January 22, 2000
AL Central Notebook
First of all...
We're in a big-offense era, and what position is historically a big offensive position? First base. It wouldn't be easy to select three American League teams at random and find weak or wide-open situations at the cool corner. But in a random convergence, the AL Central has three such teams all by itself.
Most of that is because all three of the teams running rebuilding programs haven't made up their minds. The Royals aren't happy with the glovework of either Mike Sweeney or Jeremy Giambi, so while it should be safe to say one of them will play first base, Giambi's name has been mentioned in some trades while Herk Robinson seems reluctant to make a long-term commitment to Sweeney on the roster, let alone on the field. It doesn't help that Tony Muser spends his days reflecting wistfully on his ill-spent glovely youth, and wishing he could find a first baseman just like himself.
The Twins blew last season on discovering that Doug Mientkiewicz is no Scott Stahoviak and Ron Coomer is still Ron Coomer. In camp this year, they'll review how much David Ortiz offends everyone from Tom Kelly on down while giving Mario Valdez a long look. Twins fans can be grateful that Muser isn't driving the bus: Mientkiewicz would be handed the job, unless Mike Squires decided he wanted to come back and play in the Metrodome.
The White Sox may play Paul Konerko at first base, if they don't move him to third. They might play Carlos Lee at first, if he doesn't stay in left field. They might play Frank Thomas at first, depending on the results of his little psychodrama with Jerry Manuel.
All of this makes it easy to crown Jim Thome the best first baseman in the division, and you could argue that Tony Clark is second best. But that isn't the way to evaluate talent if we want to determine who's going to do their team the most good this year and in future seasons. For a middle-of-the-order hitter, Clark has been adequate, and he hasn't made any progress in three years. This is more than a matter of taste. Relying on mediocrity may be good enough for Randy Smith, but it's not good enough for a winning team. Thome isn't getting any younger and the Indians aren't going to score 1,000 runs again.
The unsettled situations of the three rebuilding teams mask a hidden benefit: Konerko and Lee aren't even 24 yet. Ortiz is 24, Valdez and Giambi are 25, while Sweeney will turn 27 during the season. All of them are in the middle of or are just entering the prime years of their careers. Sure, none of their teams will complain too much if they settle in at the same level as Tony Clark. But in the cases of Konerko, Giambi, Ortiz or Sweeney, it will be a disappointment if that's all they get.