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The Keymaster and the Gatekeeper

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ZOOL!

I’ve said nearly all I have to say about the Kennedy release but it’s happened and so now it’s time to look forward. Kennedy wasn’t a great player. Hell, it’s tough to argue that he was even a good player but he was a decent player (1.7 WAR) last season and was the best 2B on the roster so it was a peculiar move, at best. And as I said Sunday, based on Chone’s projections it was difficult to stomach the notion that either Skip Schumaker or Joe Mather was going to become our new 2B.

That said, I’m going to draw your attention to another opinion on the subject – one which, to some degree, disagrees with the conclusion I drew Sunday. R.J. Anderson, over at fangraphs, sees the Skip Schumaker experiment as one that truly bear fruit. His assumptions are different than mine, to the degree that I went w/ Chone’s projections and he assumed that Skip would have a similar offensive season to the one he had last season. To me, that’s a bit of a stretch as it seems to me that the increased responsibilities of learning 2B on the fly are likely to take some sort of toll in the batter’s box but it’s certainly possible that Skip might repeat his strong offensive showing of 2008. If he does, R.J. asserts that Skip can be a pretty bad defensive player (likely, IMO) and still be about as valuable as Kennedy. My assumption, based on Chone’s projections, are that Kennedy would have to be about a league-average fielder in order to be roughly as valuable as Kennedy. R.J. though, is correct – if Skip does perform offensively the way he did last season, we could probably stomach his horrendous defense at second and be ok.

It’s worth noting, also, that Skip had about twice as many PAs vs. lefties last year than Kennedy. Since both are absolutely awful against southpaws, and would need a platoon at second anyway, getting fewer PAs against lefties would probably increase Skip’s value a little (provided he can be replaced w/ a competent hitter against lefties). I suppose the point is, if Skip’s offense is good enough, this might actually work – provided that Tony can stomach continuing to run him out there and play what I expect will be awful defense. Let’s face it – any defense he provides that is better than awful will be a tremendous coup for the team.

Additionally, I absolutely cannot abide the notion that the team, by releasing Kennedy, is "letting the kids play." To me, this is a laughable notion. Yes, all the players who may replace him are younger than Kennedy, but the only 2 guys that we might generously refer to as "kids" (T. Greene and Hoffpauir) have next to no shot at winning the job. Right now the contenders seem to be Skip (29 years old), Brendan Ryan (27 next month), Brian Barden (28 in April), and Joe Thurston (29). They’re not kids at all. It’s not like we’re turning the position over to our 21 year old top prospect who may not quite be ready yet. These guys, save Skip, are replacement level ballplayers who happen to be younger than Kennedy. This isn’t a youth movement; it’s trial by fire.

That said, it appears to me as though Skip is the only contender who really has a chance to turn this into a positive. If he does hit well, and fields ok, we may have a young, cheap, 2-3 year solution at the position. At least there’s some excitement with the prospect of seeing what he can do. The others will just be holding down the fort until we can find someone better. Any of them might make a pretty good utility infielder, but there’s no reason to believe that they’re an everyday solution.

The guy I’ve always had an affinity for, as I indicated here about 16 months ago, is Jarrett Hoffpauir. His numbers always made him seem like a poor man’s Dustin Pedroia and, if you read the post above, there are (were?) a lot of similarities. The major difference is that it always took a while for Hoffpauir to get adjusted to the league and that’s why he moved more slowly through the system than Pedroia did Boston’s. Then Hoffpauir seemed to stall last season in AAA. His BB rate is pretty good and he doesn’t strike out very often but he’s just going to have to have more pop than he displayed in the PCL to stick as an everyday solution in the bigs. Add to that the fact that Hoffpauir was probably a horrible fielder in ’08 and he’s probably just not going to make it. He’s the one I’m pulling for, though. I hope he can make it but it’s probably an irrational hope.

So seeing as how last year’s opening day RF – a guy who has exactly 6 games of infield experience (at 3B, no less) since being a freshman in college -- is our roster’s best option at 2B, let’s see what is out there on the free agent market. At this point, there are really 3 options – Orlando Hudson, Mark Grudzielanek, and Ray Durham. Each absolutely destroys the "playing the kids" meme but, as I said, so does going w/ any of the other guys. With their market values likely dropping, what is each worth on the market?

First of all, Hudson has averaged about 2.4 WAR the last 3 seasons and was nearly a 2 win player in ’08 despite playing just 107 games. That he’s still on the market is pretty surprising really. Chone has him pegged for about 4 wRAA offensively and about 3 runs defensively in ’09. That’s 7 runs above average, add 2.5 for position and 20 for replacement level and that projects Hudson as about a 3 win player in ’09 – worth $14-15 M. Even if we put him at the 2.4 WAR average of the last 3 years, that places his value at about $11 M. It’s true that he’d cost us a 1st round pick, but what if we could sign him for 2 years and $14 M. That’s worth relinquishing the first pick (probably). The key is this: would management see Kennedy’s $4M as a sunk cost or would they view it as part of the cost of his replacement? In other words, if we sign Hudson to a 2 year, $14 M contract, would management see that as $11 M this year and $7 M next year for $18 total? Add in the cost of the 1st rounder and it’s probably not worth it. Do we really want to spend $11 M + a first rounder this year for Hudson?

What about Grudzielanek – a Cards’ fan favorite ever since having such a good year here in 2005. Grudz has averaged about 2.3 WAR the last 3 seasons – almost as good as Hudson – but produced just 1.6 last year (slightly less than Kennedy). Considering the fact that Grudz turns 39 before the All-Star break, was his drop last year a consequence of his age? It’s gotta be a concern. Chone seems to think so, projecting him at minus 11 wRAA next year and +3 defensively. Minus 8 + the positional adjustment and the adjustment for replacement level and we’ve got a projection for about 1.45 WAR – likely less than Kennedy. Would that make sense? Pay Grudzielanek AND Kennedy so that Grudz can be worse than Kennedy would’ve been? To me, it doesn’t. If last year was an aberration and he really is a 2.3 WAR player, that makes him worth about $10 – 10.5 M. The extra win would probably be worth bringing him on board for $4 M or so.

The last guy is Durham. Eric Seidman over at fangraphs wrote a pretty favorable thread about Durham a couple of days ago. He concluded that Durham is probably a 2 WAR player next year – exactly league average – and, therefore, worth about $9M on the market. We could probably sign him for $3-4 M and come out ahead. Seidman, however, predicates his conclusion on Durham as being a league average defender. Chone disagrees – projecting him at a ghastly minus 11 defensively. They’ve also got him at minus 1.5 offensively so that makes him about a 1 win player – worth about what Kennedy would’ve been paid to produce another .5 to 1 wins. However, over the last 6 years, UZR/150 has Durham as about a league average defender so, couple that w/ league average offense, and we’re talking about a 2 win player who we could sign for what Kennedy is earning or slightly less. Now, he’s 37 so he’s no spring chicken but he’s gotta be better than Ryan, Thurston, Barden, et al. To me, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense to pay more money to Hudson + a first rounder when we could probably get close to that production from Durham, all the while saving the first rounder.

Matthew Leach speculates that maybe the real plan for Schumaker is to get Schumaker a little experience at the keystone in 2009 in preparation for his taking over the job in 2010. A Ray Durham signing would facilitate that – giving us close to league average production in 2009 while seeing if Skip could possibly take over thereafter. It’s an interesting idea, and one that might bear fruit for the next 3 years or so.