February 6, 2006
With spring training about a week away, I spent some time this weekend looking at the depth charts over at MLB.com. Their depth charts have become the most reliable on the Web, at least in the offseason. (We'll have ours up for Premium and Fantasy subscribers shortly.)
What I noticed was that there are a number of starting roles that, even with the winter transaction period just about complete and the free-agent pool empty, appear to be unfilled by any viable candidate. Some of these are holes carried over from last season, unrecognized by the team; others were created by a free-agent departure or trade. In all cases, a team is heading into Florida or Arizona with a gaping lineup hole and no good solutions.
The one that really jumps out at me is the Angels' catching situation. With Bengie Molina presumably gone as a free agent--he's yet to sign, so he could conceivably head back to Anaheim on May 1--the Angels head into the season apparenly intending to let Jeff Mathis take the job, with Jose Molina reprising his role as a backup.
Two years ago, Mathis was one of the game's top prospects, coming off of a big year at Rancho Cucamonga as a 20-year-old, and a decent showing in a month at Double-A Arkansas. He had a lousy '04, hitting .223/.308/.392 at Double-A, a performance that you could arguably discount because of his age. Promoted to Triple-A last season, he hit .276/.340/.499 for Salt Lake, a line that looks good for a 22-year-old catcher, but is considerably inflated by the offensive environment. Mathis' strikeout rate and strikeout-to-walk ratios have remained essentially unchanged for three years, as has his power production. Mathis is basically the same player he was three years ago.
He did throw out one in three basestealers last year, an acceptable percentage, and Baseball America was enthusiastic about his defensive reputation. Still, I see a player who doesn't have great power, hasn't hit for high averages, with marginal plate discipline. PECOTA doesn't agree, pegging Mathis at .241/.302/.403 for a .245 EqA, which would be acceptable for the minimum salary. I don't see Mathis retaining even that much batting average or power in the majors, and expect the Angels to have a real problem on their hands when he doesn't.
One major lineup hole can be devastating to a team's chances. The Indians can trace their inability to finish out their in-season comeback last year to three of them: right field, third base and first base, three spots from which they received inadequate production in '05. All three starters at those spots return to their jobs this year, a rare case of a good front office not addressing the team's needs.
With Andy Marte at least in the organization to eventually play third base, the biggest problem I see is the continued use of Casey Blake in right field. Blake was a good story for a couple of seasons, a minor-league veteran who finally got a job at 29 and put up servicable lines for a minimum-salaried player while playing an adequate third base. Coming off his career-year 2004, though, the Tribe created room for Aaron Boone by moving Blake to right field. He played enough to pop 56 extra-base hits, but his overall .241/.308/.438 line was well below par for an AL corner outfielder, and the converted infielder wasn't making it up with the glove. Now 32, Blake will be hard-pressed to match even last year's production. He has no business starting for a good team; unfortunately, with Franklin Gutierrez's slow development, the Indians don't have a viable option for replacing him. PECOTA, I should mention, sees a small bounceback to .254/.322/.432, which would make him a league-average hitter on the nose.
The Padres won the NL West in 2005 with an 82-80 record, thanks in no small part to the devastating injuries suffered by the competition in Los Angeles and San Francisco. They likely can't count on the same in '06, and given what their infield looks like right now, they may need that same kind of luck to stay in the race. In a completely inexplicable move, the Padres traded a mid-rotation innings guy in Brian Lawrence for one of my favorite kickable dogs, Vinny Castilla, and installed him as the third baseman. Stathead rant in three, two, one…
Here's the catch: over the past three seasons, Castilla has basically been a league-average hitter--a little better, actually--with a plus glove. Even his apparent collapse last season, to 12 home runs and a .403 slugging average, wasn't as drastic as it seemed. He moved from the best hitters' environment in the game to the best pitchers' one, and actually lost just 15 points of EqA and two wins' worth of value. He was well above average with the glove, which was a big part of why the Pads picked him up.
With all that said, there's no way I can see this as a step in the right direction. Castilla is 38 years old, slow, impatient at the plate, a flyball hitter in a place flyballs go to die. Maybe this isn't the year he falls off the cliff; maybe he's the Mexican Julio Franco and we just don't know it yet. More likely, the Padres have a big hole in their infield.
Er, maybe that should be big holeS. A hundred-odd feet to Castilla's left, the Padres are going to be filling Mark Loretta's shoes with rookie Josh Barfield. Barfield, like the Angels' Mathis, followed up a big '03 with a subpar '04 and a better '05. The son of former All-Star Jesse, Barfield shares his dad's high strikeout rate and good power, and two years ago looked to be on his way to an outfield corner like the old man. Improvement with the glove has enabled him to stay at second base, and a huge second half of 2005 restored much of his prospect sheen.
You might recall that my skepticism about Chris Young's future is driven by concern over his strikeout rate. Barfield hasn't cut his rate in five pro seasons, and as with Mathis, you have to wonder how much of his stat line is a product of the environments in which he's played. I don't think he's going to come close to a .310 batting average, and would be surprised if he hit .260 with league-average walks and power. He's not a good enough defensive player to be an asset without a productive bat.
If either Castilla or Barfield spits the bit, the playing time will likely fall to Mark Bellhorn. Bellhorn is a better player than he showed in '05, but as a flyball hitter who works deep counts and has struggled to hit for average in good environments, playing in Petco Park isn't going to bode well for his output. The Padres have to hope that two of these three players at least manage to be average players, and that doesn't seem likely.
The Marlins deserve mention for their complete lack of major leaguers at three up-the-middle positions, but we'll cover them in a separate piece before spring training starts.