The Cutoff Man: Giving the defense its due

Baseball players always talk about hoping to play “meaningful baseball” in September, a term that alludes to being in a pennant race late in the season. This is the only context in which that term is really thrown around. However, in order to be playing meaningful baseball in September, teams must play meaningful baseball through the season’s first five months; and, if a team plays exceptionally well all the way through August, it might be able to put a lot less pressure on the outcomes of those September games.

Even spring training games are meaningful. Important? No, but definitely meaningful, especially for the many teams who still have question marks about their Opening Day rosters. In three days, at 1:05 p.m., the first two games of the regular season will begin, with the Braves and Nationals opening the National League schedule and the Tigers and Yankees christening the American League slate.

That said, in what little time remains before the big show begins, teams like the Mets and Phillies are just some of the teams that don’t even know what their starting lineups will look like come the first game of the season.

The Mets’ and Phillies’ issues both stem from second base. Both teams are still trying to figure out who will be starting at the position come the teams’ openers on Friday. The Phillies can take some comfort in knowing that they do have a star second baseman in Chase Utley, who hopefully can recover from nagging injuries and quell any issues with the position.

The Mets, however, have spent most of spring training waiting for one of their unestablished candidates to distinguish himself as the best option, but none of them have. In fact, the only player in the competition who’d been a regular second baseman at the Major League level was Luis Castillo, whom the Mets released after a beleaguered tenure with the club and who now is competing for the Phillies’ second base job.

For the Phillies, the choice looks to be between the ex-Met Castillo and Wilson Alvarez, another ex-Met who filled in adequately at shortstop last season for the Phillies during Jimmy Rollins’ extended stints on the disabled list. Castillo’s upside is his experience and offense, which has dwindled considerably since his heyday in Florida but could still prove to be consistent enough to be a decent table setter for the big RBI guys in the lineup. Alvarez, purely on account of being younger and having had zero times as many knee problems, no doubt has better range than Castillo, and both can sufficiently turn a double play.

The Mets have somehow been able to whittle the second-base competition down to Daniel Murphy, Brad Emaus, and Luis Hernandez, none of whom has been a regular second baseman at the big-league level. Only Murphy, the best offensive candidate of the bunch, has been a starter, having played regularly at first base for the Mets in 2009. However, Murphy began that season in left field, before his horrendous fielding forced the Mets to make a change.

That said, Murphy hit almost 40 doubles that season and if healthy could provide an offensive boost at the position — however, Murph is still getting acquainted with the position and hasn’t proven anything defensively. Emaus, who may win the job partially due to his Rule 5 status, has proven to be decent both offensively and defensively and could provide the balance and consistency that the Mets so badly need at the position.

Then there is Hernandez. Although his only career highlight came offensively last year, when he broke his foot with a foul ball and then homered on the next pitch, his game is all defense. There is, sadly, a stigma associated with purely defensive players, and they tend to fall by the wayside as teams try to piece together only the best offensive lineup they can.However, a purely defensive player like Hernandez could help shore up an otherwise-stellar defensive infield. The Mets of the late ’90s played with Rey Ordonez at short, a perennial Gold Glover who endeared himself to fans with his spectacular defense no matter how horrible he was at the plate — and boy, was he horrible.

Errors can, and will, be devastating. Castillo proved that to the world when he gave the Yankees a win by dropping a pop-up in the ninth inning. Bill Buckner, a million times more infamously, did it before him. Dewayne Wise, on the other hand, became a White Sox hero when he made a spectacular play to rob a home run and preserve Mark Buehrle’s perfect game.It is a truth universally acknowledged, and subsequently overlooked, that while good pitching and good hitting win ball games, it is good defense that saves them and bad defense that loses them.