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March 12, 2003
It's not often you land in L.A. in March and think, "Boy, I sure miss the weather back there," but a trip to Phoenix completely skews the scales. Eighty degrees and permasunny doesn't take a whole lot of getting used to.
Monday morning, the first of three games in two days--Giants/Rangers at Scottsdale--looked like it was going to be a disappointment. Barry Bonds wasn't in the lineup. Alex Rodriguez was one of many Rangers' starters who didn't make the trip. There were about six Giants pitchers I wanted to see, and none of them were scheduled to pitch. It wasn't all bad, though. It was my first live game of the year, and that's always a beautiful sight. Plus, Buck Showalter was starting a right side of the infield consisting entirely of third basemen, with Hank Blalock at second base and Mark Teixeira at first base.
Blalock had the better game of the two prospects, going 3-for-4 with two doubles, including an absolute bomb to right-center field in the seventh off of left-hander Joe Horgan. He was a mixed bag at second base, making a nice tag on a steal attempt by Edwards Guzman in the third and turning a double play in the sixth. On the other hand, he couldn't recover back to his left on a hit-and-run, allowing a single, and while he made the play on all the other ground balls hit his way, it would be hard to describe him as "smooth."
It's very early in the transition for Blalock, too early to pass judgment on whether he can become a good second baseman. While Showalter has spoken well of his work there, Blalock needs innings to improve, and there's a question as to whether he'll get them with Mike Young around. The more likely scenario is that he ends up back at third base to start the season, especially with Herb Perry's nagging injuries (no, really) keeping him off the field this spring.
Teixeira isn't playing as well as he did the last time he was in Arizona--the Fall League, when he hit .333/.437/.616--which will give the Rangers ample reason to let him spend a few months at Triple-A. Monday, he went 0-for-5 with two strikeouts, and didn't get a ball out of the infield. He made one nice play at first base, starting a 3-6 double play, and I still think his defense is better than advertised. For a big guy, he moves well, and doesn't need to be moved off of third base, much less moved out of the infield.
What to do with their young third basemen is just part of the Rangers' roster crunch. In addition to arranging four third basemen--did I forget to mention Mike Lamb?--around the diamond, the outfield situation is interesting, with lots of hitters but just one legitimate center fielder in Doug Glanville. Juan Gonzalez and Carl Everett will have to be in the lineup if healthy, which leaves Showalter choosing between playing the insanely popular Kevin Mench and forcing Everett to center field, and benching Mench (or Teixeira or Young or Lamb) while getting Glanville onto the field.
The whole situation sets up like a series of dominoes, but the first question, the key question, is who plays center field. I'm not a big Doug Glanville fan, but I think he has to be in the lineup, because an outfield of Mench, Everett and Gonzalez will kill this team. Everett cannot play center field, and he certainly can't do it between two average/average-minus defenders. Assuming that pushes Everett to left field with Gonzalez in right and Rafael Palmeiro at first base, that leaves Mench, Blalock, Lamb, Teixeira, Perry and Young for second base, third base and DH. It may be even more complicated than that: Ruben Sierra hit a three-run homer Monday and is trying to force his way onto the team. The last thing the Rangers need is a guy no better than their current options, but Sierra has support in the clubhouse and is hitting .308 with two homers so far, so he could make the team.
Give credit to John Hart for recognizing the problem. He's tried to get Carlos Beltran, who would make a huge difference for this team, but Allard Baird has asked for two oil wells and a lifetime supply of Texas chili. That may change, and if it does, the price paid for Beltran will likely clear up some of the other roster problems (Blalock would almost certainly be part of the deal) while improving the Rangers by four or five games.
In the absence of Beltran, here's the lineup I'd start Opening Day for the Rangers:
Mench DH Everett LF Rodriguez SS Palmeiro 1B Gonzalez RF Blalock 3B Young 2B Diaz C Glanville CFMench in the leadoff spot is non-standard, but better the slow guy who might post a .350 OBP than the faster guys like Young and Glanville who won't. Mike Lamb can push Blalock to second base twice a week. Herb Perry starts the year on the DL, and Teixeira starts it as Oklahoma City's third baseman. Ruben Sierra goes away.
I haven't mentioned Jermaine Clark yet. Clark has been a Ken Phelps All-Star for a number of years, posting solid OBPs at Triple-A and never getting a real chance at a major-league job. Can he make this team? He'd be a good bench player, providing some left-handed OBP and the ability to almost play multiple positions. He tried to play shortstop Monday and looked pretty lousy, but if there's one team that doesn't need a backup shortstop, it's the team with Alex Rodriguez. Clark could do what Frank Catalanotto did for this team in two of the last three years, maybe working his way into a job-sharing arrangement with Young at second base and Glanville in center field.
Last week, I mentioned the concept of "Team Pretzel," which is having multiple players capable of playing a number of positions, especially guys who can play both the infield and outfield. Showalter can have that if he builds his bench properly, and he can leverage the presence of Lamb, Clark and Chad Kreuter to balance the Rangers' need for an improved defense with their need to avoid having three .300 OBPs in the lineup simultaneously.
I've already burned a bunch of electrons on the Giants' lineup, and while I know it was just a spring training road game, it was jarring to see Neifi Perez and Marquis Grissom hitting 1-2 Monday afternoon. Every time that happens in the regular season--and Rich Aurilia isn't the most durable player in the world--the Diamondbacks and Dodgers will get that much closer to October. Ray Durham is durable, though, so the Giants should always have at least one good OBP batting in front of Bonds.
As I mentioned, the Giants didn't bring any of their exciting young arms on this trip. Livan Hernandez started, and Horgan threw three innings. At least we know they have high-ceiling arms, though, which is a lot more than you can say about their position-player prospects. In stark contrast to Kurt Ainsworth, Jerome Williams and Jesse Foppert, the position players in the system are just rancid. Tony Torcato hits for average and little else. Lance Niekro walked seven times last year in 297 at-bats. Carlos Valderrama hasn't recovered from a torn rotator cuff. Cody Ransom, Edwards Guzman and Joe Jester are utility players. There's Todd Linden, who could be the right fielder in 2004 and who projects as a Bobby Higginson-type hitter, and there's nothing else. The Giants, who have done a great job drafting pitching, may need to shift their focus for a season or two to bring some hitters, especially at the defensive positions, into the organization.
As bad as the pitching matchup was in Scottsdale, it was that good for Monday night's game between the Angels and Padres: Jake Peavy vs. Chris Bootcheck, with an appearance by Francisco Rodriguez and another by Kevin Walker, who I really like.
The Angels sent Adam Kennedy, Troy Glaus and Scott Spiezio to the game, filling in around them with bench players and Salt Lake Stingers. As with the Giants, the Angels don't have the caliber of prospects that you get excited about watching, so it was a bit disappointing. The Padres benched Phil Nevin and Trevor Hoffman...oops. The Padres have some issues to deal with, and the mood in their camp is pretty dark with the loss of two of their three leaders.
Peavy and Bootcheck both looked very good, although I wonder how much you have to discount for the second-tier lineups. Peavy, who won't turn 22 until May, pitched older than that, with a very loose, smooth motion and good command of three pitches. He made Glaus look awful in the first inning as he pitched out of a first-and-third, no-out situation, although Glaus got his revenge with a booming double in the third. I think the Padres will want to be careful with Peavy's workload, but given his 2002 performance--90 strikeouts and just 33 walks in 97 2/3 major-league innings--they should feel comfortable going into the season with him in the rotation.
Bootcheck's line for the game doesn't look impressive--three runs on three hits in four innings--but that's deceptive. He came out throwing strikes and didn't allow a hit through three innings. He tired in the fourth, allowing three straight hard-hit doubles that scored all three of the runs he allowed. He didn't show a dominant fastball, but like Peavy, was smooth on the mound with good control.
Bootcheck presents a developmental problem for the Angels. While he's not ready for the majors, making him pitch at Salt Lake isn't going to do him any favors. The Twins lost a number of pitching prospects going through Triple-A when they had their affiliate in Utah, because it's not a nice place for pitchers. I might be inclined to let Bootcheck start the year at Double-A, calling him up to Triple-A in time for him to make, say, four of five starts on the road, then move him into the Angels bullpen. Extended time at Salt Lake could be damaging to both his arm and his psyche, and the fact that John Lackey went through there unscathed--2.57 ERA last year--while a credit to Lackey, shouldn't be seen as a standard to be met.
Francisco Rodriguez pitched the sixth inning and struggled. He walked three guys before settling down and allowing just one run, on a sacrifice fly.
I've been fairly down on "K-Rod" coming into this season, pushing Rany Jazayerli to lower him on BP's Top 40 Prospects list and dropping him to 11th in my own ranking of AL rookies for Rotowire's magazine. Monday's outing showed, in a nutshell, why I'm not excited about him: I don't think he's very effective from the stretch, and I'm not convinced he can get lefties out consistently. His stuff is amazing, but he's young, he has less than 100 innings of experience above A-ball, and his success in the postseason last year means that the gap between his reputation and his record is staggering.
As a sanity check, I went through Rodriguez's game logs to see what his splits were in the postseason.
Vs. RHB: .114/.162/.200 Vs. LHB: .207/.281/.245 Bases empty: .167/.182/.238 Runners on: .181/.280/.318Well, there's a gap, but it's not like he was bad when facing lefties or when pitching with ducks on the pond, so I'd have to say I've overstated the problem. While I remain skeptical that Rodriguez will be a dominant pitcher in 2003, I do so knowing that the evidence for my position is fairly weak.
The Padres wish they had the Angels' problems, having lost a huge chunk of their payroll to injuries this spring. In analyzing how they might make up for the loss of Nevin the other day, I neglected to mention Brady Anderson, who is in camp as a non-roster player. It's no great loss--Anderson hasn't been a decent player in three years, and he isn't hitting this spring--but I should have included him.
One of the reasons the Padres moved Nevin to first base and Ryan Klesko to the outfield before the 2002 season is that Klesko is a very bad defensive first baseman. He doesn't move all that poorly, but he may be the worst in the game at handling throws. In this game, he dropped a pickoff throw and failed to make a pick of a long throw by Donaldo Mendez. Now, the defensive metrics we have do a decent job, but the one thing that isn't factored in is a first baseman's ability to handle throws, so it's hard to quantify what this costs the Padres. I do know that it was an issue two years ago, and it's going to be an issue now.
The thing is, Klesko isn't a bad outfielder. He got that reputation while with the Braves, but it was largely a function of his size. He moves fairly well and made himself into an average left fielder before becoming nearly a full-time first baseman with the Padres. I think there's a way the Padres can solve the left-field problem, get Klesko out to a position where he's competent, perform a massive upgrade defensively and replace a good chunk of Nevin's production.
Mario Valdez is in the Padres' camp. Valdez is a very good defensive first baseman, and a hitter who provides good left-handed OBP and some power. He was never able to get a clean shot with the White Sox despite some good years in the minors. When he did finally get a job, with the A's in 2001, he suffered a broken hand that wiped out his season. He hit .260/.380/.362 with Sacramento last year, his OBP skills returning but without the power he'd shown. At worst, he's capable of being Doug Mientkiewicz (although the Padres won't get the 50-point Scrabble bonus). At 28, there's a good chance Valdez will be better than that, especially if the power returns two years after the hand injury. I think it's reasonable to suggest that he'd be 2-3 wins better than Klesko just with the glove, and he'd probably be no worse with the bat in 2003 than Xavier Nady will be.
Valdez put some coins in the bank Monday, making a nice play in the eighth on a foul ball and roping a double down the right-field line in his only at-bat. Hopefully, Bruce Bochy will give him more opportunities to win a job, because he represents the Padres' best chance to make lemonade out of a spring's worth of lemons.
Tomorrow: The A's and Rockies at Phoenix Muni, and nuggets from the Arizona notebook.