Two Schus, Three Ghosts

So Skip Schumaker is a Cardinal for two years at something around $4.7 million. This is an interesting situation—Schumaker is eschewing part of what seems like relatively sure raise in arbitration following 2010 in exchange for a guaranteed year. It works well for the Cardinals, who have Daniel Descalso in reserve but shouldn't be excited enough about that fact to worry about blocking him yet. Schumaker's 2008 and 2009 offensive numbers were almost identical, but despite having no evidence to back it up I'm willing to guess that no team is so confident in his second base defense as the Cardinals, who had this ridiculous idea in the first place.

Schumaker is a tradable—at worst, a dumpable commodity at $2.7 million in 2011, should things play out that way. And even with his numbers depressed by his apparently awful outfield play in 2010 (both UZR and +/- think he was somehow worth -3 runs in 82 left field innings) the Skip Schumaker the Cardinals saw in 2009, second base jitters and all, is a helpful player. 

He also has a chance—should he tough it out through 2011—to be the first long-term plan at second base to actually stick long term since Fernando Viña managed briefly to be Wally Pipped by Bo Hart. I'd love nothing more than for Descalso to hit .350 with 15 home runs by the PCL all-star break, but absent that I with Skip the best of luck. Hustle, scrap, etc. is overvalued in almost all scenarios, but here I have to give the Gritmaster credit—it was a wise career move to agree to move to a position where he could hit enough to start, but to work hard enough to be a plausible second baseman by the end of the season as a 28 year-old, .300-hitting outfielder...

Why, that requires heretofore-unseen levels of Playing the Right Way. Doing it for a team that has struggled with second base ever since it began selling Bo Hart t-shirt jerseys requires all the intangibles. 

The Ghost of Fernando Viña Past: He's a fine leadoff man when he hits .300. Rick Ankiel takes more flack for it, but Skip Schumaker is not a multi-talented baseball player. He's not very fast, he's hit 15 home runs in 1300 at-bats, and he draws just enough walks to avoid being The Guy Who Never Walks. There's one tool here: he hits .300. 

Fernando Viña managed a .380 OBP in his first year as a Cardinal, but he did it by being hit 28 times in 123 games—that's one last gritty avenue for Skip to explore. Without that, he's going to have trouble keeping his job away from the first defensive wizard who gets the GM all moon-eyed while he's hitting .270 in July. 

The Ghost of Adam Kennedy Present: Thirty is pretty old for a middle infielder. I've heard a lot of explanations for why middle infielders, particularly second basemen, seem to age like catchers, and Schumaker gets around the first one—he's only been getting killed by Albert Belle types on the double play for one year. 

But now that he's turning baseball-30 he has to worry about my pet explanation for second base's high attrition rate: most middle infielders just aren't great hitters to begin with. Roberto Alomar is the exception that gives the rule a legitimate veneer, but Jeff Kent, for instance, lasted until he was 40; most of the second basemen at the wrong end of that over-30 cliff are falling from far lower heights. 

When average hitters fall off, they don't have far to go. And when they're playing second base—where there are always young guys who'll play better defense and also can't hit but will do it for nothing, and where guys who can't hang on as utility infielders end up in the first place—it's a short trip to the NRI phase of their major league careers. 

The Ghost of Mark Grudzielanek Future: .300 in the middle infield is really impressive, but keep Kansas City in the Rolodex. It is a long-beloved baseball blogger trope that the sports press overrates white .300 hitters with no power, but I'm convinced that General Managers, even the ones who think they overrate these guys, have subconsciously had a fair understanding of their replaceability for a long time. 

Mark Grudzielanek walked less often than Skip, and his right-handedness made platoon arrangements more finitely exciting, but from my unscientific observations only Mark DeRosa ranks among recent Cardinals free agent departures more vocally lamented by casual fans I know than Grudzielanek upon his departure. He did all the things a good second baseman is supposed to do: he hit .290, he played good defense, he hit lots of doubles. If you ask someone to describe a second baseman for you, he'll come out looking like Mark Grudzielanek (and by extension, though momup disagrees, the other other guy from the Drew Carey Show.) But the Cardinals weren't interested. 

GMs, and fans, and bloggers seem more skeptical of second basemen then they do of other position players. Grudzielanek went on to spend three more seasons with the Royals as the exact same player, but at 35 the Cardinals weren't willing to see him go off the cliff, even if he'd done everything they'd hoped. Skip Schumaker can hit .300 with eight home runs for the next two years but he still might have trouble getting another multi-year deal from teams wary of 32 year-old second basemen. 

It's a good deal for the Cardinals; it's a good deal for Skip Schumaker. Win-win-win. 

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