Chicago Cubs beat reporter Carrie Muskat made it a point to tweet earlier today that outfielder Tyler Colvin was among the, apparently, scores of players taking batting practice before this evening's game against the Cincinnati Reds. Talk about living in the crosshairs: There's no other player on the Cubs 25-man roster right now more in danger of catching the next flight to Des Moines than Colvin, who started the season as the fourth outfielder but finds himself being out-clutched by veteran Reed Johnson and inexplicably in danger of losing outfield playing time to infielder Blake DeWitt.
What a difference a year makes. At this time last season, Colvin was coming off a remarkable spring training performance that had fans screaming for his inclusion in the lineup. Unfortunately for Tyler, the Cubs had the same problem then that they have now: Three starting outfielders making varying degrees of large coin and a manager either unable or unwilling to rotate Colvin through that outfield to get him regular (or even semi-regular) playing time.
The difference between 2010 and 2011, however, is that, through May of last season, Colvin had gotten 83 plate appearances and hit for a batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage line of .289/.365/.600 (.965 OPS, .407 wOBA) in March/April and .333/.367/.667 in May (1.033 OPS, .438 wOBA). As of this writing, he's gotten 68 plate appearances and is hitting .113/.191/.258 (.449 OPS, .199 wOBA).
Granted, we are only halfway through May. Give him a handful of starts and his plate appearances could wind up near the same amount. But it seems exceedingly doubtful that he's going to go on the kind of tear it would take to make up that lost production. So why is the team so hesitant to send him down?
One reason may be that they're waiting for either Kosuke Fukudome to cool off or Reed Johnson to break down. That's a pretty harsh way to put it, but the former has a career .614 OPS (.283 wOBA) in June (261 plate appearances) and the latter has a long history of back problems. Throw in the fact that the 35-year-old Alfonso Soriano will surely start needing more time off as the season wears on and, well, we're right back where we started -- with Tyler Colvin rotating through the outfield in the not-too-distant future.
So there may not be any reason to rush him to the minors, as the player who replaces him is highly unlikely to bring all that more to the table than Colvin is already providing or will eventually provide. And, as much as we all want to think that Colvin is a starting corner outfielder of the future, that eventuality is far, far from a certainty.
The slam against the 25-year-old outfielder in the minors was his lack of plate discipline. He tends to strike out a lot and walk seldomly. So far, his career MLB numbers have done little to disprove that concern, meaning he's going to have to hit for quite a bit of power to offset his low on-base percentage (i.e., high number of outs). Maybe the team has already settled on Colvin's role and is just getting as much as they can from Kosuke and RJ while they still can.
Then again, if Quade thinks the team can
get by compete up to, say, the All-Star Break with a Soriano-Byrd-Fukudome-Johnson outfield, with maybe some occasional speed thrown in by career minor leaguer Tony Campana or occasional pop provided by career minor leaguer Luis Montanez, then, by all means, go for it. Send Colvin down now and let him get his swing back. I don't believe doing so would be a bad move. Tyler may have some surprises in him yet and a month and a half of feasting on Triple A pitching may boost his confidence.
Otherwise, for the Cubs, biding their time with a player who may never turn out to be more than a fourth outfielder to begin with, isn't that crazy after all. For better or worse, the team's aged outfield makes Quade's patience a little more understandable.