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Cust's last stand with the O's?

(Note: The media series will resume soon.)

Onetime hot prospect Jack Cust, a 25-year-old hitter for the Orioles' Triple-A Ottawa farm team, has had a hot and cold season at the plate: a huge and prolonged slump at the start, followed by a gradual recovery climaxing in a hot July, then lately another big falloff in production. As of Tuesday night's game his batting line was .240/.359/.449, not horrible but well below his career averages.

Now, a story in the Washington Post indicates that his stay with the Oriole organization will almost certainly end after this season, when he will become a free agent.

'It's Been the Worst Year for Me,' Says O's Farmhand Cust” (Washington Post)

Here are Cust's quotes from the story:

On the lack of attention being shown him this year by the organization:

“[The Orioles] have no type of concern for me.... I'm just playing for next year.”

“It's been the worst year ever for me.... It's the first year baseball hasn't been baseball for me. It's just coming to the field and getting a couple at-bats.”

On his decreased playing time in the field:

“I'm not getting any better. I'm getting worse. The whole rhythm of my game has been taken away just by not being able to do what I like to do. You can't always do what you want to do, but there can be a compromise.”

Referring to a visit to Ottawa by Oriole co-VP Jim Beattie in which Beattie never said a word to Cust:

“You [Beattie] could at least say, 'Hey, I know you've had a rough year.' Whatever. Say something. You're there for three days and you can't even show your face. . . . I don't care anymore.”

Memo to Cust: shut up and produce. And as sacrilegious as it may sound, a change of hitting coaches might help shake you out of your funk. (For those who don't know, Jack learned hitting from his father, Jack Sr., who runs a baseball academy in New Jersey.) For years, Cal Ripken refused to be coached by anyone but his father; midway through his career he started to consult Frank Robinson, and the results were positive (if temporarily so). No one knows everything there is to know about hitting, so a different perspective may yield fresh insights and instant results.

Left to rust, Cust gets no love

By placing Cust on waivers earlier this year, the Orioles made clear that they don't think Cust has much of a future in the majors. But it's not like they have many better hitting prospects in the upper levels of the farm system. In the article, Beattie mentions the logjam of five outfielders at Ottawa as the main reason that Cust has been benched in some games and DHed in all but 25 others. But two of those outfielders are over 30 and their hitting numbers are hardly better than Cust's (Chad Mottola: .265/.314/.448; Pedro Swann: .272/.341/.454). The others are Darnell McDonald (.226/.286/.347) and Tim Raines Jr. (.261/.313/.332), light-hitting center fielder types who haven't shown up at the plate this season and don't profile as major-league hitters. Mottola, McDonald, and Raines have received brief callups this season for fill-in work, as has Ottawa's best hitter, corner infielder José León (.320/.383/.617), who has not made the most of his many brief big-league chances. Meanwhile, Cust has been in a Canadian purgatory, no longer on the 40-man roster and fighting for playing time with the Lynx. The guy can't field a position, but he should be in the lineup more regularly (he's played in just 85 of the Lynx's 120 games despite being healthy the entire season).

Paging all left-handed DH's

It's true that Cust is having a down year, but the Orioles have had trouble getting production out of their DH spot, and it wouldn't be the worst idea to give Cust one last shot there in September. The club's other future options at the left end of the defensive spectrum (DH/1B/LF/RF) are hardly mouth-watering. The list:

  • David Seguí is apparently coming back for a farewell tour over the next month and a half. Even if he manages to last that long without getting hurt, the O's should do the magnanimous thing and allow him to retire after the season.
  • B.J. Surhoff has hit surprisingly well in the twilight of his career, but even in his best years he was merely a good hitter, and he's no more than a part-time player now.
  • Rafael Palmeiro was great in his prime, and he can still draw a walk, but he too is slouching towards retirement.
  • Jay Gibbons has battled injuries throughout his career and has yet to put together power and average in the same year. Moreover, his walk rate leaves much to be desired.
  • Handyman David Newhan has been a godsend, but he's also on the wrong side of 30, and it's unlikely that he'll continue to be as good as he's been this year.
  • Karim García, in my mind, is a slightly older version of Gibbons: a slow, left-handed corner outfielder with power who can DH or play first base. This is not a bad guy to have around in a pinch, but neither is he a vital cog in a contending club's machine.
  • Larry Bigbie has an outside chance of becoming a productive everyday player. But as old as he is (26), he can't afford to have many more years like this one. His future depends on what he does now.
  • Javy López should have DHed more than he has done this year, except the Orioles' backup catchers haven't hit enough to earn Lee Mazzilli's faith. It helps that he's a right-handed hitter on a list dominated by lefties. Expect him to DH more in the next two years, particularly against left-handers.

Separating the wheat from the chaff

Looking again at the farm system, there are two legitimate hitting prospects who could see significant action for the O's in 2005. One is second baseman Mike Fontenot, who is having a moderately productive year (.277/.348/.438) for Ottawa after recovering from a horrendous start. Another is outfielder Val Majewski, currently hitting .307/.359/.490 for Bowie. He has succeeded at every level since being drafted out of Rutgers in 2002. Having an outside chance are Bowie first baseman Walter Young (.269/.337/.527) and catcher Eli Whiteside (.256/.314/.492). It's not much of a crop, but the hitting prospects were even worse two years ago, before Cust arrived.

And what about Cust? Barring a major development such as an injury to one of Orioles' many left-handed hitting OF/1B/DH guys, it appears that his time with the Birds has run out. It's not the way he and the Orioles would have liked it to end, but he just hasn't hit enough to merit the attention he wanted.

Cust is a polarizing subject among Orioles fans; some think his bat will survive the test of big-league pitching given the chance, and others think he will fall flat on his face, like he literally did last summer at the end of a game against the Yankees. He always has attracted strong interest, though, because of his caricature-like strengths and weaknesses.

If there is a similar hitter in major-league baseball today, it is Jim Thome, a Three True Outcomes poster boy who regularly racks up high totals in home runs, walks, and strikeouts. In Thome's case, his strengths have more than compensated for his weaknesses. That's not to say it would be the same way for Cust; Thome was more highly regarded coming up through the minors and is an acceptable first baseman defensively.

Another comparable player to Cust is Russell Branyan, a third baseman who has bounced around since coming up with the Indians in the late '90s. Branyan historically has put up big numbers in the power and whiff departments, but has not hit much for average above Double-A and doesn't walk nearly as much as Cust has. Yet despite his low batting averages and enormous strikeout tallies, Branyan has posted an OPS of nearly .800 in the majors, above the league average for a third baseman in that time frame. He may not be a star, but he has more offensive value than most teams think.

I'm not as enthusiastic about Cust as I was when the Birds acquired him in March 2003; aside from his .878 OPS in the majors last year, his numbers have been down across the board since he joined the organization, and a downward trend is never good for a player in his mid-twenties. Just ask Ben Grieve. But I still think Cust has enough offensive ability to offer value to a club off the bench, if not as a full-time DH.

Beattie taking a beating

In the article, Beattie receives another swipe in the press from a disgruntled player, this after earlier complaints by Rick Bauer and Sidney Ponson. I don't think Beattie was in the wrong for not talking to Cust while visiting Ottawa; communication with minor-leaguers is more the responsibility of farm director Doc Rodgers, and according to the article Rodgers has been in touch with Cust and his agent.

But these incidents strongly suggest that Beattie is unpopular with certain players who pin blame on him when unfortunate things happen. Not that being popular is uniformly good, but a little image/temperament makeover would avail Beattie, a rational decision-maker whose cool exterior and straight talk are consistent with his New England background (stereotypically, anyway).

While management should be on speaking terms with their players, the relationship should not be so close that it prevents them from pulling the trigger on tough decisions. It's always a difficult balance, but Beattie sometimes comes across as out of touch with the emotional strains of ballplayers struggling to realize their big-league dreams.

And his frank evaluations of players, however insightful, have also come across as insensitive on at least two occasions. Ponson developed a loathing of Beattie in 2003 after Beattie mentioned being concerned about Ponson's shoulder in an interview. Bauer saw red when Beattie broke the news of his latest demotion. These perceived insults were not intended on Beattie's part, but Beattie found himself in the crosshairs nevertheless.

From my point of view, Beattie is not malicious or intentionally callous. He is a cold-blooded, logical thinker. He is also a truth-teller, a straight shooter who would rather be honest than politically correct. This tendency can get him into trouble because he sometimes overlooks the subtle benefits of tact.

Moreover, Beattie is not the kind of guy who goes out of his way to be buddies with his players. As a result, he can be misunderstood or even reviled as a distant, uncaring man holding the levers to the fortunes of his minions. It's not all his fault that players would unjustly make him out to be their persecutor, but improving the quality of communication between him and his players would help them feel valued.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on August 18, 2004 7:03 PM.

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