So this NL Central team has this young utility player. After the player turned in a solid performance in a little less than a season's worth of at bats in 2005, the team blocked the player, who can play second, short or third, by going with a young middle infield tandem and acquiring a veteran to start at third base. The utility player not only continued to hit well in 2006 but started the year on a tear, while the veteran third baseman didn't hit as well. Meanwhile, the team's centerfielders started the year horribly. What's the team going to do?
I'm not talking about Freddy Sanchez and the Pirates (though pretty much everyone else is). I'm talking about Bill Hall and the Milwaukee Brewers. Hall didn't have a starting position when the year began, but he had a 1178 OPS going into tonight's game against the Astros. As the season wears on, the cases of Hall and Sanchez could provide an interesting case study on how two teams with very different outlooks handle a fairly similar situation.
It's not possible for Hall or Sanchez to get too many at bats in the middle infield - the Brewers have a pair of talented youngsters there in Rickie Weeks and J.J. Hardy. And the Pirates have Jose Castillo, who has a lot of upside, and Jack Wilson, who's hitting well and plays great defense (and is signed to a lengthy contract).
That leaves third base. This offseason, the Brewers decided (justifiably, I think) that Hall's excellent 2005 performance was a fluke, so they traded a minor-league journeyman for two years of Corey Koskie. The Pirates thought... well, who knows what the Pirates thought, and now we're stuck with Joe Randa.
The main difference between the two situations is that Koskie has hit well, while Randa hasn't, to put it mildly. And yet, going into tonight's game, Hall had about 20 more plate appearances than Sanchez.
How is this possible? Well, the Brewers keep finding ways to get a player who hits into the lineup. They've used him in 10 games at third, mostly to spell Koskie against lefties. (The result? The Brewers have the second-most productive third basemen of any team in baseball, compared to 23rd for the Pirates.) Hall has also played five games at short and two at second. And today, Hall is making his first career start and third career appearance in centerfield, where regular Brady Clark is struggling badly.
Unlike the Brewers, the Pirates have a regular third baseman who isn't hitting at all. They have no excuse not to put Sanchez in the lineup. The Brewers' example shows that well-run teams find ways to get hitters into games. The Brewers aren't in the business of finding easy ways to impress the casual fan. They're in the business of winning ballgames, and that means adjusting when your predictions about how best to do that don't go as planned.