This spring, I accidentally started (or at least propelled) the #FreeMattLong movement on Twitter. It started off as a lark, but was somewhat legitimized as Long performed well all spring, even as he started facing stiffer competition.
The premise was simply that Long was one of the under-the-radar prospects who did a lot of things pretty decently, but didn’t do any one thing well enough to garner him real attention on the prospect beat. Heck, I like the guy and even I didn’t have him included in the MWAH Top 30 Prospects at any point of his career. A lot of that stems from Long typically being old for his level, so it was easy to discount an otherwise impressive performance at every minor league level. Having then seen him face real big league talent, albeit in a limited sample, I became convinced that Long at least deserves a shot to show what he can do. Thus, #FreeMattLong was born as a way just to draw a little attention to a deserving player and maybe actually earn him that shot.
Well, now is the time for him to get that shot.
Kole Calhoun is out for an as yet undetermined period of time. All we know right now is that it will be at least 15 days, possibly much longer. That leaves the Angels down another outfielder and without their regular leadoff man. They can turn to J.B. Shuck and Collin Cowgill, but those two are already covering for Josh Hamilton and, as we’ve covered previously, neither is particularly well-suited for playing everyday and/or batting leadoff.
Matt Long isn’t perfect either, but he brings more to the table than either Shuck or Cowgill. He isn’t on par with Cowgill defensively, but Long is a good defender capable of playing all three outfield spots. At a minimum, it keeps the Angel outfield defense from falling into disrepair should Mike Trout end up being flanked by the likes of Shuck and Brennan Boesch. For a team that plays in a big ballpark and has a pitching staff of mostly flyball pitchers, the Halos need to take outfield defense into careful consideration here.
From an offensive perspective, Long also appears to have what it takes to handle an everyday role. Since 2011, his OPS against righties is .838 and .876 against lefties. He also has never posted an OBP of less than .344 at any level where he has logged more than 17 plate appearances. That comes from his good plate discipline which has allowed him to post a walk rate no lower than 8.7% at any stop in his career. He also has a modest amount of pop having carried an ISO of .176 or better at each level of play since 2011. He’s got speed, too, having swiped 20+ bases each year from 2010 on.
On-base skills, speed, a bit of power and no pronounced platoon split? That checks off just about every box on the leadoff man checklist.
Like I said, Long does a little bit of everything. In a lot of ways, he’s not all that different from the man he would be replacing, Kole Calhoun. He, too, was discounted as a prospect for lacking any elite tools and being too old for his level of competition but overachieved every step of the way nonetheless. Seriously, dye his hair red and paint a few freckles on him and Long is pretty much Kole Calhoun Lite.
Maybe it won’t work out. Maybe Long is really just a Quad-A talent, but it is at least worth finding out as he is the only real option available to the Angels with any kind of upside. Playing Shuck and Cowgill both full-time is a disaster in the making. Brennan Boesch is a defensive liability platoon player that hasn’t been useful since 2012. Some have even suggested scooping up Sam Fuld, but he’s essentially been a replacement level player every year but 2011.
What the Angels do might ultimately depend on what the diagnosis of Calhoun’s injury really is. If he is going to just miss a few weeks, then having Long step in as a short-timer makes even more since as he or Shuck or Cowgill can be returned to the minors once Calhoun or Hamilton gets healthy. However, if Calhoun is going to miss a significant amount of time, then it might be worthwhile to explore more substantial options via trade. Until then, Long still works as a stopgap measure.
We’ll just have to wait and see, but until then, the #FreeMattLong movement has found new life.