Saturday, May 26, 2012

On Steve Tolleson and why the O's don't need Miguel Tejada

On November 6, 2011, the Orioles hired Dan Duquette, a guy who hadn't been employed by a major league team since 2002. It didn't seem like the O's had anyone else to turn to, with several other general manager candidates turning down the opportunity, or even the chance to interview for the job.

The O's didn't make many (or any) big splashes in the offseason, but one part of Duquette's game plan was to target seemingly underutilized players bouncing around other teams' farm systems. Some of them, like Pat Neshek and Óscar Villarreal, are journeymen, but he also signed younger guys like Matt Antonelli and Steve Tolleson and selected Ryan Flaherty in the Rule 5 draft. There were several other moves and signings, but you get the point.

Tolleson, 28, was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the fifth round in 2005. In eight minor league seasons, he's demonstrated the valuable ability to get on base (.371 OBP), but he doesn't have a whole lot of power (.409 SLG). After making it all the way to Triple-A with the Twins but never getting a chance with the big league club, Tolleson was selected off of waivers by the Oakland A's in February of 2010. With Sacramento, the A's Triple-A affiliate, Tolleson put together his finest minor league season. Splitting time between shortstop, third base, second base, and left field, Tolleson raked in 339 plate appearances, posting a .332/.412/.503 line before being promoted.

After his promotion, Tolleson again filled a utility role. For the A's, Tolleson played at shortstop, third base, second base, left field, and right field in 25 games. It's unsurprising that Tolleson had a -1.5 combined UZR at all of those positions, which sort of weighed down (in terms of his 0.1 WAR) his .286/.340/.408 batting line in 53 plate appearances. Sure, that's only a small chunk of at-bats, but that line, even with slightly below average defense, is serviceable, particularly for a bench player or someone in a utility role like Tolleson.

Still, Oakland had seen enough and in May of 2011 Tolleson was shipped to the San Diego Padres for a player to be named later. He never progressed past Triple-A there, and in November he became a free agent.

In his flurry of veteran signings, Duquette brought Tolleson aboard and signed him in late November. Tolleson was eventually assigned to Norfolk, where he hit .265/.357/.361 in 26 games while playing shortstop every day.  Then, on May 9, Tolleson was promoted to Baltimore, mostly for infield depth and because of the ineffectiveness of Mark Reynolds. Reynolds is still on the disabled list (retroactive to May 11), but he's currently rehabbing and may return in a couple weeks.

Tolleson hasn't played much, but in six games and 22 plate appearances, he's hitting .300/.333/.550 and has looked decent at third base, the only position where the O's have used him. He's also easily a much better defender at third than Reynolds or Wilson Betemit.

It's also worth noting that Tolleson has had more success in his brief major league career facing lefties than righties. Here are his splits from his time in Oakland and Baltimore (yes, small sample size alert):

vs. RHP: 34 PA, .188/.235/.188
vs. LHP: 41 PA, .378/.425/.676

Interestingly enough, Tolleson consistently fared better against lefties in the minors as well. This link from Minor League Splits shows his split stats in the minors through 2010, and in nearly every level, particularly in Double-A and Triple-A, he hit lefties much better. It's at least possible that trend continues when/if he plays more at the major league level.

A day before the O's promoted Tolleson, though, they signed Miguel Tejada to a minor league deal. The move was curious, but at best it could be called some insurance for Reynolds. Unlike Tolleson, Tejada is a proven major league talent. But he hasn't been moderately good since 2009, and in his most recent major league action, with the Giants in 2011, Tejada batted an abysmal .239/.270/.326. He did play decent defense at third base that season, so that's at least the best the O's could hope for from him if he eventually gets promoted from Norfolk. But, again, he hasn't hit for a couple seasons now, and he also recently turned 38. (Vladimir Guerrero is a year younger, and O's fans know how that signing turned out last season.)

Really, signing Tejada doesn't hurt anything right now. He's not taking valuable playing time away from anyone in Norfolk, and it's at least possible he resurrects his career in some fashion if he ends up in Baltimore and miraculously plays well for a couple weeks or months. But it makes much more sense to keep someone like Tolleson, who has demonstrated a consistent ability to get on base and hit better against left-handed pitching, on the roster. Tolleson may not end up being much better than a replacement level third baseman for the O's, but that's better than Tejada.