Few things in baseball were as uninspiring as Brent Lillibridge making the White Sox 25-man roster out of Spring Training. He was organizational filler in his late 20's with shoddy career numbers, and his lack of minor league options seemed like as big of factor as any in him making the team.
The Sox weren't so much electing Lillibridge as hoarding assets, but he was the 25th man, and who could imagine that such a decision would matter.
A John Judy (yes, really) delivery broke The Bridge's hand Thursday night, ending his season. He appeared in 96 games, but his 216 plate appearances indicate plenty of those were pinch-running/defensive replacement nights. In that limited time, FanGraphs has him having accumulated 1.2 WAR, and it's hard to imagine how it could ever be that low.
Maybe it makes sense. Striking out in nearly 29% of your plate appearances tends to sap the on-base percentage, Bridge's stolen-base rate wasn't that hot, and while playing 5 different positions (including one he hadn't played before) on the year was brave, that's not something that's measured in any defensive metric.
That said, Lillibridge simply put together one of the greater utility-man seasons in recent memory, and if he wasn't stuck on a going-nowhere .500 team, it'd be getting canonized beyond measure in the local media. Pablo Ozuna has nothing on The Littlest Bridge.
Brent's crazed Three True Results hitting approach led to him topping the team in Isolated Power, but even then only 6 of his 19 extra-base hits stayed in the yard. On a power-starved team, his absurd May surge nearly made him into a regular, and prompted debates on how one manages a part-time player when they're going bananas.
He defined versatility by filling in frequently as pinch-runner, playing 2nd base when Gordon Beckham went down with an eye injury, and taking up 1st base on a fly when Paul Konerko injured his knee and Adam Dunn was infected with terribleness. And of course, he filled in at every outfield position with gusto.
Strangely enough, Lillibridge out-performing every offensive projection by him by dozens of runs might get wiped away from the collective memory banks of White Sox fans. Especially since it has to compete with this, and this, and this, along with this, and of course this and this. I was also a very big fan of this. His defense probably was awash in more singular moments of dynamism than consistent great instincts, but how often can someone make an immediate impact just from playing right field for a few innings?
More than anything Lillibridge accomplished by inexplicably becoming the team's third biggest power threat, or waltzing into 4 different explicitly game-saving catches, I'm most grateful for the memories he provided.
This was not an intrinsically wonderful White Sox team to watch. They were old and without upside, they were mediocre, and the stadium atmosphere they furnished was typically morose.
Lillibridge was different. His success came easily and could be enjoyed without qualification or worry for the future. Brent simply had the season of his life to date, and it was a treat to enjoy it with him, as the year offered few other simple pleasures. His heartbroken interview after his injury showed just how much he's cherished 2011.
As great as it was was to see Lillibridge to rebound from the brink of being out of baseball to being a coveted performer, now that his season's over, it's the first time I've thought to assess how he's changed his station in his career.
With his pay and service time, there doesn't seem to be any reason why he wouldn't be around in 2012. Yet when a player has wild success in limited opportunities while the regulars struggle, it's natural that he'll be looking for more opportunities in 2012, and he's not fully protected from whatever bizarro logic is responsible for Alex Rios closing in on 550 plate appearances this year.
Lillibridge's enormous strikeout rate means he's consistently on the margins of acceptability, and his tremendous platoon splits lend themselves to the notion he's a part-time player, even though he was still a league-average hitter versus righties this season.
With Pierre almost certainly departing, and very possibly Quentin too, that would make Lillibridge the 4th outfielder on a team with Alex Rios. Or, because Rios has a .241/.281/.354 line in his last 912 plate appearances, it would make him a backup to a starter destined to fail.
It's been an incredible season for Lillibridge, and he may yet reap the rewards.