In recent weeks, I might have appeared somewhat dismissive of Doug Mientkiewicz, which isn't really fair to him. In isolation, I don't have a problem with him. He's a totally functional major-league ballplayer, and he deserves his props for that. I just think that freaking out about not having him is crazy--he's a decent bench player, and I'm not convinced that a willingness to get up in Randy Johnson's grill makes Mientkiewicz any more than that.
In the comments yesterday, though, an exchange between Azibuck and WTM explains pretty well something else I don't like about guys like Mientkiewicz and Luis Gonzalez:
Azibuck: I’m still curious about what you don’t understand about NH’s bench construction. You can disagree on which players to choose, for sure (i.e., 0-for-3vas, Gomez), but you seem to indicate something else. Perhaps more along the lines of the type of players. I’d pass on Gonzalez too, but I think I understand the thinking.
WTM: I wish NH would make more effort to look for overlooked younger guys with a little upside. The fallacy in his thinking is that you need a really, really old guy to sit on the bench. But backups can get 300-400 ABs a year, especially on a crappy team like the Pirates. The assumption that only a veteran can be productive as a bench player is not a good one, especially when you’re talking about vets like Rivas, Michaels and Monroe, who show every sign of being finished. Better to take a chance that a younger guy can’t adapt to the bench than gamble that a guy with Monroe’s track record is going to produce.
This is dead-on, I think. There are a couple of problems with a team like the Pirates signing someone like Mientkiewicz. First, obviously, because of his age, it's more likely that he'll go downhill than up, and so there's a good chance that if you sign him for 2009, you won't even get back the modest production you got in 2008.
Second, the Pirates have enormous question marks all over the lineup, especially at both outfield corners and third base. If someone really tanks or gets hurt, that's not good, but a potential silver lining is that you have 400 at bats to give a tryout to someone else. For a team in the Pirates' position, there's really nothing to be gained from giving 400 at bats to Doug Mientkiewicz, Chris Gomez, or Luis Gonzalez, who are all well over 30. Even someone like Luis Rivas, who's younger, is a waste of time, because he's gotten all kinds of chances in his career and has never produced. He's a known quantity.
When you get guys like Ramon Vazquez or Eric Hinske, who are a bit younger than the Mientkiewicz/Gomez/Gonzalez class and a bunch more interesting as hitters than Rivas, you're increasing your chances that if someone tanks or gets hurt, you might get something interesting out of those 400 at bats, and then if the player isn't under contract for the following year, maybe you can convince him to come back. In other words, Mientkiewicz is competent but very low-ceiling, whereas Vazquez and Hinske are competent but with a somewhat higher ceiling.
But if you can get another team to give you a young-ish role player, or a blocked young player, for a low price and then give one of your bench spots to that young player, that's even better than getting guys like Vazquez and Hinske, because then you can control that player for several years if you need to.
One team that's done a nice job employing this principle this offseason is the Seattle Mariners, who today acquired Garrett Olson and Ronny Cedeno from the Cubs for Aaron Heilman. I'm not a huge fan of Olson, but he's a potentially functional young starter, and I'd trade Heilman for him straight-up. But let's forget that for a second and talk about Cedeno.
Cedeno will be 26 next week, and he can play either middle infield position. His track record isn't strong enough that you'd want to plug him into a starting position, but his strong hitting at Class AAA (.921 OPS there in 2005 and .959 in 2007) suggests that he might be a bit better as a hitter than his major league performances suggest.
The Mariners have a young middle infield in Jose Lopez and Yuniesky Betancourt. If you remember much about the early-00s Twins, Lopez and Betancourt are sort of like Rivas and Cristian Guzman were--young, but not progressing the way you'd like. Lopez at least hit for good power last year, but Betancourt, in particular, has flatlined, posting OPS+ marks of 80, 86, 93 and 85 in his career while probably getting worse with the glove.
So this year, if Betancourt tanks in April (or gets hurt), the Mariners have a solution to the problem that could actually be relatively interesting, because then maybe Cedeno grabs the starting job and starts hitting like he has at Class AAA. That probably wouldn't happen, but it would be a coup for the Mariners if it did, because then they could keep Cedeno for a couple more years while they get better.
As USS Mariner pointed out today, new M's GM Jack Zduriencik has been grabbing lots of these sorts of players this offseason: Cedeno, Franklin Gutierrez, Chris Shelton (yes, I know), Russell Branyan. Branyan's a bit older than the others, but has always hit well and has still never been given a lot of playing time; I certainly wouldn't expect him to hit 30 homers for the Mariners, but if he did I wouldn't be shocked. The M's got Shelton for the price of a minor league contract. Shelton's had a tough time since the beginning of the 2006 season, but he isn't old, was once among the Tigers' most productive hitters, and batted .340/.409/.570 at Class AAA Oklahoma last year.
I'd much rather see the Pirates grab guys like these than Chris Gomez or Doug Mientkiewicz. The younger guys honestly aren't that much harder to find or more expensive to acquire, and there's at least some chance they'll surprise you.
UPDATE: From the Post-Gazette's blog today:
With the bench, the thought process mostly is aimed at cost. A team spending in the Pirates' range is better served, as they see it, investing more in the everyday position players and quite a bit less in the reserves. The age and experience of those players really does not matter to them much as it relates to rebuilding, largely because they would not want any true prospects sitting and rotting, anyway. In fact, the age and experience actually can help in the area of intangible[s].
As for "intangibles"... well, whatever. We can debate that all day, but I haven't seen much indication that all the "intangible"-rich players the Pirates have brought in over the past five or six years have done a bit of good.
Where I think Huntington and Coonelly really go wrong, though, if this is an accurate description of their thinking, is imagining there's a solid line between players who are "true prospects" and those who aren't. There isn't. It's not that the word "prospect" isn't useful or that I wouldn't look at you funny if you described, say, Mientkiewicz as a prospect, it's that there is a class of players who might not be "true prospects" but who nonetheless have some upside--players like Cedeno and Shelton. I wouldn't describe Shelton as a true prospect, but it's not impossible that he could return to the majors and have a nice little second career, so why shouldn't the Pirates take a chance on those possibilities where they can?