Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Iguchi replaces Harris at second base

Why am I late to chime in on the Tadahito Iguchi deal? Because I don’t have anything different to say than anyone else, which is this: He could be anything from just OK to pretty good, and in any event represents an improvement over Willie Harris at second base.

I’m not going to bother with numbers for Iguchi because what he did in Japan doesn’t mean anything, because we don’t know how to translate success into performance in the Major Leagues. The projections are all over the place, depending on whose guesswork you choose to use as a reference.

What I think has been lost is how the success cycle of a team (the White Sox) is significantly altering the development of a player (Harris).

Harris posted an on-base percentage of .364 way back in 2001 when he played for Bowie in the Baltimore Orioles farm system. He also batted .305 and stole 54 bases while only getting nabbed 16 times. That’s not quite the break-even point, but still promising for a player learning to turn his speed into production.

The next year he reached base at a .345 clip and nabbed 32 bags with almost 200 fewer ABs for Charlotte before being called up to the big team, where he was 8-0 in the stolen base department.

The then-25-year-old Harris spend the 2003 season bouncing between Chicago and Charlotte. While on the farm, he stole 20 bases in 100 ABs while slapping a .380 BA with a .470 OBP. He’s not that good, obviously, but showed he had nothing left to prove at AAA.

Instead of bouncing between towns in 2004, Harris spent the season bouncing between second base and center field for the Sox. Even without the benefit of getting comfortable in a specific role, Harris still put up a decent OBP (.343) and flashed some of his trademark speed (19 SB).

Just a month ago, it looked like Harris was going to finally get the second base job on a full-time basis in 2005. Aaron Rowand was already established in center, and Sox GM Kenny Williams wasn’t going to drag back the remains of Roberto Alomar.

But then Iguchi fell into the Sox’ lap for a song: less than $5 million guaranteed. That’s a far cry from the $13 million the Mariners had to post to bid on Ichiro Suzuki’s services a few years ago, and much, much less than the $21 million the Mets gave Kaz Matsui, a player comparable to Iguchi.

While Harris has the minor-league track record to indicate he’s better than he’s show in the majors so far, he was no sure thing to play well in 2005. So the Sox, hoping to contend with a rebuilt rotation, went with the guy they thought would be more reliable and more predictable.

Harris was going to turn 27 this year, and while he wasn’t going to be any great shakes as a MLB player, he was going to have a chance to finally establish himself and maybe spend a few years as a regular before sinking into a utility role.

Now, he’s probably going to be a utility guy forever.

If the Sox were in the position of, say, the Kansas City Royals, it would be an easy call. Forget spending the $5 million and play the guy working for the league minimum. Maybe he puts together a nice season, or a few nice seasons, and you trade him or let him go before he gets expensive. Or maybe he surprises you and becomes a regular for a number of years. Isn’t that what happened with Scott Posednik in Milwaukee? The Sox better hope so, since Posednik is their new left fielder.

But for a team that wants to win, the certainty is worth the extra payroll. The certainty means more margin for error on other parts of the team, and we all know the Sox need that with Joe Crede back at third base, still trying to establish himself, and Orlando Hernandez still trying to prove that he’s healthy.

Iguchi isn’t going to be a sure thing either, but he does have every bit the upside for the 2005 season that Harris has. In fact he has more. He’s also the less likely of the two to play poorly.

The only way Harris has of getting a full-time job now is if the Sox decide to trade him. And that may not happen, because he’s still a very useful player. More useful than anything they’d get back in trade In fact, it’s a credit to Williams that he has a player every bit as good as Tony Womack in the organization working for the league minimum. The New York Yankees didn’t, so they had to go out and overpay Womack.

This isn’t Harris’ fault. He’s done what he’s been asked. This isn’t the Sox’ fault. They’re just trying to win.

But when we look back on Harris’ career five or 10 years down the road, we’ll probably see a handful of seasons with fewer than 400 ABs, some good OBPs mixed in with some bad OBPs—because that’s what irregular playing time does to a player’s bat—and hopefully a lot of steals.

What we won’t see is how quickly his window of opportunity closed.

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