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February 16, 2012

On the Beat

Spring Position Battles

by John Perrotto

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Perhaps Gene Lamont is the last honest man left in baseball.

A few years back, Tigers third base coach (and former White Sox and Pirates manager) was talking about spring training battles for roster spots. Lamont admitted they were pretty much a smokescreen to the media and something to keep the players motivated.

“You know who you want to win the job before you ever go to spring training,” Lamont said. “You just leave things open in case something happens.”

Regardless, position battles make for plenty of spring content for the internet, copy for the newspapers, and fodder for arguments on the talks shows. So even if the managers already know which way they are leaning, let's take a look at five position battles in National League camps and have a scout familiar with each team break down the competition.

Cubs first base: Bryan LaHair vs. Anthony Rizzo
LaHair hit .288/.377/.508 with two home runs in 69 late-season plate appearances with the Cubs last winter after belting an average of 30 homers per season in Triple-A over the past three years, including 38 with Iowa in 2011. Rizzo is a much more highly regarded prospect and, at 22 years old, is six years younger than LaHair. However, he struggled terribly in his first taste of the major leagues last season with the Padres, hitting .141/.281/.242 with one homer in 153 plate appearances.

Scout's take: “It's easy to say LaHair is a Quad-A player and just dismiss him, but he does have big-time power, big enough that I'd be willing to take a look at him in the major leagues to start the season. Some guys are late bloomers, and maybe you get a big year or two out of him.

The one thing I wouldn't do, though, is make Rizzo the Opening Day first baseman. The kid totally lost his confidence in the big leagues last year, and it's tough to ask him to step right into the middle of the lineup with a new team in a town where the fans are looking at him as a potential savior.”

Reds left field: Ryan Ludwick vs. Chris Heisey
Ludwick hit a combined .237/.310/.363 with 13 home runs in 553 plate appearances last season with the Padres and Pirates. Heisey hit .254/.309/.487 with 18 homers in 308 plate appearances for the Reds.

Scout's take: “I really don't know how much Ludwick has left. Moving into that ballpark should help his power numbers a little bit, but I'd take Heisey at this point. The kid has pretty good pop. Pitchers can get him to chase, but I'd like to see what he could do with a full season's worth of at-bats.”

Dodgers catcher: A.J. Ellis vs. Matt Treanor
Ellis, 30, hit .271/.392/.376 in 103 plate appearances with the Dodgers last season.  Treanor, 35, also had a higher on-base percentage than slugging percentage with a .combined .214/.338/.291 line in 242 plate appearances with the Royals and Rangers.

Scout's take: “I don't understand what the Dodgers are doing here. These guys are both number-two catchers, and I can't imagine either one of them starting 100 games. Maybe they think (rookie Tim) Fedorowicz will be the answer at some point in the season, but I wasn't all that impressed with what I saw of him last September. This has to be the weakest catching situation in the major leagues.”

Mets second base: Daniel Murphy vs. Justin Turner
Murphy hit .320/.362/.448 in 423 plate appearances last year before suffering a season-ending left knee injury in August. That came after he missed the 2010 season after tearing the MCL in his right knee. Turner hit .260/.334/.356 in 487 plate appearances as a rookie in 2011.

Scout's take: “If you had your druthers, you'd rather have Murphy because he's the better offensive player. He didn't have much range before he got hurt, though, and you have to wonder if he has any left now. Turner's okay. He'll hit line drives and play decent defense, but he's nothing out of the ordinary.”

Cardinals second base: Daniel Descalso vs. Tyler Greene
Descalso hit .264/.334/.353 in 375 plate appearances last season while Greene batted .212/.322/.288 in 121 plate appearances.

Scout's take: “I would imagine when it's all said and done that Skip Schumaker will wind up making the most starts here. I like Descalso and Greene as utility guys, but I don't think see either one giving you 500 at-bats. If I had to choose, I'd go with Greene because he has more raw talent. He can run and he's got some pop, but he hasn't put it together in the major leagues yet.”

 

****

 

Five random thoughts:

  • Every Yankees person contacted in the past few days thinks A.J. Burnett will flourish if traded to the Pirates because he will be out of the tougher league and away from the media capital of the world. The biggest surprise, though, was them saying Burnett would be a good influence on the Pirates' young pitchers, especially in light of his tattoos and one-time penchant for nipple rings. It goes to show you that you can't always judge someone by their appearance.
  • The first season of Showtime's The Franchise last year went inside the Giants' clubhouse and provided an entertaining look at the defending World Series champions. As good as that season was, it won't top the second season as Showtime will now follow the 2012 Marlins, starring Ozzie Guillen as the frank and foul-mouthed manager, left fielder Logan Morrison as the man who will say anything, right-hander Carlos Zambrano as the human volcano, and Hanley Ramirez as the sulking third baseman after being forced to move to accommodate free agent shortstop signing Jose Reyes. Now, that's entertainment.
  • Kudos to Athletics GM Billy Beane for regaining his creativity with the signing of Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes. I'd love to see the move work out. That being said, good luck with Manny Ramirez, Billy, as we count the days until Manny becomes Manny again by being suspended, dogging it, or just quitting.
  • Give Mets GM Sandy Alderson credit for having a keen sense of humor about working for a cash-strapped franchise. He joined the world of Twitter recently (@MetsGM), and his first tweet was: “Getting ready for Spring Training-Driving to FL but haven't left yet. Big fundraiser tonight for gas money. Also exploring PAC contribution.” Too bad more people in baseball couldn't have a laugh at themselves.
  • Best wishes to Hall of Famer and San Diego State coach Tony Gwynn, a wonderfully nice person, in his recovery from surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his mouth that took five doctors and 14 hours to perform. I'll get on my soapbox again and urge anyone who uses smokeless tobacco to try to quit the habit. I chewed snuff for 20 years before quitting, and I thank a higher power every day that it never caused any health problems.

 

****

 

This week's Must Read is a profile of new Cardinals manager Mike Matheny by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Derek Goold that shows how the former Gold Glove catcher seemed destined for the job.

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

Related Content:  Daniel Murphy

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