Saturday, August 20, 2005

Bell(horn) tolls for we?

Imagine watching Brad Wilkerson strike out. I know, it's not a stretch of one's imagination. Now imagine Wilkerson striking out even more. That's Mark Bellhorn. Can you handle it?

After Wilkerson's backwards-K with runners on the corners and one out in the eighth inning of last night's 1-0 loss to the Mets, the answer is probably "No." And I'd reckon BodesCo might agree, but it's worth noting that the Boston Red Sox designated Bellhorn for assignment on Friday. Bellhorn, in the midst of a horrible season (.688 OPS), injured his thumb against the Yankees in July hasn't been seen in Boston since. Here's some background:

[Boston GM Theo] Epstein said he expects the club to have an announcement tomorrow on the status of second baseman Mark Bellhorn, whose rehab assignment reaches its 20-day limit at that time. Bellhorn homered for Pawtucket yesterday, but is not expected to be back with the big club, having been displaced at second base by Tony Graffanino.
''That's just speculation," Epstein said, regarding the likelihood that Bellhorn would not be back, though he acknowledged discussions with Bellhorn's agent, Mark Rodgers. The most likely scenario, unless Graffanino or Alex Cora gets hurt before tomorrow, is that the Sox will
designate Bellhorn for assignment. With clubs unlikely to trade for him because they'd have to pick up what remains on his prorated $2.75 million contract, the Sox, as a courtesy to Bellhorn, are likely to grant him his release, giving him a chance to sign with another club.

I seriously doubt the Nats will express the slightest interest in Bellhorn, and although I'm a fan of the patient types who can slug a bit (especially among the middle infielder population), I'm not certain I would blame Jim Bowden if he merely shrugged upon hearing the news.

Then again, let's go through the motions here:

Can Bellhorn play shortstop?

The obvious question, naturally, and the answer at this point in Bellhorn's career is at best uncertain. He's logged 28 career games at short, one last season. Scanning his defensive stats, I suspect Bellhorn has made very few career starts there. Perhaps Bellhorn could man the position in a pinch, but chances are Ryan Zimmerman---if Operation: Dutch is in fact enacted at the big league level---could do so far more competently.

Can Bellhorn play third base?

Yes, quite so. He had 165 career appearances at the hot corner entering this season, including lots of starts. He's primarily a second baseman, and while the positions require different skills, he could probably handle it now. Can he play third well? I don't know. For what it's worth (and probably not much), his career Range Factor at third is quite a bit less impressive than the average third baseman's over the course of his career.

Would Bellhorn be an improvement over Guzman?

He certainly would be offensively, sure. Then again, that skinny dude from Road Trip probably would be, considering the depths to which Guzman has sunk this season. Defensively, who really knows? That would depend on whether Guzman's developing a mental block playing the position (six errors in a recent eight-game stretch), not to mention whether Bellhorn could actually handle it there on a regular or semi-regular basis. This is not even considering Zimmerman, who might be a better option.

Would Bellhorn be an improvement over Castilla?

Defensively, no. Castilla's old and crusty and banged up, but he can still pick it at the hot corner. Offensively, a lot would depend on whether Bellhorn's settled into a real decline or has established one of those weird serpentine-shaped careers. (Bellhorn broke out in 2002, slumped horribly in '03, played a key role on a world champion in '04, and has sucked rocks in '05.) Both players have struggled mightily this season and are posting comparable seasons in terms of rate stats. (Castilla enjoys a slightly bigger slugging advantage than Bellhorn does in reaching base.) Of course, Castilla has been saddled by a home park noted for far favoring pitching so far.

I'd say the bottom line is that, unless he is primed for an improvement from now until the regular season, Bellhorn represents no real improvement over Castilla offensively. And that's kind of sad.

Would Bellhorn be a worthwhile bench player?

Probably so, if he's healthy. He's a switch-hitter and has experience at second and third base, making him a viable candidate for mid-game pinch-hitting/double-switching situations. If Jamey Carroll is being given the starting job at short (he's made the last two starts, so who knows), then presumably Guzman could serve as the back-up. (The downside to that is Guzman might be double-switch in the game, possibly exposing him to late, high-leverage at-bats.) Bellhorn, even given this season's struggles, would reach base at a clip this team needs, although his ultra-patient approach isn't really the look a team normally wants from a pinch-hitter, who is often more success when he's opportunistic and can slap a run-scoring single. But Bellhorn's versatility, ability to reach base, and proclivity to pop a homer more than occasionally make him at least somewhat attractive.

Can the Nats fit Bellhorn on their bench?

Right now, I don't think so---or I don't think they'd want to. Given the 12-man pitching staff, the current typical bench players are:

---> Church (OF)
---> Baerga (IF)
---> Guzman/Carroll (IF)
---> Blanco (IF/OF)
---> Bennett (C)

It might be best for Church if he were optioned to New Orleans for a spell, but I've seen no indication that will happen. Baerga, I'll get to in a minute. Guzman/Carroll are the utility infielders/back-up shortstops and aren't going anywhere. Blanco is raw and offers very few positive features at this point (besides power potential and theoretical versatility), but he's a Rule V guy of whom Bodes has been protective; the Nats have held onto him all season, so (as Yuda said the other day), why risk losing him now? Bennett is irrelevant to the discussion, of course.

I'd say Carlos Baerga's existence would block out any interest in Bellhorn. If acquired, Bellhorn would probably serve precisely the role Baerga serves right now: sport starter at third and first (and, laughably in Baerga's case, at least in June, second base), pinch-hitter, late-game double-switchee. Bellhorn provides more defensive ability and versatility, which might be important if Vidro is hobbled again. On the other hand, Baerga is a "proven veteran" (I'm trying not the discount that, as he appears to be a respected member of the team) and fits the late-game opportunistic pinch-hitter profile better, and he's been a fine addition to the team, to my surprise. I see no shot of Bellhorn bumping Baerga out of a roster spot.

So, unless the Nats went back to 11 pitchers, I don't see it happening, no matter the price for Bellhorn.

Now, rosters expand on September 1, and I certainly wouldn't foreclose Bellhorn being an asset for the team by that point, for the reasons already stated. (Plus, if he can hit postseason homers, he can hit September homers too, right?) But I'd expect somebody would take a chance on him before then.

So fret not, weary observers of Wilkerson's whiffs: Bellhorn probably won't join the brigade.

If Bowden didn't bite on former RED! Bret Boone, he's not going to bite on Bellhorn. (in fact I've got this nagging feeling Bret will be here in September but i'm trying to ignore it.)
a) Probably not.

b) Probably.
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