Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 1/3/13
It still feels like the holiday season, and the holiday season is a time for sharing. To be honest, every time is a time for sharing, but around the holiday season it seems a lot more important. With friends and family and sometimes perfect strangers, you share gifts and pleasantries and the warmth of your company. Baseball teams, too, can get into the sharing spirit. I don’t know how else to explain what’s been going on with Eli Whiteside, Sandy Rosario, and Scott Cousins. For these three players, it’s already been an incredibly active offseason, and it’s barely January. For players who are hitting the market, the offseason is a time to find a new home. Whiteside, Rosario, and Cousins have cycled through several potential new homes. In case you haven’t been paying close attention — and I don’t know why you would be — I’ll try to go over the details as quickly as possible. In early November, the Yankees claimed Whiteside off waivers from the Giants. Then they designated him for assignment, and he was grabbed off waivers by the Blue Jays. Then he was claimed off waivers by the Rangers, and then the Rangers designated him for assignment. Whiteside, needless to say, still isn’t settled. In October, the Red Sox claimed Rosario off waivers from the Marlins. Then they designated him for assignment, and re-signed him to a minor-league contract. Then they traded him to the A’s, and then the A’s designated him for assignment. He was claimed back by the Red Sox, then he was claimed off waivers by the Cubs. Most recently, Rosario was claimed off waivers by the Giants, from the Cubs. Maybe Rosario knows where he’s going to be, now. Maybe he doesn’t. And finally, Cousins. In October, the Blue Jays claimed Cousins off waivers from the Marlins. Then they designated him for assignment, and he was claimed by the Mariners. Then he was designated for assignment, and claimed by the Angels. That was at the end of November — Cousins might now be starting to feel secure. He probably shouldn’t. These three players have shuttled between organizations, too talented to ignore, but too flawed to keep at the expense of somebody else. They’ve basically served as the 40th men on various 40-man rosters, meaning for all intents and purposes they represent a crucial principle: Eli Whiteside, Sandy Rosario, and Scott Cousins are perceived to be just about replacement-level players. This is something we’re all familiar with in theory, and here we can actually put real names to it. Maybe they’re a small step above replacement-level, since they aren’t in the minors on minor-league contracts. But let’s not split hairs. These are the guys who are freely-available depth, which is why they keep moving around. Teams like their strengths, but they’re balanced out by the flaws. It’s worth it, I think, to quickly review each of the three players, to see what they are and to make them feel more familiar. A replacement-level player isn’t going to have a certain talent level across the board. He’ll have certain things he’s good at and certain things he’s less good at, with the result being something in the neighborhood of a 0 WAR. Let’s stop with these words and get to more words. Eli Whiteside Why he’s worth having around This isn’t going to surprise you, but Whiteside is a backstop with a strong defensive reputation. From a Joe Lemire column: “He was a pitchers’ favorite,” San Francisco vice president of baseball operations Bobby Evans said. “He was relatively quiet and unassuming in the clubhouse, but he has a great reputation with our pitching staff. And I think that’s probably true of places that he’ll go in the future as well.” Indeed, Rangers general manager Jon Daniels cited that defensive reputation as the primary reason for claiming Whiteside. Whiteside hasn’t excelled at blocking pitches in the dirt, and he’s thrown out a barely above-average rate of would-be base-stealers. But evidence suggests that he’s one of the good pitch-framers. Between 2009-2012, Whiteside caught more than 11,000 pitches, and according to research by Matthew Carruth, he was 202 strikes above average, or more than one a game. This research is still in its infancy, but it does look like receiving is maybe Whiteside’s best skill. Why he’s not worth having around Whiteside is 33 years old. He’s 33 years old! He debuted in 2005! And over a full season’s worth of plate appearances, he’s batted .215 with a .273 OBP. Last year he posted a .600 OPS in triple-A, with one home run in 60 games. Whiteside is one of those catchers. You know the ones I mean. Sandy Rosario Why he’s worth having around Rosario has thrown all of 7.2 big-league innings, over three years. Nothing. His fastball has averaged 95, and he’s thrown a slider and a changeup, too. Here’s a .gif from last summer: Said the announcer immediately afterward: You see the stuff that allowed Rosario to close successfully at triple-A. If he can throw that consistently in the big leagues, he can find a spot in somebody’s bullpen. It’s the usual story. Reliever has good stuff, but not enough consistency with it. Jesus Colome syndrome, if you like. Still, Rosario’s only 27, so he has time to figure it out, and last year in limited time in triple-A he had 24 strikeouts and two walks, with both walks being intentional. He’s always averaged a strikeout an inning, and last year he missed time with a quad injury that might’ve cost him a chance to establish himself. Why he’s not worth having around Rosario is a 27-year-old reliever without a big-league track record. He’s thrown very few innings above double-A, and in double-A, he’s been only all right. He has a fastball and inconsistent secondary pitches, and there are just so many of these guys. Not that they aren’t all individually unique, but as a sample pool, few of them will go on to have sustainable major-league success, and few of the successful ones will actually be of significant value. Fastball velocity can get you attention and a number of chances, but it can’t make you good on its own. Scott Cousins Why he’s worth having around Like Rosario, Cousins is 27, although he’s approaching 28, like most 27-year-olds. But he’s a left-handed outfielder who’s capable of playing in the middle. He doesn’t have much in the way of big-league success, but he hasn’t had much in the way of big-league playing time, and his triple-A OPS is .802. Last year he OPS’d .823 for New Orleans, with a fourth-outfielder skillset. He can run a little, he can defend a little, and he can do this a little. That’s a home run by the way. Worse outfielders than Cousins will play in the majors in 2013. This guy was a third-round draft pick, and he’s capable of things. On a hot streak, he could even look like a regular. Why he’s not worth having around Cousins is a nearly-28-year-old could-be fourth outfielder. He can play center field, but he can’t play it all that well, and one can’t ignore that his limited major-league track record is lousy. Just because he has some power doesn’t mean he has a lot of it, and his walk-to-strikeout ratios have never been particularly eye-opening. Stop what you’re doing and look out the nearest window. Is there a man? Does he look to be between the ages of 20 and 35? Is he fit? He’s probably not as good a baseball player as Scott Cousins, but he’s a lot closer to being as good as Scott Cousins than he is to being as good as Torii Hunter. Now you should probably stop looking at that man. This offseason has shown us three specific replacement-level players, and they might be on the move again yet. That’s sort of what happens with them. And a thing about replacement-level players is that, if you squint, or if you get a break or two, they can look adequate. More than acceptable, even. All of them have their strengths — all of them have reasons for still being professional baseball players at a high level. But they also have offsetting weaknesses, and that’s what leaves them as being essentially freely available. They’re not bad. They’re just not special. I mean, they’re special. But they’re not baseball-special. Some of them could be with improvements, but that’s like saying 0 could be 2, with 2. It sure could be. But right now, it isn’t.
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