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Mendoza Line Logic
July 22, 2011

The 100-game mark will be reached by many teams in the next day or two, so logic would follow that anyone still playing regularly and hitting around the Mendoza line will finally find ample time on the bench in exchange for another player capable of ANY kind of production to take his place.  Baseball, however, answers to more than just logic, however: specifically, salaries, egos, and a sometimes imbalanced leaning on past history often take precedence. 

Each case is unique, however, and oftentimes a lack of options lead to season-long loyalty to players with terrible years.  Let's take a look at some positively awful performances from players this year whose managers insist on keeping in the lineup and examine the logic behind each case.

Dan Uggla
363 AB, .193 BA, 17 HR, 38 RBI, 48 R, 1 SB, .645 OPS

As a second baseman Uggla may be under the Mendoza line and is a below average fielder, but his power production still gives the Braves value that can't be replaced from anyone on the roster or farm system.  With Chipper Jones often hurting, Martin Prado's talents are often utilized elsewhere, leaving only the likes of Brooks Conrad to fill in at second.  Conrad can spot start here and there, but his inexperience at second as evidenced by his multiple errors in last year's NLDS give Atlanta little choice.  In addition, Conrad's value is best as a reserve and late-inning pinch hitter, so replacing Uggla means decreasing performance elsewhere as well.

Sound.  Regardless of the batting average, Uggla's regular spot in the lineup is still the best choice on a team with no viable everyday replacement.

Chone Figgins
275 AB, .182 BA, 1 HR, 14 RBI, 23 R, 10 SB, .476 OPS

A third baseman with no remaining power, no ability to make contact, and a poor success rate on the basepaths (10 SB in 16 attempts), Figgins has no reason to be an everyday player the rest of the way.  It took a while, but Eric Wedge finally began mixing up the third base job with youngsters and utility infielders along with Figgins.  The replacements don't have much potential, but the results can't be worse than the almost nonexistent production from Figgins, so a change is a worthwhile investment.

Sound.  Power was never an asset for Figgins, and at 33, Chone has shown a decline on the basepaths, leaving very little in the way of upside in keeping him as an everyday player.  Wedge was smart in making the transition away from Figgins before August rolled around.

Vernon Wells
278 AB, .216 BA, 14 HR, 35 RBI, 39 R, 3 SB, .648 OPS

After a resurgent season in 2010, Toronto must have known something in trading Wells and his huge contract to the Angels in 2011.  With LA, Wells has shown some power still but little else and can't put the bat on the ball on a consistent basis.  Mike Scioscia has tried using several replacements to spell the starting outfield, even using Howie Kendrick, but a concerted effort to get Wells out hasn't happened.  Why?  LA is fifth from the bottom in total home runs, and sitting Wells for a prospect like Trout or an infielder like Kendrick takes away one of the Angels' only deep threats, so at this point, unless a deal is made, Scioscia's hands are tied.

Unfortunately sound.  Ideally, trading away Wells for another power source would be the answer, but the big contract means Wells is staying or LA is paying to make him go.

Alex Rios
345 AB, .212 BA, 6 HR, 23 RBI, 42 R, 7 SB, .565 OPS

Rios is an even worse version of Vernon Wells - former Blue Jay, less power, questionable work ethic based on clubhouse reports from beat writers, big contract, and determined to be lazy at times by Ozzie Guillen himself.  Worse yet, he's not even Chicago's biggest problem this season.  Rios has been moved down in the order (usually 6th) but has been a constant in the lineup.  Why?  Slap-hitting Juan Pierre is already manning an everyday spot in the outfield and the only alternative is Brent Lillibridge, a career .212 hitter already playing more than his talent should indicate.

Sound.  Rios, while not up to his normal fielding standards, is still sound in center field, and putting Lillibridge in on a daily basis won't yield better results.  With Rios and his contract untradeable, it's play or sit and the White Sox don't have enough (read: any) outfield depth to sit him.

Adam Dunn
284 AB, .159 BA, 9 HR, 36 RBI, 26 R, 0 SB, .588 OPS

The biggest surprise in recent baseball history, the most consistent hitter in recent memory (Dunn played in 152+ games/year for 7 years and hit 38-46 HR/year) fell off a cliff no one knew existed.  Just 31 years old, Dunn's transition to the AL and the DH role has been a cataclysmic failure with an OPS almost 300 points below his career average!  Quite simply, Adam Dunn is doing absolutely nothing for the White Sox other than creating a hole in the lineup.  With his consistency, it made sense to give him a chance to emerge from a slump, but after almost 100 games, it's obvious that something is wrong with the 11-year veteran because his lengthy poor performance is unprecedented.  After experimenting with different spots in the order, Ozzie Guillen has moved Dunn back to the 3rd spot, and now the cleanup spot.  Both are mistakes for a guy getting on base at a slightly below average clip but with a batting average of almost record setting futility.  Putting a hitter with an inability to hit and move runners around the bases at a spot in the order with an increased likelihood of batting with runners on is bad management.  Also, Dunn's position (DH) allows Guillen the luxury of putting ANYONE in to replace him, and at .159, anyone would be a welcome choice in the lineup.

Poor.  Unlike the Rios situation, Guillen does have options with Dunn.  If not replacing him, at least limit his at bats and his critical situations by hitting him 8th or 9th.  His tendency to walk a lot (the only thing helping his OBP) can help turn the lineup over faster while shielding his overall brutal performance from situations with runners on base.  Guillen has exposed his team to Dunn's lack of performance for too long now, and a change should have been made sooner.

As sometimes happens, detailed inspection into a topic can reveal surprising answers.  I thought that most of the cases above would result in poor logic by the manager, but the biggest explanation for sticking with bad performances wasn't so much a loyalty to a big contract but rather a lack of depth because of the big contract.  Money was still often the reason, but not for the reason I suspected.  Adam Dunn's constant inclusion in the middle of the lineup is the only one I question heading into August given all of the parameters, and I was a big supporter of Chicago signing him in the offseason.  After preaching about Dunn being underrated for years, 2011 is a reality too, and this season he needs to sit or be dropped in the order for the long term.  Failure to do so is unnecessary loyalty and might cost the White Sox a chance at winning a very mediocre division.