In search of the next Jack Cust (Part 1)

When Oakland DH Mike Piazza suffered a strained right shoulder while “sliding” (to put it nicely) into third base against the Red Sox on May 2, some figured the A’s already-meager offense wouldn’t recover. Although Piazza had only managed a .718 OPS in the season’s first month, the $8.5 million crown jewel of the A’s offseason was expected to shoulder a significant portion of the team’s offensive load.

Then a few amazing things happened:

  • On May 3, the A’s acquired 28-year-old Jack Cust from the Padres—his fifth pro organization—where he had been languishing in Triple-A Portland and crushing the ball (.295/.429.692).
  • On May 6, he hit a home run in his first game with the club, a 5-3 win over Tampa Bay.
  • He hit a walk-off three-run homer to beat the Indians on May 13.
  • In his first 13 games with the A’s, he hit eight homers.

Even in the month since his magical first two weeks with the A’s, Cust has shown an impressive ability to walk, take pitches, and succeed as a pinch hitter. Despite his recent power outage, his current overall line remains very respectable (.231/.397.549).

It’s a nice story. But what if it’s more than that? What if Cust represents something larger than himself—and instead, is an example of what happens when a player that other organizations have given up on finally reaches his prime physically (say, age 27-29), puts it all together, and actually gets another chance—this time with the skills and experience to succeed?

Maybe, just maybe, teams would turn up more players like Jack Cust, or like 29-year-old Carlos Pena, who’s put together a .306/.397/.633 line for Tampa Bay this year. Not only would they be able to acquire them for a pittance, but they’d potentially fill a hole for years to come within their organization.

Cust, for example, began this season with 1.024 years of major league service time—meaning the A’s can retain contractual control over him for years to come at a bargain-basement price. If he somehow can establish himself as a viable designated hitter candidate for the A’s in ’08, Oakland may have a league-average or slightly-below average DH for the league minimum of 390K. Keep in mind, the team paid $8.5 million to fill that role last offseason.

Clearly, there’s value in hunting down players like him—savvy, career minor leaguers who are still young enough to enjoy a peak at the big-league level. Over the next two weeks, let’s look for a few potential candidates to become the next Jack Cust.

First, some parameters:

  • I limited my player universe to Triple-A players. The jump from Double-A to the bigs is a huge one, even for the greatest hitting prospects—just ask Alex Gordon.
  • I ruled out the 16-team Mexican League. In no way is that meant to offend the fine prospects of Rieleros de Aguascalientes y Rojos del Aguila de Veracruz.
  • I don’t have access to a minor league defensive metric, so there’s not much value in targeting for shortstops, second basemen, or catchers, whose value is intrinsically tied to their defense. These players simply have to be acquired through scouting (as Brent Lillibridge and Tony Pena, Jr. were earlier this year).
  • We want to look for guys who, like Jack Cust, are Mr. Three True Outcomes—home run, walk, and, unfortunately, strikeout artists (hey, there’s always some reason they’re still playing minor league baseball). There’s a significance to guys like this. It’s easier to project what they’ll do as a pro, because what they do well is largely fielding independent. They don’t build their stat lines by taking advantage of weak arms or bad hops on minor league infields, or by benefiting from questionable official scorer’s decisions.

Regardless of what level he’s playing at, Jack Cust, to paraphrase and channel an irate Denny Green, “IS, what you THINK HE IS! Go ahead and crown his ass!” Thank you, Denny: Jack Cust is the King of the Three True Outcomes.

We want to focus on players between the ages of 27 and 29, for a few reasons. They’re probably beginning their peak as hitters. Additionally, many of them already qualify as six-year minor league free agents, and therefore aren’t under control of their original drafting team. Meaning, at least one team (and usually more) have already given up on them. Even if their Triple-A numbers had been the same, it would be infinitely easier to acquire Jack Cust than Wladamir Belentien, and we’re limiting our search to players who can be acquired for every general manager’s favorite catchphrase, “cash considerations”.

The upside is lower when acquiring a minor leaguer past the age of 30-31. Even if he works out very well as a temporary solution, he’s already past his prime and it’s virtually ceconsrtain the team has already seen his best performance.

I’ll delve into each of these guys and more in detail next week, looking at their statistics and their chances to translate that performance into success at the next level, just as Cust has. But just to whet the appetite:

Mitch Jones, Val Pascucci, Jason Botts, Chris Shelton (who put up a very Cust-like April in ’06 and has improved his walk rate this year), Ryan Mulhern, Shelley Duncan, Yurendell DeCaster, Ryan Raburn.

Unfortunately, that list doesn’t include two players it would’ve just a few weeks ago, neither of whom fits the Cust mold but could potentially replicate his impact—Nathan Haynes of the Angels, and Rajai Davis of the Pirates, both of whom were recently called up to their respective big clubs. The 27-year-old Haynes, a former pick had put together a .391/.466/.566 line with a terrific line drive rate at Salt Lake City. Davis had established himself as a good base stealer with 27 in 36 attempts, while posting a .318/.469/.853 line with 25/21 strikeout to walk ratio. But as is the theme with these late-blooming players, neither Haynes nor Davis has gotten the opportunity to play every day and prove that they can translate their recent Triple-A success into major-league production, instead relegated to pinch-hitting, pinch-running, and defensive replacement duty.

Next Wednesday, we’ll look at each of these guys and more in detail, and try to determine if their numbers suggest they could make an impact as a pro. If you’d like to recommend some other nominations for discussion that fall into the above categories, please do.

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