Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
May 16, 2000
BASEBALL: WHERE TO, RICKEY?
Originally posted on the Boston Sports Guy website
So, Rickey Henderson, baseball's would-be all-time runs leader, is unemployed again. Boo hoo. Someone will probably pick him up, eventually, although it's worth noting that he was cut by a team, the Mets, with one of baseball's worst outfields. The question is, should anyone pick him up?
To start with, Rickey's on base percentage this season is .387. It was over .400 nine of the prior ten years, and was .376 in 1998. Guys like that can help you, ordinarily. Any serious fan can tell you that getting men on base is the single most important part of winning baseball games -- baserunners are scoring opportunities, just like shots in basketball or hockey or possessions in football.
These days, though, .387 is not quite what is sounds like. The NL average is .344, so Rickey's numbers are good but nothing that would be among the
Is he likely to do better? The Rickey Henderson of April-August 1999, hitting well over .300 with some power, was a very valuable player -- and one
My sense is that we can expect a motivated Henderson to produce something like a .230-.240 average and enough walks to keep the on base percentage around .380. That's a useful bench player, and a defensible starter only if there are few other options.
Of course, to watch Henderson play on a daily basis is to be reminded of the difference between a line of batting statistics and a ballplayer. He's an indifferent baserunner, sometimes choosing puzzling moments to loaf (such as the game in Philly in the midst of the Mets' September swoon that ended with a bases-loaded GIDP that Henderson could have legged out if he wanted), and sometimes embarrassing ones (the 358-foot single that was the last straw).
He's insubordinate; Joe McCarthy was right about who will get fired if the manager can't get along with a .400 hitter, but a .219 hitter is another story. The Mets canned him because they had a bunch of guys in their late 20s who'd been in the minors forever and would do anything for playing time (Jay Payton appeared in an afternoon game after being shot up with morphine in the morning while passing a kidney stone). Most managers would rather have the hungry ones.
He's also such an awful fielder that Valentine repeatedly had to remove him for a defensive replacement during the playoffs. Not only is he careless, but he covers little ground and can't throw. Yeah, he won a Gold Glove once -- when I was in the fourth grade. Other Gold Glove winners that year included Dusty Baker, Manny Trillo and Mike Squires. I wouldn't want Dusty as my right fielder today. DH-ing full time, though, would make sense for an injury-prone, motivationally challenged veteran looking to conserve energy over the long season for the business of scoring runs.
The ego, and his chase for records, removes Rickey's value as a platoon player or fourth outfielder. He'd grumble too much. If Henderson won't be happy as a part-timer, the Red Sox and Rangers are out of the question, no matter how much of an improvement he'd be on the likes of Andy Sheets or Scarborough Green.
His defense in left makes him such a liability that, in my opinion, he really has to DH, cutting out a lot of NL teams. One report I saw mentioned the Pirates, but he'd have to play the field and doesn't really fit in with the Bucs' bargain basement budget. Still, they might suck it up if they really have delusions of playoff contention. He can't even pretend to play center field, so the Indians or a fifth turn with the A's (who need a leadoff hitter but already have about six DHs) is out.
The Mariners have been desperate for a leftfielder-leadoff man for the past seven years, and they've passed on Henderson almost every year; if he could co-exist with Piniella he'd have been there years ago.
Who does that leave? Can there really be a team out there so desperate for baserunners that they can carry a DH who can't slug .250?
Well, with records on the table you can never rule out the gimmick-obsessed, veteran-laden Devil Rays, and they could actually use more baserunners. But
The Yanks have a serious hole at DH, with Shane Spencer struggling and Nick Johnson unavailable for promotion. And Steinbrenner has a big soft spot for people he's warred with before. Granted, he wouldn't fit in in the clubhouse, but neither have Strawberry or Clemens; the Yankees are professionals. But I still don't see it. The Yankees have expressed a preference for a lefthanded bat, and they're the high rollers; they can afford something better than Henderson.
The Angels are always hurting for baserunners, and amazingly they are hanging in the race. But Scott Speizio, freed from the strain of impersonating a second baseman, has outperformed expectations, and at age 27 he is in his prime, so a career year is not impossible. They may not be eager to displace him.
That leaves Detroit, worst team in baseball with the worst offense by far. In a rational world, they'd be playing Robert Fick and Eric Munson and forgetting about 2000, but with decent pitching, a lineup full of power, a big new ballpark to fill and a free agent slugger to please, the Tigers feel they have to try to right the ship. Certainly playing Henderson over the likes of Gregg Jefferies and Luis Polonia won't cost them their future. He can't disrupt the chemistry, since whatever they're cooking up at Comerica isn't worth saving. And Rickey at the top of the lineup would give Juan Gonzalez the RBI opportunities he craves. The only hurdle is that they just signed Rich Becker, another specialist in getting on base who's a questionable glove man, but I'd rather try Henderson as a DH. Also, Comerica is an even worse place to hit than Shea, but you have to at least try to score now and then.
Funny things happen; I wouldn't be shocked to see someone else pick Henderson up. But, based on his current skills and the needs of the teams, I'd say the Tigers are really the best fit.
So, it seems that the Mariners have claimed Rickey Henderson. Henderson meets the M's offensive needs, since they have a strong middle of the order and a weak leadoff man in Mark McLemore. A top 4 of Henderson, Rodriguez, Olerud and Martinez will get them a whole lot of baserunners. The Mariners may look like a young team, but given the mileage on Martinez, Moyer, Buhner, Sele and Sasaki and the impending free agency of Martinez and Rodriguez, they have to try to win now.
Lou Piniella claims to be OK with the move, and if he's telling the truth, kudos to Lou for putting an old grudge behind him (if you've forgotten, in 1987 Lou accused Rickey of being a "dog," mostly for rehabbing very slowly from strained hamstrings).
I'm still not convinced that this is a great move, however, because with Edgar Martinez entrenched at DH, the Mariners have to play Henderson in the field. Granted, I haven't seen McLemore play left field much; I suspect he's no great shakes there either, but they do have Stan Javier. Rickey, combined with the creaky-kneed Jay Buhner in right, makes their outfield defense very shaky. With a big ballpark and several young pitchers in the rotation, that's a risk.
QUOTE: "Some people hit when they can. I hit when I want to." -- 1970 AL batting champ Alex Johnson.
TRIVIA QUIZ (answer to follow in the next column): Who's the only man to lead the majors in batting in a season and not win the batting title?
ANSWER TO LAST WEEK'S QUIZ: Baseball's first world champs, crowned after a postseason championship series against New York (not Detroit -- sorry), was the Providence, R.I. Grays.