Wednesday, June 13, 2007

pitchforks and torches

on the heels of another exhausting loss, the hue and cry of the wrigley rabble has been raised to fever pitch -- and it is asking for the head of michael barrett.

barrett has been an offensive powerhouse as a catcher in his time with the cubs, among the leaders in total bases and ops at the position over the last three years. but the flaws of his defensive game have been so apparent as to cause many to wonder if his offensive value wasn't almost totally negated. baseball prospectus, in its pecota player projections at the beginning of the year, saw barrett as being the fourth-best catcher in baseball in terms of equivalent slugging and fourth-best in offensive vorp -- but just 18th in terms of defensively-inclusive warp, alongside luminaries such as jason kendall, carlos ruiz, and embarrassingly cub double-a prospect jake fox.

this season, with 30-year-old barrett struggling to find his stroke, the defensive problems have come to the fore -- particularly in the last two weeks. not only is barrett among the leaders in errors with 5 and passed balls with 8, not only is he among the worst at holding the running game -- but baserunning miscues have compounded his thin offensive production to remove the veil of distraction that often keeps mainstream cub fans from fully appreciating the poor quality of his play in the field.

furthermore, it's become apparent that barrett has lost the respect of the pitching staff. it has long been rumored that cub pitchers favored others -- particularly henry blanco -- as their receiver. but carlos zambrano gave the most vicious possible indication of the verity of the idea when he beat barrett into the hospital on june 6 after a barrett misplay contributed to one of zambrano's disaster starts of this season. last night the much more mild tempered rich hill approached barrett in the dugout, apparently over pitch selection following a jarrod washburn rbi single that put the cubs behind -- despite the evasive comments made postgame by both players, the two had to be separated by pitching coach larry rothschild in full view of television cameras.

barrett has long been seen by this page as a cad, perhaps the only man in baseball ever to make a.j. pierzynski look a sympathetic figure -- and that was of course only (until the melee with zambrano) the most recent egregious incident involving the perpetually insecure cub backstop. but he has also been seen as the cubs' best ready option at the position in spite of his considerable shortcomings.

unfortunately those days have perhaps not gone. at 30, barrett has only to look forward to becoming a considerably worse catcher as the nature of the job takes its awful physical toll; the pitching staff clearly question his competence and have little confidence in him -- and this page wouldn't argue them. while an excellent offensive catcher, he doesn't hit or field well enough to man another position. resigning him for further seasons is an execrable prospect.

the 24-year-old fox is hitting 298/329/537 in the pitcher-friendly southern league. but fox is not a great prospect -- he strikes out far too much (48 times in 242 ab) and doesn't walk (just 10 times this year), making him a probable washout. while his defense is better than barrett's, the cubs have insisted on playing him at first base and the outfield this season -- a bad sign if ever there was one. the cubs second-leading farm candidate, 24-year-old geovany soto, is hitting 322/395/537 in iowa -- but has a history that indicates nothing so grand should be expected to last very long. blanco, at 35 recovering from a back problem that may yet threaten his career, is unfit for heavy duty. his stand-in, koyie hill, is a 28-year-old minor league journeyman with a record very like soto's.

jim hendry has stated previously his intention to resign barrett and zambrano both following this season, but of course those words are worthless and one would have to hope the club could find a better 2008 catcher than any of these somewhere. but for the time being, it would seem that muddling through might be the best -- if unacceptable -- option available to the club for the remainder of the year, with the hope that barrett rediscovers his bat sometime soon and starts winning games with it to balance the games he's losing with his glove and head. it may be frustrating, dear reader, but trading for or promoting a better catcher at this point is not a clear option.

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