February 22, 2000
NL Central Notebook
This week, let's take a look at some of the position battles for the teams in the division, whether the fight is for a starting job or just a spot on one of the rosters.
For a bad team that won't be contending, there really isn't that much up in the air. Among position players, there are really only three potential questions.
First, there's Willie Greene's admittedly slender shot at pushing his way into a platoon role with Shane Andrews at third base. While it might make sense on paper, the Cubs have already said they're not excited by the idea. Greene's presence as the team's top left-handed pinch-hitter makes it that much less likely that Roosevelt Brown will win a roster spot, which brings us to the second position battle.
While Damon Buford is the center fielder for the time being, the Cubs have said they want a lefty-hitting center fielder to platoon with him. Brown can't really play center, which means that Buford is shadow-boxing for regular playing time against Ed Lynch's chances of acquiring anybody else, such as ex-Baylor Rockie Quinton McCracken, who has no role with the Devil Rays. By guessing that Brown goes back down to Iowa to play regularly, that leaves the last three roster spots open. If Lynch gets his platoon center fielder, that leaves two spots.
One of those jobs will probably go to non-roster invitee Jeff Huson to back up in the infield. The last roster spot? That should be Chad Meyers's job to lose, and he'll win it if he demonstrates the flexibility to move back and forth between the outfield and second base, in addition to giving Baylor a pinch-runner. That still leaves a bench short on middle-infield backups, and also short of power. Meyers might lose out if Baylor gets twitchy about either weakness, creating a spot for someone like Chris Hatcher for some sock or Chris Peterson for a spare glove.
On the pitching side of things, whether there are one or two jobs open in camp depends on Kerry Wood's status. Because it's still unlikely that he'll be ready to go on Opening Day, there's a battle for the fifth starter spot. Todd Van Poppel, Micah Bowie, Andrew Lorraine and Brian McNichol all have chances. Because the Cubs are already carrying two left-handed relievers (Felix Heredia and Mark Guthrie), only Van Poppel will have a good crack at the last spot in the bullpen, fighting Greg McMichael and Steve Rain if he loses the fight for the temp job in the rotation.
Among position players, there's almost no chance for a job fight at all. Jack McKeon might decide to split right field among Dmitri Young, Alex Ochoa and Michael Tucker. It's within the realm of possibility that Chris Stynes will lose the 14th position player roster spot to someone undeserving, like Pine Time Sanders, or to someone who has a hot camp. While neither Mark Lewis nor Hal Morris should be handed jobs, chances are neither of them will have to sweat challenges from people like D.T. Cromer, Ron Wright or Brooks Kieschnick for pinch-hitting roles.
While the fourth starter's slot belongs to Ron Villone--something that might rightfully be open to question considering Villone's dominant performance as a long reliever--the interesting battle is for the fifth starter job now that Brett Tomko has been traded. A lot of commentators are jumping on the Mark Portugal bandwagon, but even when healthy he's been a disaster for several years.
The remaining candidates include a couple of last year's bullpen stars, Dennis Reyes and Gabe White, either of whom could push past Villone and Steve Parris to be the third-best starter in the rotation this year. Longer shots are Scott Williamson and Rob Bell. The interesting opportunity is that if Williamson opens in the rotation, Bell might inherit his role in the bullpen.
There are a lot of dark horses: import Elmer Dessens, a rehabbing Heath Murray, Scott Winchester or Terrell Wade, or minor-league workhorse Larry Luebbers. They're all waiting on things to go badly for the others to create real opportunities for them.
The fun thing about the Astros' camp is the extent to which there's an interrelationship among all of the position-player roster spots and what happens in the really big battle for the job in left field between Daryle Ward and Lance Berkman. The loser of that fight is going down, but then the remaining roster spots depend on whether or not Larry Dierker wants to carry a sixth outfielder as a platoon mate and defensive caddy (either Glen Barker or Matt Mieske), or whether he'll want to keep all three of his catchers (Paul Bako, Tony Eusebio and Mitch Meluskey). I'm guessing Meluskey has to go back down to start the year.
Russ Johnson is out of options, so chances are he'll get to win the job of backing up Tim Bogar at shortstop. In camp, it'll be interesting to see whether Adam Everett pushes past Julio Lugo for the shortstop job at New Orleans. With Bogar the incumbent, a good month is going to be enough to stake a claim on the job.
The Astros also have an interesting set of choices for fifth starter and fifth and sixth relievers. Now that Scott Elarton is going to miss the first month of the season, Chris Holt should have a firm grip on the fourth slot. The fifth slot could go to Doc Gooden, but all concerned would probably be happier if Wade Miller has a good camp and wins the job. The fifth relief spot will probably go to hard-throwing Jose Cabrera. The last relief spot could go to any of several journeymen: Mike Maddux, Rick Huisman, Joe Slusarski, Kip Gross or even Japanese import Travis Driskill.
Similar to the Cub situation: a bad team's lineup is basically already set.
The Brewers ought to have an open trial at catcher. Henry Blanco will only inspire memories of the equally ineffective Mike Matheny, while Tyler Houston can't hit or catch especially well. Bobby Hughes may end up with most of the playing time, if only because he resembles a major league catcher, while a non-prospect like Robinson Cancel has already gotten more attention than he deserves. Creighton Gubanich would have been a nifty alternative to give the team a little bit of offense, but he's already hurt.
Where the Brewers have more choices than they can sort through is the rotation. There are few sure things: Steve Woodard, arguably Jaime Navarro and Jimmy Haynes. After that, Jamey Wright, Jason Bere, John Snyder and Juan Acevedo should all be fighting for the last two spots. Rafael Roque, Rocky Coppinger and Jeff D'Amico will probably have to settle for middle-relief jobs, while the organization's pitcher of the year, Allen Levrault, will settle for being Indianapolis's ace. I like Eric Ludwick as a sleeper, but I'm sort of pig-headed on some guys, and his shot is slim at best.
The bullpen will start off with Bob Wickman, Curtis Leskanic and David Weathers, and finish with a mix of leftovers from the rotation fight. Because of the absence of an established left-handed reliever, either Valerio De Los Santos or Horacio Estrada should win a job, and possibly Rule 5 pick Matt Williams.
The journeymen dragged in are an ugly bunch, ranging from Ricardo Jordan and David West to Bob Scanlan and Mike Rossiter. If you're an Indianapolis fan, you're going to see a lot of guys already intimately familiar with the workings of the International League.
The Bucs have quite a few camp fights, but your level of interest will reflect your tastes. The big position-player fight will be Chad Hermansen's drive to convince Cam Bonifay to put Al Martin in another team's uniform. Whether or not Aramis Ramirez can finally slay organizational prejudice and win the-third base job from this year's silly alternatives (Jarrod Patterson has struck some folks' fancy) remains to be seen. The petty battles will range from an open brawl for utility-infielder jobs among Abe Nunez, Mike Benjamin, Luis Sojo, Dale Sveum and Jason Wood. Because of concerns about Jason Kendall's endurance in his post-injury season, guys like Randy Knorr and Tim Laker may get to push aside Keith Osik for the caddying job.
On the pitching staff, there's another open audition for the fifth starter's job, with Pete Schourek the early favorite. I'd rather take a look at Jimmy Anderson until Chris Peters heals, but the organization would have to live down Bonifay's poor decision to give Schourek guaranteed money. Jose Parra is a potential dark horse, but there isn't a good opportunity for him going into camp. Scott Sauerbeck ought to get some consideration for the rotation, but the bullpen is so shallow, the Pirates think they need him there.
That bullpen is more open, with only three jobs really sewn up (Mike Williams, Jason Christiansen and Sauerbeck). Mike Garcia, Jeff Wallace and Marc Wilkins should be at the front of the line to win the remaining jobs, but none of them are guaranteed roster spots. In camp, Parra, Jason Boyd or even Dave Stevens or Pep Harris might push them aside. Even then, there are no guarantees because people like Jose Silva, Mark Leiter and Rich Loiselle will be healing as the season stumbles along, creating job pressures.
St. Louis Cardinals
Tony LaRussa and Walt Jocketty won't have that many decisions to sort out in camp. At least 12 position-player roster spots are already sewn up. The only potential excitement will come in the process of sorting out who will be the fifth outfielder and last man on the bench. Hacks like Craig Paquette, Thomas Howard and Joe McEwing are already guaranteed jobs, leaving worn-down vets like Brian McRae, Shawon Dunston, Ernie Young and Larry Sutton, or a minor-league vet like Dante Powell, fighting for the last two spots.
The pitching staff is also basically set. There's nominal competition for the fifth spot, with Rick Ankiel the easy favorite, and Garrett Stephenson and Mark Thompson getting opportunities to push the kid back down to Memphis. In the bullpen, five spots are already set with Dave Veres, Scott Radinsky, Mike Mohler, Paul Spoljaric and Heathcliff Slocumb. The last spot could go to one of the non-Ankiel rotation losers, Mike James or John Hudek. The Cards are talking tough about an improved bullpen, and while I remain convinced you can always put together a pen out of retreads and no-treads, this group doesn't inspire much confidence.