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March 3, 2000

AL Central Notebook

Job Battles

by Christina Kahrl

Continuing our look around the divisions at what spots on whose rosters are being contested:

Chicago White Sox

The most obvious competition in camp is for the fifth rotation spot, where a notionally healthy and genuinely expensive Cal Eldred will do his level best to prove he deserves one-third as much patience as Jaime Navarro received. He doesn't, of course, any more than Navarro did, so the White Sox should be able to open up a second rotation spot for a rookie (Kip Wells's spot is guaranteed).

Aaron Myette has probably earned first crack at the job, but people in the organization are legitimately jazzed about how quickly Jon Garland might be ready, despite being just 20 years old. While Jerry Manuel has been relatively good in working his young pitchers, I would err on the side of caution and leave Garland at Double-A Birmingham, while giving first crack at a major-league job to Myette or even Pat Daneker, up until the point that Garland shows he can beat Double- and Triple-A for a couple of months.

Other pitchers at least nominally in the race include Lorenzo Barcelo and Kevin Beirne, both of whom are more likely to return to the minors to prove they're healthy. Journeyman Tanyon Sturtze is also around, and the Sox seem to think he's going to have a late breakthrough, like Andy Ashby only much less so.

The bullpen has four locks (Keith Foulke, Sean Lowe, Bobby Howry and Bill Simas), leaving two spots open. From among the competitors for the fifth spot, only Sturtze really has a shot at the pen, since the others all need regular work to develop. It's more likely that the fight for last two spots will be between sidearming sinkerballer Chad Bradford and left-handers Scott Eyre, Jesus Pena and non-roster invitee Kelly Wunsch. Since Wunsch also throws sidearm, it would be sort of fun to have him and Bradford win, but I suspect the pen's token lefty is going to be either Eyre or Pena.

The left side of the infield is a mess. Shortstop is said to be an open competition, but Jose Valentin would have to start trash-talking Gandhi to lose out to Mike Caruso. Caruso can use the regular playing time at Charlotte, in the absence of Manuel's tender mercies, to try to sort out whether he can reclaim a career for himself anyway.

In this year's classic "open mouth, watch brain fall out" maneuver, Manuel has anointed utility infielder Craig Wilson as his starting third baseman. This is about as smart as last year's goofing off with Gabby Martinez in camp, or the previous year's pathetic Ruben Sierra experiment: Wilson has no chance of helping a weak offensive club. Now that Brook Fordyce is out for at least six weeks with a broken foot, the Sox seem to be acknowledging this, because they're talking about playing Paul Konerko at third base to help shore up the offense. This doesn't actually work too well, in that they're still short a bat at DH if Frank Thomas is at first base while Konerko is on the hot corner, and Fordyce's absence hardly impacts Wilson's offensive shortcomings, anyway.

This might be a reprieve for Greg Norton to get some regular playing time at third, but it seems like the Sox haven't recognized how to help themselves offensively. Valentin and Norton can both help an offense, but both need platooning. Joe Crede needs a couple of months at Birmingham and/or Charlotte to recover from last year's surgery, and Wilson can only platoon with either Valentin or Norton. Ron Schueler should have looked into bringing in somebody like Tom Evans or Scott McClain to help out at third, because the danger right now is that they'll end up trading for somebody like Ron Coomer to paper over their lack of depth at the corners.

There's also a relatively wide-open fight for the fifth outfielder's job. While Jeff Abbott would make plenty of sense, there's a real danger that Manuel will keep either or both of McKay Christensen and Jeff Liefer. With Fordyce hurt, Josh Paul should make the team, but he really shouldn't be much of a threat to Mark Johnson's playing time, since Johnson can catch and draw enough walks to give the Sox some desperately needed baserunners.

Cleveland Indians

The Indians claim they've done plenty of retooling, but it mostly looks like they spent money without patching all of their holes. Clearly, the big battle in camp is going to be in center field, as Dave Roberts, Lance Johnson and Jacob Cruz all try to stake claims on Kenny Lofton's playing time until Lofton's return after the All-Star break. For whatever reason, some people are citing Johnson's and Roberts's leadoff experience as reason enough to pick either of them. Allowing experience to blind them to who can actually do the job would be a mistake on the Indians' part. Johnson has been worthless for at least two years and hurt for most of the last three, and his days as a leadoff hitter were usually part of his teams' problems, not solutions. Roberts might be able to field the position, but he won't cut it offensively.

Charlie Manuel's problem is that there is pressure to make his center fielder his leadoff man, replacing Lofton in both of his roles. That would be a mistake. Bumping Omar Vizquel and Roberto Alomar to the 1-2 slots, with Jacob Cruz batting sixth or seventh and playing center field, would help the team's offense while not costing much on defense. If Cruz needs a platoon mate, Manuel can keep Alex Ramirez around, while using Roberts as a defensive replacement.

There aren't really job battles at their positions per se, but both third baseman Travis Fryman and catcher Sandy Alomar are fighting losing battles against Father Time. While they should be manning the bottom of the order, chronic injury problems have undermined their play in the field and at the plate. John Hart really should have traded Fryman to the Expos for Chris Widger when he had the chance. Fryman is on the cusp of worthlessness, while Alomar won't be good for 100 games and Einar Diaz doesn't contribute enough offensively to justify a semi-regular job. Trading Fryman would create playing time for my favorite experimental ballplayer, Russell Branyan. What can I say? I'm a sucker for his unique blend of strengths (power), skills (he can handle third base) and weaknesses (he'd torch the single-season strikeout record, easy).

The fifth spot of the rotation is theoretically open, but Jaret Wright should improve now that he has a good pitching coach--Dick Pole--to help him put his career back together. Pole's track record with the Cubs and Giants is very good, and I'm willing to look past his being part of last year's Angels team. After all, what can you do with Ken Hill or Tim Belcher in the first place?

Wright's direct competition is Cuban import Danys Baez, but Baez is probably going to start the season in the minors. The bullpen already has five slots set (probable closer Paul Shuey, Steve Karsay, Steve Reed, Scott Kamieniecki and Ricky Rincon). There's talk of carrying 12 pitchers, which might open up space to carry either Baez as a reliever or rookie flamethrower Sean DePaula, as well as a second left-hander behind Rincon, with Charlie Manuel picking from Tom Martin, Mark Langston and Chris Haney. If they're going to carry 12, I'd pick Martin and tell Langston to discover day-trading or some other time-wasting pursuit.

Detroit Tigers

For a bad team coming off of a bad year going into a new ballpark, there's very little action in the Tigers' camp. The only position in the lineup up for grabs is DH, where this year's mistake (Luis Polonia) will fight last year's mistake (Gregg Jefferies) and an actual prospect (Rob Fick) for playing time. While Fick really deserves most of the at-bats, keep in mind how thoughtlessly Randy Smith discarded Bubba Trammell. If they were smart, they'd eat Jefferies's contract or put him on the same plane to Mexico with Polonia and let Billy McMillon share the job with Fick, but that's about as likely as pizza baron Mike Ilitch holding Randy Smith accountable for this year's flop-in-the-making. On the other hand, now that Phil Garner is in place with a multi-year deal, Smith won't be able to can his manager and spew some chemical excuses for a weak performance, so maybe this will be the year he's held accountable?

The really exciting fight for a position player roster spot is for the utility infield job, Motor City's answer to Celebrity Death Match. Since the Tigers should be carrying three defensive zeroes on the roster (I expect them to keep all three DH candidates), and because the regular infield won't be taking many days off, the winner of this battle won't get much playing time. But when your contestants are such heralded minor-league veterans as Marty Malloy, Kevin Polcovich, Giomar Guevara, Tilson Brito and Jesus Azuaje, how can you not care who wins? Considering how very right-handed the lineup is, Malloy may have the best shot. That's not an endorsement, just an observation.

The rotation is basically set, because I don't take Dave Borkowski's chance or Willie Blair's "new secret pitch" very seriously. C.J.Nitkowski should win the fifth spot hands down, and while he's guaranteed lousy run support from a right-handed, solo-homer offense hitting into Comerica Park's spacious left field, those same wide-open spaces should help him turn into a solid left-handed starter.

The bullpen is something of a zoo. There are probably only four jobs set: Todd Jones, Doug Brocail, Danny Patterson and Blair, because of his guaranteed money. If Sean Runyan is healthy, he'll get to be the token left-hander. After that, it's wide open to anyone who has a good camp. Rule 5 pick Mark Johnson could stick, or lefty Alberto Blanco or veteran lefty geezer Jim Poole. If Garner gets all hot and bothered by Matt Anderson's fastball, maybe the wild kid makes it. Masao Kida may finally prove worthwhile, but don't hold your breath. It isn't a good pen, the Tigers do have one of the four or five best right-handed relievers in the game in Brocail.

Kansas City Royals

The Royals are in what might be a defining camp. There are plenty of jobs available, both on the pitching staff and among the position players. If Tony Muser decides to give the jobs to a few vaguely familiar veteran stiffs, instead of turning this camp into an opportunity to build on last year's breakthroughs, then the Royals will never clamber into position to start pushing the Indians. There are already reasons to be pessimistic, as if the Jeremy Giambi trade wasn't enough.

On the pitching staff, the Royals have an interesting mix of their own prospects, veteran placeholders and other people's castaways. The only spot considered open in the rotation is the last one, although a bad camp (or difficulty coming back from Tuesday's broken forearm) from Blake Stein could open up the fourth spot as well.

Who do the Royals have in camp? They've got sad sack ex-Wichita State star Tyler Green, the presumed favorite. They've got Brett Laxton, who, while talented, had loads of control problems between last year's good showing and his one good college season as a rookie at LSU back in 1993. They have Chris Fussell, stolen from the Orioles for Jeff Conine, Mariners discard Mac Suzuki, Tribe reject Jason Rakers and their very own prospect in Dan Reichert. Reichert is the best prospect of the bunch, but there are reasons to be optimistic about Fussell as well.

The optimal solution? Probably to have Laxton win the job, while letting Fussell and/or Reichert break through at the major-league level as middle relievers, grooming them for the time when they actually will enter the Royals' rotation. But what seems most likely right now? Sadly, that Green is going to get first crack.

In trying to erase the memory of last year's epic bullpen disaster, the Royals have some interesting choices. There's the marginally accomplished major-league placeholders to take jobs and add pension time, closer Ricky Bottalico and Jerry Spradlin. They've dragged in all sorts of well-aged meat, from Billy Brewer (long past when he could fetch Jose Offerman from Fred Claire) to Doug Bochtler to Bill Risley to Ken Ryan to Clint Sodowsky to Brad Rigby. They even hauled in Edwin Hurtado after his good winter-league gig.

Chances are that some of these men will wiggle through the same winnowing process that last year produced Cookies Pisciotta and Don Wengert. But the only reasons for hope mostly come from people the Royals have developed themselves. From among Orber Moreno, Lance Carter and Jose Santiago, the Royals might actually end up with an average reliever or two, and potentially much more. One waivers snag I liked was grabbing Dan Lundquist from the White Sox, since at least he throws hard. The lefty spot job is probably between Brewer and Tim Byrdak. Who wins really doesn't matter, and won't in terms of results, but it will be interesting to see if there's any kind of pattern to how Herk Robinson and Muser craft their roster.

In terms of position-player battles, there's one big fight (at DH/first base), and one small one (catcher). The big battle is for the playing time at wherever Mike Sweeney isn't. If Sweeney plays first base well in camp, then Paul Sorrento loses the lone argument for his continued professional existence. That would make Mark Quinn a great candidate to DH every day. If Sweeney continues to irritate Muser with his glovework, the danger is that Sorrento makes the roster and plays first base, wounding the offense with his meagre offensive contributions while doing almost nothing to compensate for it at first with his glacial range and slow reactions.

The Royals really ought to know better and let Quinn play; hell, even Quinn knows it and has had the temerity to say that he should play. Whether Robinson and Muser are big enough to concede he's right remains to be seen. While Dee Brown will eventually turn into a top-notch offensive star, for 2000 he can look forward to competing with the spring-training winner sometime after the All-Star break.

The catcher situation should be straightforward enough, with Sal Fasano in line to get most of the playing time. The danger lurking is that non-roster invitee Jorge Fabregas will somehow worm his way into the mix, and in Rany Jazayerli's latest nightmare, share the job with Brian Johnson, forcing Fasano (not exactly young at 28) back for more seasoning at Omaha.

Perhaps surprisingly, the bench is nearly set, with Ray Holbert and Jeff Reboulet backing up the infield, and Todd Dunwoody and Scott Pose in place in the outfield. Pose might get bumped by the loser of the Quinn/Sorrento battle, especially if it's Sorrento who loses.

Minnesota Twins

As hapless as the Twins are, there are really only four areas of competition on the roster. Like every other team, there's a pitched battle for the fifth spot in the rotation. Like every other team, there's a battle for the last spot of two in the pen. Unlike almost every team, there are wide-open battles at three positions: first base, DH and catcher.

The battle at first is interesting because it features two internal candidates who have managed to irritate the organization (Doug Mientkiewicz and David Ortiz). Ortiz is the cleanup hitter this team desperately needs, but it will depend on how easily he makes up with manager Tom Kelly and hitting coach Scott Ullger. They're saying the right kinds of things about one another in camp, so we'll see.

The Twins managed to steal Mario Valdez off of the waiver wire from the White Sox last September. He's my pick for the best choice to play first every day, with Ortiz taking on most of the playing time at DH. That would force Butch Huskey and Ron Coomer into a fight for the right-handed half of a potential platoon job with Ortiz, a battle Huskey ought to win. Coomer would be reduced to trade bait or caddying for Corey Koskie at third base. Keeping him around on the bench seems more like the Twins' style. Mientkiewicz shouldn't have a shot at a job, but that was true last year too, and Kelly didn't seem to care.

The catching situation sort of reflects the organization's future as a whole. Sure, Javier Valentin might win right now, but it's only a matter of time before slugger Matt LeCroy claims the job. How Kelly handles LeCroy will be interesting, because assuming he's still chained to his desk, he will have similar decisions to make by next spring involving third base with Mike Cuddyer, and the spring of 2002, when outfielders Mike Restovich, Bobby Kielty and B.J. Garbe should all be more than ready. For now, Valentin will probably win one catching job out of camp, and a solid organizational soldier like A.J. Pierzynski should win the other job. Minor-league vet Marcus Jensen might sneak in here.

We could mention that there ought to be a fight for the shortstop job between incumbent Cristian Guzman and Luis Rivas, one Rivas would win, but it doesn't look like it'll happen in camp. There also ought to be a fight for left field, because Chad Allen is nothing special. With the Twins' outstanding outfield trio of the future making its way up the chain, none of the major-league outfielders should be buying a home in the Twin Cities.

As for the pitching staff, the fifth spot in the rotation is up for grabs, with journeyman Sean Bergman being the early favorite. My sense is that Mike Lincoln and Jason Ryan (and Benj Sampson, and Dan Perkins) were exactly the people Tom Kelly was talking about recently when he mentioned demoting a lot of last year's rookies.

In the bullpen, there's a wealth of left-handed pitching, with J.C. Romero coming up and Eddie Guardado and Travis Miller already in place. The Twins might have to trade from this sort of depth, if only to create roster space for Rule 5 pick Johan Santana. There are a couple of right-handed relief jobs open behind Hector Carrasco and Bob Wells, and Bobby Ayala should claim one of them. After that, journeyman Rick Greene or one of last year's rookie starters might slink into the slot. The Twins haven't had much success bumping a future starter into the long-relief role, but it did work for Joe Mays last year, and wouldn't be a bad idea for someone like Ryan or Lincoln.

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

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