Monday, May 09, 2005

Where's our Ryan Freel?

Versatility needed: apply within

One of the necessities I've discovered about blogging a team, not surprisingly, is the desire to pay close attention to the team---to the team's roster composition, to its strategic choices, to its statistical patterns, and to its available options. In a nutshell, that's simply why (though not the only reason why) I enjoy reading Capitol Punishment and Nats Blog, just to name two Nats blogs out there.

What is more, they inspire me to attune a sharper focus to the team---not to settle for "Yea" and "Boo," to the best of my ability. Of course, that caveat is rather substantial, but one thought that has percolated in my (apologies to David Pinto) baseball musings is that the Nats need Ryan Freel.

Well, maybe not the Ryan Freel. A guy sort of like Freel would do.

If I were talented enough to play in the upper levels of professional baseball (which I'm not), and if I were athletic enough to play a few positions (which I'm not), and if I were right handed (which I'm not), and if I were not quite good enough to be an established major league regular (which I'm not, though for different reasons than guys meeting the above considerations, of course), . . . if I were all of these things, I'd beg and plead to get a chance to play at any position I could. I'd make myself presentable at second and third and the corner outfield positions, for sure. If I could handle center, too, that would be great. If I could play a passable shortstop as well, even better.

Surely I am not proposing anything new, but a guy who can do most or all of the above has tremendous value to a major league team---especially today. The major league roster is a zero-sum game; one guy gets a spot, and another guy loses a spot. Perhaps the most startling trend in baseball over the past generation is the rapid specialization featured in a big-league bullpen. Teams have cast their lot with relievers and now almost universally carry eleven or twelve pitchers.

As a result, specialists among the position players are a dying breed. Just look at Carlos Baerga as an example. If this were 1975 or even 1985, there would be no need to question his existence on the Nats' active roster---at least not a pressing need. He's a left handed bat off the bench, nothing more, and (assuming he can still hit) that's got value. But, when room on your bench is reduced by one, two, or---in extreme cases---three spots, is that value worth the trouble? Aside from "intangible" qualities such as leadership and guidance of youngsters or foreign players who are uncomfortable with the English language, well, it's tremendously arguable.

Or take Endy Chavez. Forget trying to shoe-horn him into the regular lineup as a lead-off guy; that's folly. But he's a perfect fifth outfielder, in my estimation: he can swipe a bag, he can run down balls in center, and he can slap out a hit on occasion when needed. Yet, is a fifth outfielder, by itself, worth carrying on a 2005 MLB roster? I'm not sure.

And so we get to the Ryan Freels of the world---baseball's "sixth man," in essence.

Five years ago, and within one month of each other, two players (Scott Sheldon and Shane Halter) played all nine positions in one game. Both Sheldon and Halter played on terrible teams that year, and on both occasions, the "feat" was viewed as a gimmick. This type of thing is not what I'm getting at, of course.

I'm talking about a guy who can legitimately fill in almost anywhere, as needed, when the need arises. For the Nats, the need has arisen, and Henry Mateo has been activated to plug the injury-induced hole. Based on my criteria above, I guess that Mateo qualifies:

The Nationals yesterday activated utility man Henry Mateo, giving the club some sorely needed help both in the infield and the outfield. Mateo, who underwent surgery last September to repair the torn
labrum in his right shoulder, had been on a rehab stint at Class AAA New Orleans.

The switch-hitting 28-year-old hit .273 in 40 games in an injury-plagued season with the Expos last year. When healthy, Mateo could be a key contributor off manager Frank Robinson's bench. Though he's a second baseman by trade, he also can play shortstop, third base and all three outfield positions.

See, now this has value. Mateo's versatility is valuable precisely because versatility is at a premium on a major league bench. He provides something that I believe we need: an ability to compress our bench spots.

Our roster composition has been a mess since the beginning of the season. Think back to Opening Day: we had a dogfight between Terrmel Sledge and Ryan Church, both lefty hitters, for the final outfield spot---with the loser waiting for an injury or off-day to spell the winner or either of two other lefty hitters. Until late yesterday, we had two guys with the same general skill sets (J.J. Davis and Jeffrey Hammonds), expected essentially to do the same thing. We have a guy, Tony Blanco, of whom Frank Robinson has no consistent plan to use. Blanco's just sort of there.

Now add on all the injuries this team has suffered.

Mateo alleviates some of the duplicative players and some of the boo-boos, just by virtue of his versatility. Properly employed, he can be the "Jamey Carroll all-purpose back-up" while Carroll subs for the injured Jose Vidro, and Mateo can also fill the Endy Chavez role---maybe not as well in all areas, but then, what is the precise value of retaining an Endy Chavez these days? That's my point.

Of course, there are complications. For one, as the excerpt indicates, Mateo's coming off a labrum injury; maybe his throwing arm is still weak. For another, Mateo sort of stinks. Versatility can only carry a player so far.

Which leads me to a question that I can't possible answer: how much is an effective player gifted with versatility, such as Ryan Freel, worth to a team? Consider that Freel had about 575 plate appearances last year, posting a .377 on-base percentage, stealing 37 bases with an acceptable success rate, and playing: 62 games in center, 58 at third, 46 in right, 33 at second, and 18 in left---all for $320,000. Goodness gracious, if P.J. Brown can pick up a fifth place MVP vote, then maybe Freel should have, too.

Now, Freel has established himself as something of an everyday everyman, sort of like the track Eric Owens was on before the Padres and Marlins foolishly decided he was a full-time outfielder---and then Owens regressed into Eric Owens again, anyway. Maybe we don't need Ryan Freel specifically; I have a feeling that, were we to have someone talented enough to be that close to regular status, we'd just plug him into one spot---probably in the outfield---and negate his versatility. We don't need the "Ryan Freel guy" to be a regular, and it's probably better if he's not. (Freel himself is probably stretched as a regular, though.)

In other words, we need a happy medium between Ryan Freel and Henry Mateo. (Or we just need a real center fielder.) Admittedly, Mateo isn't much, but he's a start.

I agree with everything you just said, except I'd like to add that if Bodes can get Freel straight up for Zach Day he should do it.
Tony Blanco is the kind of guy who needs to be groomed as a corner infielder/corner outfielder utility player. Jack Voigt and Don Buford should be hitting this guy 100 flyballs every other day in LF and RF and groundballs at 1B and 3B on the alternate days. If he is not going to play in actual games, let him work of a sweat learning how to make himself a valuable member of the team. Perhaps even Wil Cordero should work with him on how to handle being a corner OF/IF super-sub in hopes of Blanco assuming Cordero's role in the future.
Cinci's fans love Ryan Freel. There's something about a multi-positional hustlin' white guy that brings back the nostalgia in that city.

Although Day for Freel is probably a good deal in real terms, I suspect that Cinci might overvalue Freel.

Of course with the way they're pitching lately...!
I don't know; I guess this is what I'm getting at. Day's not a terrible pitcher, early season struggles notwithstanding. (I don't think you can be terrible if you've never put up less than a 100 ERA+.) He's got some value, to be sure.

I'm just starting to believe that Freel is far more valuable, even if he truly isn't a .377 OBP guy, simply because he allows a team to do things it couldn't do without him.
No, you're absolutely right -- Freel is more valuable than Day, but a lot of people wouldn't evaluate them as such.

This is why I think Bodes should make that trade if it's there to be made.
Two observations:

1. IMHO and as you've already noted, ihe Nats already have a Ryan Freel - his name is Jamey Carroll and he's currently our starting 2B ... but having two such players would be better than the sub-optimal bench (pun intended) the team is currently carrying;

2. There's more than one way to Freel a Ryan - who are the other Freelies out there, a la Denny Hocking circa 2002?

Placido Polanco, Xavier Nady, etc.?
Polanco's definitely the best of that lot -- but really needs to be started.

Early on in my blog's infancy, I pimped for Polanco for third base. That went nowhere!

I don't think it's fair to put Denny Hocking in that same class. While he can play multiple positions, he's really not a good fielder at any of them, and his hitting can best be termed 'lousy'.
Can Carroll play the OF, too? That's sort of what I'm getting at.

There aren't many of them, probably because:

1) many of them are granted a starting role at one position;
2) many others aren't good; and,
3) there aren't many of them anyway, but

Polanco certainly qualifies and is probably the best of the lot. Jose Macias, heh, qualifies. Geoff Blum does, too, as did "Super Joe" McEwing. Damian Rolls, formerly of Tampa Bay. Casey Blake of the Indians, I'd suppose, though he's a regular. And so forth.
Chone Figgins (LAA), although it's not like he's available either.

Tony Phillips is perhaps my favorite all-time utility player. That man deserved more HOF attention than he got, although he'd have been a borderline case anyway.
Michael Cuddyer in Minnesota is another unavailable multi-positional guy
Here's one that could be available ... the Rockies version of Luis Gonzalez
I don't know that Carroll ever has played OF but I'd bet he could ... after all, verstatility is his ticket to regular playing time, and unlike I.E. Chavez, he seems willing to learn new things.

Point taken on Hocking's defense - but the man provided slightly above replacement-level offense and IIRC he played almost every day for the Twins for a couple of years in the supersub role.

We could definitely use one of those.

Is Brooks Kieschnick still around? Didn't the Brew Crew release or option him?
Figgins, definitely. Cudyer! I was really searching for his name!

Phillips is like the godfather of the role, and Bip Roberts was his poor man's knock-off.
BTW, I think this is Wilson Betemit's route to a big league career.
Kieschnick was DFA'ed at the end of spring training, IIRC. I can't recall what happened to him.

There's another guy; I love him. Different category; same class.
Kieschnick in Round Rock (Houston AA)
AAA that is
The Astros could certainly use the guy. Their offense pretty much sucks.
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