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March 4, 2011

Divide and Conquer, NL Central

Wait Till This Year?

by Larry Granillo

Fans aren't the only ones who suffer through the long, baseball-less winter, wishing for spring to return. Ballplayers themselves are forced to bide their time pretending to care about football as they count down the days until spring training. Some established stars might see the offseason as a chance to relax and get away from the sport, but not everyone has that luxury. For players who are scrambling to scale the minor-league mountain or those looking to solidify their toe-hold in the majors with a starting job, the winter is both an opportunity to prepare for the effort ahead and a frustrating impediment to further progress.

Mat Gamel of the Brewers is one such trekker. This spring will be his fourth with the club since he first came up in 2008 as its seventh-best prospect. Each year seems to be the one in which management and fans alike think Gamel will break out and force himself into Milwaukee's plans, but it hasn't happened yet.

Offensively, Gamel doesn't have much to learn down in Triple-A. Over the last three seasons, he has played 162 games in Nashville, hitting 25 home runs, driving in 118 runs, and batting .293/.375/.489. It's been a different story in Milwaukee, though. Counting the two games he played with the Brewers in a September 2008 call-up, Gamel has put up a .241/.335/.414 line in only 75 games across three seasons. He played in just 12 major league games in all of 2010.

Gamel's lack of a true position can explain some of that away. Nominally a third baseman, his awful defense (an .887 fielding percentage in his minor-league career) has the Brewers desperately seeking a place for him to play. Before experiencing another injury-related setback this spring, he was penciled in to get time at all four corner positions. Unfortunately for him, the Brewers have a very resilient group of players manning those positions. Prince Fielder, for example, played 98% of the Brewers' innings last year as the first baseman, relinquishing the bag for only 28 innings all season. Braun and McGehee each played in 92% of the team's innings at their respective positions. Only Hart, who has had a small problem with staying healthy throughout his career, played in fewer than 90% of the team's innings at his primary position, and he still managed to get into 83% of the innings available.

To put it in perspective, only four other corner starters in the NL Central played as many of his team's innings at one position as even Milwaukee's least reliable starter: Albert Pujols played first base in 95% of the Cardinals' innings; Matt Holliday, 92%; Joey Votto, 88%; and Hunter Pence, 95%. Jay Bruce played in 82.5% of the Reds' innings in right field, so we can probably squeeze him on here, too.

Granted, these playing time numbers are bound to change in 2011, with Derrek Lee no longer on the Cubs, Joey Votto presumably staying healthier, Pedro Alvarez seeing a full season, and Lance Berkman a St. Louis right fielder. Still, for someone like Gamel who is trying to prove himself at the big-league level, a lack of consistent playing time makes the task ahead harder. (In an hour-long talk General Manager Doug Melvin gave to a SABR meeting in January, he mentioned that it was difficult for the Brewers to find suitable bats for the bench because he couldn't promise playing time behind Prince and company. Hank Blalock, for example, was a player they talked to but who wouldn't sign without knowing if he could get a regular chance to play.)

Spring training, then, is when Gamel has his best chance to get noticed. As the cliché goes, spring is the time when everyone can hope. Now if only he could stay healthy in Arizona long enough to make it happen...

***

In Cardinals camp, this spring brings yet more hope, though in an ironic form. Two weeks ago, the Cardinals and their fans were hoping to make better use of their talents and walk away with the division crown. And then Adam Wainwright had Tommy John surgery, leaving a gaping hole in the Cards' rotation for the season. The playoff odds show us that St. Louis is still the favorite to come out of the Central, but the margin is much too close to be certain.

The injury does give Kyle McClellan reason to hope. Drafted as a starter, McClellan was used as such for most of his minor-league career. When he finally reached the majors in 2008, he joined Tony La Russa's endless bullpen; as a big leaguer, McClellan has pitched between 66 and 68 games (and 66 and 75 innings) every year.

With Wainwright down for the year, the former starter is considered the favorite for the job. As R.J. Anderson told us, McClellan seems to have the stuff to make the transition into a Randy Wolf-type starter. Wolf's paycheck of roughly $10 million per year offers a strong incentive for McClellan to hope to crack the rotation.

***

For teams like the Astros and Pirates, ripe with prospects and veterans hoping to fill out the roster, the hope of spring training takes on a slightly more desperate tone. After all, if you can't make it on such a thin team, what chance do you have?

Ryan Doumit has been the Pirates' starting catcher for each of the last three years. He lost his starting job in July of last year, though, when Pittsburgh traded for the defensively superior Chris Snyder. After the trade, Doumit got a handful of starts in right field and at first base. This year, his position seems to be unknown. With Lyle Overbay the starting first baseman, Snyder the starting catcher, and Garrett Jones getting most of the duties in right field, Doumit doesn't fit in.

Management has even discussed trading him. General manager Neal Huntington: "Other clubs are kicking tires around, and teams are hoping we give him away. But that's not going to happen." Though the 30-year-old Doumit feels that he can still contribute as an everyday player, it will take a strong spring (at the very least) for Huntington and new manager Clint Hurdle to be convinced of that.

On the flip side, 24-year-old Houston prospect Brett Wallace will be trying to stay with the big-league club after a terrible first year. After being traded from the Cardinals to the A's (in the Matt Holliday deal) to the Blue Jays in six months' time, Wallace was dealt to the Astros near the deadline and was immediately put into action after Houston sent Lance Berkman to the Yankees. In 51 games over the last two months of the season, Wallace managed only a .222/.296/.319 slash line after posting a .304/.375/.487 line in his three years in the minors.

Wallace is in the enviable position of having no real competition for the first-base job this spring. Still, he has to hope for a hot spring to justify his spot on the major-league roster come Opening Day. The Astros themselves are probably hoping the same thing, lest they be forced to acknowledge just how weak their roster is.

***

Despite the Cubs' disappointing fifth-place showing in 2010, Jim Hendry was able to assemble a solid starting nine over the winter. The biggest question mark comes in the outfield, where there are four seemingly good choices for only three positions.

Alfonso Soriano, Marlon Byrd, and Kosuke Fukudome appear to be the top candidates for the three starting spots, leaving the young Tyler Colvin without a job. In 394 plate appearances in 2010 (many of them stolen from Fukudome's ledger), the 24-year-old slugged .500 with 20 home runs and 100 strikeouts before succumbing to a puncture wound caused by a flying bat shard in late September.

In order to get more time in the lineup, Colvin is working out at first base and in the outfield this spring. The Cubs hope to keep Colvin away from the same fate that seems to have befallen Gamel. With Colvin (theoretically) backing up Fukudome in right and Carlos Pena at first, neither of whom plays as many innings as his Milwaukee counterpart, the experiment has a good chance of working. Colvin has every reason to expect plenty of innings in 2011.

The biggest hope, then—from fans and management alike—is that Colvin can put up the same kind of numbers that made him such a surprise in 2010. That's a hope that many players share across the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues every spring.

***

Things are no different in Reds camp, where the division winners are hoping that their mostly young lineup can maintain (or improve on) its 2010 productivity. The most pressing issue in Goodyear, though, stems from a different concern. Edinson Volquez, whom Dusty Baker announced as the Opening Day starter last week, was scratched from his expected start on Sunday due to visa problems. The Dominican righty has had immigration issues this spring, likely stemming from his performance-enhancing-drug suspension last season.

While he waits for his work visa to get approved, Volquez is in Arizona on a traveler's visa and is not allowed to pitch in games with paying customers. He will be stuck throwing simulated games or pitching in no-admission minor-league games until everything is squared with Uncle Sam. And though this may be a rare situation, it's not the only time it's happened to the Reds recently. In 2006, Timo Perez, signed to a minor-league contract, was held out of spring training dealing with similar visa problems. By the time the Reds sold his contract to St. Louis in late April, he had yet to participate in big-league camp.

Obviously, spring training doesn't work out for everyone, but that certainly won't keep the likes of Mat Gamel or Brett Wallace or Ryan Doumit from trying.

10 comments have been left for this article.

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