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Responding to backlash on Biggio

3/13/2003 - Houston Astros

In last Friday's column, I unequivocally stated that Craig Biggio has never played center field, his new position with the Astros.

As many readers pointed out, this was a stupid thing for me to write, if only because evidence to the contrary can easily be found by anybody with access to the Internet (which, as you probably would guess, I've got). A simple check of Biggio's ESPN.com player card will tell us that Biggio played four games as a center fielder in 1989, 34 in 1990, and one in 1991. All told, he's got 39 games and 320 innings at the position.

So my specific contention was obviously and inexcusably wrong. However, my implicit contention remains absolutely correct: Biggio has no proven ability to play center field, and so there's no way of knowing if he'll be any better than awful.

Aside from correcting my misinformation about Biggio's experience in center field, the bulk of the critical responses to Friday's column fell under one of two headings: Sentimental, or Optimistic.

The following message doesn't exactly typify the Sentimental -- it's a bit more wild-eyed than most -- but the elements are all there, and wild-eyed can be pretty entertaining if you don't take it too seriously ...


    Mr. Neyer,

    This probably isn't the only piece of "hate mail" that you will receive as a result of your horrible article about Craig Biggio. In a time when teams and players seem to have less and less loyalty to one another, you have the Astros and Craig Biggio.

    This is a man, after all, who was an All-Star catcher in his prime who was asked to change from this position to another despite his very little experience there. He did so for the good of the team (and to save his knees and extend his career). He could have refused, he could have gone elsewhere, but he stayed and worked hard to become an All-Star at that position. To say that the city and the organization only owes him the same respect that it owes you is absurd.

    Let's see you get out on the field and hit major league pitching. In short, your article makes light of a future Hall of Famer's importance to a city and an organization. For that, as well as my own satisfaction, I hope Craig Biggio gets signed to another high-salary extension and works to become an All-Star at his new home in center field. He began as an Astro and he should be able to retire as one on his own terms. That is loyalty. That is what the sport needs.

    Speaking for the game,
    Brian Janssen

I'm not sure what you mean, Brian. Are you suggesting that Biggio -- and others like him -- should be paid to play baseball as long as he wants to keep playing? Because when you talk about him going out "on his own terms," that's certainly what it sounds like. And there are some players -- not many, but some -- who would hang around for the paycheck until age compels them to trade in their spikes for orthopedic slippers. With most players, you can't let them make that decision, because they'll decide to stay past the point where they can help their team. Not all, but most.

And you can't really blame them. If somebody offers you a paycheck, you figure you must be doing something right, right? It's true that occasionally a player will suggest that he didn't earn his money ... but then, it's also true that very rarely will a player actually try to give the money back (Lyman Bostock being one notable exception).

I could find a dozen examples of once-great players who remained in the lineup far past the point at which their skills actually merited regular duty, and wound up costing their team a shot at the World Series. All in the name of tradition.

Hey, I'm as sentimental as the next guy. At the time, I was thrilled when George Brett came back for one last season, and I was thrilled that he'd never wear another team's uniform. But you know, if today I could trade Brett's last season for another division title, I wouldn't have to think twice.

Would you, Brian? Are you so attached to Biggio that you value his presence over the team's need for a center fielder who can actually hit the ball? That you'd like to see him finish his career with poor numbers for a team that doesn't go anywhere? It's not that I don't respect that preference, but I think that if you do have that preference, you probably haven't thought it through.

Here's another perspective. Not Optimistic, really, but it does incorporate some of the Optimist's arguments, which might be summarized as, "Hey, he's not that bad."


    Rob,

    Houston's real problem is that they're very weak at two of three outfield positions.

    And sad as it is, contrary to your claim about Biggio being the worst center fielder in the league this season, last season there were 14 players with more than 200 at bats at center field last year and an OPS lower than Biggio's .734. Names like Darin Erstad, Juan Pierre, Doug Glanville, Terrence Long (what was Billy Beane thinking?), Chris Singleton (what is Billy Beane thinking?), Corey Patterson, etc.

    Granted, a 734 OPS is not what the Astros want in center field, considering that Lance Berkman gave them 417 at-bats in center last year and posted a 987 OPS. But this means that Berkman goes to left field, so essentially they're replacing Richard Hidalgo/Orlando Merced, who were at about 750/733 with Biggio (734). Not a big difference, except that the younger players may improve and Biggio might be expected to get worse. Obviously, Biggio's money is too much and he shouldn't be re-signed for much, but his move to center won't hurt Houston unless he takes at-bats from a young Astro outfielder who was about to break out.

I plead guilty to sloppiness rather than dishonesty. I really did think that Biggio would become the worst-hitting everyday center fielder in the National League, but it seems there are plenty of candidates for that lofty title.

Let us remember, though, that ex-Enron Field is a great hitter's park, which means Biggio's 2002 numbers were even less impressive than they might seem. And more to the point, we have to look at potential upsides.

We know that Berkman's going to play somewhere, which leaves two outfield slots and three players: Biggio, Hidalgo, and Jason Lane. Here are 2003 projections for all three, as found in Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster:

Age OBP Slug
Biggio 37 .331 .414
Hidalgo 27 .342 .470
Lane 26 .315 .492

Before you protest that Biggio's projection doesn't take into account his past successes, I should tell you that Shandler's projection actually has Biggio being slightly more productive in 2003 than he was in 2002.

Now, you might say, "Hey, the guy's a future Hall of Famer. And players of that caliber just keep chugging along like the Energizer Bunny. At worst, he's due for one more big season before age finally takes its inevitable toll."

Except I think he already had that one more big season. I think that one more big season was 2001, when -- coming off a major knee surgery in 2000 -- Biggio hit 20 homers and scored 118 runs. He was 35 that season, which isn't particularly old for a great player, unless he's a catcher ... and hey, didn't Biggio used to be a catcher?

See, the reason Biggio switched from catcher to second baseman was to save his body. Astros coach Matt Galante was assigned to help implement the plan (which, by the way, Biggio resisted). As Galante says in David Siroty's book The Hit Men and the Kid Who Batted Ninth,

He was an All-Star catcher, so why move him out from behind the dish? He's a guy who could run pretty well. He's got really good hands and really good feet. We wanted a guy like that to be around for 14, 15 years and we didn't know with him as a catcher, with all the strenuous work back there, if we would be able to take advantage of the assets he had. We thought that if he could play infield it would prolong his career ...

It doesn't quite rank with making Cal Ripken a shortstop (for which Earl Weaver gets the credit), but it was pretty brilliant nonetheless. The Astros hit the Daily Double, as Biggio not only became a better than he'd been, but also worked so hard at learning his new job that he eventually became a fine defensive second baseman. As a catcher, Biggio was a very good player; as a second baseman, he was, from the very beginning, a great player.

But what gets lost is that he was a catcher. Biggio was behind the plate during 427 games, and is it really a stretch to surmise that those 427 games took their toll?

And you know, this talk of Biggio bouncing back with good numbers in 2003 is somewhat irrelevant, because he's already signed for 2003. The issue here is 2004 and beyond. Daryle Ward's already gone -- traded to the Dodgers last week -- but Richard Hidalgo and Jason Lane are still around, both are likely to be better players in 2004 and beyond ... and minor leaguer Henri Stanley might be better than both of them in 2004.

If Craig Biggio is still on the roster in '04 (and beyond), he's going to play at least occasionally. And the more you pay him, the more you're going to want to play him.

There's no single right or wrong answer here. The Astros should certainly consider what Biggio has meant to the franchise, and they should consider the impact his departure might have on the fans. But their primary consideration should be, what it has to be, is how signing Biggio to a contract extension will affect the standings in the National League Central. Because in the end, that's what most of the fans will care about.

Craig Biggio has given the Houston Astros long and good service, and for this long and good service he will eventually be paid more than $75 million. There's no reason to begrudge Biggio even a single penny of that $75 million, because he's always worked hard and he's never made it about the money.

But tomorrow -- or rather, 2004 -- is a new day. There's simply no good reason to pay Craig Biggio for what he's done rather than what he'll do. And what he'll do is enough to justify a frequent seat on the bench and perhaps a salary in the (very) low seven figures.

Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published in April by Fireside, will be appearing here regularly and irregularly during the offseason. His e-mail address is rob.neyer@dig.com.