games? I suspect it is the former, but I don't really know.)

Anyway, this is all a jumbled way of saying that, while it might not be abjectly miserable if Soul Patch were passed over, it would create the bizarre scenario where Endy Chavez would be, perhaps, of greater need and use. In addition, whereas the spring was all about the Endy/Terrmel/Nick positional love triangle, maybe the important question now is Terrmel vs. Soul Patch.

Terrmel presumably has trade value; no one knows who the hell Ryan Church is. You seem where I'm going, and hopefully you also see the question of whether Church indeed is important enough to the franchise to inspire the trade of another, capable player.

I think if Terrmel sticks in the starting lineup, Church will go back down when (if?) Escobar comes off the DL, so we don't have to waive Escobar nor Davis.
True. For some reason, Escobar slipped my mind.
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