Jim Hendry has seemingly made it something of an off-season priority that his Cubs avoid going into 2006 with Todd Walker manning second base. Hendry picked up the $2.5m team option that they hold on Walker for this upcoming season, but he seems not just open to trading Walker, but rather intent upon it, so much so that he's recently been guilty of talking about the keystone position as vacant, as though Walker had already departed the organisation. He hasn't yet, but he's reportedly been openly shopped around the league, with the Cubs not particularly happy with his ability to "catch the ball".
The Cubs aren't exactly off-base with such an assessment of Walker's defence: the truth is that it's never been particularly good. His range is unremarkable, his glove isn't particularly golden, and his troubles turning the double play do cost the team runs. As a result, no one is particularly happy with his ability to "catch the ball". On the whole, he's slightly below par when it comes to playing defence, and second base is one of the more important defensive positions. That is problematic.
Second base though is also a position where offence is notoriously hard to come by: over the last two years, major league second sackers have hit a meagre .272/.329/.413. Todd Walker, on the other hand, has hit .290/.354/.471 since he joined the Cubs, though Carlos Lee and unnecessary platooning have limited him to just 239 games. That kind of offensive production has made Walker one of the best offensive players at his position, with only Jeff Kent, Chase Utley and Marcus Giles really outperforming him with the bat. What Walker has given away in the field then, he's made up for and then some in the batter's box, establishing himself as comfortably above average. His salary in the last year of his contract, $2.5m in 2006, is comfortably below average, and as such he represents the kind of superb value that teams should be striving for, not striving to give away.
None of that is to say that the Cubs should completely disregard the idea of trading him. Walker will turn 33 in May next year, and if his offence slips, as is entirely possible, with his defence not getting any better, he will be a significantly less valuable player. Indeed, his value may never be higher than it is right now, what with the numbers he's put up over the last two years, and, as such, especially at his salary, he makes an attractive trading chip. He's also just one year away from free agency, and the Cubs probably want more of a return than draft pick compensation. Finally, in Jerry Hairston, the Cubs have a decent enough alternative with which to replace him. All the same, none of that justifies the approach that the Cubs so far seemed to have pursued, one of making it entirely clear that he's not wanted around come next April, not least because the Cubs appear more inclined to give the second base job to Neifi Perez (with Cedeno at short) than to Hairston. The $5m contract Neifi's still celebrating says that much.
The Cubs are not in a position right now where they can afford to give away much offence, and that's the biggest reason why a Todd Walker trade doesn't make the sense it otherwise might. Presently the most likely lineup scenario for next year sees Murton and Pierre accompanied in the outfield by a reasonable but unspectacular bat in right field, acquired either via free agency or the Walker trade, plus Cedeno and Neifi/Hairston up the middle, the pitcher batting ninth, and not much on the bench capable of stepping in and playing every day. That, as far as I'm concerned, is a completely unacceptable scenario. I'm all for giving the youngsters the chance, but one of the reasons why you put up with whatever they put up is the fact that they're earning just a little over $300k apiece, giving you the opportunity to re-invest the money you'd otherwise have spent filling the positions on impact players elsewhere on the roster. If the Cubs aren't doing that, because they've not had the foresight to avoid a situation where there are no impact players left for them to actually spend their money on, and are instead surrounding the kids with mediocre at best veterans, they're not going to score many runs even in best case scenarios. And we'll be back where we were at last year, entirely dependent upon the health and supreme effectiveness of our pitching staff. How did that work out for us in 2005 again?
The trade went down a while ago now, but one of my favourite pitchers, Jermaine Van Buren, now gets paid by the Boston Red Sox, and here's my take...
Van Buren has pretty impressive stuff. He works off a good fastball that sits comfortably in the 91-93mph range, and compliments that with an assortment of breaking stuff: an above average slider, a decent curveball, a changeup. He likes to throw all his pitches, he's a real fighter out there on the mound, and, of course, he has his funky delivery, which means he's extremely fun to watch.
It's a delivery that's very herky-jerky drop-and-drive. Because there are so many idiosyncratic movements to it, he finds it very difficult to repeat. Some of the time he's absolutely fine, and though his delivery still looks eccentric, it's thoroughly balanced throughout, and he ends up facing the plate, ready to field the ball. Some of the time though he completely loses his balance mid-delivery and he ends up in a quite ridiculous position, facing left field. Because he tries to keep watching the ball, for obvious reasons, a lot of the rotation in his body and hips in such instances comes very late, and is extremely violent and uncontrolled. His right leg falls completely across his body, and it drags the rest of him around with it, away from the mound. Naturally, in such a position, he'd be completely unable to field the ball. But most of the time Van Buren's delivery falls somewhere between those two extremes, unbalanced but different most times, yet not quite as exaggerated in terms of the position in which he ends up and how ridiculous he looks in the process of getting there.
The real problem that Van Buren's poor mechanics cause him is not so much that he sometimes can't field his position, because that's not that important. The real problem, besides his delivery maybe making him more susceptible to injury, though he's a big strong guy, is that most of the time he isn't capable of putting the ball exactly where he wants, and so he's liable to walk a few more hitters than he should. But that's something that you just have to put up with, because attempts to remodel and restrain his delivery (made by the Rockies, for instance) have compromised the rest of his natural game, which certainly has a lot to recommend it. Not least his numbers over the last two years -- a 1.98 ERA in 123 innings (67 hits allowed, 8 home runs, 147 strikeouts), mostly at AA and AAA. Baseball America named him the Triple-A relief pitcher of the year for 2005.
Although I think that Van Buren could fashion for himself a pretty decent career as a major league middle reliever, and although he's got three option years left and will be cheap for quite a while yet, and as such should be very handy as the last man in a bullpen, I'm not that disappointed to see him leave the Cubs. We don't have room in our bullpen to accomodate him after the Howry and Eyre signings, and he'd have only seen the time in the major leagues that he deserves in case of injury. As such, he was a perfect trading chip - potentially useful to some one else, but not a great fit for the Cubs, especially because we already have more than enough relievers with good stuff but problems with their control. I am though very disappointed that Jim Hendry parted with him for nothing more than a PTBNL in a deal that he forced upon himself with yet more shoddy management of his 40-man roster. Van Buren could have been used in a package deal to land us something of worth. Instead he was shipped out in a hurry, probably not netting much of a return, just because Hendry, needing to clear roster room, thought him expendable. He was, but less so than a number of guys Hendry's hung onto (Mitre and Wellemeyer in particular, both out of options, plus one of Soto and Reyes, since we have four catchers on the forty), and he was more valuable than some of the other guys that Hendry's hung onto (Koronka and Macias in particular), and if Hendry hadn't made a number of entirely needless additions to the 40-man roster (Dopirak and Moore in particular), there wouldn't have been a roster crunch in the first place.
Of course, the entire deal depends on the PTBNL, who still hasn't been named. But my suspicion is that the Red Sox went a little bit of the way to avenging the loss of Matt Murton with this nice piece of opportunitism. Best of luck with the Red Sox, Jermaine.