Wednesday, June 1, 2011

On Phonies, Third Baseman, and Phony Third Basemen

A few weeks into the most recent incarnation of my current form of employment (which pretty much sets the gold standard in menial wage-slavery - but hey, some recently-graduated "writers" wouldn't have it any other way!), I had one of those painful get-to-know-you conversations with one of the far-too-attractive teenaged tarts who tend to surface in such places. Once she found out I was involved with that magical institution known as university, she became instantly fascinated and wanted to know all about it. She asked my major - which, five years into a four-year degree, is pretty much the most dreadful question in the world. And then it only got better.

"I'm a writer, too," she said (which is right up there with "What are you going to do with that?" as the most awful, predictable response imaginable). "Who's your favourite author?"

I thought about it for a minute, wondering if I should dazzle her with some archaic literary giant who'd written a short story I'd been forced to absorb at some point, or just come up with a disappointing, honest response (Nick Hornby?). I settled for a compromise, a familiar name that was definitely top 5.

"I like Salinger quite a bit." I said.


I sighed, slightly disappointed, my last hopes fading that this girl was some kind of sentient being behind the  cheerleader facade. "Catcher in the Rye?"

"Oh yeah." Her nose wrinkled as she focused really hard, trying to place the title. "I read that in like grade 10. I think...I'm pretty sure I had problems with his views on women."

I laughed out loud. It was too perfect: the way her criticism of it embodied everything about the book, parroting some high school English teacher who might well have been a frustrated writer herself (perhaps of the feminist bent). At the way her conversation skills betrayed her teenaged lack of self-awareness, when the book is all about adolescence. At the way that the rift in our conversation could have been the rift between Holden and his girlfriend as he rants about taking her to the country. And while I'm a little blase about invoking the much-exaggerated catchword of the novel, there was a definite phoniness in there too - in her superficial smile, in the way she tried so very hard to carry on the conversation at my level. It was just the perfect Salinger moment, far more telling than if she'd jumped up and said "yes! That's my favourite book too!"

Anyway, this girl has nothing to do with baseball. But our conversation reminded me of a time - almost a decade ago now - when I was the foolish high school student and it was my coworkers who were the snobbish university types who wouldn't give me the time of day. In other words, when I was a teenager and when I was a phony.

I was (and am) a phony on many levels; too nerdy to be a jock, but too jocky to be a nerd. Too busy smoking weed to read, but too busy reading to learn to roll a proper joint. I loved to talk Neitzsche but nearly failed Existentialism 201. And when I played baseball, I fielded like a good hitter and hit like a good fielder.

Because - see - at the very low level at which I played baseball, I was a third baseman. And third base is a position full of phonies.

It's the tweener position: the position where bad corner outfielders and 1B/DHs start their careers and the position where catchers and great middle infielders go to die. It's the position of failed prospects. From Sean Burroughs to Hank Blalock to Eric Hinske to Alex Gordon (or maybe not Alex Gordon?) to Wilson Betemit to Edwin Encarnacion, third base prospects love to burn out. And of the ones who do make it, many don't last long at third. Ryan Braun, Gary Sheffield, and Edgar Martinez will surely go down as historical third basemen, right? On other side, you've got a Yankee-era ARod here, you've got a 36-year-old Tony Fernandez there, and you've got the orange-capped corpse of Miguel Tejada somewhere else - basically, all aging All-Star shortstops who can't/couldn't move like they used to.

The "ideal" third basemen is a great power hitter with soft hands, cat-like reflexes and a strong arm - basically a guy who fields like a shortstop but is built like Paul Konerko. And occasionally you'll find someone who profiles like that. But Evan Longorias and Brooks Robinsons are rare. More often, you get someone like my major league equivalent: someone who fields like a first baseman and hits like a middle infielder.
Since taking over the reins of the Blue Jays, AA has wrestled with this conundrum of the disappearing 3Bs. He started with Edwin Encarnacion, then traded for Brett Wallace, then dumped Wallace and subsequently traded for Brett Lawrie.

To recap:
1) Edwin Encarnacion plays third base like a DH, and has been since relegated to that position.
2) Brett Wallace played third base like a first baseman, and has since been traded and relegated to that position.
3) By all accounts, Brett Lawrie plays third base like a corner outfielder.

Given what's at stake - i.e. almost nothing, short-term - I have no problem with bringing up Brett Lawrie as a third baseman. God knows the Jays could use someone with a little more offense than the John McDonald/Jayson Nix two-headed monster. But given the comparisons to Ryan Braun, given the constant position changes, given John Sickels' wavering qualifiers as he assured the Getting Blanked crew that Lawrie could - in some conceivable time-space continuum - stick at third, I'm not banking on anything long-term. More likely, Lawrie is another Eric Hinske - not quite an Encarnacion-level shitshow, but somehow who could, best-case scenario, not embarass himself too much. Somehow who a fan can easily tell doesn't belong at third, but can cover it well enough that the manager can justify putting his best offensive lineup on the field.

Much has been made of how space will be made for Lawrie this weekend (or, now, whenever he is deemed healthy enough to play). With guys like Mike McCoy, Luis Perez and Eric Thames kicking around, 25-man roster space shouldn't be a major concern, but 40-man roster space is another story, and from one phony third baseman we come to another: is it time for the Jays to part ways with E5?

Yesterday afternoon, I (along with a few other people) did some jawing with @TaoofStieb on this very subject. The question was whether E5's value as an asset outweighed the value of an available roster spot. I'd argue that simply because a player of rostered doesn't mean he's a positive asset; negative value exists, too. Fangraphs had a good article on the same subject, pointing out that, at his best, Edwin Encarnacion is a league-average hitter and having a league-average hitter as a DH is a generally poor allotment of resources. In most cases, a given American League team would be better off simply finding a replacement level player with good defense and putting their poorest defensive regular in the DH slot, so even at the relatively reasonable price tag of 2.5 million, Encarnacion has little to no value as an asset. In some universe, he could conceivably find work as a National League player in the mold of a Marlon Anderson, but at this point I'd argue there's very little reason for the Blue Jays to hang onto him - unless they truly do foresee a Bautista-like emergence in the near future. And after two years, I'm very skeptical.

So, Jays fans, let's get ready for our sixth third-baseman-of-the-future of the past decade, as we say goodbye, perhaps, to the fifth.

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