Let me start with a quote from the archives of the Pirates’ blogosphere’s granddaddy, Honest Wagner:
I do not understand the hang-up, if genuine, about Adam Dunn’s strikeouts. He has a career OBP of .380. He gets on base, so there’s little reason to be concerned about the low batting average or the strikeouts. He hits for tremendous power. What’s not to like?
As for the Pirates having a lot of strikeouts in 2006, the team leader was Jason Bay. Because we have Jason Bay, we can’t have Adam Dunn? Uh, that can’t be called “reasoning.” After Bay, the strikeouts came mainly from Tweedledee (Craig Wilson), Tweedledum (Jose Bautista), and Tweedledummer (Jose Castillo).
Before Mike Gonzalez walked the plank and Adam LaRoche donned the black and gold, Pittsburghers were clamoring for a Lefty McThump to anchor our Pirates ship. A powerful left-handed bat that could consistently take aim at Roberto Clemente’s wall and the Allegheny River behind it. An offensive force so fierce that opposing pitchers would think twice about avoiding Jason Bay. Someone to beef up the middle of the order. Adam Dunn’s name was mentioned, and mentioned often.
It seemed as if Dave Littlefield’s henchmen may have interest in the Cincinnati slugger: Dunn fit two (of three) criteria to be considered when evaluating possible trade targets. First, at 27, he matched the age group requirement; that is, the Pirates are attempting to maintain a young core on the 25-man roster, and want to avoid bringing in Jeromy Burnitzes and Joe Randas. Second (and more important), he can hit. In the equivalent of five major-league seasons, Dunn has 198 homers. The man can mash.
Unfortunately, Dunn’s contract status didn’t mesh with the budget. He’s due $24 million between 2007 and 2008, and would be eligible for free agency entering 2009–the best bet for a Pirates’ winning season (think McCutchen, Walker, Lincoln, et al.). We all know what happened. The Bucs went the frugal route, trading for the cost-effective LaRoche, a slugger in his own right. I haven’t heard anyone complaining.
All of a sudden, the Dunn talk stopped. Jason Bay and Xavier Nady had outfield jobs locked up, and no one trusted either to play center field. With Andrew McCutchen on the way, there seemingly was a surplus of potential starters; why add another?
We forgot about Dunn. Until now.
Brad “Big Country” Eldred’s impressive start in the Grapefruit League reminded us in a hurry of what we found so intriguing about Adam “Big Donkey” Dunn. It’s easy to see why. At 275 pounds (6’5″ to 6’6″), they’re both constant threats to the clubhouse spread. They’re defensive liabilities that can’t run, and they have holes in their swings. When they get a hold of one, though, watch out. Fifty home run potential trumps a guaranteed 150 strikeouts, in my opinion (and Rowdy’s). And take a look at their minor-league stats, taking those from the first go-around through each level for Eldred:
Not an exact duplicate, but impressive for the Pirate nonetheless. He compares favorably to a player whose Baseball Reference comparables include Darryl Strawberry, Reggie Jackson and Roger Maris. Six degrees of Kevin Bacon tells me that can’t be a bad sign. Still, both won’t offer you much more than a .250 batting average (if that) in the majors. To achieve superstar status, they need to contribute a bit more than Dave Kingman power. Dunn shows his superiority in his on-base percentage. He has plate discipline, drawing walks while Brad Eldred refuses.
That was always the knock on Big Country. He hit his way through the Pirates’ system, ultimately earning a cup of coffee in 2005. He played fall ball that year, and according to Wikipedia, “the Pirates sent him [there] so he could work on his plate discipline,” which wasn’t a complete success. He started 2006 with Indianapolis–blocked by the Sean Casey trade–but suffered a dislocated thumb early in the season. He tried to make up the at bats in winter ball, but was sent home after a 1 for 18 start. Another busted prospect, right?
According to Wilbur Miller, Pirates’ baseball sage:
[Eldred’s] tendency, which occurred to some degree at each of the three highest minor league levels, has been to start slowly, then after a couple weeks to a month go on what are sometimes mind-boggling HR binges. His plate discipline also tends to improve after an initial adjustment period. Because he hasn’t spent more than half a year at any level since low A, however, it’s difficult to predict what he’ll do over a long period of time.
Adjustment, eh? The question, then, is how much stock can we put in Brad’s 2007 Spring Training numbers? His K/BB ratio of one is manageable, especially if he’s knocking a ball out of the park every other game. Can he keep it up? Or as the season wears on, will the same old all-or-nothing Eldred return?
Let’s take a line out of WTM’s writeup out of context: “[Eldred] tends to improve after an initial adjustment period.” What if, in time, we get a cheap version of Dunn, under our control for five more MLB seasons, in Brad? What if he keeps hitting and hitting and hitting, rejuvenating the batting order with his tape measure taters? He has to play, doesn’t he? You can’t ship out a power hitter when your lineup is full of Jack Wilsons. That’d be akin to a Smithfield Street Bridge bum turning down a Primanti’s sandwich because he prefers McDonald’s. Not gonna happen.
LaRoche or not, Eldred’s bat would need to be in the lineup. Hence this blurb from the P-G last week:
“In general, you don’t see too many people his size playing the outfield,” Littlefield said. “But we’ll see how it goes. You’d rather leave it up to the player to show you what they can or can’t do.”
During the shagging session yesterday, Eldred received constant advice from outfield instructor Bill Virdon, a superb glove man in his day.
“I was really kind of pleased,” Virdon said. “He seemed to move maybe a little bit better than you might think that big a man would move. His hands were good, too. He caught everything.”
Obviously Eldred isn’t an everyday option in right for the Bucs this year. But say he got 250 AB this year as a bench player (or 500+ as a AAA starter), and say he continued to hit for power and draw walks. Say he played fall and winter ball and came into camp next year with the same acceptable discipline and improved (though still below average) defensive skills.
Chris Duffy and Andrew McCutchen would need to cover ground.
I wouldn’t want to pitch to this lineup:
1. Duffy/McCutchen, CF
2. Sanchez, 2B
3. Bay, LF
4. LaRoche, 1B
5. Eldred, RF
6. Paulino, C
7. Bautista/Castillo, 3B
8. Wilson/Bixler, SS
You won’t make friends with Zack Duke, as a few more balls will drop into the gap. Sabermetricians will tell you that Eldred’s miserable FRAA will balance out the added power production. But can’t you give the kid a chance to show that he’s a significant downgrade from Nady, who by all accounts is a glorified bench player at best?
It’s a “what if” scenario, no doubt about it. A lot hinges on whether or not Brad can grow comfortable with big-league pitching. Twenty-one at bats admittedly isn’t much to get excited over. But wouldn’t another big bat be fun to watch? Pittsburghers are allowed to go crazy every now and again, as bobbleheads and Skyblasts don’t satisfy everyone.
I, for one, will be paying close attention to Eldred’s performance in 2007. If the walks add up, he’ll give Littlefield what he wants:
“We’ll look at all options,” Littlefield said. “The good news is–and this is what you tell the player–we want you to force our hand. Show us that you’re deserving of being on this team.”