This week, we'll look at 3 current free agents that all played a large part in bringing a World Series trophy to San Francisco. Today's player is Pat Burrell.
Burrell had a miserable World Series, failing to make contact with the ball most of the time. This shouldn't take away from the productive season he had at the plate for the Giants when he was acquired in June. Burrell carried the team at times, being one of the most patient batters in the lineup, and hit some of the more memorable HRs of the 2010 season. Burrell's resurgence in San Francisco came after nearly 1.5 horrid years in Tampa Bay as a DH. So the question becomes: which is the real Burrell? As usual, it's probably somewhere in the middle.
Burrell was the first overall pick by Philadelphia in 1998 and made his debut in 2000. From 2000-2004 he was off and on, ranging from average to great to below average. In 2002, he was good enough for a 146 OPS+, only to come back the next season and post a 90. Burrell then posted 4 straight consistently good seasons from 2005 to 2008, with an average 126 OPS+. It's possible that this offensive production had something to do with the emergence of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard in the Phillies lineup (having good hitters around you CAN make you a better hitter, because all hitters are better when other men are on base), but that effect is likely minimal. He was a very dangerous hitter in Philly, and part of their World Series team in 2008.
Burrell has always been a classic 3 true outcomes guy. He has good power, a good eye, and strikes out a lot (players with good plate discipline strike out more often because they get into deep counts, but they make up for it usually with the walks). He also played pretty poor defense in left field for Philly. This is why he seemed like an obvious DH option for an AL team as a free agent after 2008. And that's exactly what happened, when Burrell signed with the team he had just beaten in the World Series, the Tampa Bay Rays. And nothing went right in Tampa. His walks and strikeouts went slightly in the wrong directions, but it was mostly his sudden inability to hit the ball well that was a problem. His power was cut in half, and his average dipped about 40 points, bringing his OBP along with it. And when his struggles continued in 2010, Tampa Bay had no choice but to get rid of him. So the Giants picked him up, brought him to the National League, and suddenly Pat Burrell was once again Pat Burrell. The idea is Burrell "can't" DH, that he has to play in the field to hit. A similar player who is a free agent this winter, Adam Dunn, is a perfect candidate to DH for an AL team, but supposedly is hesitant, perhaps because he just has to be a butcher in the field to be able to mash in the box. It pains me to think this is true, but it's something many fans and commentators have accepted. When Burrell regained his stroke with the Giants, it likely had a lot more to do with facing a somewhat weaker league (same could be said of Aubrey Huff). Either way, there was a difference between his performance in the NL and AL.
But can we expect him to continue that next year? Not as a starter, I believe. Burrell had positive UZR numbers in 2010, but his whole career points to him being a bad left fielder. A full season in 2011 would likely see that. And while Burrell hit very well for the Giants in the regular season, his numbers do show a decline from his prime years in Philly. His strikeout numbers are about the same, but his walk numbers are down, although still good. One of the numbers that surprised me was his O-swing percentage (swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone). Most of his time in Philly, he was around 13-16%. Last year in Tampa, it was 23%, and this season with the 2 teams he rose to 24.5%. I'm not educated enough to interpret what this means exactly, but it certainly isn't positive, and could hint at a decline that is occurring.
Still, we know Burrell is patient at the plate, and that's why I think he is a fine candidate for a bench role with the Giants, which is mostly what has been reported so far. Going against the notion that he has to play everyday in the field to be effective, I think a limited role could help keep Burrell fresh as he gets older. The Giants might end up with an outfield next year that focuses on matchups and platoons, and Burrell is a guy who could start when it is advantageous, and be a dangerous threat on the bench late in games. Going back to his patience, I think that quality is one of the most important for a pinch hitter (it's important for everyone, really). Since the pinch hitter will often be hitting in the 9th spot of the lineup, the chances of him coming up with the bases empty are greater, since the hitters in front are less likely to get on base. Therefore, the pinch hitter often needs to be the one to start a rally, rather than drive in the runs. It is somewhat strange to have an outfielder on the bench who can only play left field, and not very well, but the Giants have a few more options than most teams, because Mark DeRosa is an infielder and corner outfielder.
Because of the concerns that still linger from his days in Tampa, and the horrendous showing he had in the World Series, Burrell is not likely to be offered multiple years the way Aubrey Huff is. He is from the Bay Area, grew up a Giants fan, and just won the World Series. And he has said he'd accept a smaller role. If the Giants want Burrell, I think they have him, for not too much of a commitment. The larger question is whether his University of Miami teammate Huff will stay. As insignificant as it might be, the 2 of them brought a lot of chemistry to the team, and would be a lot happier if they were together (I know this is starting to sound "weird"). But Huff is a player for another day, so check back this week for posts about him and Giants postseason hero Juan Uribe.