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February 24, 2010

Camp Battles

NL East

by Christina Kahrl

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It's now time to turn to the National League's camp battles-and to perhaps also turn a Nelsonian blind eye to a good argument for why some of these combats are less significant than others-starting with the NL East. What's really at stake as opposed to effectively already set in stone?

Atlanta Braves: Picking Corner Outfielders, or Skipping Ahead to the Future.

The field of choices if Jason Heyward just doesn't win right field outright is crowded and interesting in its own right, just perhaps not as interesting as seeing Jason Heyward get started on the big-league portion a career that alread has him ranked as baseball's best position-playing prospect in some quarters. Absent Heyward, there are two positions for Melky Cabrera, Matt Diaz, Eric Hinske, and perhaps also Gregor Blanco and Omar Infante to fight for. However, this could be a case of trying to make something out of nothing, especially if the Braves decide that Heyward's time is not now. Consider: Blanco's got options and he may well be mired in a contest for a bench job with the likes of Brooks Conrad, Diory Hernandez, or non-roster invites Sloppy Joe Thurston or Mitch Jones; he could very easily just wind up back at Triple-A, getting regular at-bats and perhaps retaining some trade value. Infante and Hinske have multi-positional applications, so they won't just be getting playing time out of their outfield starts: Infante is the club's primary backup at second, short, and center as a true, six-position super-utilityman; Hinske will get spot starts at first base for Troy Glaus, and perhaps the occasional assignment on third base when a pack of wild horses drag the perpetually unwilling Chipper Jones out of the lineup for a rest day. So this really could just be a matter of Cabrera playing nearly every day in left, and Diaz most days in right (with spot-starts for Hinske against right-handers). Consider the career platoon numbers in play of the non-Heyward quartet:


             Career vs. RHPs  Career vs. LHPs
Dude    Age   AVG/ OBP/ SLG    AVG/ OBP/ SLG
Cabrera# 25  .275/.333/.397   .255/.325/.355
Diaz     32  .276/.334/.387   .347/.384/.537
Hinske*  32  .263/.347/.456   .221/.296/.370
Infante  28  .263/.310/.389   .267/.311/.394

Working from that group alone, the potential applications seem straightforward enough: Hinske's best use is to provide power against right-handed pitching when his defense in an outfield corner is an affordable risk. Diaz should face every lefty. Cabrera's the player with some upside whose numbers are undercut by his early arrival to The Show and poor performance; coming over to the weaker league, he's at an age where it's easy to expect that he'll build on last year's slugging .415 and .420 against right- and left-handers, respectively.

Given that all four players have uses, the nice in-season development the Braves can look forward to if Heyward has to go down initially is that later, once Heyward does come up, they'll have handed some playing time to valuable bench players in Hinske and Infante rather than let them get stale on the bench, and a platoon in left of Cabrera and Diaz beats alternatives like, say, renewing an unfortunate relationship with Garret Anderson. Even if Heyward loses, it'll be a temporary setback at worst; when he's up, the Braves will have the virtue of depth and readiness to keep Bobby Cox's full roster contributing down the stretch.

Florida Marlins: First Things First, and Three Open Rotation Slots?

To some extent, I feel like I've already beaten to death the subject of what could happen with their infield in general, and first base in particular. Given Logan Morrison's limited exposure above A-ball, I wouldn't be surprised if the combination of anything less than a stunning camp, an eye towards his service-time clock, and Gaby Sanchez's relative readiness won't combine to present Sanchez with an initial victory in the fight, for the right... to start on Opening Day. That said, I don't expect Sanchez to keep the job for a full season; while he's no Emilio Bonifacio, if Jorge Cantu looks especially bad at third for any stretch, or if Morrison shines in the minors, the Fish have the flexibility to change their scales quickly enough.

The more interesting series of overlapping questions is in the rotation, which is similarly a struggle where even the winners may not win for very long, but initial claims on big-league status can more easily lead to extended opportunities given the multitude of openings for a young starting pitcher trying to make his way. Beyond Josh Johnson and Ricky Nolasco, there are three jobs that are potentially open, and other than a longshot like Hayden Penn, the more serious contenders have options, allowing the Marlins to pick and choose as they see fit. It's easy to anticipate that a healthy Anibal Sanchez and Chris Volstad could win two of the jobs, but Sean West, Rick VandenHurk and Andrew Miller all have the talent to pitch their way into the initial slate of alternatives. In the abstract, I might push West and Miller towards the back of the queue because of youth and performance on the one hand, and relative disappointment and performance on the other, but there's so much well-regarded talent in play that there's not a lot to suggest there's a slam-dunk obvious best answer from among the group.

Well, OK, there is one who could sneak up on people, in that I could see VandenHurk as potentially the one among them who might surprise, given that he's 25, a Dutch import who may have more upside by virtue of his having had to spend time stateside still mastering his craft to catch up, and because he's someone who has already taken steps forward in terms of learning how to better set up hitters and use off-speed stuff to good effect. Put all of that together, and you've got an interesting pitcher in a group of interesting pitchers.

Of course, it also doesn't hurt that he had a pretty nice year when he was available and healthy, so he's not really that stealthy as alternatives go. To turn to last season's performances among Marlins starters and their anticipated performance via SIERA, let's look at the substantive work done by the five leading candidates for the three jobs:


                                          Projected
Guy        GS   QS  SIERA   SNLVAR  SNWP    SIERA
Sanchez    16    6   4.49     2.1   .514     4.73
Volstad    29   13   4.41     1.6   .433     4.85
West       20    7   4.82     1.3   .442     5.06
 Minors    11    3   3.73    -0.6    ---     ----
VandenHurk 11    4   4.30     1.2   .489     4.58
 Minors    11    6   3.72     1.2    ---     ----
Miller     14    5   4.67     0.3   .410     4.60

As is my habit in this sort of exercise, I'm using three runs allowed and cutting off at six innings to define whether or not a starter achieverd a quality start in a particular ballgame. Other factors in play? Miller and West are gigantic lefties, Volstad and VandenHurk equally tall righties, with Sanchez the shortest of the lot; the Marlins have been collecting tall pitchers the way the Soldier-King recruited the stratospherically gifted in the early 18th century: unrelentingly. The contrast to the quartet is Sanchez, merely six feet, the least durable yet also the one perhaps still gifted with the highest upside. VandenHurk is a relatively extreme fly-ball pitcher, whereas Volstad and Miller are on the other end of the spectrum as far as generating grounders. While everyone loves them some grounders, they're not necessarily good things on this team, given the state of expectations from a full-season infield with Cantu at third with Dan Uggla and Hanley Ramirez up the middle.

All of which adds up to what will make this just a fun five or six weeks to follow the Fish. These are all good pitching prospects who have had their moments. They've all had their heads handed to them by major-league hitters at one point or another. Sanchez and West in particular during their careers, and VandenHurk and Miller to a lesser extent last year, have had to deal with physical complaints large and small. And what happens if a horrendous, Metsy rash of injuries strikes? Well, then we get into guys like the option-less Hayden Penn, or journeymen like Seth McClung or Clay Hensley. The Fish almost certainly won't have a classic set five-man rotation; somebody's going to succeed and somebody will almost certainly fail or get hurt. They'll be mixing and matching and changing their minds even after this round's won and determined who's the initial slate, so this should be interesting long after Opening Day.

New York Mets: Further Fights at First and Number Five, le Center Fielder de Mois, and the Catch(er) of the Day is... ?

Not unlike my past yammering about the Marlins' first-base battle, I've yammered about the catching situation in Flushing at some length already. In his joust with Rod Barajas and Henry Blanco, Omir Santos suffers the disadvantage of having options, but balanced against the older mens' inability to reach base, I wouldn't bet he loses out for that reason alone. All three men throw well, so that isn't going to be a major factor. Someone will have to win, but whoever gets the caddy's duties will end up playing quite a bit as well. Meanwhile Chris Coste should wind up coaching Josh Thole, and maybe the best-case scenario for the stretch run involves an invitation to the lefty-batting prospect with promise to join right-handed veteran deemed his best possible partner.

First base is a fight, but when the main combatants are supposed to be Danny Murphy and Mike Jacobs, it's the sort of thing to gives hope to the likes of a fading prospect like Nick Evans, or a minor-league lifer like Mike Hessman. However, Fernando Tatis is there to potentially squelch those sorts of modest ambitions for platoon duties; Tatis will almost certainly get some at-bats at first as he wanders around the lineup and the diamond. So it's Murphy and Jacobs, and whichever weak sprout springs from that fallow field, you can understand why people are already asking when Ike Davis is going to be ready already. As for dark horses, while Chris Carter hasn't played first base regularly since 2007-when he was still a prospect in the Snakes' organization no less-he's headed into his age-27 season and might be the stealth candidate whose new-pickup smell might be fresh enough to separate him from the already curdled futures of Murphy and Jacobs. If platoons are supposed to be built when you don't have a good everyday player, you can hope that a combination of Murphy, Carter, or Jacobs from the left side, and Tatis or Evans (or even Hessman) from the right can at least provide a balance of lefty power and some situational defensive replacement work-none of the lefty bats will make anyone forget Keith Hernandez. It's hope season, right? Unfortunately, whatever the outcome, it's likely to be cause for haplessness, not happiness.

Who winds up as the team's center fielder for April and some chunk of May-or, the stretch of time defined by Carlos Beltran's absence-is a matter of equally grim curiosity. Here again, you can't do without, somebody has to play center, after all, and the Angels are footing most of the bill to let Little Sarge be somebody else's roster problem. Can Gary Matthews Jr. beat out Angel Pagan in a fair fight? I've already said I don't think so, but it's not my call. The interesting possibility is that prospect Fernando Martinez makes his case for why he's still a top prospect, and puts down a marker for continuing playing time after Beltran's return. That's not that improbable-I think there's reason to worry that the Jeff Francoeur salvage operation winds up ditched in the drink like a French letter abob in the Big Apple's waterways, another messy enterprise without enough quality contact.

For all that, the one job battle that has interest because the cavalry figures to be there from the start is the selection between Fernando Nieve and Jon Niese for the fifth starter's slot. It's a minor matter as such things go, especially in light of the likelihood that either or both of Oliver Perez and John Maine might have one of their breakdowns; Nieve and Niese may both end up getting their share of starts. The one complicating factor is that Nieve is out of options, so even if he's not the favorite in Jerry Manuel's oblique assessments, he'd be a likely loss on a waiver claim if they don't retain the former Astros prospect in a middle-relief role. Niese should turn into a back-end keeper, while Nieve's velocity might end up being more of an asset in a relief role.

Philadelphia Phillies: Another Exercise in Pleading Fifths

This seems a simple case of picking between unhappy options, the great ageless one, coming back from injury, or a relative kiddo who can't find anything that reliably gets left-handed hitters out? Who lasts longer, Kyle Kendrick with the Phillies, or Stephenie LaGrossa on her next island? I guess I find this to be more a matter of a "battle" created in the absence of any others on the two-time pennant winners. If Jamie Moyer's healthy enough to pitch, it's his job to lose, and he's owed $6.5 million anyway. For that kind of cash, and in the absence of a quality prospect, I'd expect the Phillies to let him go out on his shield instead of on a stretcher. Kendick is optionable to the Iron Pigs, which is what I'd expect; if anything, should Moyer fail, I'd anticipate Jose Contreras making his way to the back end of the rotation before the Phillies make a serious commitment to Kendrick.

Washington Nationals: A Back End to Make You Stop and Stare, and Feeling Pudgy.

Barring something like Elijah Dukes finding some new way to blow his shot at everyday play in right field-all too believable, unfortunately-and the hope that Ian Desmond pushes his way into some sort of job-sharing arrangement up the middle despite the addition of Adam Kennedy to man the keystone, the Nats' camp is somewhat straightforward as far as its regular role melees: the back end of the rotation, and picking the balance of playing time between their best catching options. The only additional tidbit beyond my running through the options for fourth and fifth man in the rotation on Sunday after the signing of Chien-Ming Wang is that Matt Chico's the one contestant who is out of options, not that I really expect that helps his case all that much. I guess I see Scott Olsen, Garrett Mock, and J.D. Martin as the initial starters marking time and pitching to survive the eventual arrivals of Wang and Stephen Strasburg.

Behind the plate, the interesting issue is what they do. Placate Ivan Rodriguez with regular playing time, and send Jesus Flores (once he's fully healthy) down to get the at-bats he'll need to restore his status as one of the game's better catching prospects? Have Flores and Pudge share time, and risk a grumpy former icon? Not that it's a major factor, but token catch-and-throw guy Wil Nieves is out of options, so if they decide they'd rather let Flores get his at-bats in the International League, they'll manage to avoid the desperate question of whether or not anyone would snag Nieves on waivers. Nobody would, of course, and even if they did, the organization still has Jamie Burke around on a minor-league deal, but their keeping Nieves this long has already been a minor surprise.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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Premium Article Camp Battles: NL Centr... (02/26)
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