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Inspecting the unexpected

Just getting settled in, here at VEB HQ. Hope my Friday fill-in was adequate—after I call the temp agency I don't really have a lot of input, you know. 

Meanwhile, our Hated Nemeses made a rare (and welcome) mid-January deal, sending longtime real-fan shibboleth Felix Pie to the Orioles for Garrett Olson and a minor league reliever. Olson's not half as bad as he looked last year, but this is a weird deal for a team whose current fleet-footed centerfielder was, this time last year, their lineup-anchoring rightfielder. 

Pie is just an Anthony Reyes prospect. He's never quite gotten a clear shot in center; he's not good enough to pull down the relief ace or big bat at the trade deadline, so he didn't get the chance to Just Play on a team like the Pirates when he found himself blocked; and, most importantly, he sucked it up in his first trips through the bigs. The Orioles have put together quite a defensive outfield—Pie might not hit enough to stick at left for a contending team, but when he's pushed there by Nick Markakis and Adam Jones the result is a very special situation for fly-ball pitchers. 

I just don't see this one for the Cubs. The rumor is that this is step one toward Jim Hendry digging the Undead Jake Peavy Trade back up, but I'm not sure what subdividing Felix Pie into two lesser prospects does to grease those skids.


Interesting bit on Derrick Goold's blog about Chris Duncan. There's not much to it, I guess, but the simple fact that it's there—that the Winter Warm-Up is cause enough to get Chris Duncan out of his titanium cocoon—is itself interesting.

It got me thinking about unexpected sources of production, which is good because this is as convenient a time as any to do that; before now we've been expecting other sources of production, in the form of fantasy trades and free agent signings, and come February production will be expected from everyone—at the start of Spring Training everybody's healthy, everybody's ready to Go Out There And Have Their Best Year Ever, everybody's gained fifty pounds of muscle and cut seconds off the relevant dash times. But in January you can think about the guys who have not yet begun to make their cases.

The ideal Unexpected Production guy is, like Robo-Dunc, coming off a season that was not only bad but also difficult to watch; he can't just suffer, he must suffer in such a way that the day-to-day fan is more or less okay with divesting himself of the player's upside, so long as he doesn't need to watch him founder any longer. Chris Carpenter, who frustrated Blue Jays fans for years, is the angel on this concept's shoulder; Mark Mulder is the devil. But on a fandom level they're all devils, all the way down. They demand your attention, year after year, and they keep faltering, for the most part, but that small minority that succeeds—oftentimes in a different uniform—keeps you from averting your eyes.

That generalization, combined with my fill-in's excellent post last week, led me to take a look at Unexpected Production types from years past, and I've picked one to talk about. This is my Unexpected Production player, and it is with a deep and abiding reluctance that I laud him this morning. I hope you guys can find a similar place in the far recesses of your baseball psyche to delve into in the comments.

My choice—my fate, for I surely would not choose him—is 2004 Tony Womack. It is no major overstatement to say that my distaste for Tony Womack was the glue that held together my first year as a full-time blogger. For someone a year removed from his first dose of sabermetric ideas, awash in the sheer, radiating superiority of New Ways of Thinking like considering a player's on-base percentage, watching the Cardinals sign and commit to Tony Womack at second base was like discovering gravity and watching your best friend leap off the leaning tower with feathers glued to his tunic. 

But however he did it, Womack managed to get all the way through 2004 while keeping one of the great small-scale fluke seasons of all time alive. To recap, Tony Womack was:

  • a marginal middle infielder
  • pushing 35
  • coming off a season where his OPS+ was 40,
  • had never really crested past "adequate" with the bat in his entire career, and, finally,
  • was coming off Tommy John surgery
The last one was really the key. Not only was he a bad shortstop, he was a bad shortstop who had to move to second base because he could have outrun his own throws to first. To get more inexplicable than Tony Womack, the 2009 Cardinals would have to lure Craig Biggio out of retirement. 

But say what I did about the guy, he somehow managed a .300 average, making him positively useful and making the Yankees the proud owners of a piece of paper that entitles The Tony Womack to a comical amount of money in exchange for starting baseball games, oftentimes in the outfield. He was—I admit it, finally—productive. And Bo knows that anybody handicapping the Cardinals' sorry second base race on January 19, 2004 would have been shocked to find that out.