Craig Paquette: A Look Back

On July 31, 1999, the St. Louis Cardinals traded Shawon Dunston to the New York Mets for Craig Paquette, a 30 year old corner infielder who had spent the entire season in the Mets’ AAA Norfolk affiliate.  When it happened, everyone assumed the trade was done as a favor to Dunston.  The Cardinals were a .500 team, 11 games back in the division, with a depleted pitching staff that didn’t have much hope of making the playoffs in the single Wild Card era.  The Mets were competing for their division and were 20 games over .500 at the end of July.  Dunston was a veteran and a favorite of the Cardinals’ front office who had spent the majority of his career on the Cubs and played in exactly one playoff series at the age of 36.  He even returned to the Cardinals as a free agent at the end of the season.

Craig Paquette was just supposed to be the piece going the other way–a place-holder in what was essentially a giveaway.  Paquette had spent his career shuttling between the minors and the majors, never making much of an impression.  He had one season, 1996, in which he came close to full time play.  Even then, he was mostly used as a utility player, splitting time between 1b, 3b, and RF.  Throughout the rest of his career, he’d been a part time player at best and now it seemed as if the Major Leagues had given up on him.  In 1998, he appeared in only seven games in the majors, then spent the entirety of 1999 until the trade in Norfolk.  On July 31, he had an OBP of .298 in AAA at the age of 30.  Who the hell would want Craig Paquette?

As it turns out, Tony La Russa wanted Craig Paquette.  La Russa had managed Paquette back in Oakland, where Paquette spent his first few seasons.  During their time together, Paquette put up a .217/.243/.382 line over 763 plate appearances and three seasons.  And apparently La Russa hadn’t seen enough of him. Paquette was in the lineup at RF on August 3, 1999 and promptly hit a double and a HR in his first Major League game of the season.

Over the next three seasons, Paquette would be something of an enigma for the Cardinals.  He had some of the most atrocious on-base skills of any position player I’ve seen and his glove was bad everywhere but first base.  Nevertheless, he got consistent playing time through 2001, when at the age of 32 he finally put up what felt like a decent season, hitting .282/.326/.465.  That still wasn’t great for his defensive profile, but it was good enough to earn him a deal worth almost five million dollars from the Detroit Tigers, after which he reverted back to a pumpkin and fell so far below replacement value that every replacement value player suffered from vertigo.

I will admit that I hated Craig Paquette.  At the time, I was vehemently opposed to all of Tony La Russa’s moves. Despite the fact that Tony helped bring in Mark McGwire, one of my favorite players of all time, La Russa’s managing style irritated the hell out of a fifteen year old kid who had just discovered Bill James and spent his days posting on rec.sports.baseball.  La Russa’s love of veterans, closers, and short-sighted match-ups infuriated me.  It would be years before I figured out that La Russa was actually better than most managers about the things I hated.  My distaste for La Russa seeped over onto Paquette, who was clearly one of La Russa’s “guys.”  Paquette stayed on the team and kept getting at bats despite his terrible OBP (which I thought was the most important thing in the world) and his less-than-impressive glove.

Now I realize how spoiled I was.

Craig Paquette wasn’t really that bad a of a player for the Cardinals.  Over his three seasons with the team, he hit .267/.309/.461, which is nothing to write home about.  But that .770 OPS would be second on the 2014 Cards, behind only Matt Adams.

There is an obvious caveat, of course, which is that comparing numbers from this season to those from 1999-2001 is like comparing apples to juiced oranges. Baseball-Reference tries to normalize for era and translates that .770 OPS to a 93 OPS+, which suddenly doesn’t seem so hot. But it’s still far better than any of the bench players the Cardinals have relied upon over the last couple years. Right now, I’d be thrilled with a slugging-heavy 93 OPS+ off the bench, and a .770 OPS would be starting and batting fifth.

Paquette isn’t the only name I suddenly find myself re-evaluating. The La Russa era Cardinals were rarely lacking in decent, if not inspiring, players off the bench. Lugo.  Felipe Lopez. Miles. Luna. Brian Barton. Spiezio. Mabry. Hell, the aforementioned Dunston fits too. I’m sure I whined and complained when I saw these names in the starting lineup, but they are all a hell of a lot better than the bench guys we’ve run out over the last two seasons. What I wouldn’t give to swap out Shane Robinson for So Taguchi, or Daniel Descalso for Nick Punto.

Sure, there were plenty of mistakes.  Joe Thurston hit better than anyone on our bench now (which is a damning statement considering his OPS was .645) but he got so lost on the basepaths that he was once found roaming East St. Louis, dehydrated and malnourished, five days after he hit a ground rule double. Wilson Delgado can only be evaluated once I have the results of a DNA test that will prove my theory about him and Daniel Descalso.  And remember the time the Cardinals traded a real, useful player for Pedro Feliz?

Still, something has changed. Either other teams have gotten better at picking out the wheat from the DFA and AAA chaff, or the Cardinals have gotten worse. The bench was a huge weak spot last season, and really the only black mark against Mozeliak’s recent record (Matheny hiring notwithstanding).

Until we’ve got a bench that can offer a little pop, I will just have to look back fondly on Craig Paquette.  Damn, that’s depressing.

 

 

Pete Kozma Is Here and He Makes the Team Better. Yes, Really.

I’m not going to say that I’m Pete Kozma’s biggest hater, because it might not be true. As far as I know, Kozma may have crippled a classmate with a baseball bat in a high school fight and gotten away with it because he was on the baseball team. That guy, if he exists, probably dislikes Pete Kozma more than me, though I doubt he exists because Pete Kozma couldn’t do that kind of damage with a baseball bat.

Even if I’m not Kozma’s biggest hater, I have made an extensive record of my criticism. And that is going to make what I’m about to write all the more shocking: bringing up Kozma was the right move and will actually improve the team.

Now, I certainly don’t like the circumstances of Kozma’s return. He shouldn’t be on the roster because two starting pitchers got hurt, but he should be on the roster. And not because he’s good. I’m never going to say that Kozma is good.

In 2013, Kozma hit .217/.275/.273, which is actually a bit worse than I expected because I thought he’d stumble into a few more HR and at least pull his SLG above his OBP. It was an atrocious year with the bat that silenced all his boosters and left him stranded in AAA. However, Kozma showed remarkable growth with the glove, especially for a player who had lost his position on the defensive spectrum just one year earlier to Ryan Jackson. I don’t think he was as good as, say, fangraphs which put him as 4th in UZR/150, but he had more range than he showed early in his minor league career and he wasn’t nearly as boneheaded as Tyler Greene.

Nothing in Kozma’s 2014 at AAA shows that he’s learned how to hit. A .234/.341/.372 slash line might indicate some improvement with his batting eye but comes with a hell of a small sample size warning. So what has changed? Why am I happy to see Kozma in the majors when I couldn’t wait for him to be gone last year? Well, it’s all about the other options.

Before Kolten Wong, who himself was struggling through a sore shoulder, went on the DL, the Cardinals had two infield bats on the bench. Mark Ellis is hitting .193/.280/.220 and Daniel Descalso is hitting a putrid .176/.233/.221. These are numbers that would even make 2013 Kozma shake his head.

Now one of those two is the starter at 2b. Maybe they’re in a platoon. It doesn’t really matter, because the result is the same. They are barely outslugging the Cards pitchers (.210) in over 200 PAs. Ellis could shake off the relentless encroachment of old age and return to form. But Descalso has never been good. Never this bad, but never good.  Most importantly, Descalso can’t play shortstop. Mike Matheny thinks he can, but he’s wrong and the experiments have to end.

Right now, Pete Kozma is a more useful player than Daniel Descalso. He might even be more useful than Mark Ellis. He’s probably also better to have around than Shane Robinson as well, since they have the same noodle bat but Kozma can give Peralta some rest. When Wong comes back, or when the pitching staff gets so thoroughly strafed in Colorado that we need a thirteenth arm, Descalso should be the one on his way out, not Kozma.

Until Ellis shows he’s not dead or Greg Garcia proves himself or Mo makes a trade, Pete Kozma is probably the best bench infielder the Cardinals have. Which makes me want to curl up in the fetal position and dream of Nick Punto.

 

 

 

With One Hand Tied Behind Their Back

As I’m writing this, Albert Pujols is playing at third base. He’s starting there for the first time in almost a decade. Apparently it was his idea, and he approached La Russa about it. The whole thing is ridiculous given the history Pujols has with his throwing elbow. I’m tempted to write about that, but there’s not much more to say than “what the hell?” especially when I heard La Russa’s justification. He wanted to get Allen Craig into the lineup without playing Allen Craig at 2b. Never mind that Craig’s spent significant amount of time at 3b himself…

This brings me to what I really want to talk about. For some reason, the Cardinals have insisted on handcuffing themselves with their defensive alignment. In my last post, I complained about the pool of players that have been “hitting” in the 7-1 slots for the Cardinals. Theriot, Punto, Descalso, and Greene have been Very Bad at Hitting and ideally we wouldn’t see so much of them on a day-to-day basis. But assuming that we have to see them, why is TLR playing them all at the wrong position?

There have been several variations of this problem, but I’ll use the May 14 lineup as the best example.  Tyler Greene at 2b, Ryan Theriot at SS, Daniel Descalso at 3b.

I’ve already talked about Ryan Theriot and how he should play 2b instead of SS.  He’s lost some range in the last couple seasons, and he proved he can play there last season.  He was mediocre, with 7 errors in 119 games, a -1.6 UZR, and fangraph’s Total Zone runs above average pegged him as neither a plus nor minus defender.  It’s not great, but if you have to play Theriot for some reason, 2b is the place to play him.

Daniel Descalso is also a 2b.  Not because of age or skill reasons–he’s actually shown a good arm for 3b so he has the natural talent for the position–but because of experience.  Between his rookie season in 2007 and the beginning of this season, Descalso made 17 plays at third (all last year).   He doesn’t have much experience there.  Counting this season, where he’s gotten almost all of them, Descalso has 239 innings at 3b.

Tyler Greene, meanwhile, never played 2b in the minors.  The first time he was ever asked to play second in pro ball was in the majors.  In two seasons, Greene has shown himself to be a bad second baseman.  He made 2 errors in 76 innings there last year, and has already made 2 errors in 66 innings this year.  His time at 2b is so limited that there simply isn’t enough of a sample size to use advanced fielding stats to determine anything.  Counting this season, Tyler Greene has 160 innings total at 2b in his 7 year pro career.

To put everything together, the Cardinals are surrounding a bad SS (Theriot) with two players who have played less than 1/3 of a season at their respective positions combined.  There’s no reason for this.  Nick Punto, as much as I like to trash him, should probably never be on the bench with the current roster composition.  Not only does he have significant experience at 2b, 3b, and SS…  But he’s actually a good fielder.

The composition of the Cards’ roster isn’t great right now.  But they’re utilizing what little they have terribly.  When the Cardinals keep sending out lineups with defensive alignments like the one on May 14  (or ones featuring Pujols at 3b) they are practically playing with a handicap…and against the Reds, they shouldn’t be hurting themselves like that.

UCB Progressive Game Blog: The Third Inning

Today I am participating in the United Cardinals Bloggers progressive game blog, an annual UCB event where a number of Cards Blogs each cover an inning of a single game.

For coverage of the second inning of today’s game, check out the awesomely-named Aerys Sports Cardinal site Aaron Miles’ Fastball .  For a full list of bloggers participating in the UCB Progressive Game Blog, head over to the main United Cardinals Bloggers page.

After the third inning, the Milwaukee Brewers have a 1-0 lead.  It could be a lot worse.  Fortunately, we can thank Casey McGehee for giving Colby Rasmus the chance to get his first outfield assist of the season, allowing the Cardinals to escape the top of the inning with minimal damage.

It could have been a great inning for Lohse, who struggled with his pitch count through the first two.  He retired Counsell and Braun quickly.  Then Prince Fielder came up and spooked Lohse, probably by looking at the pitcher like he was an extra-large veggie burger.  Lohse all but pitched around him, setting up McGehee’s RBI double.

Prince Fielder scored from first base, the ground shook as far west as Colombia, and Rasmus threw to the cutoff man instead of trying to nab fielder at home.  This was a heads-up play, not only avoiding a potential fatal collision between Fielder and Molina, but catching McGehee off-guard.

If you believe in momentum, that was the sort of play that should have reversed it.  Rasmus stopped a rally before it could get out of hand, and the Cardinals came to bat with the wind at their sails.  Unfortunately, it was also time for the 7-8-9 spots in the lineup.

First up was Daniel Descalso, who earned some leniency with a well-timed HR on Tuesday to give the Cards the lead over the Marlins.  Single game heroics aside, Descalso has been awful so far at the plate.  He came into today’s game batting .221/.276/.368.  After him was Tyler Greene, who has managed to be even worse at .206/.289/.324.

Nine pitches later, Kyle Lohse came up to the plate with two outs to complete an easy inning for Brewers starter Yovanni Gallardo.  If Lohse reached base, next up would have been Nick Punto and his .222/.349/.306 line.  That’s a nice IsoD.  It’s remarkable that pitchers throw Punto anything but strikes.  But it’s still abysmal.

Counting the pitcher, the Cardinals have four players in the lineup with an OPS under .660.  Ryan Theriot is out today.  At least at the moment, he would marginally improve the situation with his .682.  .682 is also bad.  And this success, which is only relative to the rest of the light-hitting infielders on the team, has come from a BAbip-fueled high batting average.  Even when he comes back, the Cardinals are conceding almost half their at-bats to fringe hitters.  Three out of nine starters are utility players who would be fine bench options or #8 hitters on a good team.  Surrounding the pitcher, they create an oasis for opposing starters.  Berkman and Holliday aren’t going to hit .400 forever, and when they regress it’s going to get ugly if they don’t have some backup from the rest of the lineup.  Hell, even an off day from the heart of the lineup could turn into a no-hitter.

To make things worse, we’re not sacrificing offense for defense with these guys.  As long as Theriot continues to start at SS, the infield defense will be shaky.  And it doesn’t look like he’ll be moving any time soon.  So the Cardinals aren’t getting anything out of the black hole at the bottom of the lineup… although I admit that Descalso is incredibly impressive at 3b considering the last time he spent significant time there was 2007 at low-A ball.  It’s not good enough to make up for his hitting, and it’s not good enough to make up for the error machine that TLR installed at shortstop at the beginning of the season.

So, what’s the solution?

I want to see Matt Carpenter and his .429 OBP in AAA on the major league team.  Bat him leadoff.  No, I’m not kidding.  He’s got a career .107 IsoD in the minors.  He gets on base.

Move Theriot to 2b, and platoon him with Skip when he comes back.  Theriot against lefties, Skip against righties.  I don’t like Skip’s defense at 2b at all, but he’s got a .780 OPS against righthanders for his career.  Theriot has a similar .782 against lefties.  It’s not fantastic, but it’s a lot better than what we have.

I wouldn’t mind handing the position to Descalso, hoping he could work out the kinks and find the success he had in the minors.  But TLR won’t give up on Skip or Theriot.  Descalso should work on his hitting in AAA as a starter at 2b.  If putting Carpenter at leadoff isn’t an option (and I know it isn’t) a Schumaker/Theriot platoon could probably get on base at a decent clip.

As for shortstop?  Well, absent a trade I don’t think we have any great internal options.  Punto can take a walk and he has decent defense.  I’d let him have it for now but explore trade options.  Tyler Greene?  At 27 he hasn’t shown any indication he can be a major leaguer.  He needs to go.

Carpenter-Rasmus-Pujols-Holliday-Berkman-Molina-Schumaker/Theriot-Punto.  It’s not perfect, but it’s better.  The Cards need to do something if they’re going to avoid ugly innings like the bottom of the third.

For the fourth inning, head on over to Fungoes.