When is flexibility constraining? When you're Ozzie Guillen

The first rule of talking about Ozzie Guillen’s decision to pass on Jim Thome is, “Don’t talk about Jim Thome.”
There are reasons on passing on the Gentleman Masher himself.  He lost something off his bat speed, he missed more fastballs, his contact rate overall dropped, his strikeout rate increased, and he lost something off his isolated power, too.  He’d still be productive with another year of a gentle decline, but he’s a risk to fall off a cliff, get hurt, or both.
Here’s why the Thome decision is causing so much outrage.  Even at age 38, high-maintenance and declining, Thome still handily outproduced the players he’s being pushed aside to make room for:

PA HR BB K BA OBP SLG
Thome 417 23 69 116 0.249 0.372 0.493
DH Stew 732 22 73 120 0.247 0.321 0.407

Plus, Andruw Jones, Mark Kotsay and Omar Vizquel don’t. solve. anything.
Thome’s too old.  So are they.
Thome’s too slow. They don’t get on base enough to matter.
Thome hits for a low average. So do they.
Thome’s an injury risk. He’s better conditioned than Jones, and Kotsay’s had two back surgeries in four years.
It’s not only remarkable that Guillen is choosing the clearly inferior option (with negligence on Kenny Williams’ part) to satisfy his fetish of managing a National League team in the American League.  It’s that, no matter how you look at it, any benefits are immediately nullified.

Inflexible about flexibility

The Sox made versatility a priority this offseason, re-signing Kotsay, signing Jones and Vizquel, and trading for Mark Teahen.  Those four players cover the entire diamond, and that’s great.
Unfortunately, Guillen’s on the verge of turning it into Rob Mackowiak all over again.
Back in 2006, Mackowiak had a terrific year with the bat, posting a career-high .365 OBP (.384 against righties). Guillen then proceeded to drain most of Mackowiak’s value by starting him in the position he was least suited to play, even though the Sox needed help at left field and third base, where Mackowiak had more experience.
It’s the slight variation on the same theme this time around. You’d think the bonus of having flexible players like Jones, Vizquel, Kotsay and Mark Teahen would be that you could theoretically spell a starter at one position with a variety of options, giving Guillen the ability to mix-and-match to suit the needs of the day.
In other words, this is the kind of roster in which a full-time DH does no harm. You can lock in a guy at DH because regulars can be rested with multiple options to lessen the blow.
Instead, Guillen is going the Mackowiak route by putting below-average hitters in a situation where they must be above-average hitters.  It’s not robbing Peter to pay Paul — it’s bludgeoning Peter to death, and then realizing on the way back that you forgot to grab his wallet.

Protecting the bottom of the roster

One argument used by public school critics is that the system fails children because it exerts way too much effort on the bottom 10 percent at the great expense of the top 10 percent.
That’s not to turn it into a political discussion, and I’m a proud pubbo anyway. But I was reminded of that theory when reading the fears that signing a full-time DH like Thome would cost the Sox a spot on the 40-man roster, or that it would cut into the playing time of Jayson Nix.
Yes, that’s right — signing Thome (or his ilk) would mean that the Sox would risk losing Santo Luis or a not-particularly-heady second baseman who has already been DFA’d twice. Perish the thought!  Speaking of which.

The “need” for 12 pitchers

This combines the worst aspects of the first two points. Similar to the way Guillen has slaughtered the flexibility advantage by tying one versatile player to the position he’s least suited for, he’s defeating the purpose of having one of the league’s most formidable rotations by requiring a seven-man bullpen.
Last week, Jonah Keri and Rob Neyer had interesting points about the 25th roster spot.  Neyer made the most salient point to this discussion:

Thanks to the dozen-man pitching staffs that we all love so much, teams resort to platoons only as a last resort. You’ve got your 12 pitchers, your nine guys in the lineup, and your extra catcher, and now you’ve got room for only three more players. You also need a utility infielder and a fourth outfielder … and now you’re down to one roster spot.
Which is why you don’t see many platoons at all anymore. I continue to believe that 12-man pitching staffs are foolish, because the manager has to sacrifice offense at one position (at least) while benefiting very little from that last man in the bullpen.

It’s true.  Look how Guillen has spent the seventh-man spot in the past:

  • LOOGYs who face righties (Randy Williams, Jimmy Gobble, Boone Logan, Horacio Ramirez, David Sanders)
  • Righties who are expected to get their asses kicked (Anybody from 2007, Lance Broadway)
  • Pitchers whom he doesn’t trust enough to give work to (Aaron Poreda, Jhonny Nunez)

What’s the point of investing $36 million in a pitching staff if you don’t believe it can work six innings in six out of seven games? What’s the point of not investing $1 million in rubber-armed D.J. Carrasco if you’re going to spend the same (or more) money on two pitchers, one of whom will rarely, if ever, affect the outcome of a game?
Guillen carried six relievers through the first month and a half of 2005.  I wish people would point to that, and not acquiring a random bunch of unimpressive-OBP guys who can run alright, as a strategy to take to heart.
* * *
There are moments when everybody who have anything smart to say about the Sox all come to the same conclusion. The decision to lock up Scott Linebrink for four years was universally panned by anybody who understood declines and aging.  Darin Erstad was never a solution, jawline be damned. Nick Swisher for Jeff Marquez, anybody?
(By the way, anybody else find it hilarious that one year after saying Swisher had nowhere to play, they’re now stressing multi-positional players with decent speed who bat from the left-handed side?)
This is another one of those times. Everybody who cares is coming to the same conclusion, and the only argument to the contrary — “wait and see” — isn’t one.
There is a sliver of a chance this could work out.  Jones rediscovers his mojo, Kotsay’s back doesn’t bite him, and they make magic together.  Even if it happens, it’s still wrong — either because 1) it’s another fluke they could never replicate, or 2) it makes the high-profile failures all the more inexplicable, given how great the Sox apparently are at identifying reclamation projects on the offensive side.
And that brings me back to Kenny Williams, who is unusually complacent in all of this mess.  It reminds me of  parents who call their 6-year-old’s bluff when he says he’s going to run away.  He takes off out of the house, realizes he has no idea who’s going to make his food, and comes back home within an hour. Mom and dad have proved their point.
Maybe Williams will figure out how to get that Adrian Gonzalez-grade bat after all in one of his patented months-before-the-deadline trade.  Maybe he’ll let Guillen scramble to find ways to score all year, and then tell him, “Don’t tell me how to build my team again.”  Either way, it doesn’t seem smart, and it’s going to come at a far greater cost.
The best case scenario from here on out is hoping Tyler Flowers posts a 1.000+ OPS at Charlotte, forcing the Sox to give him a shot at DH, where he solves the problem in the second half while priming himself to take over for A.J. Pierzynski.  Anything else is going to cost the Sox money, talent, and time when cheaper options were widely available, all to prove a point that highly paid professionals had no point trying to make.
*****************************
Christian Marrero Reading Room (Jim Thome memorial edition):
*The Cheat and I chose different approaches for our lengthy diatribes, thankfully, with his Thome sermon launching off Williams’ responsibilities.
*Andrew breaks down the probable outcomes for anybody tied to the DH position.
*J.J. stacks up the projections, and it don’t look good.
*The Twins are in the mix to sign Thome.

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Jim Margalus
Jim Margalus

Writing about the White Sox for a 16th season, first here, then at South Side Sox, and now here again. Let’s talk curling.

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iowaoaks

I was already sold on Big Jim, those numbers just make it worse.
So, how much did Ozzie put at stake here? His job on the line with this decision, win with your choice or hello Manager Cora?

bigfun

Great post. I fear this is one we’ll be quoting eight months from now…

grinderintraining

The parents with a 6 year old example is pretty spot on, and very unfortunate.
Seems KW has had enough about hearing about Ozzie Ball, got himself some one year contracts, so that way when it fails miserably he can go back to what he wants to do. Need to find myself some summer hobbies, b/c baseball won’t be taking up nearly as much time.

bigfun

If DH Stew fails badly enough and/or Carlos hobbles too much early on, will Ozzie move Quentin to mostly DH? The best use of the current roster seems to be Quentin taking the majority of DH and De Aza, Rios, and Pierre/Jones getting the bulk of the OF starts. Jones has a better defensive rep than Quentin, and there’s less at stake if he suffers an injury, since his ceiling is lower and the Sox don’t care what happens to him after this year.
De Aza actually has a pretty good CHONE projection for next year. If he can play centerfield, that’s useful. Could turn out to be one of their better moves.

knoxfire30

POST OF THE NEW YEAR! Well done Jim.
3 Key points I want to latch onto:
1. Dead on with the DH not being the way to a flexible lineup. We have a good enough bench that anyone who needs a day off can rotate around the lineup. Vizqual and Nix cover 2nd, SS, 3rd any time GB, Teahan, or ARam needs a day off. Kotsay and Jones cover the entire outfield for CQ, Rios, Pierre, and Kotsay covers Paulie, ect ect. Having Thome at DH stops none of this!!! And this team desperately needs his or someone elses power!
2. 12 man staffs are a joke! With this lineup I would push the envolope on going with 10. 11 is more then enough especially early with days off, rain outs, and everyone being fresh.
3. My NEW point and the only positive, lets face it, DH is not a hard position to cover at the deadline, because you can acquire a true DH or a position player and submit someone to DH. Literally every lefty power bat at any position that is tradable the sox could be in on at the deadline assuming they are in contention. I think an ok fall back plan is hoping Flowers hits enough to justify being a DH down the stretch in 2010. If he starts the year at triple A catching it wont hurt his development to much to come up and DH during a divisional title drive. This however doesnt solve the lefty thing…

sars

first off; great post, jim. the sox really don’t have any reason not to sign thome. that said, i think there are some things that we can hope to expect
-carlos quentin is going to have to be a DH for 450 PAs for the rest of his career. there’s nothing about his health that hasn’t screamed milton bradley, josh hamilton, etc. he simply can’t stay healthy. whats more, he isn’t some incredible asset in run prevention that he needs to stay in the OF. if a. jones UZR/150 numbers are even +1.5 this year, he’s a much more viable option in the field than at DH (assuming he hits).
-while it’s highly unlikely; “gordon beckham to second” goes haywire and he’s “forced” back to third. this sets off a lot; most likely teahen to right (or the bench, depending on how miserable he is) and nix to second. i still think that if this team really wanted to play “NL ball” (or, more likely, model themselves on the ’09 mariners and “’10 red sox”), this is the decision they would’ve made. nix is so superior defensively at second that they would not only have a(nother :]) guy with 20 HR power in the infield, they’d likely have a top five defensive 2B in the majors.
thome is, after all, one year older. surely he was an asset last year and would’ve likely been another this year, but after adjusting for positions and all…he’s what…a 1.0 win player?

striker

I’ve come to the assumption that Ozzie expects alot of close games, 2-1, 3-2, 4-3, etc. etc. In the late innings of those games he’s probably looking for someone that can get a runner over vs. hit the ball out of the park.
I also think he is sold on Andruw Jones turning his career around.
And Ozzie sold KW on these assumptions.
I also agree with Knoxfire. If the DH is our biggest question mark going in then there are alot of options after the season starts. Trade for someone or call someone up. Flowers could prove himself ready by June.
We won it all in 2005 with Everett as our DH. He hit .251avg/.311obp/23hr/87rbi.

stopdrop8

The guys at DH can’t really even run. More than Thome, but none of them are going to be stealing bases

ricksch

Nice post Jim. You’ve covered it pretty well, but if I may add:
1) Sox don’t have even five, let along SEVEN decent arms in the pen. What’s the point of keeping a spot open for shitbags like Randy Williams? Christ, I’d rather have Thome come in and throw to a batter.
2) Why this infatuation with Jayson Nix? The guy hit .220, made a dozen errors in limited chances and strikes out a lot. Why not see if Nix can put up decent numbers in AAA before bumping him for Thome? Besides, as many have pointed out, we have Vizquel to cover the field positions Nix butchered last year. I thought that was the reason we picked up Vizquel?
3) With Quentin and Rios both huge question marks, why not have a guy you KNOW is going to hit and get on base with some proven regularity. The big problem with Thome last year is how he was used. He should SIT AGAINST LEFTIES and be lifted for a pinch-runner almost automatically if he gets on base in the later innings. Add to his starts a bunch of pinch-hitting ABs and Big Thome would get at least 70% of the ABs he had last year. If the issue was Big Jim wanting to be an everyday player, that’s the ONLY reason to say no to him.
4) KW could make amends for this by signing Damon. Not gonna happen.

sars

Nix UZR/150 was +14.5 in 400+ innings. That would’ve been first in the major leagues, making him the best defensive second baseman in baseball. His reputation coming up in the Rockies organization would back that up. I have a hard time believing you can remember all “dozen” of Nix’s errors.
Also, strike outs are still just outs.

bigfun

Nix is probably a plus defender, but 400 innings isn’t going to demonstrate his true level of ability. His defensive numbers will probably come down to a more reasonable number. His bigger problem is his platoon split and his tendency to swing and miss outside the strike zone.

grinderintraining

If we think the games are going to be close.. isn’t it a lot easier to win them with one swing. That’d seem like the ideal situation for Jim Thome.

marshlands

The worst thing about all of this, is that it’s a double-edged sword. It’s like, we all want the Sox to be good, right? But if they are good, and somehow this (the DH situation) works out, I think the last thing we all want is for KW and Ozzie to be rewarded for managing the team like a bunch of stupid fucking idiots.
I certainly wouldn’t mind an insurance DH call up right about now, like, say, Brandon Allen (or anyone else with potential pop who isn’t 35+ yrs old).

knoxfire30

I would like to call up Buster Posey or Justin Smoke to DH for us…

bigfun

If it’s any consolation, the Diamondbacks’ LaRoche signing seems to indicate that Allen isn’t ready yet. That trade makes more sense if it was another sell-high-because-the-prospect-isn’t-that-good move. I stumbled on a pretty interesting review of his mechanics here: http://projectprospect.com/article/2010/01/25/brandon-allen-scouting-report

ricksch

Now that the As have thrown in the towel on Damon, the Sox are nuts if they don’t grab him — especially since they could get him for $3-4m, which he now has to come down to, so long as the Yankees hold their line on him. I’m pipe-dreaming here because of Boras, but this guy is really the best fit out there at the moment. The big advantage of Damon over Thome is that you need not pinch run for him. We could still keep Nix, if Ozzie would go with 11 pitchers, but I have no problem with Nix on the farm and 12, so long as they are all useful — which given the composition of the bullpen as it stands, already seems impossible. Damon’s a smart and resourceful ballplayer, as he demonstrated when HE HELPED THE YANKS WITH THE FREAKIN’ SERIES LAST YEAR. His numbers are still pretty damn good. Though he’s not much in the field anymore, he can at least play a position. Hell, pay him $5m if that’s what it takes.

K8T

So you’re saying the sky is falling. In January. I’ve become a bit cynical since September, but not that much. What’s the worst that could happen? We end up like we did last year?

K8T

Like I said, worst case scenario we spend October watching hockey instead of baseball. We aren’t going to fade into oblivion because of this. Knowing Kenny we haven’t seen the end of the roster changes for the season which means we’ll probably have a bona fide DH by July like what was said above. I may be foolish for having blind faith, but I’ll save my judgment on this for when I see it in motion instead of on paper. I’m not going to disregard an entire season just because Ozzie is playing Humpty Dumpty with the DH.

knoxfire30

Even I didnt think Thome’s market was 1.5 which means for an actual full time job and chance to return to chicago he probably takes 1 or 1.25 from us. Good god, a power bat better not be the difference this year otherwise a lot of blame is going to go right at this Thome screwup.

newcomer

Okay, here’s my problem with this… Ozzie said that we couldn’t sign Thome because he wouldn’t get enough ABs. Which leaves him with the Twins, who sign him to be a back-up DH and PH. And not get that many ABs. I know Ozzie thinks Thome deserves more ABs (he probably does), but since we KNEW he wasn’t going to get them REGARDLESS of whether we signed him.. Why not sign him? If Thome knows he won’t be a full-time player, I’m betting he would prefer to be that part-time player in Chicago to Minnesota. Being a Peoria guy who has settled into the White Sox clubhouse nicely over the last few years.. The logic just doesn’t add up.