Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Dog bites man

Nomar Garciaparra's iconic status in Boston, not to mention his Hall of Fame candidacy, has long been tossed aside. Photo from The Boston Globe.

The news you knew you’d read at some point in 2009 finally arrived last night, when the Athletics announced they were going to place Nomar Garciaparra on the disabled list, this time with a strained right calf.

Gordon Edes wrote an entertaining piece for Yahoo! Sports last week pondering how history would be different if the Sox completed that trade for Alex Rodriguez following the 2003 season. Nobody ever wonders what might have happened if the Sox held on to Garciaparra, which is just one way to measure how far and how fast he’s fallen.

There’s something rather sad about watching Garciaparra end his career as a utilityman who is limited to a handful of games per week even under the most optimal of circumstances—kind of like watching a band that topped the charts multiple times playing new stuff nobody wants to hear at the country fair. You figured they were headed for Cleveland and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but here they are, no longer hitting the high notes as they perform in between the pie-eating contest and the cow-milking contest.

Garciaparra was a franchise icon from the moment he stepped on to the field in 1996 and seemingly on the fast track to Cooperstown by the end of the ‘90s. His numbers from 1997 through 2003, during which he played at least 130 games six times (and was limited to 21 games in 2001), are across-the-board better than the ones produced by Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. during his first six full seasons from 1982-87:

Ripken 1982-87: 160 HR, 570 RBI, .284, 625 R, .350 OBP, .479 SLG
Nomar: 1997-03: 169 HR, 653 RBI, .325, 674 R, .372 OBP, .557 SLG

Of course, that’s where the favorable comparisons end. Ripken played in 2,632 straight games from 1982 through 1998 and never left Baltimore. Garciaparra, hampered by a genetic condition that leaves him particularly susceptible to leg injuries, has played for three teams since leaving Boston and has yet to reach the 130-game mark.

The biggest Red Sox superstar in decades is already an afterthought in Boston. Am I the only one who has to remind himself that Garciaparra was a member of the 2004 team? And it’s hard to imagine Garciaparra ever emerging from out-of-sight status. He’s not going to hop aboard the Fred Lynn/Carlton Fisk nostalgia tour, showing up multiple times per season at Fenway to wave to the crowd from a luxury suite as his career highlights air on the scoreboard and make thousands of men in the stands feel two decades younger.

Perhaps nobody wonders “what if” about Garciaparra because the awkward and hostile negotiations between Garciaparra and the Sox in 2003—"You turned down a four-year, $60 million offer through 2008! No I didn’t! Yes you did! No I didn’t! Yes you did and anything you say bounces off me and goes back to you!"—makes it abundantly clear neither side really wanted the marriage to continue.

To re-sign an unhappy player who was already injury-prone and showing signs of slowing down—Garciaparra hit .305 with a .349 OBP and a .526 slugging percentage in 2002-03 before he missed more than two months at the start of the 2004 season with that ever-mysterious Achilles ailment—would have required a level of constant maintenance that probably would not have appealed to the Sox.

It’s pretty darn impossible to argue the decision to move on from Garciaparra was anything less than a stroke of brilliance. The Sox have won two championships without Garciaparra, who has missed 309 of a possible 723 games since the trade. His injury-prone nature has forced him to spend most of his time since 2005 at the infield corners, where he is not nearly the plus offensive weapon he was at shortstop for the Sox. Had he stayed in Boston and been forced to first or third base, perhaps Kevin Youkilis and/or Mike Lowell—two players who have come to symbolize the grind-it-out nature of these Sox—never emerge.

But just because they’ve won it all twice without Garciaparra doesn’t mean the Sox have replaced him. Shortstop has been the weak link in the lineup for most of the past four-plus seasons, during which the Sox have employed four full-time shortstops, none of whom have been markedly better than a weakened Garciaparra. Here are the numbers for Sox shortstops and Garciaparra since Aug. 1, 2004:

Red Sox shortstops: .258 (711-2759), 35 HR, 311 RBI, 356 R
Garciaparra: .287 (430-1496), 49 HR, 237 RBI, 206 R

To assume the Sox could have figured out a way to keep Garciaparra upright, at shortstop and even moderately content half the time since August 2005 is to assume a lot. But still: could the Sox have been even better over the last four-plus years if Garciaparra was their quasi-regular shortstop?

Maybe it all would have worked out. But with the Sox in the throes of a golden era and Garciaparra playing the country fair circuit, we’ll never know.

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