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Can you please elaborate

What does Steven Goldman really think of Richie Sexson?
12/19/2006 8:04 PM ET
By Steven Goldman / Special to YESNetwork.com
HOW BAD CAN A FIRST BASEMAN BE BEFORE YOU REACH THE POINT OF NO RETURN?

Reader Eric sent in a good question based on last week's Pinstriped Bible:

I want to ask you a question about your PSB posted on 12/14/06. You discuss possible first base options for the Yanks next season, and (as usual) I agree with most of your opinions. However, you really confuse me with your evaluation of [Richie] Sexson. You wrote, "He's not a great fielder, but if a guy is going to hit 40 home runs then you don't worry too much about defense."

Isn't this line of thinking exactly what brought New York into the position they're in? Giambi is going to sniff 40 home runs each year and get on base roughly four out of 10 times, so what if he could use a couple viewings of those Tom Emanski videos? I admit my knowledge of Sexson's talent is limited to what comes up on SportsCenter, but he seems to me like the same type of player Giambi is.

I was just wondering how bad one's defense has to be for the "He's not a great fielder, but if a guy is going to hit 40 home runs then you don't worry too much about defense" line is disregarded.
— Eric

Pretty bad. Hitting can make up for a multitude of sins, especially at first base. There's a reason that first base has been the home of the immobile slugger going back to the days of Big Dan Brouthers. With most hitters being right-handed, grounders are often directed to the right side of the infield. On most plays the first baseman's job is to stay around the bag and receive the ball, so their opportunity to do real damage isn't the same as the shortstop's. Assuming that a first baseman fits the offensive profile of his position, if he lacks Keith Hernandez's ability to come in on a bunt or Don Mattingly's range in the hole he should still contribute enough with the bat to make his lack of defensive ability a minor concern.

Jason Giambi stretches this argument because he's not even a good receiver. While he scoops the occasional low throw, his vertical leap is purely hypothetical, and most everything thrown over his head seems to get by. Plays off the bag don't happen. We're talking about a first baseman who is not just bad, but might possibly be the worst defensive first baseman in the game. His defense was so bad that it contributed to runs that cost the Yankees a total of one win over the cost of the season (remember, it's not easy to lay causality for a win or a loss at any one player's door; the best we can do is look at run elements and see how things add up over the course of a season to get a better understanding of a player's abilities). That doesn't sound like a lot, but keep in mind that Giambi played only 68 games at first.

Baseball Prospectus's WARP (Wins Above Replacement), which considers both offense and defense, says Giambi was worth about six wins above replacement to the Yankees last year. That includes the loss created by his defense. Had he played at first on a daily basis, his defense might have started to eat into his overall productivity. Giambi still would have been a net positive, but his overall value would have been severely reduced.

Fortunately, most first basemen, including Richie Sexson, aren't quite so bad. What that leaves you with, when you put on your manager's or general manager's cap and bath towel, is a valuation as to how much of the Giambi Defensive Circus you can tolerate in order to get his bat into the lineup. It's not a question of team need so much as patience. One hypothetical manager may decide that he can deal with it, play a Giambi on defense for 162 games, and not suffer for it materially. Heck, "Dr. Strangeglove" himself, Dick Stuart, won a ring with the 1960 Pirates. The 1979 Pirates won with Willie Stargell at first base and he could barely bend over. Sexson is a tall guy (6-foot-6) with long arms that allow him to reach throws over his head. Beyond that, Stuffy McInnis he ain't. Still, he is more functional than Giambi.

Shea Hillenbrand, by the way, is a double threat, and not the good kind. He doesn't hit like a first baseman and he's not a great glove, either.

RELATIVITY
Casey Stengel, master of platooning, said he would rather have a good righty than a bad lefty. Most teams forget that when staffing out their rosters, preferring exactly the opposite so long as it satisfies a preconceived notion of balance. If the right-handed options at first base are poor, better to add a good left-hander than settle. TRADING MELKY
The rumors got hot over the weekend, but it's Tuesday and Mike Gonzalez is still a Pirate and Melky Cabrera is still a Yankee. This is not a bad thing. While Gonzalez is a terrific pitcher, albeit one with health issues, trading Cabrera would mean the Yankees would be dealing their fourth outfielder and most obvious replacement should any of the three starters go down. This is not an area of depth for the Yankees, and trading Cabrera would be to do away with their safety net.

In principle, trading Cabrera is not a bad idea. Though Cabrera is young, it's still not clear what his ultimate offensive profile will be. Last season's .280/.360/.391 isn't much of a contribution for a corner outfielder. If Cabrera continues to develop there's definitely a high upside here. The problem is that no one knows if he will continue to develop, and baseball teams almost never lose when they bet against a player taking a big leap forward. As such, his trade value might be at its peak now, while he still has some mystery to him.

Without Cabrera, should the Yankees suffer a serious injury to an outfielder they will be in the same position they were in last season before they discovered they even had a Cabrera. Bronson Sardinha and Kevin Thompson are not going to be Melky sequels. They are older and lack undiscovered, or even discovered reserves of talent.

Bernie Williams' days as a starter are over, and his utility as a reserve outfielder is questionable given his relative lack of ability to play defense at this point — something that was as visible to the naked eye as Giambi's limitations. Most of the interesting free-agent outfield reserves have already been snatched up, leaving the Yankees dealing from a position of weakness.

It could be that 2007 will be a kind of Yankees nirvana, where they have Mike Gonzalez setting up games and Hideki Matsui, Johnny Damon, and Bobby Abreu never need a day off. It's unlikely.

Steven Goldman's Pinstriped Bible appears weekly on YESNetwork.com. "Forging Genius," Steve's biography of Casey Stengel, is available at Amazon.com and a bookstore near you, as is "Mind Game," about the intellectual conflict between the Yankees and the Red Sox. Steve's Pinstriped Blog is available weekdays on YESNetwork.com, and more Steve can be found at Baseball Prospectus Web site. Your questions, comments, suggestions welcomed at oldprofessor@wholesomereading.com. The opinions stated above are solely those of the author and should not be attributed to anyone connected in an official capacity with the YES Network.
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