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The case of phenoms vs. incumbents

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  April 27, 2012 02:29 PM

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A decade ago, give or take a few years, I figured the closest I'd ever come to working at the Globe was coming down from Concord, N.H., to Morrissey Boulevard for the occasional media seminar.

There's one in particular I remember, probably because a specific question was asked that still crosses my mind today. It was posed by Don Skwar, then the Globe sports editor, who asked the audience for a show of hands on this:

How many of you have taken a topic or a comment you heard on sports radio and turned it into a column?

I do not recall a single hand being raised, probably because Skwar had made it clear he did not approve of such a practice, and roughly 98.7 percent of the people in attendance we're hoping he'd offer them a job.

But I'd done it. I'm also doing it now.

(One of the people on the panel that day was a Globe columnist. Dude named Michael Holley. Any idea what he's up to these days?)

And with that meandering intro out of the way, here's my explanation: Wednesday, Mike Mutnansky and Lou Merloni were discussing on WEEI's midday show the possibility of red-hot Will Middlebrooks coming up from Triple A and taking struggling incumbent Kevin Youkilis's job. One of the hosts offhandedly asked whether a Red Sox regular -- a player as established as Youkilis -- had lost his job to a prime prospect so early in the season.

The hosts couldn't come up with a certain answer. Neither could I. So I turned to every baseball fan's trusty internet sidekick, baseball-reference.com, and looked for similar instances in Red Sox history over the past 25 years, or back to 1987.

I found one case that was pretty close to the Middlebrooks/Youkilis scenario (though that is not likely to happen now given Youk's .294/.385/.500 line over the past two weeks) and a bunch that we may recall as similar but perhaps were not.

In order of relative similarity to the Middlebrooks/Youkilis scenario, here's what b-r.com told me:

burksfinn423.jpgEllis Burks
1987
If you've ever wondered why the Red Sox gave away '86 postseason sensation Dave Henderson so soon, here's your explanation: Ellis Burks was ready.

(I will never understand, however, why Henderson, who played through 1994 and was a core member of the powerful A's teams in the late '80s and early '90s, was given away for mulleted roster-filler Randy Kutcher.)

With Henderson (.239 in April) and the Sox off to a sluggish start, Burks was recalled from Pawtucket April 30. "Henderson is struggling right now," manager John McNamara told (or probably hissed at) the Globe. "That's why we brought up Burks."

Bringing him up proved the right move almost instantly, with Burks's outstanding glove in center field and power/speed combo providing the lineup a jolt of energy and fans a young potential superstar to get excited about. He had three hits in his second game, and a homer and a steal against Don Sutton and the Angels a few days later.

His usurping of Henderson in April '87 is the closest situation I can find to the potential Youk/Middlebrooks situation. But there is one apparent difference: Burks wasn't tearing it up at Pawtucket the way Middlebrooks is now. He was hitting .225 in 47 plate appearances before his recall:

But perhaps the numbers were deceiving. From a John Powers feature on Burks in the May 6, 1987 Globe:

He had been hitting only .225, but it was .225 with an asterisk -- his 9 for 40 included three homers, three doubles and a triple. "I was hitting the ball good," Burks said, "but just right at a lot of people."

When the call came last week, the PawSox had the day off. "I'd just come back from the video store," Burks said. "I'd rented a couple of tapes. I never got to watch them. But I did remember to return them. For sure, I thought about that."

Video tapes. Guess it was a long time ago.

vaughnmofinn423.jpgMo Vaughn
1991
Even in the dreary seasons from 1991-94, apparently getting swept by the equally lousy Yankees was a cause for action. Manager Joe Morgan had been pining for Vaughn's recall for weeks. Regarded as the game's 10th-best prospect in Baseball America before the season, Vaughn had a .918 OPS, 14 homers, and 60/44 BB/K rate (not that the Sox probably noticed the latter stat then) at Pawtucket when he was finally summoned June 27 on the heels of the Yankees' first sweep at Fenway since October 1986.

Steve Fainaru in the June 28, 1991 edition of the Globe:

In an attempt to find "it," the club finally called up rookie first baseman Vaughn from Pawtucket. With great fanfare, manager Joe Morgan inserted him into the sixth spot and announced that he would be playing against most righthanders, all in the name of the lefthanded power the manager has been seeking.

''They said people knew who I was," Vaughn said after he was treated to a raucous ovation. "Now I believe it."

Vaughn, who took over for Carlos Quintana, who was hitting .295 but with no pop, didn't break through right away, hitting just four homers in 251 plate appearances. He'd break through as a star in '93, and won the AL MVP award in 1995.

hornsamfinn424.jpgSam Horn
1987
Despite the tragicomedy of its early days, I don't believe this Red Sox season is doomed to fail. But should the first few weeks of summer somehow resemble the first few weeks of April, I wouldn't be that shocked to see some roster shuffling similar to what happened in 1987, when the hangover from the previous October lingered and holdouts by Roger Clemens and Rich Gedman led to a sluggish start. Bill Buckner and Don Baylor departed during the season, Dwight Evans moved to first base, and Burks, Mike Greenwell, Todd Benzinger, and big Sam Horn arrived on the scene. After hitting .321 with 30 homers and 84 RBIs in 373 plate-appearances at Pawtucket, the 6-foot-5-inch lefty slugger was recalled July 25 when Buckner was released. Horn became an instant folk hero, homering in his first two games and five of his first eight, finishing with 14 homers and a .945 OPS in 179 plate-appearances. Maybe it was those whispered words of wisdom from Ted Williams in spring training that helped him make the leap that spring from suspect to prospect, but Will McDonough didn't hide his skepticism about Horn in a column a few days after his ballyhooed arrival:

Welcome to Boston, Sam Horn, and tell someone what happened to change you from a push hitter to a long-ball basher in one short year. Twice during playoff time last fall, this writer was told you didn't have a chance in the majors because you had a slow bat and couldn't really drive the ball. And the same opinion came from top baseball people.

Horn did prove too one-dimensional to last, but I always thought he could have had Cecil Fielder's career in the right situation. Wonder what Mr. Ballgame there thought of him.

plantierphilfinn425.jpgPhil Plantier
1991
Plantier, the lefty with the ridiculously exaggerated crouch, was supposed to be the Red Sox' next great slugger, as apparently even Ted Williams believed. He turned out to be their version of Kevin Maas. He does come close to fitting our criteria, though. After coming up in late-August 1990 for 21 plate appearances (.133 average), he began the '91 season at Pawtucket, where the 22-year-old hit .305 with 16 homers in 368 plate-appearances. The earned him a promotion to Boston on June 7. He struggled and was demoted after 11 games, but was called back up in August and proceeded to hit 11 homers in 157 plate-appearances over the final two months, batting .452 in August and .320 in September and convincing suckers like me that his rookie cards might as well be made of platinum.

naehringtimfinn423.jpgTim Naehring
1990
At age 23, he 15 homers with a .841 OPS in 82 games at Pawtucket, earning a July call-up. He was inserted into the lineup to replace erratic Luis Rivera at shortstop and hit .271 with a .745 OPS before a back injury ended his season in mid-August. It was a harbinger of what was to come in his star-crossed career, which ended in 1997 because of an elbow injury when he was 30 years old.

Jacoby Ellsbury
2007
We remember Ellsbury as a huge part of the Red Sox' run to their second championship in four years, but his permanent arrival did not come until later in the season. He actually began the season at Portland, where he hit .452 in 83 plate appearances before moving up to Pawtucket. He debuted in the majors with a six-game cameo June 30 to July 5, played one game in August, then came up for the stretch run in September, overall hitting .353 with a .902 OPS in 127 plate appearances. In the postseason, he was sensational after taking Coco Crisp's job, helping the Sox win the World Series and winning the nation some free taco meat filling.

Mike Greenwell
1986
Greenie, or Gator if you prefer, made a memorable first impression as a September callup in 1985, hitting four homers in 31 at-bats. He again came up in July '86 after hitting 18 homers with a .920 OPS in 89 games with the PawSox. But he was a bench player behind the entrenched Jim Rice/Tony Armas/Dwight Evans outfield on the AL champs, going 1 for 8 in the postseason. Two years later, he was runner-up to Oakland juice beast Jose Canseco in the MVP balloting. By the way, Greenwell's middle name is Lewis. Did not see that coming.

* * *

Obviously, I've excluded pitchers here; it just struck me as a different dynamic than having a position player come up and take over a regular spot. We remember Jonathan Papelbon (2005) and Justin Masterson ('08) coming up midseason or later and becoming crucial members of the pitching staff. Here are a couple of interesting cases just for the sport of it.

Robinson Checo
1997
The "Dominican Mystery Man'' stands as one of the symbols of Dan Duquette's approach to developing prospects; the Duke prioritized international free agents over building a conventional farm system. Checo was among the Jin Ho Chos and Sunny Kims who were much-hyped and never amounted to much, but he did have some encouraging numbers. He struck out 128 batters at three minor-league levels in '97 and whiffed 14 more in 13.1 innings for the big club. He also was probably old enough to have pitched against Luis Tiant.

seleaaron423.jpgAaron Sele
1993
Kevin Kennedy made a habit of questioning Sele's toughness, and the label stuck, but it shouldn't be forgotten that the righthander with the killer curve was a damned good pitcher upon reaching Fenway in June 1993. Sele, who was 8-2 with a 2.19 ERA in 14 starts at Pawtucket, pitched seven innings in his Red Sox debut without allowing an earned run, finishing his first season in the big leagues as a bright light (7-2, 2.74 ERA) on a dull team.

Tomo Ohka
1999
After coming up in mid-July, Ohka had a 1-2 record and a 6.23 ERA in eight games (two starts), and he proved nothing more than average over the course of his 10-year career, going 51-68 with a 4.26 ERA for five teams. I'm mentioning here mostly to ask this question: does anyone remember that he was 15-0 -- yes, 15-0 -- with a 2.31 ERA between New Britain and Pawtucket before coming up? I don't remember being that encouraged about him, but we must have been, right? After all, we're the same fans who talked ourselves into believing Brian Rose was a future ace.

* * *

A few you might have thought of who didn't quite fit the criteria:

Donnie Sadler made the team out of camp in 1998, as did Shea Hillebrand three seasons later. In the mid-'90s, Dwayne Hosey and Rudy Pemberton were bargain-bin gambles rather than real prospects. Two-time All-Star Scott Cooper was a two-time September callup.

andersonbrady426finn.jpgBrady Anderson broke camp with the big club in '88 and had three hits in his debut, but was down to .230 and Pawtucket by June.

Wilton Veras came up from Double A because of John Valentin's injury in 2000, looked like the third baseman of the future and ... there he was at Fenway last Friday, age 34, back in sight after long being out of baseball and our minds.

Trot Nixon debuted in '96 and got a September recall (and some postseason time) in '98. Future idols Nomar Garciaparra ('96) and Dustin Pedroia ('06) were late-season callups a decade apart.

Oh, and Youkilis himself first came up in May 2004, but caddied for Bill Mueller for a team that accomplished a few things.

If you can think of anyone I missed, or any hotshot prospect who bounced an incumbent from a starting job early in a season before '87, please clue me in in the comments.

@GlobeChadFinn

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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