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Getting Bobby Bonillaed

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Someone asked a bizarre question of the Commish a few days ago, in the immediate aftermath of the Troy Glaus surgery. I'll pull it:

Q: Hello Mr. Hummel. With the Glaus injury being the latest news on the Cardinal injury list, who can blame Cardinal ownership for not buying into some of these questionable, but tempting FA players that are still not signed? While Glaus is out, what do you think the Cards will do if one of these younger guys (Wallance or Freese) has a massive Spring, makes the big club and carries it over into the season? It could easily happen. recall Terry Pendleton's success when he first arrived in 1984. No one could get him out. Then you have Pujols in 2001. Do you have any thoughts about how this could all shake out if such a scenario occurred?

Well, I certainly don't think it could easily happen. The thing about Wally Pipp, the now-verbed first baseman famous for losing his job to Lou Gehrig, is that he was a good player but not a great one, a steady-at-best type who lost his job to a great player. Some revisions of the story mention his two home run crowns, earned in the height of the Dead Ball era, but that's giving the Wally Pipp who got himselfed that fateful day a little too much credit; by 1925 he was 32, coming off a number of unimpressive seasons; if anything it's like Richie Sexson losing his job to somebody last year. 

Or Bobby Bonilla losing his job to somebody in 2001. It's not often the player who does the Pipping ends up one of the five best first basemen of all time—mostly just those two times—but as a blog thought experiment the idea of Troy Glaus, who's not Wally Pipp, getting ousted by David Freese, who is certainly not Lou Gehrig, is, at least, worth considering. The way I see it, there are two issues with any possible Pipp candidate: timing and talent.

Pippee: Chris Duncan; Pipper: Joe Mather; Problem: Timing. An issue with Wally Pipping as a concept is that the clean breaks you get with the Gehrigs and Pujolses of the world rarely happen unless you've got Lou Gehrig or Albert Pujols. Chris Duncan's replacement, after his 2008 slump, was really several players, but stylistically and logistically his replacement was Mather, another big, late-blooming home run hitter. 

Commenter TheBirds wrote what is perhaps my favorite description of the Duncan/Mather dynamic about a month ago, when he said "I would call them Superman and Bizarro; guess who's Bizarro."

It's a perfect comparison. Mather is broad-shouldered, fast, and graceful. He doesn't just look like a baseball player; he looks like someone's caricature of a baseball player. Duncan is the same size, but he's slow and slope-shouldered; in the outfield he looks like the before shot in infomercials, where a woman filmed in harsh black and white is fumbling with a telephone or an old ab machine or barbells. Most importantly, though, they have the same powers; Duncan's career OPS, even after his disastrous 2008, is still .840. 

Mather's problem, as a potential Pipp, is just that—not only is he not demonstrably better than a hypothetically healthy Chris Duncan, that's not his only competition. Pipps are chosen in hindsight, and if Mather surprises and wins a job in the outfield this year and in the years to come we'll remember 2008 as the year Chris Duncan got hurt and lost his job. If he doesn't, it'll just be the year they called Mather up and he played 50 games. 

Freese hasn't got as much trouble as Mather here—if he hits well in Spring Training, his only competition for playing time at the position will be Troy Glaus. But like Mather his only clear advantage is being younger and cheaper.

Pippee: Fernando Viña; Pipper: Bo Hart; Problem: Talent. I worked at the State Fair in August 2003, when Bodhimania was in full swing, and I'll never forget the first time I saw a kid come up the stairs of the Giant Slide, where I was posted, wearing a Bo Hart jersey. I was stunned that the Cardinals were able to manufacture them so quickly; more than that, I was stunned that the kid and his mother (they were riding together) had not considered the possibility that buying a Bo Hart jersey a month after his call-up might not be a great wardrobe longevity decision. 

Viña to Hart is the perfect Wally Pipp situation; Viña was a very good second baseman who'd fallen off and was now injured, and Hart came in in midseason and caught everyone's imagination. Unfortunately, Hart just wasn't very good. No amount of fan goodwill could vault him past the Tony Womacks of the world, and if you're getting Bo Harted by the likes of Tony Womack you're just not going to be Wally Pipping anybody. 

Freese is better than Hart, who was stretched as a utility infielder, but to Pipp Glaus he's going to have to convince the Cardinals that they're ready to trade a third baseman who put up an OPS+ of 124 last year. The bar is a lot higher.