So, with no baseball going on, I thought it might be entertaining to go back and look at some of the Rangers opinions I’ve had over the years that I whiffed badly on.
And what better place to start than with one of the earliest heated online Texas Rangers fans arguments...who should be at second base, Michael Young or Frank Catalanotto?
This pre-dates, of course, both Lone Star Ball and its predecessor Blogspot blog, but given its place as one of the first online Rangers fan arguments, and how significant the result was in terms of how things played out for the Rangers, it seems right to talk about this one first.
Flash back to the year 2000...the Rangers had won the American League West the year before, for the third time in four years, having recorded 95 wins, a team record at the time. And after getting swept from the playoffs, once again, by the New York Yankees, owner Tom Hicks wanted a shake-up. General manager Doug Melvin obliged — on November 2, 1999, he sent Juan Gonzalez, Danny Patterson and Gregg Zaun to the Detroit Tigers for Justin Thompson, Gabe Kapler, Frank Catalanotto, Francisco Cordero, Bill Haselman and Alan Webb.
We could write thousands of words on this deal, but this is about Cat v. Young, so we will just note that this deal was intended to keep the Rangers in contention in 2000, and brought a solid young bat-first second baseman to Texas.
The 2000 season was a disaster for the Rangers, though — they got into a hole early on in the season, managed to claw back into a tie for first place in early June, and then lost 9 in a row between June 6 and June 16 to drop the team to 6.5 games back. By July, the Rangers were in sell mode, and they sent pitcher Esteban Lozaia to the Toronto Blue Jays for reliever Darwin Cubillan and minor league shortstop Michael Young.
Luis Alicea was the regular second baseman in 2000 — Frank Catalanotto played second base, first base, and DH, while Michael Young was a September callup who appeared in just two games for Texas in 2000.
2001 saw the Rangers sign Alex Rodriguez to play shortstop and trade for Randy Velarde to play second base, meaning Catalanotto was destined for a part-time role and Young was AAA depth. That spring, however, you started hearing talk about Young opening some eyes in camp, and when the minor league season started, Young was playing second base, rather than shortstop, for AAA Oklahoma — and indication that he was viewed as a potential option at the keystone.
Young was called up when Velarde went on the disabled list, and...well, he stayed up. In his first game he pinch hit for Frank Catalanotto, the starting second baseman that day, with a lefty on the mound. He then started the next 13 games at second base for the Rangers, as manager Jerry Narron (who had taken over for Johnny Oates after the first month) saw something he liked. Young didn’t hit much that season — he slashed .249/.298/.402, with an 80 OPS+ — but he took over the second base job, with Velarde, upon his return, being used in more of a utility role, and Catalanotto being moved to the outfield.
After the 2001 season, Tom Hicks fired Doug Melvin and made the infamous decision to pass on hiring Dave Dombrowski in order to bring in John Hart from Cleveland as the team’s new general manager, with Grady Fuson coming over from Oakland as the assistant general manager and g.m.-in-waiting.
This, like the Juan Gone trade, could be the subject of thousands of words, but for our purposes today, the important thing is that Hart was required by Hicks to keep Narron on as the manager for the 2002 season. Hart, you may recall, went out and made aggressive moves to try to make the 2002 team a winner (including bringing Juan Gonzalez back), and almost all the moves he made that offseason backfired, meaning 2002 was another disaster season.
In that disaster season there developed a number of disagreements between Hart and the manager he inherited. As has been widely reported, one of those issues was second base. Narron, as he did in 2001, believed in Michael Young and stuck with him at second base. Hart was not a Young believer, viewing second base as an offense-first position, and wanted Narron to look at other options there. Narron, however, kept writing Young’s name into the lineup card — Young started 144 games at second base in 2002, and came into another 8 games at second base.
And once again, Young didn’t really hit. He slashed .262/.308/.382, with a 78 OPS+. He didn’t add value on the basepaths, either, going 6 for 13 in stolen bases. His glovework was good enough to make him a 2.0 bWAR player, but back then, publicly available advanced defensive statistics were largely unavailable. He also was praised for his intangibles...and those of us online who grew up reading Bill James viewed this as a classic example of something James used to rail about, a team ignoring the fact that a player wasn’t hitting because of nebulous defense and leadership qualities.
And so there was much yelling and anger. Frank Catalanotto was a second baseman who could hit! Through the 2002 season, he slashed .305/.380/.470 for the Rangers, while Michael Young couldn’t put up a 700 OPS! And Young was 25 in 2002 — it wasn’t like he was a young up-and-comer who had a lot of growth left, we said.
It seemed so obvious. Cat’s glove wasn’t as good as Young’s, but his offense more than made up for that. Young was a solid defender, but with his bat, he was best suited as a utility infielder, not an everyday player. You were squandering some of the value you got from Catalanotto by sticking him in left field or DH, where bat made him more of a middle-of-the-road type player.
And the media was playing into it! Everywhere you looked, the beat guys were praising Young, his work ethic, his glove, his clubhouse presence. It made many of us crazy. Who cares about clubhouse presence? How many games does that win? Not as many as his bat was costing.
For two years there were online arguments, flamewars, bitter recriminations. Then Frank Catalanotto was non-tendered after the 2002 season, and those of us on the pro-Cat side of the war felt betrayed...our champion had been cut loose, in a senseless attempt to save a few bucks!
And now we were stuck with Michael Young at second base.
Well, we know how that turned out. Young took a step forward in 2003 with the bat, slashing .306/.339/.446, good for a 97 OPS+, while playing second base every day. After Alex Rodriguez was traded in 2004, Young volunteered to move to shortstop so that newly acquired Alfonso Soriano could play second base, and the bat took another step forward. Young ended up making 7 All Star teams, and from 2004-2011, put up a .312/.360/.463 slash line.
Not bad for a guy who lots of us were convinced would never hit.
Frank Catalanotto, meanwhile, spent a few years with the Toronto Blue Jays, then came back to Texas as a free agent prior to the 2007 season. He spent 2007 and 2008 as a platoon left fielder/first baseman, was released on the eve of the 2009 season, and finished out his career with the Milwaukee Brewers and the New York Mets, playing just 7 innings at second base after the 2002 season.
So, where did I go wrong when I was loudly screaming that Cat should be playing ahead of Young?
Part of it was seeing in Frank Catalanotto what I wanted him to be, rather than what he was. I wanted him to be a quality bat-first every day second baseman. Cat never hit lefties, however — he was a platoon guy most of his career. He had trouble staying healthy. And I don’t think I appreciated how big the gap was between Catalanotto and Young, defensively. This was before you could look at UZR and DRS and Statcast data and feel like you could have some idea how big a spread there was between two players defensively. At the time, it was just unknown, which made it a lot easier to simply dismiss the difference as irrelevant.
The bigger thing, however, is that I didn’t expect Michael Young to significantly improve offensively. I suspect most people who just looked at the numbers and weren’t around him day-in and day-out didn’t expect it, either. He started the 2003 season as a 26 year old who had a career 79 OPS+ and wasn’t an offensive force in the minors. I suspect pretty much every projection system would have pegged him as a role 4 guy going forward, a utility infielder.
Jerry Narron, however, thought there was more there. He kept playing Young, even when his boss didn’t want him to. Buck Showalter played Young every day, and gave him the opportunity to improve, resulting in Young having a big jump in offensive production at age 27 that he carried forward through his age 34 season. And Young, by all accounts, never doubted, never questioned that he was a big leaguer and that he would produce.