by Michael Jimenez
Bryan LaHair came out swinging in his attempt to show the baseball world he belonged in spite of being overlooked until he was 29. In the first five weeks of the season LaHair hit an astonishing .384 avg /.476 obp /.767 slg /1.243 ops which put him near the top of every offensive category. At the same time, Anthony Rizzo, the 22 year old whom the Cubs received from the Padres in the Cashner trade last winter and the 20th best prospect in all of baseball according to ESPN’s Keith Law, has also staked his claim to first base at Wrigley. Rizzo is hitting .354/.416/.713/1.130 in 197 plate appearances at Iowa, and if it was not for service time considerations, he would be with the major league team right now. However, on June 23rd the Cubs will have secured one more year of control over Rizzo allowing them to bring him up at any point after that date and he will be under team control through 2018 before being available for free agency. Rizzo is producing greater than LaHair ever did at AAA at a much younger age, so it’s pretty clear Rizzo is the Cubs first baseman of the future, but where does that leave LaHair?
First, we need to figure out realistic expectations for LaHair moving forward. Since his blistering hot start LaHair is mired in a 9-for-55 slump and has seen his numbers drop to .299/.394/.584/.978; even the biggest Cub homer had to anticipate this regression – the question is, where does it stop?
The areas of concern are LaHair’s batting average of balls put in play (BABIP), walk rate, isolated power (ISO) and his inability to hit off-speed pitches and lefties. His BABIP is still very high sitting at .388 even though it has dropped nearly 120 points the past three weeks. League average sits around .300, however, LaHair has shown at the minor league level the ability to consistently maintain a higher than normal BABIP. Taking this into account, you can safely assume he may maintain a BABIP around .325 but that still will drive his batting average down significantly. His walk rate is about 3% higher and his ISO is 80 points higher than his career minor league averages, so some moderate regression should be expected in those two areas.
During this lump, LaHair has seen an increase in off-speed pitches. At the peak of his hot streak, only 32% of the pitches he saw were off-speed. During the past 3 weeks he has seen this number jump to 45% and he has yet to adjust. Even more troubling is LaHair’s inability to hit left-handed pitching. So far this season he’s 2-21 (.095 avg) with 5 walks and for his career he’s 7-55 (.127 avg) with 12 walks. While the sample size is extremely small, his minor league numbers support this trend. Using the spreadsheets from the now defunct minorleaguesplits.com you can see that LaHair’s minor league splits until 2010:
LaHair has been dominant versus RHP in his minor league career which has carried his overall numbers to respectability. However, his numbers versus LHP have been abysmal. So far this year, LaHair has only faced LHP 15.6% of the time as he has shared first base duties with Jeff Baker. During his hot streak Cubs Manger Dale Sveum moved away from the platoon but during games this past week against Houston and Pittsburgh, LaHair has sat versus left-handed pitchers while Baker started. I would assume the Cubs have realized LaHair should not face most lefties and have returned to the platoon at first base until Rizzo makes his Cub debut during the summer.
Taking all this into account, and anticipating 550 plate appearances with a BABIP of .330, an ISO of .210, and a walk rate of 10.8% at season’s end, that would put LaHair’s final numbers near a .260 avg/.340 obp/.470 slg/.810 ops. That’s a very respectable season for LaHair putting him just outside the top 10 in OPS of all first basemen. But with Rizzo waiting in the wings, what should happen to LaHair?
Most Cubs fans say he should move to left field and Soriano should be shown the door via trade or flat out release or at least benched. The latter options are just not financially feasible even for the deep pocketed Cubs organization. There’s just too much money and too many years left on the contract for that to happen.
Trading him is also a difficult task. Thus far no team has shown any interest in the 36 year old with over 50 million left on his contract after his very slow start to the season. Reports over the weekend from the Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo that even the outfield depleted Red Sox were unwilling to take on Soriano at a deep discount. However, Soriano has warmed up with the weather hitting .278 avg/.333 obp/.569 slg/.903 ops since May 4th, so that at least leaves a remote possibility of a team willing to take him on if the Cubs kick in the majority of the contract. There’s also the option of moving David DeJesus in a trade and trying LaHair in RF. He does have experience there in the minors and a bit last year with the Cubs, but simply put he is a terrible defender at both corner outfield spots which is supported by Fangraph’s ultimate zone rating (UZR). A team can live with a his poor defense at first, but in the outfield, his offense must drastically eclipse his defense to make it worthwhile. LaHair’s offensive production moving forward will not merit such a move.
That leaves one option… to trade LaHair. This is the unpopular opinion among Cub fans, but it’s the right thing to do. The one position he can play decently will be filled by our top prospect very soon, LaHair has shown he is not an everyday player given his struggles against lefties, his value will never be as high as it is this summer, and let’s face it, the Cubs aren’t going to be good in the next couple of years while LaHair is still productive. The Cubs should move LaHair for the best deal out there and get a prospect or two that hopefully will be useful when the Cubs are competitive in a few seasons.
Even with the Cubs fighting for last place in the majors, this summer should be an interesting one as Theo and company begin revealing their plans to turn the organization into a success. Here’s hoping their answer to the Bryan LaHair Conundrum is the right one.