Thinking back over the last decade or so, it is tough to consider any player with elite talent yet a proneness to injuries more frustrating or disappointing than Mark Prior. One player that could give Prior a run for his money, though, is Nomar Garciaparra, who staked claim as one of the top shortstops in baseball for several seasons before falling off the map due to health issues. Following several injury-plagued seasons, Garciaparra is legitimately considering retirement against joining either the Athletics or Phillies.
Nomar burst onto the scene in 1997 by hitting 30 home runs, 44 doubles, and posting a .375 wOBA as a rookie. Not shockingly at all he went onto win the Rookie of the Year award and actually finished 8th in MVP voting. He successfully avoided the sophomore slump by launching 35 longballs in 1998, finishing 2nd in MVP voting on the heels of a .401 wOBA.
His production improved further in the subsequent two seasons, to the tune of .436 and .432 wOBA marks, respectively. As you might have imagined, he finished in the top ten in MVP voting in each of these years. Then, in 2001, Nomar missed most of the season with an injury, a sign of what was to come even though most chose to ignore its rammifications.
Nomar bounced back in 2002 and 2003 with wOBAs of .373 and .371, still very solid production albeit nowhere near the 1999-2000 seasons. Fortunately, our Win Values begin here, giving us a glimpse of what Nomar may have been worth in his first four seasons. In 2002 and 2003, Garciaparra played well enough to be worth +5.5 and +5.7 wins, while losing some range thanks to injury issues and suffering an offensive decline from his 1997-2000 campaigns.
With this in mind, it isn’t hard to believe that, with better fielding and the previously discussed gaudy offensive numbers, Nomar could have been worth around +6 wins as a rookie, +6.5 as a sophomore, and over +7 wins as a junior and senior. Unfortunately, a quick look at his Win Values now shows a +5.5 win player who suffered a drastic dropoff in performance and struggled to stay on the field. Ultimately, with almost equal time as a tremendous player and one not in the lineup more often than he was, Nomar’s legacy has become quite comparable to my favorite NBA player of all time: Grant Hill.
Both are players who, when at the top of their respective games, were all-stars, MVP contenders, faces of the league, and considered heir apparents to the greats of the game. As we know, both fell by the wayside due to injuries, yet have hung on in vastly reduced roles over the last few seasons. I would like to avoid having a Hall of Fame discussion, however, so I will instead focus on what Nomar could bring to the table in 2009.
He is no longer a starter, but his ability to play 1B, 3B, and occasionally fill in at SS—a -5 UZR/150 at SS in 2008 is not that bad—make him a very versatile bench player. On top of that, he can still hit lefties, with a .339/.424/.643 line against southpaws last season. As long as the Phillies and Athletics avoid paying him starter-type money or relying on him in their overall seasonal scheme, he will be a very solid addition.
The Phillies apparently don’t want to get involved in a bidding war with Billy Beane for Garciaparra’s serviced, and the Athletics are offering more of a chance to play, making it likely that Oakland would be his destination should he choose to prolong his career. Then again, the Phillies just won the World Series and he may decide to end his career with a contending team in the hopes that they repeat.
Either way, I feel that Nomar deserves to have the first half of his career remembered just as much as the more recent years, a call that will go unanswered by many current fans, I fear. He was one of the best players in the game for a four-year stretch, but it has become increasingly hard to believe that we ever engaged in those classic A-Rod/Jeter/Nomar debates.
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