March 3, 2000
AL East Notebook
Exhibition games begin today, and performances over the next four weeks will go a long way towards determining who gets a chance at fame and fortune and who gets six at-bats a week. In the AL East, there are a couple of knock-down, drag-out job battles that will bear watching throughout March.
Delino DeShields vs. Jerry Hairston for the Orioles' second-base job.
Projections from Baseball Prospectus 2000 (BA/OBP/SLG/EqA):
For the long-term health of the franchise, Jerry Hairston should be given the job and allowed to run with it. But new Oriole manager Mike Hargrove has stated that Delino DeShields is the early front-runner. The veteran is entering the second year of an ill-advised three-year contract, one of many questionable signings by the Angelos Orioles. His presence is just a reflection of the current organizational delusion: this Oriole team cannot and will not contend for anything in the American League.
Hairston isn't a great prospect, certainly not on the level of the American League's best young second baseman, Carlos Febles. He has a broad base of skills, including some power and plate discipline, and he plays the position well. He is still developing, and chances are that a healthy DeShields would outperform Hairston in 2000.
But there's part of the rub. DeShields's inability to stay healthy in 1999 was what allowed Hairston to get playing time late in the year. His nagging injuries consistently bring down his performance, and mean there's never any expectation that he'll be able to play more than 115 games. Regardless of what happens in the spring, Hairston is in line to get at least as many major-league at-bats as he did last year.
One potential solution is a platoon. DeShields's platoon split has increased markedly since his Dodger days, and Hairston, a right-handed batter, hammers left-handed pitching. Limiting DeShields's playing time could keep him healthier as well. The downside is in making a 24-year-old a part-time player.
The best-case scenario for the Orioles would be for DeShields to play well enough, and stay healthy enough, for them to trade him at midseason to a team with a big problem at the position. Neither DeShields nor Hairston is really cut out for a utility infield job.
DeShields will probably be the Opening Day second baseman. Hargrove's hands are tied by DeShields's contract and the expectations for his team. If you're an Oriole fan, though, you have to hope that by the time August rolls around, Hairston has moved onto the diamond to stay.
Jose Cruz Jr. vs. Vernon Wells for the Blue Jays' center-field job. Projections from Baseball Prospectus 2000 (BA/OBP/SLG/EqA):
Cruz Jr.: .242/.352/.426/.269
If you're Jose Cruz Jr., you can't help but be a little amused by all the hype surrounding Vernon Wells. Just two years ago, Cruz was 24 and coming off a 26-homer rookie season, ready to become a superstar in the Blue Jays' outfield. It didn't happen. Cruz got off to a lousy start in 1998 and was demoted, coming back to have a good second half for the Jays. Last year, he again scuffled, showing good plate discipline but disappointing power, and again spent part of the summer at Syracuse.
It was that second demotion in August of 1999, that set the stage for Wells's major-league debut. Wells won top prospect honors in all three minor leagues he played in in 1999, blasting through three levels before reaching Toronto in August. He is unquestionably the top center-field prospect in the game, combining great physical tools with an understanding of the strike zone and good outfield play. In most quarters, he's seen as a candidate for the AL's Rookie of the Year award.
Wells and Cruz have taken very different paths to a warm March in Dunedin, and this is about as even a battle as you're going to find. But while Wells has a halo, media and analyst accolades and a better glove, it's unlikely that he's ready for the majors just yet. While his EqA held steady at every minor-league level in 1999, his walk-to-strikeout ratio and walk rate deteriorated, and they collapsed in Toronto (four walks and 18 strikeouts in 88 at-bats).
Cruz, on the other hand, fits the Jays' 2000 lineup better. With Raul Mondesi replacing Shawn Green, and Alex Gonzalez in for the 1999 version of Tony Fernandez, the Jays are going to be missing baserunners. They're also going to be more right-handed. Cruz is a switch-hitter with a good OBP, just now coming into his peak.
If the Jays are looking for an excuse to send Wells to Syracuse, they can find one at first base. Carlos Delgado made the Jays off a great spring in 1994, and started the year like a house on fire. After he slumped badly, the Jays demoted him in May, and Delgado lost the rest of 1994 and all of 1995 before restarting his career in 1996.
Vernon Wells is going to be a great player, possibly as soon as 2001. For now, however, Toronto would be best served by letting him work on his game in Triple-A, and letting Jose Cruz give them what they need in Toronto.