WTNYAugust 24, 2005
Short End of the Stick?
By Bryan Smith

If not unprecedented, the least you can say is the Nationals recent handling of their 2005 first round pick is abstract. Or how about gutsy, odd and questionable? On Sunday, the Washington Times indicated the Nationals would consider calling up Ryan Zimmerman before September rosters expand, where he "would be used as a fill-in for both third baseman Vinny Castilla and shortstop Cristian Guzman."

To prepare for this rigorous test, Zimmerman has spent the better part of the last two weeks playing shortstop, a position he only occasionally manned at the University of Virginia. However, rumors of this transition have been present since the Nats first targeted Zimmerman before the draft, and the move seemed to surprise few baseball insiders. However, the idea of moving from third base to shortstop is an idea seldom tested at the big league level. In fact, as Bill James wrote in his 1982 Baseball Abstract (courtesy of Rich's great series), "As a player grows older, and in certain other cases, he tends to be shifted leftward along this spectrum...But always he moves leftward, never right." Rich went on to write in his review:

James concedes that certain young players whose position-specific skills are either undeveloped or under-utilized can move rightward but notes these shifts are always dangerous and often disastrous.

Not only is Zimmerman -- still just 20 years of age -- moving three spots over on the spectrum, but to the most demanding position there is. The early results have not foreshadowed anything dangerous nor disastrous, especially for what the Nationals hope to be a short-term switch. Next year Zimmerman is expected to return to the hot corner, where he should continue to be mentioned as a future perennial Gold Glove winner.

There is, in the research I conducted, just one example similar to this. In 1979, on the heels of a bad skid in late July, the Texas Rangers decided to move their Gold Glove third baseman Buddy Bell off third. On July 26, 1979, Bell started his first career game at shortstop. Ten days later -- on August 5 -- Bell began a streak in which he would start 16 games at short over the course of 22 days. With newly acquired Eric Soderholm a far better option than anything the Rangers had up the middle, Bell played 33 games from July 1 to September 22 at shortstop. The move did little to revive Texas, who had been slipping since mid-July after finding themselves fourteen games over .500.

This is the path you should expect from the Washington Nationals. A club that swept the Cubs to open July and advance themselves to 50-31, Frank Robinson's group is just 15-19 since. Like the Rangers, a late July skid seems to be to blame for making a brash decision with their organization's best defensive talent. what's interesting is that Zimmerman profiles to be a similar player to Bell, with modest power to go along with fantastic contact skills. Don't be surprised if Ryan's career runs in a path similar to Bell, who also debuted at 20.

If the Nationals defy the 1979 Ranger tradition and make the playoffs with Zimmerman on the roster, don't expect much. The growing trend is a good idea, as many of these teams carry at least one awful bench player (hello, Carlos Baerga), seldom does the prospect fare too well. Just ask the Minnesota Twins and Anaheim Angels, who in 2004 saw a combined 2/16 performance from prospects Jason Kubel and Dallas McPherson, respectively.

In the end, I doubt Jim Bowden's decision will come back to stunt Zimmerman's growth. He's still a top 30 prospect in my mind, and one who will likely not see a significant stock change in the next month. However, Jim Bowden's handling of the shortstop position in the last nine months -- from handing Guzman money to moving Zimmerman -- is nearly grounds for firing itself when new ownership finally takes the helm of this organization.

A few news and notes from around the minors:

  • Can Baseball America just give out their Player of the Year award already? I mean, really, at this point no other player in the minors is going to kick Brandon Wood off the top spot. As Kevin Goldstein notes in the newest Prospect Hot Sheet, Wood now leads the minors in RBI, "to go along his No. 1 ranking in doubles (48), homers (39), extra-base hits (91) and total bases (329)." While the California League is surely somewhat to blame for this kind of offensive onslaught, surely Wood has proven his ceiling is greater than that of any shortstop prospect in the minors, from Joel to Hanley to Drew.

    While many organizations have been rather aggressive with promotions this year, the Angels seem to have held strong to their decision to keep Wood in high-A for a whole season. It's hard to criticize a conservative move like that, but there is now little question that Wood has mastered everything the Cal League has to offer. He's the league's most feared slugger at the age of 21, playing the game's most difficult position. The Angels haven't exactly been quick to find spots for their minor leaguers recently, but if nothing else, they must find room for Wood...as early as 2007.

  • The players that will likely join Wood on the final ballot all are finding success in their new leagues. Delmon Young, Francisco Liriano and Joel Zumaya have all taken to the International League quite well, while Billy Butler has played well for a teenager in the Texas League.

    This week the Devil Rays announced they will not call up Delmon Young as one of their five September call-ups. This seems to be a silly decision, as Young is playing very well in the International League already. While the walk total threatens to hold Young back from greatness, Delmon would be much better suited to learn discipline in the Major Leagues than in Durham. And he also should be considered the favorite to win the 2006 RF job, as bringing back Damon Hollins and giving Young the B.J. Upton treatment would be an abysmal decision. It's time to throw this kid in the fire, a la King Felix, and see what kind of player/person he really is.

    As for Liriano, I think there is no excuse for the Twins having not already called up Francisco Liriano. Not only is Liriano a substantially better option for the starting rotation than at least two of their starters, he also has better stuff than half their bullpen. I mean, how is Aaron Gleeman not beating down the doors of the Metrodome on this one? Again I defer to Goldstein here, who writes, "In 79 Triple-A innings, he has over twice as many strikeouts (93) as hits allowed (43)." He is the best pitching prospect in the minors at this moment, and again the Mariners correct handling of Felix applies here as a sign of what an organization should do with a player this good.

    But don't let me be all negative, I don't have complaints about the handling of Zumaya or Butler. The Tigers will likely give Zumaya a few September starts, and it's hard to expect results much different than Jose Capellan in 2004. I think Zumaya has better secondary stuff than Capellan, but there is no question that both players need to be coached out of the current over-relience on their fastballs that they currently suffer. Butler is doing just fine in the Texas League considering his age, and expecting much more would be foolish. He's a great prospect who I still believe will have Thome's bat at the Major League level, but let's wait until 2006 to expect him to dominate Double-A.

  • By the way, is anyone else noticing a resurgence of a couple NL West right side prospects? Both Josh Barfield and James Loney saw their stocks take considerable hits in 2004, but are quietly putting together very nice 2005 seasons. Barfield has been the better of the two, hitting .313/.375/.449 in the PCL this year, with a good number of walks and fantastic baserunning numbers. Nitpicking you could criticize the high number of strikeouts, but instead I'm left to blame a combination of bad year and a tough 2004 Southern League for Barfield's past demise. He should again be considered one of the better 2B prospects in baseball, and has probably climbed back ahead of George Kottaras on prospect lists.

    Loney isn't quite back to where he once was, but he's again on the map. After a fantastic Spring Training in 2004, Loney was abysmal last season due to a few injuries (and again, the Southern League). But his second run in AA is proving to be more successful, with pretty good numbers across the board. Still his ISO is just in the .130 range, hardly an acceptable number for a first baseman. If he can finally begin to turn those doubles into homers, as was promised out of high school, James will begin earning my respect again. I will say this, however, that there is less of a difference between Casey Kotchman (one of my top 50 prospects) and Loney than you would think.

  • That's all for today, but if you want a little more of my prospect analysis, head over to Metsgeek, where Ricardo grilled me on a few of the Mets top prospects. We didn't touch on Mike Pelfrey or Philip Humber, but head on over to read about the rest of the top-heavy New York system.

  • Comments

    Wood hit two more bombs tonight, giving him 41 on the year (to go with 112 RBI!)

    The contending SF Giants benched weak-hitting Johnnie LeMaster in Aug 1982, but instead of testing rookie 3B Tom O'Malley at SS, they put him at 3B and moved veteran Darrell Evans there. The following year (after Reggie Smith left), LeMaster regained his SS spot and Evens moved all the way across "the spectrum" to 1B.

    Tooting my own horn a little bit.

    Brandon McCarthy has started to put it together again at AAA. He's dropped off the radar a bit, but check out his numbers since the beginning of July.

    Jason Bartlett, Twins SS, played 3B in college and some in the minors (I believe).

    He has exhibited excellent tools (better range than Guzman ever had - good arm). I think he's made a couple too many errors, probably on plays he shouldn't have made in the first place or tried to force. Young players do that though, that's why they make highlight reels.

    Anyway, I figured he was a nice example of someone who made a jump from 3B to SS at a high level.

    Gil McDougald's career with the Yankess literally runs circles around James' "always moving left theory". McDougald averaged 133 games played per season with the Yankees during his ten-year career from 1951 through 1960. Casey Stengel played McDougald primarily at third base in 1951 through 1953. After Billy Martin was traded after the 1953 season, McDougald moved right to become the Yankees primary second baseman during the 1954 and 1955 seasons. In 1956 and 1957, McDougald moved back left to serve as the Yankees primary shortstop until he passed the shortstop baton to Toney Kubek and moved back right to become the primary second baseman again in 1958. In the last two years of his career, McDougald was moved left or right by Stengel to alternately spell Bobby Richardson at second, Tony Kubek at shortstop and Hector Lopez or Clete Boyer at third.

    Does an exception run circles around a useful observation (theory?), or just prove that if you say "always" or "never" in '82, someone will take it literally in '05?

    The Mets of the late 80s often moved Howard Johnson to shortstop, particularly when flyball pitchers (such as El Sid) were pitching. This shows that it does occur from time to time and that Davey Johnson was ahead of his time in balancing the strengths of particular pitchers against the weaknesses of particular fielders.