April 4, 2012
Prospectus Hit and Run
Loose Threads: West Division
Continuing the saga I started last week, I've identified one nagging question about each team coming out of spring training, one loose thread that I can't resist tugging upon. Last Friday began with some East Coast bias, on Monday we got Centralized, and today we run out of real estate on the Western shore.
Rangers: Feliz Navidad
In a spring where the potential bullpen-to-rotation transitions of Daniel Bard and Aroldis Chapman have consumed a good deal of oxygen, Neftali Feliz's move has almost seemed on the down low. Perhaps that's because for the Rangers, the spotlight has fallen on Yu Darvish as he acclimates to stateside baseball, and rightly so, given the team's investment. Or perhaps it's because the Rangers flirted with the transition last spring before restoring him to the bullpen but have been more resolute this time around, with no Bobby Valentine or Dusty Baker to waffle publicly.
The plan hasn't gone off entirely without a hitch; Feliz left a March 20 start with shoulder stiffness, but in the end, he did secure the fifth starter job, sending Alexi Ogando back to the bullpen. The question is not only how the 24-year-old righty will fare in his limited number of innings as a starter, but also whether manager Ron Washington—whose bullpen management skills have been suspect, to say the least—will be able to resist pining for his former closer if newcomer Joe Nathan, who was shaky last year coming back from Tommy John surgery, struggles to nail down games.
Angels: Fishing for Trout
The Angels possess one of the top prospects in the game in 20-year-old center fielder Mike Trout, yet they currently have a logjam in the outfield. Left fielder Vernon Wells played his way onto the Replacement-Level Killers in his first year in Anaheim, and with $63 million still owed on his deal, it's not like he can disappear. Center fielder Peter Bourjos is 25 years old and coming off a breakout season in which he showed some offensive aptitude (.282 True Average) while drawing raves for his defensive play (though his −7 FRAA sticks out like a sore thumb relative to other fielding metrics); he's got two more seasons before he's arbitration-eligible. Right fielder Torii Hunter remains a solid player at 36 (.280 TAv last year), and a tough one to move given his $18.5 million salary. Displaced by free agent Albert Pujols and a returning Kendrys Morales, Mark Trumbo and Bobby Abreu may claim playing time in the outfield as well.
So where does that leave Trout? At Triple-A Salt Lake City, though in part that's because he's been slowed by illness and shoulder tendonitis this spring, didn't make his Cactus League debut until March 20, and has yet to play the outfield. But what happens when he's finally ready: Will the Angels make a trade to accommodate him, will they bench someone, or will they wait for a Free Trout movement to occupy the Big A?
A's: The Cuban
From their DH/first base/left field logjam to their overcrowded rotation, I've got enough questions about the A's to fill a whole column, but the biggest one centers around the team's 26-year-old center fielder, Yoenis Cespedes. Ever since that now-legendary first video surfaced, the baseball world has been waiting to see how this chiseled Cuban defector would fare in the majors. Thus far, he hasn't disappointed. Shortly after officially signing his four-year, $36 million deal with the A's, he homered in his Cactus League debut, and he collected hits in each of the team's two regular season games in Japan, including a go-ahead two-run homer in the seventh inning of the second one—on a breaking ball, after plenty of concern about whether he would struggle to hit such pitches. He may yet do so, but at least he's got that initial success to point to. What are Billy Beane and company getting for their money, and will they be happy with the commitment they made to this most atypical A, free-swinging and expensive—the most expensive player on the roster, even?
Mariners: Chone Gone?
It's putting it lightly to say that the Mariners' four-year, $36 million deal with Chone Figgins hasn't gone as planned. From a career-best 6.9 WARP season with the Angels in 2009, he has slipped to −1.3 WARP over the last two seasons, wheezing his way to a combined .236/.309/.285 line. His 2011 season ended in early August due to a hip flexor strain, and while he was out, 2009 third-round pick Kyle Seager manned the hot corner and hit a credible .258/.312/.379 over the final two months. Manager Eric Wedge's solution is to bat the 34-year-old struggling speedster in the leadoff spot and bounce him around the diamond; in the Mariners' two games in Japan, he played third base once, and left field once. How long can he persist atop the league's lowest-wattage lineup, and will he ever recover any semblance of the pesky on-base ability he showed in Anaheim?
Diamondbacks: Whither Bauer
With his unorthodox long-toss regimen, uncommonly efficient mechanics, cerebral approach and—oh yes—outstanding stuff, Trevor Bauer is The Most Interesting Man in the World. He is the only first-round pick ever to ace a Rorschach Test, and when he warms up in the bullpen, dolphins appear. With all of 25 2/3 professional innings (and 43 strikeouts) under his belt, last year's third overall pick has been farmed out to Double-A Mobile. The general consensus among scouts is that Bauer can get big-league hitters out now, but with pitch-to-contact types Joe Saunders and Josh Collmenter holding down the back of the Diamondbacks' rotation, he'll have to wait for someone to stumble in order to get his shot. I simply want to know: How long do we have to wait, damn it?
Giants: Belt's Bat
Aubrey Huff. Brett Pill. Melky Cabrera, at least until he gets lost in the Bermuda Triangle of Triples Alley. Angel Pagan. Gregor Freakin' Blanco. Nate Schierholtz. Buster Posey, on his days off from catching. The Giants keep putting obstacles between Brandon Belt and a regular job, either at first base or an outfield corner, thereby depriving themselves of precious plate appearances from one of their few high-upside hitters. At this point, it's possible he starts the season at Triple-A Fresno. To be fair, the soon-to-be 24-year-old didn't light up the majors last year (.225/.306/.412 in 209 PA), but he was jerked around considerably, struggling for playing time even as the offense wheezed.
Belt has torn up the Cactus League (.391/.434./.638 in 76 PA, for what little those numbers are worth) but hitting coach Hensley Meulens (career .220/.288/.353 in the majors) doesn't like his mechanics at the plate and is worried about him getting beaten on the fastball. We all know that's simply code for, "We're taking him to the same lair where the Phillies take Domonic Brown to beat him with a sand-filled hose. We're going put spiders in his jock while showing him footage of Shawon Dunston's perfect swing." So, how long before a team forecast to tie for 14th in the league in scoring figures out that aside from Posey and Pablo Sandoval, they have no better hitter on their roster?
Dodgers: Only the Loney
Once upon a time, James Loney was an upstanding member of the Dodgers' homegrown core, but from 2008 until mid-2011, his career had been on a steady downslope; he failed to deliver anything close to league-average production for a first baseman. Nonetheless, his hangdog expression managed to convince GM Ned Colletti to tender him a contract at the 2010 deadline while at the same time nontendering Russell Martin for about the same price, despite the fact that first basemen who can hit grow like weeds on the interstate median while catchers who can hit and frame pitches effectively are rarer than Juan Pierre homers.
Hitting a craptastic .256/.301/.325 with four homers in 390 PA through the end of July, Loney began working with new hitting coach Dave Hansen, adopted a more compact stance, and pulled the ball more frequently en route to a .357/.416/.608 finish over the final two months, so of course Colletti had to keep him around for another year. Is there any chance that an eminently frustrating 28-year-old with a career .288/.346/.432 line can actually outhit a league-average first baseman and help the Dodgers' offense instead of hindering it?
Rockies: More Moyer?
One of the spring's fascinating human-interest stories is the comeback attempt of 49-year-old lefty Jamie Moyer, who hasn't pitched in a major-league game since July 20, 2010, shortly before he underwent Tommy John surgery. The ancient ex-Mariner… and ex-Cub, ex-Ranger, ex-Cardinal, ex-Oriole, ex-Red Sock and ex-Phillie (I knew this was going to get awkward)… has gotten hitters out this spring despite a fastball that peaks in the low 80s. For his troubles, he's carved out a spot in a Rox rotation in flux, with just one holdover from the beginning of last season (Jhoulys Chacin), though Jorge de la Rosa is working his own way back from TJ.
Moyer can't break Satchel Paige's publicity stunt-fueled start at age 58(ish) just yet, but if he survives past his turn in the season's second game, he'll become the oldest pitcher to stick in a rotation, and could lay claim to another mark if he notches a win; he's got 267 of those already, which obviously makes him a better pitcher than Jack Morris. How long can this soft-tossing, fly-balling everyman pull it off, particularly while pitching in the majors' least hospitable environment for a pitcher of his type?
Padres: The Real Jesus
From 2004 through the middle of last June, Jesus Guzman hit .305/.373/.480 while toiling in the minor-league systems of the Mariners, A's and Giants, with only a 20 PA cup of coffee back in 2009 to show. Last summer, the Padres added the 27-year-old Venezuelan as an extra bat for interleague play, and he soon hit his way into the lineup, brushing the more pedigreed Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Blanks aside. Guzman hit a searing .312/.369/.478 in 271 PA with the Pads, including a freakish .346/.412/.551 in 119 PA at Petco Park. Twenty-seven-year-old minor league mashers are rarely the cornerstones of rebuilding efforts, so the Padres obtained going-on-25-year-old first-base prospect Yonder Alonso from Cincinnati when they traded Mat Latos.
Alonso will be the Opening Day first baseman, but Guzman hasn't been entirely cast aside; toiling in the outfield extensively this spring, he's lined up to be the primary fill-in in left field while Carlos Quentin rehabs his way back from surgery to repair a torn meniscus. With experience at all four corners plus second base (though just one game there since 2008), Guzman can play a variety of positions, none of them well. Can Bud Black find him enough playing time without hindering Alonso or taking too many at-bats away from Quentin, Chase Headley and others, and can Guzman's bat maintain its potency upon further exposure?
And with that, I bid you a good Opening Day! If you're in the New York City area, check this out.