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Hit the road (to Ottawa), Jack

After the Orioles designated Jack Cust for assignment on April 9 to make room on the big-league roster for Erik Bedard, there was much weeping and gnashing of teeth in the Orioles' sabermetric community. I discussed Cust earlier—he is a flawed player, but he still has too much promise as a hitter to be surrendered for nothing.

However, I have yet to see a commensurate level of surprise at what happened after that: not a single major-league team claimed Cust off waivers. After ten days, the rights to Cust then reverted to the Orioles, who assigned him to Triple-A Ottawa.

I have to say that I was shocked. After all, one week earlier the Orioles had let go of John Stephens, another flawed prospect held in high esteem among performance analysts, and saw the Red Sox (who have the vanguard of the sabermetric movement on staff as an adviser) claim him and add him to their 40-man roster. I expected something similar to happen to Cust. Despite Cust's defensive deficiencies, I thought that surely an American League team with a weak farm system (Red Sox, Yankees) or a sabermetrically savvy front office (Athletics, Blue Jays) or a weak major-league roster (Devil Rays) could find a place for him. Perhaps an NL team needing bench depth (Giants) would find a role for him as a pinch-hitter and spot starter. But no one bit. And it's not like some teams fell asleep at the waiver wire, either, because the move drew extra attention when MLB found the Orioles guilty of calling up Bedard too early after the transaction was announced and reversed it, forcing the Orioles to place Cust back on their roster for a few more days. One reason for the other teams' hesitation was that (to quote MLB.com beat writer Gary Washburn) "any team that claimed Cust would have had to place him on the 25-man roster." This was not true in Stephens's case.

But the total lack of interest from 29 big-league teams showed just how far Cust has fallen in the eyes of MLB talent evaluators. This is the same guy who made a lot of top-50 and top-100 prospect lists just a few years ago, who has an impressive .299 BA/.436 OBP/.551 SLG in his minor-league career, who was one of the Orioles' top hitting prospects when he was acquired from the Rockies in March of 2003, who has nearly three full AAA seasons under his belt, who posted an impressive .878 OPS in a limited role last year, and who is still just 25 years old. What happened? Are all those teams dunderheads for passing on him? Or were they right, and have the stat-heads overrated Cust and turned a blind eye to his flaws?

I can't speak for every team, but I suspect that most teams were scared of Cust for the same reasons the Orioles found him disposable: his shaky defense, his propensity for strikeouts, and his underwhelming recent performance. Not that I agree with them.

Clearly, the top bugaboo for Cust is his unsightly defensive play. A player's subpar glove may be overlooked in the minors as long as his bat remains potent, but the scene changes dramatically at the major-league level, where errors are rare and defensive shortcomings become magnified. Some teams tolerate a weak bat in return for solid defense (see Rey Ordóñez or Mike Matheny for two recent examples). But almost no one seems to be able to stomach shoddy defense, even if the player's offense may more than make up for it.

There have been only a few truly bad defensive players in the last ten years; most of them have been first basemen who have spent a lot of time at DH. Cecil Fielder, Mo Vaughn, and Frank Thomas are a few that come to mind. But for the most part, their game-changing work with the bat more than compensated for their defensive woes. At least, that's what the writers who voted for the MVP awards seemed to think. And Cust shares a lot of characteristics with that class of player.

Although it may be damning with faint praise to say it, Cust has shown modest improvement as a fielder of late. After posting double-digit error totals in 1999-2001, he made seven errors in 2002 and only three errors last year. There is hope that Cust could still improve with practice, even if the upper end of his potential is at the lower boundary of the major-league average. But his best position is still DH.

What else does Cust have in common with players like Fielder, Vaughn, and (to a lesser extent) Thomas? Strikeouts, and lots of them. In his career, Cust has struck out in roughly one-third of his official at-bats, or about 27% of his total plate appearances. That's more than any of the aforementioned players, who struck out, at most, in about one-fourth of their at-bats over their careers. In fact, Cust has struck out more than just about anyone this side of Rob Deer, who was the quintessential Three True Outcomes player (those outcomes being strikeouts, walks, and home runs).

But again, there is reason to be optimistic about Cust. Last year at Ottawa, Cust had the lowest strikeout rate of his career at 23% K/PA. Unfortunately, it came at the expense of his power—his .426 SLG was also his lowest over a full season at any level. He did maintain his phenomenal batting eye, drawing walks in nearly 20% of his plate appearances, and hit a respectable .285. But the power dropoff must have left people wondering if Cust could reduce his strikeouts without sacrificing his clout.

Then there was his dismal spring training this year. Cust batted just .176 in March and struck out in nearly 40% of his at-bats. This was an ill-timed low point for Cust, who could have made a case for a significant role with a strong spring showing. After giving Cust one at-bat during the first week of the season (he struck out in the ninth inning of a blowout), the Orioles took a gamble by exposing Cust to waivers, and they were as surprised as anyone when no one claimed him.

The Orioles, with two ex-pitchers heading up the front office, have made noises about being a pitching- and defense-oriented club. This is fine—to an extent. In the Birds' heyday of the 1970s, Earl Weaver was not against playing a few defensive specialists, like Paul Blair and Mark Belanger, who could help the starting pitchers stay in games. But on the bench, he did keep some mashers, like Jim Dwyer and Terry Crowley, as trump cards to use in the late innings. Cust's high on-base percentage makes him a great candidate to pinch-hit in situations where baserunners are needed, and his power makes him a threat when a single wallop can make a difference. Those qualities make him a fine weapon off the bench.

Of course, those same strengths apply to all hitting situations, not just in a pinch. And since the Orioles play in a league with the designated hitter, there should be little problem finding a place for Cust in the starting lineup. David Seguí blocks him at DH for now, but whether Seguí is a more productive hitter than Cust at this point is debatable. Injuries have dampened Seguí's performance over the last two seasons; before that, he was effective enough to give Cust a good fight at DH. But the nagging issue of durability should not be dismissed. Cust, who has never been disabled for an extended period, provides insurance in the highly probable case that the human china doll Seguí goes on the DL. That reason alone should have prevented the Orioles from exposing Cust to waivers. Any of the other DH alternatives—B.J. Surhoff, a healthy Marty Cordova, Carlos Méndez, Pedro Swann—are underwhelming solutions with negligible upside or long-term potential.

Managers—particularly those who were defensive standouts and decent contact hitters in their playing careers like the Orioles' Lee Mazzilli—must find players like Cust particularly vexing. When a manager witnesses a series of awkward plays and miscues by a certain player in the field, and when that same player repeatedly returns to the dugout with bat in hand after striking out with men on base, the fatiguing sense of negativeness that results may cause the manager to sour on the player to the point that he overlooks that player's positive contributions. This is a completely human and understandable response, but it doesn't justify the manager subsequently benching that player and giving more playing time to someone with less noticeable faults but lesser assets as well. I'm not saying that this has happened with Mazzilli and Cust, but it appeared to occur last season when Mike Hargrove was managing, and it has happened often enough elsewhere that I would not be surprised to see it happen again.

What is in Cust's future? Since he is out of minor-league options, the Orioles cannot shuttle him back and forth between Ottawa and Baltimore at will like they did last year; before they next send him down, they must expose him to waivers again. So his next return to Baltimore could be his last, best chance to prove his worth.

In the meantime, Cust, if his head is right, is a good bet to rip up the International League. Any faltering in Seguí's performance, whether through slump or injury, would give Cust another chance to show the Orioles what he can do. And his minor-league numbers suggest that a .900 OPS is well within his reach. If Cust breaks through in his return to the AL, he could take hold of Baltimore's DH spot for the remainder of the year and beyond, as the Orioles' contractual commitments to Seguí and Cordova expire after this season. The league is apparently pessimistic about Cust's chances of attaining stardom, but his bat is still dangerous enough to merit watching.

Comments (5)


I was also surprised not one team picked up Jack
Cust. And yes, the flaws that you mentioned earlier definetely draw question marks to his potential of being a solid Major League DH .. however, I think the 3 most important things to consider in evaluation him as a prospect are:
1. He is only 25 years old!
2. He has been making strides in fielding and strike outs over the last year.
3. He has also had a decline in his slugging percentage over the past year.

Overall, i think Cust will definetely get another shot at the Majors, hopefully with the O's!!


It looks to me like Cust isn't major league worthy. The Orioles need to fact they have made a mistake and move on.


I may have come off as too optimistic in the article about Cust's chances. I doubt that Cust will put up a .900 OPS immediately upon returning to the big leagues, notwithstanding his .878 OPS for the Orioles in 2003. However, he's done it routinely in the minors, so he should be capable of that kind of production down the road as he gains experience.

It's possible that Cust is suffering from trying to do things he's not good at and perhaps never will be. Perhaps he should forget about working on his defense and trying to making contact at the plate, and instead concentrate on his strengths: waiting for a good pitch and hitting the snot out of the ball when he gets it.

I also wonder if the image of Cust falling flat on his face in that Yankee game last year has fed into the way people view him as a player. While I laughed it off at the time as a freak occurrence, others might not have been so easy on him. Maybe that event crystallized their perception of him as a klutzy, graceless player, a guy who loses games with his strikeouts and clumsiness in the field, rather than one who can win games with his punishing bat and his walks.

I was at that game Cust fell on his face last year and it will go down as one of those unbelievable O's moments for me, which is for sure. I'm not sure I have much of opinion either way on him though. If given the opportunity, I would love to see him flourish as a Major League home run threat for the birds. At the same time, I can't say that I'd be overly disappointed if he doesn't develop into that kind of player.

Sure it's possible he goes to another team and does that, but that's baseball. Look at our former pitchers, who are not among AL elites with the shaky exception of Hentgen.

Mike Mussina
Curt Schilling
Kevin Brown
Pat Hentgen
Jamie Moyer

While Cust has Ruthian potential, how many teams would really go after George Herman Ruth now? Just an interesting question, not a jab at the Babe.

I heard this guy is a huge juice head.


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