Joe Torre’s decision to move troubled second baseman Chuck Knoblauch to left field is the oldest Little League strategy in the book. The only difference is that right field is the traditional exile for the kid who can’t throw or can’t catch and probably wishes he weren’t playing baseball at all.
As a Little League strategy, this has to be done because you can’t put a 12-year-old on waivers. As a big-league strategy, it’s ridiculous. Grown-up players hit balls to the outfield all the time, and Knoblauch is going to have to field them. Then he’s going to have to throw the ball back into the infield, and sometimes, there’s going to be a guy trying to take an extra base, and Chuck is going to have to try to nail him. In fact, with Knoblauch out there, that will probably happen every chance the other team gets.
Why do the Yankees expect Knoblauch will make this play? The idea is that there’s less pressure in the outfield, so Knoblauch will experience fewer tight situations than he did at second base. This assumes that the root of Knoblauch’s problem has something specifically to do with the pressure of second base, rather than the pressure of simply being Chuck Knoblauch.
Let’s consider the position of second base for a moment. It’s where they put infielders who don’t throw that well to begin with. The guys with guns play shortstop or third. Second base is closer to first, so you don’t have to throw it as hard or as quickly. Granted, the double-play pivot throw is tough, but early on, Knoblauch did all right on those. When his problems emerged, he made the hard throws and the easy ones where he could just lob it in. The in-betweeners killed him, the ones where he had time to think but still had to make something of a quick play.
Those in-betweeners are what outfielders face all the time. It’s more important for them to be accurate than to save a couple of milliseconds by whipping the ball back in, so they take a bit of time with their throws. This could be deadly for poor Chuck. He may end up with fewer chances to hurt the team, but those chances could have more severe consequences. Two-base throwing errors from the outfield are a horrible thing to watch. Yankees fans will long for the days of those measly one-base errors in the infield.
Then there’s the other end of this switch: the prospect Alfonso Soriano, who is moving to second base. The scouts love Soriano’s tools, and he’s tearing up the Grapefruit League this spring. But there’s good reason to suspect he won’t be able to keep it up once the season gets going. He’s a kid with little big-league experience, and he’s impatient at the plate, a weakness that gets easier to exploit as the season progresses. In spring training, pitchers are overly concerned with their control. They want to throw strikes, even to hitters who swing at everything. Once the season starts, every pitch Soriano sees will be at his ankles. He should learn to lay off the junk at AAA.
With the Knoblauch switch, Torre hasn’t solved any problems. He’s merely rearranged them. Unless Knoblauch and Soriano hit a lot better than can be reasonably expected, the Yankees now have five sub-par bats in their everyday lineup (Scott Brosius, Tino Martinez, and Paul O’Neill are the others).
Torre had a great quote about Knoblauch in this morning’s New York Times. “It’s my job to make him comfortable,” he said. That’s Torre taking the Little League approach, and in spring training, when you’ve got a player who’s making $6 million a year but can’t do a simple thing like throw a ball straight, that’s a smart way to play it. Before too long, the Yankees will switch back to the big-league approach. Say it’s June, Knoblauch is hitting nothing and just getting by in left, and Soriano is swinging at pitches that bounce 5 feet in front of the plate. What happens then? The Yankees package every decent prospect they’ve got left in the system (including Soriano, no doubt) and pull off some stupendous deal for the Expos’ Vladimir Guerrero. Then they win the World Series again.