Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Corey Patterson signs, a.k.a. The Year of Living Resurgently - Take Two?

I expected 28-year-old free agent CF Corey Patterson to find a home - most likely on a short deal - quicker than this. Not that he's been any great shakes with the bat, but Corey still offers a very solid glove at a premium defensive position. And, in the shadow of 2007, in which Josh Hamilton, Carlos Pena and Rick Ankiel all forged remarkable comeback/breakthroughs out of the ashes of nearly-ruined careers - let's call it The Year of Living Resurgently - it's reasonable for major league teams to make a small gamble on a once-promising player.

Still, it surprises me to find him signing with the Reds. I want to like this move but it brings into conflict two of my most cherished notions about putting a baseball team together: 1) Thou shalt take inexpensive chances on players with talent and 2) Thou shalt not block prospects with veteran players just because of "experience."

The Patterson signing puts him in direct competition with Jay Bruce for the CF slot, as LF and RF are presumably locked down for Dunn and Griffey. Bruce is the consensus top prospect in baseball, and clearly ready for the major leagues. My biggest fear here is the Reds send Bruce down to AAA because 'he hasn't failed yet' - this was mentioned publicly in the Reds' deliberations over Homer Bailey last year.

[In addition, members of the Rays' front office were recently quoted saying the same thing about Evan Longoria. This seems to be a fervent belief among front offices - that it can be very dangerous for a talented player to face adversity for the first time at the major league level. I'm skeptical, but trying to remain open-minded.]

To be fair, the Reds may just view Patterson as a fourth outfielder, a motivational ploy for Bruce to perform in Spring Training, or an insurance policy in the event Bruce does struggle. The dream scenario for Cincy is probably that Bruce starts out as the most-days CF and Patterson shows enough in limited at-bats where he creates some value to the team either in production or in trade. Certainly the minor league nature of Patterson's deal means there's little financial downside to the Reds if Bruce is truly ready.

So what do the Reds have in Patterson? I suspect Dusty Baker looks at him and sees the "true" leadoff hitter he covets, i.e. a slap singles hitter with speed. Never mind that Patterson won't take a walk to save his life. He has some power and some speed, but he has no patience, so pitchers never throw him anything to hit. Since he's 28 it's probably a poor bet that will change.

Dusty said yesterday, in a burst of spring optimism,
The main thing is he's still young. What's Corey? 28 years old? To me, he hasn't scratched the surface as to what he can do.
That's a nice sentiment, but 28 is pretty far along in the life of professional baseball player. There's a lot of evidence as to what he is and what he isn't.

The thing he gives you is pretty good CF defense, which should not be dismissed. I could see him on a one-year deal with a team that needs OF defense and maybe has a CF prospect who needs one more year in the minors. The team that made sense to me was Atlanta, who has Jordan Schafer making his way through the minors, doing a very nice Grady Sizemore impression with plus defense in CF and a nice power/speed combo on offense. The Braves probably have enough offense to trade a little bat for glove. Patterson's also an Atlanta native, so I thought it made tons of sense on a one year deal, but the Braves seem to believe in Mark Kotsay, which seems a little like wish-casting to me.

The Padres might have considered him, but they also preferred an older, more-injury prone player in Jim Edmonds, who is - see if you can guess - already hurt this spring.

Looking back on Patterson's career for just a second:

2003 Age 23 329 AB 298/329/511 13 HR, 16 SB

2004 Age 24 631 AB 266/320/452 24 HR, 32 SB

2005 Age 25 451 AB 215/254/328 13 HR, 15 SB

For the past few years, he's become a pretty one-dimensional speed player, with key counting stats of 8 HR and 37 SB last year for Baltimore.

Come to think of it, Dusty's probably remembering that 2004 season since he was Patterson's skipper in Chicago that year. I look at that line - warning: BASELESS SPECULATION ™ ahead - and guess that he saw a lot of pitches to hit in 2004 but by the next year pitchers knew he would chase the ball out of the strike zone. I seem to remember his at-bats in 2005 were cut back due to being sent down to AAA rather than injury; a quick check of Baseball Reference confirms he played 24 games for Iowa in '05. In short, we have a guy with a lot of tools who never learned how to lay off the cheese.

It would seem like a correctible flaw just to lay off pitches out of the zone. Of course that's easy for me to say typing this in my Mom's basement.

It's certainly been a long way down for Patterson from the lofty heights of can't miss prospect status. He was Baseball America's #3 prospect in all of baseball in 2000 and #2 in 2001. But a year ago you could have said similar things about Hamilton, Ankiel and Pena. That's the great thing about spring. There's always hope.

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