Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Long, Strange Journey

"It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key."

Sir Winston Churchill said that of Russia, but Pirate fans can be excused if it seems to be the perfect description of Chris Duffy's Pittsburgh career. He went from the center fielder of the future in 2005 to a guy that couldn't even be given away on waivers in 2008. It's really been a long, strange journey for Duffy.

Christopher Ellis Duffy was born on April 20, 1980 in Brattleboro, Vermont, but the family soon moved on to the warmer climes of Glendale, Arizona.

A 1998 graduate of Mountain Ridge HS, Duffy was a three sport star in football, baseball and basketball, and was all-conference on the diamond three times.

He played for two seasons at South Mountain CC in Arizona, where he led all JC players with 57 stolen bases. In 2000, he was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the 43rd round of the draft, but decided to attend Arizona State.

Duffy hit .373 with four home runs, 37 RBI and 20 stolen bases for the Sun Devils and was named to the All-Pac-10 squad. He was drafted by the Pirates in the 8th round of the 2001 draft, and inked a contract.

Duffy climbed through the Pirates' minor league system, playing for Williamsport, Lynchburg, Altoona and Indianapolis. He had a stutter every now and then, but over 5 minor league seasons and 524 games, Duffy had a .299 batting average with 27 HR and 190 RBI.

He had a terrific camp in 2005, and finally caught the eye of the Pirate management, who had been searching for a centerfielder since Andy Van Slyke left town.

Duffy got his call-up from Indy on April 7, spending two weeks in the show when Jose Castillo went down. On July 17, he was called up again when Craig Wilson was hurt and spent the rest of the season on the roster. Before going down himself with dehydration in early August and then tearing his hammy a couple of weeks later, he hit .341 in 39 games.

In 2006, Duffy began the season as the Pirates' starting center fielder. After a slow spring and an .194 batting average during the first few weeks of the season, the Pirates sent him back to Indy on May 14th.

After a fiery closed-door chat with Dave Littlefield and Jim Tracy about the move, Duffy decided to return home to Glendale instead of reporting to the Tribe. The Pirates suspended him.

Duffy had let it be known earlier that he wasn't a fan of Tracy's demand that he change his swing and hit ground balls to left side of the infield instead of ripping liners into right.

Many thought that, along with the lingering effects of the hamstring injury, were the cause of his anemic average. But he insisted, through his agent, that he was not protesting the Pirates' decision or Tracy's tutelage.

Nope, not at all. He was on leave for personal reasons known only to him, rumored to be a lack of desire to continue playing pro ball. Yep, we believed that (even though we've heard that prolonged exposure to Jim Tracy does have that effect on players).

Duffy returned to Indy after about a month. Despite his protestations that the decision to quit had nothing to do with Tracy screwing with his batting style, he immediately reverted to his 2005 mind set and hit for a .349 average in 26 games.

Duffy returned to the majors on August 2, and Tracy penciled him into the center field and leadoff spots. After struggling initially, he raised his average to .255 by season's end, had stolen 26 bases in 27 tries for the best base swiping percentage in the NL, and was solid and sometimes spectacular playing center field.

He sat out the final game of 2006 with hamstring tightness, and snubbed the team's suggestion that he play winter ball. Still, Duffy was deservedly the starting center fielder for the Pirates in 2007, by default if not by performance.

On June 8th, he hit an inside-the-park home run at Yankee Stadium, and that was the highlight of his season. His batwork ran hot and cold, and the injuries piled up.

He sprained his ankle late in the June, and when he went on a minor league rehab assignment, his shoulder went bad. It had bothered him for years, and he had surgery on it in early September, ending his season. Duffy played 70 games and hit .249, hardly the force the Pirate's had hoped he'd become at the top of the order.

His recovery was painfully slow. He never made a move to challenge for a spot in 2008, and spent much of the summer playing long toss in Bradenton. Even after he recovered, he missed more time with nagging injuries.

The Pirates optioned him to AA because they had Nyjer Morgan, Andrew McCutchen and Steve Pearce in the outfield in AAA. Also, it surely served as a not-so-subtle hint by the suits to the players that you can't make the club in a tub.

When the new golden boy, Morgan, got the call to Pittsburgh, Duffy went to Indy. He was unceremoniously dumped from the 40-man roster when the deluge of young players arrived after Xavier Nady, Damaso Marte, and Jay Bay were sent to the AL. To add insult to injury, no one claimed him.

As we said, a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

Duffy is a solid defensive player in center, with nice range if just an average arm. He's a tremendous threat on the bases. Duffy hits for a decent average (.269 in three seasons), but he doesn't draw walks and has an OBP of just .328, not nearly what you'd like from your leadoff hitter. He strikes out once every five at bats. And, of course, Duffy has never played a whole MLB season between injuries and meltdowns.

His biggest problem is that he belongs to an organization that desperately needs a leadoff hitter, not really having a true top-of-the-order guy since Kenny Lofton. They want their center fielder to be that man. And Chris Duffy is many things, but that's not one of them. He was a square trying to fit into a round hole.

It looks like his time has run out in Pittsburgh. The suits are happy with the work of Morgan, Andrew McCutchen is hovering in the wings, and a 28-year old CF isn't high on their wish-list.

His contract has run its course, and although he cleared waivers in August, Atlanta has always had interest in Duffy. If not them, we're sure someone will take a flyer on the talented but too-often injured player.

Perhaps there is a key...

1 comment:

WilliamJPellas said...

Here's the thing with Duffy from where I'm sitting. The biggest problem with him is not so much his batting average as it is his hitting style. He is a weird combination of high strikeouts, lots of singles hitter. Much as people want to vilify Jim Tracy---rightly so in many respects---I don't think we can blame him for seeing a guy like Duffy who has little power but lots of speed and telling him his best bet is to hit the ball on the ground and run like crazy.

But, I could perhaps swallow all of that IF Duffy was 1) able to stay on the field, and 2) not a head case.

Mostly I'm just done with him, to be honest. How or why anyone could possibly have thought he was a better bet than Nate McLouth is beyond me and will always be beyond me. Duffy is about bad memories for me. I won't be sorry to see him go.