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For about 20 years now, most teams have resisted trying to
move outfielders to infield positions. As Bill James has written, these kinds
of moves generally flop–and flop badly. Most outfielders do not make good third
basemen, or second basemen, or shortstops. The transition to first base is
easier, but I’m really talking about making the shift to the middle infield
positions, or the hot corner, which are positions that require a high degree of
skill. Just ask Hensley Meulens, or
Keith Moreland, or Cory Snyder, or Jim Ray Hart, or Tommy Harper, among the
dozens who have struggled in trying to become infielders. If you have an outfielder that you want to move
somewhere else, try moving him to DH–or maybe to the bench. That’s the safer
Although I am sure they are very aware of the inherent problems,
the Royals and Cardinals are trying to buck the trend in 2009. Both teams have
taken starting outfielders and moved them to second base. In the case of the
Royals, they haven’t committed to Mark Teahen as their everyday second baseman,
but want him to be a versatile backup capable of playing second, third, and the
outfield. With regard to the Cardinals, they’ve decided that Skip Schumaker
(you have to love a player named Skip) will be their regular second baseman, partnering with new shortstop Khalil
Greene. A surplus of outfielders (including the looming presence of super
prospect Colby Rasmus), along with a shortage of middle infielders, convinced
the Cards to make the radical move.
In spite of what the baseball history books tell us, I like
what the Cardinals and Royals are doing. Middle infielders are hard to find,
especially ones who can hit with authority. If Teahen and Schumaker, who are OK
offensive players as outfielders go, can make the transition to second base,
they will become that much more valuable. There’s also a larger issue at work
here. Players and teams have become all too rigid about positions in recent
years, to the point where specialization has reached a dangerous extreme.
Versatility, which was once a highly valued skill, has become degraded. This is
a trend that really makes no sense, because with teams now carrying 12 or 13
pitchers on their 25-man rosters, they often have only three or four available
bench players on a given night. Given that reality, teams need a greater supply
of versatile players–now more than ever.
In the cases of Teahen and Schumaker, there are some factors
working in their favor. Both are relatively young players–Teahen is 27,
Schumaker is 29–and both are good athletes. Both will have the entirety of
spring training–a full six weeks–to learn the nuances of their new position.
Additionally, neither the Royals nor Cardinals play their home games on
artificial turf, where the increased speed of batted balls would make the transition
to the infield more difficult. Ultimately, if the experiments fail, the teams
can always shift the players back to their original positions. Teahen could
move back to the outfield, making David DeJesus available in trade talks.
Schumaker could play center field, making Rick Ankiel a more viable candidate for
a trade. Both teams clearly have options.
The Cardinals and Royals are gambling here, taking a chance
on injury and embarrassment. But if these moves work out, the benefits could be
significant and tangible. And heck, if you can’t experiment with position
changes in spring training, when can you?
With Hall of Fame weekend only two weeks away, plans are intensifying for the annual midsummer celebration of baseball nostalgia and history. In addition to the 50 Hall of Famers expected to be in Cooperstown for the July 27 induction ceremony, there will be the usual supplement of retired ballplayers making appearances in and around Main Street. CVS Pharmacy, now in its second year of hosting player signings, will feature Mickey Rivers and Bobby Shantz. “Mick the Quick,” one of baseball’s most offbeat characters, should be a popular figure in these parts because of his connection to the championship Yankees teams of 1976 to ’78; the same could be said of the affable Shantz, who will be making his first visit to Cooperstown in years. Shantz pitched for the Yankees from 1957 to 1960, appearing in two World Series along the way…
Speaking of the Yankees, many of their fans continue to ask themselves why Chad Moeller is being kept on the roster as a third catcher. Moeller hasn’t appeared in a game since July 2 (approximately ten days ago) and hasn’t started a game behind the place since the final days of May (almost two weeks running). Brian Cashman’s insistence (or is it Joe Girardi’s?) on carrying the light-hitting Moeller has crippled Girardi in the late innings of games, often leaving him without decent pinch-hitting or pinch-running options. Perhaps the Yankees need to be reminded that this isn’t 1978 anymore, and that with 12 to 13 pitchers hogging roster spots, it makes little sense to carry three catchers, especially when two (Moeller and Jose Molina) can’t hit…
No one should have been surprised when the Mariners finally cut their losses by releasing Richie Sexson this week. Already a poor defensive first baseman, Sexson had become an offensive wasteland, his production declining every year since his injury shortened 2004 campaign with the Diamondbacks. As badly as Sexson has played, he won’t be out of work for too long. His numbers against left-handed pitching are decent, which will make him desirable to a team like the Twins, Yankees, or Blue Jays.
Len Randle–Topps Company–1978 (No. 544)
Shawn Chacon will never throw another pitch for the Houston Astros’ franchise. It simply won’t happen, not after Chacon foolishly put a chokehold onto the neck of Astros general manager Ed Wade before throwing him to the ground. Yet, we shouldn’t be misled into thinking that Chacon’s career has necessarily come to a complete and sudden end. Baseball precedent indicates Chacon could find work pitching for someone, even though he has already been suspended–and then released without pay–by the Astros.
I can’t ever recall a player physically attacking his own general manager, but I remember very well a frightful incident that involved a player and his manager. And while I don’t mean to minimize what Chacon did (he deserves a ban from baseball for at least a month), his actions pale in comparison to what took place 31 years ago.
In March of 1977, Texas Rangers infielder Lenny Randle reported to spring training in Pompano Beach, Florida–rather unhappily. As the Rangers’ starting second baseman the previous season, Randle was upset by off-season speculation that had rookie Bump Wills taking his job. Manager Frank Lucchesi assured Randle that no decision had been made; he and Wills would both be allowed to compete for the second base position.
During the early weeks of spring training, Lucchesi played Wills about twice as often as the veteran Randle. The handwriting appeared clear to Randle, who thought Wills was receiving preferential treatment in the battle for playing time. Although Lucchesi praised Randle as the “hardest worker we have in camp,” he soon announced that Wills had won the job. On March 24, as the Rangers prepared to play a spring training game, Randle rushed into the Texas clubhouse and packed up two duffel bags worth of clothes. Randle told reporters that he was leaving the team.
Randle thought better of his threat to leave–after talking to two of his more levelheaded teammates. Mike Hargrove and Gaylord Perry both advised Randle to stay in camp and try to work out the problem. When Lucchesi learned that Randle had come close to leaving the Rangers, he expressed regret (rather surprisingly) that Hargrove and Perry had talked him out of it.
“I wish they’d have let him go,” said Lucchesi. “If he thinks I’m going to beg him to stay on this team, he’s wrong. I’m sick of punks [who are] making $80,000 a year moaning and groaning about their situation.”
In the context of 21st century baseball, a salary of $80,000 for a professional athlete might sound like a mere pittance. In 1977, however, it was good money, especially for a player coming off a .224 season at the plate. Yet, it really wasn’t the reference to Randle’s salary that created a problem. It was Lucchesi’s choice of the word “punks.”
The Texas media made big play out of Lucchesi’s characterization of Randle as a “punk.” A few writers believed the word “punks” carried certain racial implications, especially when coming from a white manager (or supervisor) in describing a black player (or underling). Although Lucchesi offered no apology to Randle, he reportedly confided to coaches and team officials that he regretted using the word “punks.” Randle, however, showed little immediate anger over the remark. In fact, he repeatedly joked with teammates about being a punk.
Three days later, Randle found himself chatting calmly with his manager on the field prior to an exhibition game against the Minnesota Twins in Orlando, Florida. Most of the players went about their usual pre-game business, their backs turned away from Randle and Lucchesi. Without warning, the 28-year-old Randle suddenly cocked his first and struck the 50-year-old Lucchesi in the side of the face. Lucchesi fell to the ground, landing on his backside. Randle hit him two more times, putting Lucchesi on his back. Randle then continued to throw punches at Lucchesi, who was left bleeding on the stadium grass.
By now, a number of Rangers players had noticed the altercation. Several Rangers ran toward Lucchesi and Randle, with veteran infielders Campy Campaneris and Jim Fregosi leading the charge. Unfortunately, they didn’t arrive in time to prevent Randle from inflicting considerable damage to Lucchesi’s face, chest, and back.
Lucchesi suffered three fractures to his cheekbone, a concussion, two broken ribs, and an injured back. As plastic surgeons prepared to repair the bones in Lucchesi’s face, Rangers management dealt swiftly with Randle. General manager Dan O’Brien suspended the switch-hitting infielder for 30 days without pay.
Unlike some troublemaking athletes who repeatedly find themselves buried in controversy, Randle had accumulated a spotless record during his major league career with the Rangers and Washington Senators. Well-educated and well liked, Randle had always played hard for his managers and enjoyed solid relationships with his teammates. In particular, he had become a favorite of former Rangers skipper Billy Martin, not always the most rational man in the dugout and a manager who was often difficult to please. So why had a good citizen like Randle suddenly turned bad, assaulting Lucchesi during a conversation that had seemed so amicable at the beginning?
There were other questions, too. Was Randle’s action premeditated? Randle said no, claiming that when he heard the word “punks,” it prompted a “spontaneous” response. The next day, the comments of teammate and pitcher Bert Blyleven called the matter into further question. Blyleven informed a reporter that Randle had asked him what the consequences might be if he physically hit someone. Blyleven claimed that Randle had asked him the question before his assault on Lucchesi.
After initially asking for a grievance hearing before an arbitration board, Randle called off the hearing, saying that he would accept the 30-day suspension–and the accompanying $23,000 loss in salary and fines. As a result, the Players’ Association did not become involved in the matter. Perhaps Marvin Miller realized that Randle had received a relatively light sentence.
Randle then tried to apologize to Lucchesi, who had spent five days in the hospital because of his injuries, but the manager would have none of it. “Randle is on the hot seat,” Lucchesi said. “I’m not going to let him off. He could stand on the Golden Gate Bridge with the fog rolling in and I wouldn’t accept his apology.”
Clearly, Randle’s violent attack against Lucchesi had sealed the infielder’s fate in Texas. On April 27, only days before Randle’s suspension was scheduled to end, the Rangers announced that they had traded the switch-hitter to the New York Mets, who were desperate for a third baseman.
The incident didn’t end there. Lucchesi claimed that the attack left him with pain that recurred for several months. Lucchesi filed a civil law suit against Randle.
Fortunately, the story came to a peaceful ending. Over a year later, the two men shook hands, having reached what they called an amicable out-of-court settlement. Randle later played in a celebrity softball game that Lucchesi attended. “I hit a triple, slid, and got up and gave Frank a hug,” said Randle.
In the years after his major league career came to an end, Randle has lived a seemingly exemplary life that contradicts his violent actions of the spring of 1977. He often conducts baseball clinics for children and serves as a motivational speaker. He seems to bear little resemblance to the man who was once considered a pariah to baseball.
Given Randle’s success in putting the 1977 incident behind him, perhaps Chacon can do the same. Randle, a mediocre player, found work again. Chacon, a mediocre pitcher, can probably find work again, especially in light of the atrocious pitching market that currently exists. Still, there are problems. Unlike Randle, who had a clean reputation prior to his assault on Lucchesi, Chacon has a history of troublesome behavior, lowlighted by two positive tests for marijuana use and repeated displays of his temper. If (and only if) a contrite Chacon can perform a makeover to his image, he might earn that second chance that Randle once received.
A fine article written by Steve Treder of The Hardball Times, regarding the career of stone-gloved Leon Wagner, has prompted a few Internet diehards to nominate selections for an all-hit, no-field team. Unable to resist the temptation, I’ve jumped into the fray with my own picks. In order to make my team, players needed to meet two conditions: 1) they must have played at least 100 games at the position and 2) they must have performed horrendously in the field.
(Catcher) Cliff Johnson: He was a good backup catcher to have, a strong hitter, with the ability to deliver pinch-hit home runs, but his stone hands and popgun arm prevented him from playing the position every day. Did I say he could hit?
(First Base) Dick Stuart: I never actually saw “Dr. Strangeglove” play, but I’ve heard so many stories of his lack of defensive prowess that some of them must be true. Besides, he managed to make 29 errors in one season, a simply remarkable achievement for someone playing first base.
(Second Base) Jorge Orta: An outfielder in a middle infielder’s body, Orta possessed hard hands and a slow turn on the double play, a lethal combination.
(Shortstop) Alan Bannister: His versatility and live bat made him a useful player, but not at shortstop. In 1977, the White Sox used Bannister and Orta as their primary double-play combination, creating some interesting defensive adventures for the South Side Hit Men.
(Third Base) Jim Ray Hart: Better suited to play the outfield, Hart played more games at third base than at any other position, much to the chagrin of Giants pitchers who threw sinkerballs. Hart lacked the hands and range to play third, and by his own admission, didn’t take a lot of interest in his fielding.
(Left Field) Greg Luzinski: “The Bull” played like a “bull in a china shop” in left field combining incredibly slow feet with a weak arm. Having to play on the fast carpet of old Veterans Stadium only underscored Luzinki’s deficiencies. It remains a mystery why the Phillies ever moved him from his original position at first base.
(Center Field) Willie Montanez: Another former Phillie, Montanez lasted only two seasons in center field before management mercifully moved him to first base. An honorable mention goes to Ralph “The Roadrunner” Garr, who would have won the balloting at this position if only he had played more than 63 games in center field.
(Right Field) Pedro Guerrero: Given the demands of the position, it’s hard to find someone truly awful for this spot, but Guerrero fits the bill. Like Hart, Guerrero didn’t care much for fielding–and it showed. Guerrero could throw, but everything else proved a challenge.
(Utility) Curt Blefary: Nicknamed “Clank,” Blefary was a jack-of-all-trades who mastered the art of making the error. He could catch, play first, or the outfield, but the sound of the ball smacking his iron glove resonated everywhere.
(Pitcher) Tommy John: A borderline Hall of Famer in terms of his pitching, John lacked mobility and coordination when it came to handling batted balls. If John was on his game, the best way to beat him was to bunt–again and again and again.
As much attention as Carlos Quentin and Cliff Lee have gained from the media for their surprising starts to 2008, it might surprise you to learn that Emil Brown of the A’s is second in the American League in RBIs. It certainly surprised me; I just realized Brown’s lofty standing this morning, after a visit to MLB.com’s homepage. This is the same Emil Brown who was let go by the wretched Royals after slugging a cool .347 in 2007. When Oakland GM Billy Beane signed Brown during the winter, more than a few eyebrows raised up in the direction of the Bay Area. At 33, Brown didn’t seem to fit in with Oakland’s rebuilding plan, but his contributions in right field have moved the A’s past the rebuilding phase and straight into contention. If nothing else, Beane might be able to peddle Brown to a contender for a prospect later this summer–assuming that the A’s themselves fall out of contention…
If you’re not an A’s fan, you’d be hard-pressed to name Oakland’s starting outfield, but such anonymity hasn’t prevented the A’s from playing .600 ball. Oakland’s current day outfield hardly brings back memories of the Rickey Henderson-Dwayne Murphy-Tony Armas combination that once roamed the warning track at the Oakland Coliseum, but Brown and company are holding their own. Brown and Jack Cust, just named the American League Player of the Week, have given Bob Geren excellent production from the corners, while Ryan Sweeney has filled the bill defensively in center field. ..
Defenders of Scott Boras wonder some of us lose our patience with the super agent from time to time. Well, Boras gave us more ammunition this week when he talked about his client, Oliver Perez, and his upcoming free agency. Boras compared Perez to Johan Santana, saying that the former is similar to the latter at the same age. I’m sorry, but when someone tries to jam pabblum like this down our throats, it’s aggravating at the least–and offensive at the most…
Former big league slugger Nate Colbert will be visiting Cooperstown in late June. Best known for hitting five home runs in a 1972 doubleheader, Colbert will be participating in a special program at the Hall of Fame, with times and details to be announced. Colbert was one of the few bright spots for the Padres during their early futility as an expansion franchise. Colbert won selection to three All-Star teams, but saw his career short-circuited by back problems, which ended his playing days by the time he was 30.