If ever there was a player today that exemplified the remaining need for legitimate scouts who can watch a player and notice subtle, imperceptible weaknesses and holes to exploit, it’s Bryan LaHair. LaHair was a revelation in the first half of the 2012 season after spending nine years in the minors and made the All-Star team, but now the Cubs have designated him for assignment and removed him from their 40-man roster so he can sign with the SoftBank Hawks in Japan.
LaHair put up power and good on base numbers as a minor leaguer culminating with 38 homers and a 1.070 OPS in 2011 with the Cubs Triple A affiliate in Iowa. Before 2012, he only received a limited stay with the Mariners in 2008 when he had a .250/.315/.346 split with 3 homers in 150 plate appearances. LaHair was one of those “if only he got a chance” players about whom outsiders speculated what he would be, what he could be if he were given that opportunity.
Like most players with the limited positives of homers and walks, who can’t really play defense, who are trapped in the minor leagues, there’s a reason for it. It might be something off the field such as an attitude problem; he might be blocked by a better, more lucratively paid established major leaguer; or it might be that the club knows a little more than someone studying the numbers does and realizes that the longer that particular player plays in the big leagues, the more likely his flaws are to be exposed. There’s never been any evidence of LaHair being an off-field problem; he played for the Mariners and Cubs organizations for his whole career, so he wasn’t exactly blocked by Albert Pujols. So where does that leave us? It leaves us with the truth. And the truth about a player like this is that he has some use, but if he’s expected to be an everyday player and produce, the pitchers will figure him out.
The Cubs gave LaHair the job as their first baseman to start the season in part because the front office presumably knew how bad the team was going to be and that Anthony Rizzo: A) needed more minor league seasoning; and B) they wanted to delay the start of Rizzo’s free agency/arbitration clock stagnant.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but the Cubs may have made the mistake of buying into his strong first half that culminated in an All-Star Game appearance when they should’ve traded him for something they would be able to use in the future. LaHair’s hot start (5 homers and a 1.251 OPS in the first month) began to decline in May, plummeted in June, and came completely undone in July and onward to the end of the season. He did make the All-Star team, but one has to wonder whether that was a byproduct of being a “cool” story of a forever minor leaguer making the All-Star team.
Rizzo was recalled on June 26th and LaHair was moved to the outfield, so the Cubs knew to a degree what was what with LaHair. Here’s the reality: LaHair is a player who can’t hit lefties; is a bad defensive first baseman and a worse defensive outfielder; is now 30; strikes out a lot; and has nowhere to play.
This isn’t a random occurrence of a player who “deserved” an extended look in the majors after impressive work in the minor leagues. For every Casey Blake who played well in the minors and didn’t get his shot until he was 29 and once he did, played as well in the majors as he did in the minors. Nor is it an R.A. Dickey story of a player who changed who he was and demolished preconceived notions hindering him. The preconceived notions about Dickey pre-knuckleball weren’t notions, they were accurate. He was awful.
LaHair is what he was. Stories like his are all over the place. Russ Morman; Mike Hessman; Roberto Petagine—players who kept getting signed because they were experienced professionals who could fill in as an interchangeable part for a brief period—the key word being brief—and do a couple of useful things for that short timeframe and then go back down to the minors or, do as LaHair is doing and go to Japan to make some serious money before getting too old.
The story has ended predictably with LaHair being designated for assignment by the Cubs and essentially outsourced to Japan. What’s surprising is that people are surprised; that the Cubs—with a smart but not infallible front office led by Theo Epstein—didn’t deal him and now are getting nothing for him aside from perhaps a life-lesson to trust their eyes rather than the numbers as a bottom-line indicator of what a player is because many times, he isn’t.