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February 18, 1998

Rotisserie Turns: Spring Training Decisions, Part 1

AL position-player roles that are up for grabs

by Keith Law

This week, we'll take the first of four looks at major-league jobs that aren't currently nailed down by one player. These positions offer opportunities for hedging (if you've got one contender, get the other), for speculating (bet on the underdog or the battle's eventual loser), and for shunning risk entirely (avoiding the guys whose jobs aren't safe), depending on your risk tolerance. In this column, I'll discuss AL hitters in the running for various starting roles.

Catchers

Team: Detroit
Contenders: Raul Casanova, Joe Oliver

Casanova, imported via Randy Smith's Wayback Machine when the dial was set to San Diego, 1995, still hasn't gotten a clean shot at the starting job. Just when it looked like the job was his after the Tiggers rid themselves of The Walbeck, they imported Joe Oliver, a 32-year-old catcher who'd make a great backup but is a poor choice for a rebuilding team's starting role. Casanova should win the job in spring training, but remember that he didn't impress in 302 AB last year (.243/.308/.332) and now has to overcome that poor performance in Buddy Bell's eyes.

Team: NY Yankees
Contenders: Jorge Posada, Joe Girardi

Whispers that Posada will get the starting nod this year strike this Yankee fan as too good to be true, given the paycheck that Girardi will receive this year (the last year of a 2-year deal). The fact is that Posada can help a team offensively right now, and was pretty good in his first real major-league exposure last year (.250/.359/.410). He's not young (26 this year) and is unlikely to ever swat 20 homers in a season, but he can play defense and could outhit Girardi 8 ways to Sunday. Posada's a great choice for speculators, because he won't hurt you in limited time, and could surprise pleasantly if he beats Girardi down. He's even better in OBA leagues.

Team: Oakland
Contenders: AJ Hinch, George Williams, whoever else shows up

Finally, a team that wants to give the job to the prospect. The Oakland front office loves AJ Hinch, and it's not hard to see why: the '96 draft pick hit .328/.420/.568 with 24 homers combined in the California and Pacific Coast Leagues in his first year with the wooden bat. Scary to think he might still be adjusting. He'll get every chance to win the job outright this spring, but expect to pay full price for him this year, as the secret is out about him. If you get him, George Williams is a pretty good hedge; he shouldn't hurt you on average and is a conservative bet for 10-15 homers in a full season.

Corner infield

Team: Minnesota
Contenders: David Ortiz, Ron Coomer, Corey Koskie, Scott Stahoviak, Orlando Merced

What an unholy mess. The right solution here would be to put Ortiz at first, put Koskie at third, put Coomer on the bench, and put the other two out to pasture. The Twinkies aren't winning anything this year, so they should really focus on putting kids on the field wherever possible. However, Coomer's a fan and management favorite, and it would be unrealistic to expect him to sit. Neither Ortiz nor Koskie has much experience above AA (Koskie has none, in fact), and Ortiz is just 22 years old, so the organization may find it easy to send one or both guys to AAA to start the season. Much depends on spring training.

Team: NY Yankees
Contenders: Mike Lowell, Scott Brosius, Dale Sveum

No one's talking about it, but third base is really up for grabs in New York. Wade Boggs is gone, and Charlie Hayes was pawned off on the first idiot to call Bob Watson about him. The really interesting guy here is 24-year-old Mike Lowell, who broke out in fine form last year, posting a .344/.439/561 in AA Norwich and continuing his success with a .276/.347/.562 in AAA Columbus. The guy has major-league power, draws more than a few walks, and should hit for a roto-plus average--but the Yankees hardly have a great track record at bringing up rookies; hence, we have Scott Brosius hanging around. Brosius isn't a bad player to have on the roster, especially since his presence means that Kenny Rogers is gone, but he won't hit as well as Lowell, and is a lot more useful backing up 2b/ss/3b off the bench. Sveum isn't really a contender for the third base job, and God help us if he wins it anyway.

Middle infield

Team: Oakland
Contenders: Kurt Abbott, Miguel Tejada, Rafael Bournigal

The job is apparently Abbott's for now, as Billy Beane and his frijoles have decided to send Tejada to AAA for a few more months of prep. Still, a hot spring from Tejada could change things quickly, as the organization has made it clear they see the job as his long-term. Incidentally, does anyone wonder why the A's gave up Eric Ludwick to get Kurt Abbott when they could have kept Scott Sheldon for free?

Team: Cleveland
Contenders: Enrique Wilson, Carlos Garcia

Wilson has been Cleveland's top infield prospect for approximately 17 years, yet is just 22 years old - an amazing feat when you get down and do the math. The Indians are apparently leaving this all up to spring training, but my money is on Carlos Garcia continuing to prove that he's actually eligible for Medicare benefits by having a lousy spring.

Outfield

Team: Boston
Contenders: Troy O'Leary, Darren Bragg, Michael Coleman, Damon Buford, Trot Nixon

...and quite possibly none of them good. O'Leary and Bragg are useful role players, but neither hits enough to play a corner spot full-time. That said, O'Leary is a good bet for 450-500 plate appearances this year, given his new long-term contract. You know what to expect from those two; you know Buford isn't really very good; Prospectus readers know that we don't really care for Trot Nixon's tools; so the real wild card here is Mr. Coleman. Coleman was another tools goof with bad plate discipline until last year, when he broke out all over with a serious case of offense: .301/.372/.496 in 444 PA at AA, .319/.391/.619 in 128 PA at AAA, with 24 steals combined at the two levels. It's hard to ignore the fact that he never hit like that before, but at his age (22), it's quite possible he finally put it all together. If the Sox don't make a trade, Coleman seems like the only choice for the 3rd outfield slot.

Team: NY Yankees
Contenders: Darryl Strawberry, Chad Curtis, Tim Raines, Ricky Ledee

Joe Torre has strongly indicated that a healthy Darryl wins the left field job, which will certainly send Ledee back to Columbus and will probably lead Raines to ask for a trade. God knows why the Yankees re-signed Raines and Strawberry and then signed Chili Davis, with Ledee ready now, but they did. Regardless, the odds of Ledee getting a fair shot at the job seem slim with all these millionaires in front of him, and Curtis hit well enough last year that he'll have a bit of a halo around his spring performance. I'd stay low on Ledee & Raines for this year at auction, and I'd hope for a trade if Ledee were in my farm system.

Team: Tampa Bay
Contenders: Mike Kelly, Bubba Trammell, Dave Martinez, Quinton McCracken

The three starting outfielders in Tropicana Field will probably come from this less-than-impressive bunch, and the best of them (Trammell) will probably be the one to get the shaft. McCracken will probably be way overvalued at many AL auctions, since his numbers the last two years were boosted by his ballpark. Kelly's another tools goof whose ultimate role should be as the RH half of a platoon, but whose overall numbers will suffer the more he hits against righties. As for Martinez, don't expect any more than you got last season (his numbers last year are a near-perfect match for his 5-year averages), and be aware that he's 33 and that this won't last forever.

Team: Kansas City
Contenders: Rod Myers, Jermaine Dye

Let's assume, for a brief moment, that Johnny Damon and Jeff Conine are set in center and left, respectively. That leaves Tony Muser with what should be an easy decision: Rod Myers in right, instead of Jermaine Dye. But remember that Dye is the remaining bounty from a Herk trade gone horribly wrong - the sale of Michael Tucker to Atlanta for some shiny rocks - and that there's always going to be an organizational hope that he'll justify the trade. I still think Myers will take the job and Dye will be the 4th outfielder, but consider this a warning.

Team: Oakland
Contenders: Shane Mack, Jason McDonald, Ernie Young, Ryan Christenson

Mack doesn't have the job locked up already, so much can happen in the A's spring camp. Mack was more brittle than anything else last year, and while his .315 average looked nice, his .438 slugging percentage was nothing special. At 34 this year, I wouldn't expect any improvement. Jason McDonald is kind of a WYSIWYG player - what you see is what you get, and don't expect much more - but he has some roto value because of his speed, and he's especially valuable in OBA leagues because his OBAs are solid even when his batting average isn't. Christenson's an intriguing prospect who isn't especially young (24) but tore through three levels last year, with good power and a great batting eye. Watch him carefully, as he's expected to get a shot at the centerfield job, but hasn't garnered much press. Ernie Young is hanging on for dear life, and will probably rank 4th on this list of 4.

Team: Seattle
Contenders: Glenallen Hill, Rich Amaral, Rob Ducey, Raul Ibanez

With Raul Ibanez's recent injury and surgery, it looks like the leading contender is out of the running for the left field job for now. That probably means that "proven veteran" Glenallen Hill will bring his flyball butchering act to the Kingdome. If so, expect a continued offensive decline to be less than completely offset by the move to the AL.

Designated Hitter

Team: Cleveland
Contenders: Geronimo Berroa, Brian Giles

One can only presume that Giles is hanging around until the end of July, when John Hart will package him (a la Billy McMillon last year) for a stretch-run acquisition. The Indians aren't paying Berroa to sit on the bench, so Giles owners will have to hope for an injury or for an earlier trade for, say, Randy Johnson.

Projected lineups

   Baltimore	Boston		NY Yankees	Tampa Bay	Toronto
c  Hoiles	Hatteberg 	Posada		Flaherty	Fletcher
		Leyritz		Girardi				Santiago
1b Palmeiro	Vaughn		Martinez, T	McGriff		Delgado (DL)
2b Alomar, R	Valentin	Knoblauch	Cairo		Fernandez, T
		Frye
ss Bordick	Garciaparra	Jeter		Stocker		Gonzalez, A
3b Ripken, C	Naehring	Lowell		Boggs		Sprague
				Brosius
lf Surhoff	Bragg		Curtis		McCracken	Cruz, J
				Ledee
				Raines
cf Anderson, B	Coleman		Williams, B	Martinez, Dave	Stewart
rf Davis, E	O'Leary		O'Neill		Kelly, M	Green
dh Carter, J	Jefferson, R	Davis, C 	Sorrento	Canseco 
				Strawberry 			Stanley

   Chicago	Cleveland	Detroit		Kansas City	Minnesota
c  O'Brien	Alomar, S	Casanova 	Sweeney 	Steinbach
				Oliver 		Macfarlane	
1b Thomas	Thome		Clark, T	King		Ortiz
								Coomer
2b Durham	Wilson, E 	Easley		Offerman	Walker
		Garcia, C
ss Gil		Vizquel		Cruz, D (DL)	Miller, O	Mears
3b Ventura	Fryman		Randa		Palmer		Coomer
								Koskie
lf Belle	Justice		Gonzalez, L	Conine		Cordova
cf Cameron	Lofton		Hunter		Damon		Nixon
rf Sierra	Ramirez		Higginson 	Dye		Lawton
						Myers		Ochoa
dh Ordonez, M	Berroa		Roberts		Morris		Molitor
		Giles						Merced

   Anaheim	Oakland		Seattle		Texas
c  Greene, T	Hinch		Wilson, D	Rodriguez, I
1b Erstad	Giambi		Segui		Clark, W
2b Velarde	Spiezio		Cora		McLemore
ss DiSarcina	Abbott		Rodriguez, A	Elster
		Tejada
3b Hollins	Bellhorn	Davis, R	Tatis
						Alicea
lf Anderson, G	Henderson, R	Hill, G		Greer
				Ibanez
cf Edmonds	Mack et al	Griffey		Goodwin
rf Salmon	Grieve		Buhner		Gonzalez, J
dh Fielder	Stairs		Martinez, E	Stevens

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