Talking Baseball

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Posted by Jon on Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Cust: A Must or a Bust?

Jack Cust. The name exudes thoughts of a power hitter chugging down the base paths. He has an All-American name, and he seems to be becoming familiar with All of America. Cust, recently designated for assignment by the Orioles to make room for fifth starter Eric Bedard, has most likely come to the end of the road in Baltimore. Soon, he’ll probably be joining another team – what will be his fourth team in the last four years. From Arizona to Colorado to Maryland to who-knows-where, Cust has barely had time to unpack his bags over the last few years.

What does “designated for assignment mean”? Brewerfan.net reports:

Being "Designated for Assignment" has been known as a "temporary purgatory" for baseball players. When a team wants to remove a player from the 25-man roster or the 40-man roster, they can designate that player for assignment. The team then has 10 days to try to trade that player or place him on waivers. The purpose of designated someone for assignment is to open up that person's roster spot.

So what caused Jack Cust to be banished to the nether regions of the baseball world? Let’s check his resume.

In 1999, two years after being drafted by the Diamondbacks, Baseball Prospectus reported that “Cust is learning left field on the fly and will probably never be better than adequate,” but that “when you hit like this, it doesn't really matter.” Five years later, their assessment holds true. Jack Cust is still a rock in the field – not a rock in the sense that he’s solid in the field, but that his mobility is no better than a rock's, which is not good for fielders. Shuffling around from Arizona to Colorado, Cust never got a real shot at playing in the Majors. Finally moving to the American League in 2003, it was thought that Cust would be more than a suitable fit as a DH, where he could receiver regular playing time and finally excel at the Major League level. It didn’t happen.

He did excel, but again he wasn’t given a chance. Last season, albeit in 73 at-bats, Cust hit .260/.357/.521 with four home runs (a homer every 18.25 at-bats). These numbers won’t sweep anybody off of his or her feet, but they are nothing to scoff at. If he had been given the opportunity to continue to produce at this level for at least 500 at-bats as a 24 year-old, he would have been up for rookie accolades. Instead he was offered the opportunity to wallow again in Triple-A. I think we all know what he can do there. In his time spent at Triple-A over the last two seasons with the Colorado Springs Sky Sox (2002) and the Ottawa Lynx (2003), Cust has proven that he has nothing left to prove at that level:

2002 359 .265 .407 .524
2003 333 .285 .422 .426
Yeah, it doesn’t look like Cust will ever be able to hit for a decent average, but he has enjoyed a Triple-A on-base percentage of which only the few top prospects and performers in baseball can boast. Like Hee Sop Choi, this propensity for slugging the ball and reaching base, while not hitting for a high average, should have already earned him a full-time position. But while Choi is a new cornerstone in Florida’s infield, Cust is languishing in never-never land; never receiving playing time and currently without a home, his ability to succeed in the Major Leagues has not been adequately tested.

While Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA pegs Cust for a .241/.353/.425 campaign this season in 260 at-bats (which would be a great step forward for him), his potential for breakout is huge. They list a 40% chance that Cust enjoys a breakout year and a 65% chance that he improves this season. Those odds speak wonders for Cust, whose 75th percentile rates (.262/.367/.478, 16HR in only 300AB) would gladly be accepted by many a team in search of an extra bat.

Yes, like the typical slugger, he gets his fair share of strikeouts. But Cust’s high OBP can be credited to his history of extreme patience at the plate. In almost 2500 minor league at-bats over seven seasons or portions of seasons, Cust has accumulated 800 strikeouts but also 600 free passes.

So to whom does Cust compare as a hitter? Hmmmm…a slugger who bashed his way through the minors, strikes out a lot, yet gets on base at a good pace. I’ve got it! How about Adam Dunn? He became a regular in the majors at the age of 22 during the 2001 season. Through 2003, their minor league numbers run parallel to one another.
Minor League	AB	K/BB	AB/HR	AB/K

Dunn 1208 1.22 19.17 4.31
Cust 2442 1.33 19.54 3.05
So through the minors, Cust and Dunn have similar numbers. They both struck out (Cust more often), but their K/BB ratios and their AB/HR ratios were equally strong.

While Dunn exploded onto the scene in 2001 – with a AB/HR ratio of 11.61 and a .262/.371/.578 line – Cust has received fewer than 75 major league at-bats in any season of his Major League career. Much of this must be due to his butterfingers in the field, but the Orioles really can’t use that excuse. They call him up for August and September, he produces about as well as they can expect in limited action, and then they designate his bat for assignment before he can impact the 2004 squad. It is obvious that to give up on a guy with such potential with the bat, the Orioles have conceded the future for the near and now.

Which brings me to my next question: Do the Orioles really think they have a shot at the playoffs this season?

In my opinion, this team should be fortunate to win 85 games with that pitching staff. Once again, I’ll reiterate: the Birds did a great job of luring big-name free agents into Camden Yards over the winter, but their focus was overly weighted on hitting, with not enough pitching. Behind Ponson, the Orioles will hope to win with youth and inconsistency, which is never easy and rarely succeeds.

Thus, it astounds me that the Orioles, a team without a serious shot of making the playoffs this season, would have the audacity to give up on a 25 year old prospect with the tremendous minor league numbers a man like Cust has put up over the last seven seasons in the minors. I’m not saying he’ll be the next Adam Dunn, but he certainly has the potential to be an above-average designated hitter for a few years.

If only he had the fielding clout to order personally embroidered gloves, he’d instantly be adopted by the offensive-challenged Dodgers and the intelligent Paul Depodesta. But look for a different team – a team in the American League – to trade for Cust now that he’s available. If he doesn’t receive his Big Break in Los Angeles at the behest of Repo Depodesta, other organization will gladly give him the shot he deserves (more than 73 at-bats in the Majors) and it is likely that Mike and Jim’s cell phones have been ringing.

With only 140 Major League at-bats, Cust is far from a bust. The team that gives him a real shot may well be pleased with the results.

Note: Shortly after the publication of this article, Cust cleared waivers and thus will remain on the Orioles for the time being. Needless to say, this surprises me. But Baltimore doesn’t want him, and he is still a candidate to be traded as the season progresses.

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