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April 8, 2004
I've been trying to write this column for about a month, but I wasn't sure how to frame it. What follows isn't a list of breakout players, or sleepers, or MVP candidates, or really anything that is easily describable. It's just a list of players who I really, really like going into this season. They range from a player with 67 games of Double-A experience to a six-year veteran with his fourth team, and in age from 21 to 29.
I expect some of these guys to get MVP votes, some of them to contribute to playoff teams, and others to just establish themselves as solid major leaguers or future stars. But I can't lump all 10 of them into one category, unless, "guys who appear on almost all my fantasy teams," is a category.
I guess this is just a column about...my guys.
Jose Acevedo, Reds. Acevedo has improved his strikeout-to-walk ratio from 2.3-to-1 in 2000 to better than 3-to-1 the past two years, which is just the best reason to pay attention. Bob Boone's unique brand of genius kept Acevedo in the minors at the beginning of last season; in five major league appearances, he posted an ERA of 2.67 with 23 strikeouts in 27 innings. On August 6, he tore up his left ankle on the Dodger Stadium dugout steps and missed the rest of the season. Now healthy and claiming the Reds' #4 starter slot, he should be good for an ERA of 3.60 in 190 innings, and could exceed that.
Bronson Arroyo, Red Sox. Like Acevedo, Arroyo's command has really come around, peaking the last two years with 271 strikeouts and just 51 walks in 292 2/3 Triple-A innings. He pitched so well for the Sox at the end of last season that he forced his way onto the playoff roster, despite a dearth of experience. The injury to Byung-Hyun Kim has given him an opportunity as Boston's #5 starter, and while he may spend part of the year in the pen, he'll definitely contribute from either spot. Arroyo looks like another contributor who the Pirates let get away for nothing.
Mark Bellhorn, Red Sox. The most-experienced player on this list, Bellhorn has already had an impact on the Red Sox. With Nomar Garciaparra out, having him has allowed the Sox to move Pokey Reese to shortstop, leaving them with an acceptable infield both offensively and defensively. Bellhorn also provides insurance should Bill Mueller's fragility resurface. He's a switch-hitter with power and patience from both sides of the plate, back with an organization that won't overemphasize his .260 BA or high strikeout totals. I think Bellhorn is going to approach his numbers with the '02 Cubs, say .260/.370/.480 in 400 at-bats.
Marlon Byrd, Phillies. Byrd was an underrated contributor to last year's Phillies team. I like his complete offensive package, with some power, some walks, some speed and good defense in center field. Byrd showed that he could be an excellent percentage player last year; he stole 11 bases in 12 attempts, grounded into just eight double plays (low for a right-handed groundball hitter) and after a horrendous May in which he didn't walk once, drew 37 passes and posted a .381 OBP after May 31. Think Devon White minus the Gold Gloves and plus 20 walks a year.
Michael Cuddyer, Twins. For years, I've been complaining about the Twins' inability to align their talent properly, with commitments to non-stars in the outfield and at first base blocking cheaper, potentially better options, and a lack of activity in the trade market keeping them from upgrading up the middle. All those still apply, but it appears that Ron Gardenhire is going to single-handedly address the problem with Cuddyer. Cuddyer's monster spring has Gardenhire looking to him as an in-game solution at six positions, including taking time from Cristian Guzman and Luis Rivas in the infield. The injury to Joe Mauer should create some playing time in the short term as well. Cuddyer can hit, and he can still play the infield well enough to be an asset. Look for him to be a big part of the Twins this season, a regular without a position and with an 850 OPS.
Adam Eaton, Padres. I raved above Jake Peavy in Monday's chat, and I do love his stuff and his command of it. Eaton, though, was a favorite of mine three years ago, before Bruce Bochy drove him into the ground and out of the league for 18 months. Coming back from Tommy John surgery last year, his season looked almost exactly in line with his pre-surgery work. A big guy and a power pitcher, Eaton will help pitch the Padres into the postseason, and could get some down-ballot Cy Young votes.
Edwin Encarnacion, Reds. Anyone Googling the terms "Sheehan" and "Encarnacion" is going to find a bunch of hits. I know I keep talking about this kid--wow, I'm old enough to actually use that word to describe a young ballplayer--but he deserves it. He's an agile third baseman who, at young ages, has displayed a broad range of offensive skills in the minors. Pushed to Double-A last April by the Reds' optimism, he was overmatched for a month, then returned to the Southern League in July and owned it. Brandon Larson, Ryan Freel and all the other guys getting time at third for the Reds are just placeholders; Encarnacion should be up later this year, and is capable of having Scott Rolen's career. (Yeah, I said it.)
Keith Ginter, Brewers. Like Cuddyer, Ginter opens the season without a regular job, and he doesn't have the upside of the other guys here because of that. He and Wes Helms were born a week apart, Ginter has out-hit Helms at every level in every year of their careers, and both received multi-year commitments from the Brewers this winter. Helms has the starting third-base job, though, while Ginter works as a supersub, blocked at second base by Junior Spivey, another comparable player. Regardless, Ginter should get 300 at-bats due to injuries, in-game changes and the inevitable ugly Helms slump. He's always hit, and will give the Brewers a .360 OBP--something they sorely need.
Kevin Mench, Rangers. He's just a hitter, one who hasn't been able to stay healthy long enough to keep the Rangers' left-field job. The exodus of veterans from Arlington and Mench's power display this spring (five doubles and three homers in 69 at-bats, albeit with a .203 BA) locked up the job he lost last year to a broken wrist. Note: As they do every year, the Rangers open with a tough schedule against pretty good run-prevention teams. Don't make the mistake they often do of judging their players by their April performances. Mench could hit .220/.280/.350 this month and be among the better players on the team.
Jeff Weaver, Dodgers. Part hunch, part context, and his brutal spring doesn't make me feel any better about this selection. While Kevin Brown is the better pitcher of the two, much of the differences between the ERAs of Weaver and Brown last year was context: ballpark, league and defense. You can't make a more extreme move right now than going from Yankee Stadium and their middle infield to Dodger Stadium and theirs. That alone moves the two pitchers to within a run of ERA of each other. I think Weaver takes advantage of the context to get his command back, and ends up having comparable value--within a win, in Support-Neutral or VORP terms--of Brown.