Playing Green in Centerfield

Pick a player:

Player A: 9 games, 8 hits, 23 AB, 4 RBI, 3 SB, .348 BA, .484 OBP, .832 OPS

Player B: 4 games, 2 hits, 17 AB, 0 RBI, 2 SB, .118 BA, .211 OBP, .328 OPS

Easy right???  Now pick another player:

Player A: $875,000 in 2014

Player B: $13,500,000 in 2014

Also a no-brainer?  Unfortunately, while the answers to both questions are easy, in baseball it seems the more expensive player is going to get the playing time ten times out of ten, regardless of the statistics.

The statistics and salary number for Player B above were those of starting centerfielder Michael Bourn through the weekend, while the Player A’s numbers obviously belonged to the banished Nyjer Morgan.  When Bourn returned from his hamstring injury that he sustained in Spring Training last week, Morgan was sent down to Triple-A Columbus for the time being.

“It wasn’t really a tough decision,” Manager Terry Francona said.  “It was difficult in the fact that he (Morgan) had done so well.  I don’t think anybody thought he deserved to go to Triple-A, but when you look at the way our team is constituted, we needed to stay with the extra pitcher in the bullpen.  With Bourn being a left-handed center fielder, it’s hard to keep both of them.”

First of all, Francona was right when he said that Morgan didn’t deserve to go down to Triple-A.  While the Indians lineup outside of Michael Brantley, David Murphy and Lonnie Chisenhall has been—let’s say—inconsistent, it’s seems just silly to send down one of your four consistently producing hitters.  There’s only one reason—actually about 12.5 million reasons—to send Morgan down when Bourn returned.

Secondly, I’m nobody to question a two-time World Series Champion who is the reigning American League Manager of the Year, but the part of his quote about the left-handed centerfielder really struck a nerve with me.  I sat in an interview prior to last season where Francona downplayed the need for a lefthanded pitcher in his rotation.  He said that as long as he had a guy who got people out that he didn’t care if the guy was a lefty or righty.  Why is this thinking different with outfielders?

While Morgan was a sparkplug at the top of the lineup and in the clubhouse, Elliot Johnson has played about once per week and has a single hit in 11 at bats this season (.091 batting average).  If one guy can hit and another can’t, what does it matter if the one guy is a lefty and the other is a righty?

The company line is that Johnson was kept around for his versatility, although through the weekend he has only appeared for four innings at any other position (third base) than right field, a spot where the Indians could use Murphy, Ryan Raburn or even Nick Swisher in a pinch.  Morgan certainly could have kept Johnson’s spot on the bench and the Indians would undoubtedly be better off for it.

If Morgan was still on the Major League squad, he could have provided Bourn the opportunity to ease his way back into the lineup instead of jumping back in perhaps before he was ready.  While the sample size is small, Bourn currently seems to be a “click” off with his timing and the Indians offense has struggled with him at the top of the order.  Last season proved that every game counts, so why risk even throwing one away by playing a guy that may or may not be ready to perform?

Once again, this all boils down to money because the Indians are paying Bourn far too much to sit on the bench or to rehab in the minors.  It’s the most frustrating part of the game of baseball—a guy has to play simply because he makes a lot of money.  It’s a dumb reason but, I guess, an understandable one.

I understand it…I just don’t like it.

In football, championships have been won with money-guzzling star quarterbacks on the bench while a better, cheaper option takes the snaps.  Over a decade ago, low-paid Tom Brady and the New England Patriots won Super Bowl XXXVI while Drew Bledsoe and his $103 million contract watched from the sidelines.  The same thing happened a couple years ago in San Francisco when Colin Kaepernick replaced Alex Smith.  Both Bledsoe and Smith were still good quarterbacks, but their replacements just had the hot hand and helped their teams win.  Perhaps the same logic could have taken place with Bourn and Morgan, but I guess that just isn’t baseball’s way.

None of this is meant to say that Bourn is hopeless or that I don’t think that he can’t turn it around.  It’s obviously really early and Bourn is a proven player with a good track record, but Morgan is playing well right now.  Morgan should be starting in centerfield while his bat remains on fire and Bourn should still be rehabbing in the minor leagues while he looks to regain his timing.  Nothing says that Bourn couldn’t eventually get his job back, as Morgan could eventually cool off or Bourn could hit his way back in.  At this point of the young season, Lonnie Chisenhall was not supposed to be playing as much as he has, but he has swung his way into the lineup, just like Bourn could have done eventually.

As it stands, however, baseball is a business first and money evidently speaks much louder than production.  The centerfield job is Bourn’s for as long as he can play, which unfortunately proves that winning isn’t always everything.

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