The Lessons of Bryan LaHair

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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.

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Overkill, Overreaction Or Both

Hot Stove
  • No harm in asking/why are they asking?

Much is being made of the report that the Phillies inquired with the Rangers about Michael Young. Naturally, the initial reaction was, “What are they gonna do with him?” and “How can they afford his salary?”

Admittedly, that’s how I responded.

Such is the nature of the rapid dissemination of information before any context has been provided.

So did the Phillies “pursue” Michael Young? Was there some plan in place that they were going to trade a Joe Blanton for him and use him as a roving utility player? Or was it simply a “check-in” call to see what the story is?

I’m inclined the think that the Phillies called just to see what the Rangers were willing to do in terms of finances; what they wanted for Young; and, much like the Cliff Lee negotiations, to let them know to contact the Phillies before doing anything with another club.

The Phillies are on Young’s no-trade list, so it would have to be worked out; presumably, he’d agree to a trade to Philadelphia to get a chance at a ring provided he knew he was going to get significant playing time.

Hypothetically, if the Rangers took Blanton and kicked in a load of money to pay Young’s salary, the Phillies could do it; plus Raul Ibanez, Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Madson are coming off the books after this season, and Brad Lidge has an option for 2012. If the Rangers took Blanton’s $8.5 million and the Rangers gave up around $15 million to pay Young, the Phillies could absorb Young financially; and practically, Young could play the outfield next year.

This wasn’t as much of an overkill, George Steinbrenner-style “oh, I recognize his name, let’s get him” as it was a “keep us in mind” message from the Phillies.

There’s no harm in it if it’s financially feasible.

That said, I wouldn’t go down this road if I were the Phillies. They may want to unload Blanton for financial reasons, but with the age and wear on their starting rotation (Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt are about to turn 34; Lee, 33), there’s a good chance they’ll need Blanton to provide innings.

No, he’s not great and nor is Kyle Kendrick, but they’re functioning arms and in the event that one or more of the veterans misses a few starts, they’ll be happy they had the extra starting pitching.

I highly doubt that the Phillies are going to trade for Young and they probably weren’t all that interested in him anyway. They called in and it became a story because the Phillies are a star-studded team and their presence in a story inspires chatter.

Things happen when executives have a dialogue and sometimes they begin in the most innocuous, benign ways. In 2000, Yankees GM Brian Cashman called the Indians to ask about sending a championship ring to a former Yankees employee; one thing led to another and the next thing you knew, David Justice was a Yankee. This was while Sammy Sosa and his baggage were rumored to be heading for New York. Justice hit 20 homers over the final three months of the season to help the Yankees win their division and then hit 3 homers in the post-season as they won the World Series.

The overwhelming reaction to the Phillies looking into Young was over-the-top on all ends of the spectrum; in fact, it’s much ado about nothing.

Any club that wants to win would be remiss if they didn’t examine any and all players they think might be able to help them in some capacity. It doesn’t mean they’re going to follow through; it never hurts to ask.

  • Viewer Mail 2.10.2011:

Jeff at Red State Blue State writes RE Albert Pujols and me:

Been thinking about the Pujols sitch a lot (obviously). I have formulated my own thoughts and will post them later today…

In the meantime, what’s the ETA on the PoNY 2011 Baseball Guide?  AND… if you’re looking for a great title to another book you could write, I found it at the top of this post:

“Dire Consequences: The Pittsburgh Pirates, 1993-2011”

Jeff’s link is up above to see a Cardinals fan’s perspective on the Pujols machinations/burgeoning disaster.

Regarding the book (the uninitiated can have a look at the versions from prior years on Amazon here if you’d like to get the gist of what’s coming), I finished the first draft last night; I edit faaast; and would like to send it out by tomorrow.

Last year was frenetic in that I had to cajole and charm (I can be the most charming guy in the world when I want to) for the book to be ready for purchase as quickly as possible. It’s done three weeks earlier this year and I’m aiming for mid-March.

Let’s hope.

With the Pirates, I have but this to say: Ah, the Pirates….

Jane Heller at Confessions of a She-Fan writes RE Michael Young:

I wish the Yankees had a spot for Michael Young. I like him a lot. But, alas, they don’t. He’s paid his dues with the Rangers and now he’s been pushed out. I hope he lands with a team soon.

Given the events of the last few months I seriously doubt we’ll be seeing a deal between the Yankees and Rangers anytime soon.

Joe writes RE Jose Reyes and David Wright:

How is that even a debate? Wright has not been perfect, but he has been good, and able to stay on the field.  Its been a few years since Reyes could consistently stay on the field.  Wright has a huge advantage, even if they are very similar when both are healthy.  I like Reyes, and hope he bounces back, but Wright is more reliable.

It’s a meaningless argument as if they’re either/or. Their value is relative to, as you said, injuries amid a myriad of other things. Wright is hampered by the expectations as the “face” of the franchise; that Alex Rodriguez is across town; and there’s the constant media play of how great Evan Longoria is.

What’s the difference? The Mets have Wright; he’s signed; and he’s still a top 5 third baseman in the game. Focus on the negative and that’s what you get.

John Seal writes RE PECOTA:

Prince,

Have you seen this season’s PECOTA projections yet? Get excited! Mike Hessman is going to slug 23 dingers for the Mets in 2011.

I hadn’t seen this year’s PECOTA until you mentioned it, but I found it in all its glory on a Pirates forum—link.

And not to worry: I screenshot it for when they start making their daily alterations based on…whatever they use to come to their ridiculous conclusions, probably numbers and nothing else.

I’d be truly enthusiastic about Mike Hessman hitting 23 homers for the Mets: A) if he was going to get a chance to play regularly enough to hit 23 homers; and more importantly, B) if he was still a member of the Mets organization at all.

PECOTA must not be aware that Hessman signed with the Orix Buffaloes in Japan—link.

Their rampant inaccuracy is now extending to off-season transactions.

Coordinate!!!!