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March 22, 2013

Rumor Roundup

Dearth of Infield Depth

by Will Woods

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Happy March Madness, everybody! It’s the only tournament we’re actually less excited for as it moves along, and somehow everyone’s okay with that. No matter—we’ve got baseball news: The Dodgers are juggling their infield, the Yankees are looking “fill vacancies at Scranton,” and The Man is holding down Aroldis Chapman (and he likes it that way).

Hanley out eight weeks; Dodgers look inward
Dodgers shortstop Hanley Ramirez will have surgery today to repair a torn tendon in his left thumb. Ramirez sustained the injury diving for a ball in the World Baseball Classic final, when he could have been sitting in a protective formaldehyde tank like every other baseball player does at this time of year.

The Dodgers aren’t nearly as blessed with infield depth as they are in the starting rotation. Compounding the problem is that Ramirez’s supposed replacement, Luis Cruz, is also the nominal third baseman. Should Cruz move to short, Steve Dilbeck theorizes, “the Dodgers will likely rotate Juan Uribe, Jerry Hairston Jr. and Nick Punto at third base.” (If you’re curious, Skip Schumaker has not played a professional inning at either third or short. Elian Herrera, despite having an excellent spring and a modicum of experience at the position, does not appear to be under consideration.)

Ken Rosenthal speculates that a little rehab time might help get Ramirez more comfortable at shortstop, a position he has hardly played since joining the Dominican Republic team for the WBC. But Dilbeck feels the opposite, saying the injury might precipitate Ramirez’s permanent move to third base. That would require Cruz to back up his surprising 2012 numbers (.272 TAv), but manager Don Mattingly was non-committal: “Am I going to be comfortable in eight weeks with a guy who hasn’t played if it’s a mess there?...Depends what his work looks like, I guess.”

It’s a strange brew the Dodgers have concocted in this infield. For the number of spare parts they’ve acquired—Uribe, Punto, Hairston, Schumaker—it’s strange there isn’t a capable shortstop in the bunch. It’s the kind of strategy that would make you think they’d be willing to start last year’s Opening Day shortstop, Dee Gordon, in the event Ramirez went down. But now Ramirez is injured, they won’t go with Gordon (opines Dilbeck), and yet none of the veterans they’ve acquired can really play the position. Ronny Cedeno, released by the Cardinals on Tuesday, is still relaxing by the phone, but GM Ned Colletti appears to be standing pat.

Aroldis Chapman happy to put cap on earnings potential by closing
The decision is not yet final, says this Danny Knobler piece, but all signs out of Cincinnati point toward Aroldis Chapman opening the season as the Reds’ closer. Chapman has essentially been treated as a starter this spring—he has made three appearances, tossing two, two, and four innings respectively, the latter outing coming on March 16—but it looks like the plug has been pulled and he’ll anchor the bullpen once again in 2013. He’s only 25, but the longer he closes, the less likely it becomes that he’ll be able to stretch his arm out to join the rotation—much less develop his secondary pitches.

Chapman wants to close, but pitching coach Bryan Price and GM Walt Jocketty made it an open question this winter when they expressed a desire to move him into the rotation. Now, Price has changed his tune:

"The risk is in starting him… There's no risk in returning him to the bullpen."

In a sense, the Chapman-as-a-starter ship has sailed, because the player himself is against the idea. Still, it's sad to hear a coach make these comments for the umpteenth time, and even sadder that these kinds of statements go unquestioned. There is risk in changing Chapman's role, but in keeping him at closer there is certainty that the Reds' most talented arm—perhaps the world's most talented arm—will not reach its full potential.

Knobler then mentions Mariano Rivera, now perhaps the ideal career track for Chapman, but a man who became a closer by necessity rather than by preference or managerial discretion. (And remember he began his career as a starter?) This is a football coach punting on fourth down when the math dictated going for it; it isn't so much that the Reds risk winning fewer games, it's that Price risks being blamed for their winning fewer games. Rather than dare to maximize his team's potential, Price would rather set the bar of expectation lower for his team, and thus himself. It's a job security issue, and it's hard to blame him, not when coaches in all sports behave this way. But in Chapman's case it's a shame that, no matter what his future holds, he could've been so much more.

And finally…

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

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