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March 15, 2004

Prospectus Today

More Job Battles

by Joe Sheehan

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The one National League job battle on my list that I left unaddressed on Friday was the topic of most of the e-mails I received on the column. We'll lead off with that one, then check out some AL situations.

Cardinals' second-base and left-field jobs

The Cards' decision to make Albert Pujols the everyday first baseman opened a hole in left field, and no matter who stands out there on April 5, it's going to be hard to argue that it's been filled.

None of the candidates for the platoon--and it will almost certainly be a platoon--has anything resembling a track record of success. Kerry Robinson and So Taguchi are fifth outfielders who bring defense and some speed and little else. Mark Quinn and Ray Lankford combined for 76 major-league at-bats in 2003. Emil Brown hasn't played in the majors since 2001, but he's 8-for-14 with two homers so far, so he's in the mix.

I don't think there's an acceptable solution here. None of these guys can be expected to be a league-average left fielder on their own, and of the group, only Quinn has even come close to holding down a regular job in the past three years. At least with Robinson and Taguchi, you know you're going to get defense, although using them at the top of the lineup is just going to hamstring an offense that already has outs in the #8 and #9 slots. Jim Edmonds could be one of the 10 best players in the league this year and tally 72 RBI or something.

The second-base situation isn't as muddled, mostly because the Cards haven't started using free-agent pickup Marlon Anderson in left field. Anderson is up against 2003 cult hero Bo Hart, and has been getting most of the playing time this spring against right-handers. He's nothing special, just a guy capable of being worth a win, maybe two, in a full-time role. PECOTA has him at .267/.320/.377 in '04, with below-average defense.

Hart was a cult hero last year, with his crew cut and his scrappiness and his .400 average for a month. After his great first couple of weeks in the majors, he was basically a waste of space: .226/.267/.332 after the All-Star break.

A platoon seems like the obvious solution, and it's what the playing-time pattern this spring indicates. Anderson doesn't have a big platoon split, though, and while Hart showed a minor one last year, it's not enough to make him a threat against southpaws. The real question isn't whether Hart should beat out Anderson for the job. It's whether Hart is worth a roster spot. He can't really play other positions, he doesn't run or hit well enough to have tactical value, and he's not so much better than Anderson against lefties that he's worth the platoon. He's popular, and that's pretty much the extent of his resumé.

I've written in the past about how impressive Walt Jocketty's work at the trade deadline has been. I think he's a fairly underrated GM who gets absolutely no press. But I can't help but look at the Cardinals and see a lot of failure. This team has four of the best players in the league, and is having to assemble two positions out of guys who have no business in a starting lineup. If the Cardinals fall short again this year, it's likely going to be because they get replacement-level or worse performance from two or three lineup spots.

Who should win in left field: That statue of Stan Musial outside Busch Stadium. Or maybe Musial himself.

Who will win in left field: The defensive platoon of Robinson and Taguchi.

Who should win at second base: Anderson. Hart just isn't very good.

Who will win at second base: A platoon of Anderson and Hart.

On to the American League:

Mariners' catching job

I was just happy to learn that this was in play this spring. Dan Wilson has long been a guy whose reputation wasn't matched by his performance, and Ben Davis has always seemed to me to be unfairly denied playing time.

It's just more evidence that you should always question your assumptions. Wilson was actually a decent hitter in 2001 and 2002, while Davis has never really performed well enough to lay claim to more playing time. With the job in play, though, I asked our resident Mariners' expert, Derek Zumsteg, to chime in on the situation.

Mariners catcher...that's no position battle. Dan Wilson's a character veteran pitchers love and moms swoon after, and Ben Davis isn't so much. The choice between Davis and Wilson is like trying to decide whether you want to watch the movie or the TV version of "Stargate". Both suck in their own way, are overrated by different people, and too much thought and effort are wasted comparing the two.

Who should win: Davis, in a 70/30 job-share.

Who will win: The Angels and A's.

Rangers' catching job

I didn't realize this was in play until Michael Wolverton informed me it was. I suppose it really shouldn't be. Gerald Laird is a B prospect with a good defensive reputation who is coming off two straight seasons of decent offensive performance. Not great, just decent. Given the Rangers' direction right now, though, it's worth their time to install Laird and see if he can complete a very good young infield.

The problem is John Hart's Folly, the contract that, like Celine Dion's heart, goes on and on, only more annoying. Back when he was in Cleveland, Hart signed Einar Diaz to a four-year contract. It was the kind of move that Hart had done a bunch of times in the early 1990s with guys like Jim Thome, Carlos Baerga and Manny Ramirez, buying out arbitration years in exchange for security.

Diaz wasn't remotely worth that kind of commitment. And when the Rangers were angling to let Ivan Rodriguez go after 2002, Hart, now with the Rangers, jumped at the chance to trade a pretty good hitting prospect in Travis Hafner for Diaz and the millions owed him through 2005. He'll make $2.5 million this year, which is the main reason he has a job.

(Remember, folks: "financial flexibility." Tom Hicks dumped Alex Rodriguez to give Hart the room to make more signings like this.)

Who should win: Laird, because it's worth finding out what you have in a season in which you're going nowhere.

Who will win: Diaz, but look for a slow transfer of playing time to Laird throughout the year.

Rangers' outfield

The Rangers don't have one outfielder in camp who you can point to and say, "that's the guy who'll get 500 at-bats." Their outfielders are all injury cases (Brian Jordan, Rusty Greer) or rookies of questionable quality (Ramon Nivar, Jason Jones) or known scrubs who shouldn't have starting jobs (David Dellucci, Jason Tyner) or some guys who fit in multiple categories (Laynce Nix, Kevin Mench).

Of the group, Nix and Mench are the two guys you'd most want to see win jobs. Mench can rake, although he's not much of an outfielder. He could have a Kevin Millar/Geronimo Berroa run for a few years if he can stay in the lineup. The bum wrist that curtailed his 2003 season doesn't seem to have slowed him in the early going this spring; he's hitting .286 with good power in 21 at-bats.

Nix is the guy the Rangers want to see win a job. He actually played center for two months at the end of last year, hitting .255/.289/.440 in 184 at-bats. Just 23, and with no Triple-A experience, it probably makes sense for Nix to go to the PCL for a half-season, especially given his poor K/BB ratio (53/9) in the majors last year. Long-term, he should be the Rangers' right fielder, especially if converted second baseman Nivar can handle center field and continue to hit an empty .320.

No one else in this group is going to have an impact, and few will be on the Rangers in 2004. Eric Young has been playing some center field, continuing the Lone Star State tradition of taking aging second basemen who have become marginal regulars and giving them a ridiculous defensive assignment. Jordan can still hit lefties and keep Greer company on the DL for part of the year.

Who should win: Mench in left field is an easy call. A Dellucci/Jordan platoon in right wouldn't be the end of the world, although I'd rather see Nix there than in center. With no real center fielder anywhere in sight--who was the last good Rangers CF, anyway, and don't they realize that a lot of their pitching problems are really outfield defense problems?--Nix probably ends up there to start the year. I suppose, if you wanted to be insanely optimistic, you could point out that Juan Gonzalez started his career in center...

Who will win: Mench, Nix and Dellucci/Jordan, with Young platooning in center and Tyner (ugh) on the bench.

OK, time to hit a bunch more that readers asked about...

Reds' closer: It's Danny Graves until he develops enough trade value for a dump. Then, Ryan Wagner, who could strike out 10 men a game for the next four years. Think a sane Rob Dibble. Chris Reitsma is a lousy saves bet this year, fantasy players.

Tigers' closer: Matt Anderson keeps getting slapped around, making it easier for the Tigers to give the job to Fernando Rodney. By the way, if you want to be pessimistic about Ryan Wagner, Anderson--also a #1 pick as a college reliever--provides good reason.

Mets' rotation: A cast of thousands should really be whittled down to Aaron Heilman, although Grant Roberts is pitching well enough to force himself into the mix. James Baldwin and Scott Erickson haven't pitched their way out of jobs. Yet.

Mets' right field: None of the four players vying for playing time has hit well. Shane Spencer should be assured the right-handed half of a platoon. Karim Garcia is the Mets' second-best left-handed power source, a frightening thing for fans to contemplate. He has an edge over Timo Perez for the bigger half of the platoon. Roger Cedeno won't be on the Opening Day roster, contract be damned.

White Sox' rotation: Scott Schoeneweis was handed the #4 spot in the off-season, although it's not clear why. He was a lousy starter before last year, and a pretty good reliever in '03. The Sox are loaded with lefty relievers, which explains why you could move Schoeneweis, but is he really worth a commitment when you have Jon Rauch, Felix Diaz and Neal Cotts in camp? Even Dan Wright has more going for him. Look for Wright to be the #5 to start the year, with Rauch taking Schoeneweis' job by mid-May.

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

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