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May 19, 2000
AL Central Notebook
One of the more regular complaints about the staff of Baseball Prospectus is that we're prospectaholics. It's a fair charge, because I know that we as a group, and myself in particular, are hard-core believers in the idea that minor-league performance can tell us how well players can play at the major-league level.
What we are guilty of, and maybe me more than most, is not putting enough emphasis on that word can. As analysts, we can all try to cop a plea when Tom Kelly finally says that he's seen enough of Todd Walker. We'll rightly point out that Walker is the best man the Twins have to play second base right now, and he hit as well in 1998 as we all expected or how most projection systems predicted he would. Kelly can point out that Walker's defense hasn't improved, and considering how much weaker our tools to evaluate defense are compared to our tools to evaluate offense, it's a valid point. While Walker's defense scores poorly by such measures as Range Factor or the Davenport Fielding Translations, there just isn't enough evidence available to make useful assumptions about how a player's defensive skills develop over time. So it's clear we could do a better job of considering factors concerning on-field contributions (like defensive skill) as well as less concrete ones (like anticipating Tom Kelly's next hot flash) to come up with some improved guesses about player development.
Keeping that in mind, let's review some of the positions on teams around the AL Central, where we wondered about how well they'd be filled with adequate veterans while speculating about prospects they might have coming up.
Chicago White Sox
We expected the Sox would have a wide-open situation at the infield corners and they do. While I'm probably one of Jerry Manuel's harshest critics, the man deserves credit for not shutting the door on Paul Konerko's career as a third baseman or on Frank Thomas wearing a glove at all. While using both of them, he's managed to work in Greg Norton effectively and use Craig Wilson to advantage.
What might have been a confused situation is much more than that. It's a tribute to maximum flexibility, where four players move through three positions (first base, third base and DH) and get experience at each so that the Sox aren't forced into calling up Joe Crede too soon. While Crede is off to a hot start at Birmingham, the Sox can afford to take their time with him, because they've managed to make a wide-open situation into a major asset by using established players.
There isn't much to say about the Indians and what they should be doing with adequate veterans as opposed to young talent. The don't have much of either: the lineup is saddled with high-cost and high-quality veterans on the tail end of the productive years of their careers, and Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome at the height of theirs. The only young position player they have who's ready (and good enough) to play regularly in the majors is Enrique Wilson, and that's only if something happens to either Roberto Alomar or Omar Vizquel.
I've already belabored the absence of a legitimate center fielder in the system to back up Kenny Lofton, but the Tribe is also stuck if any important offensive regular goes down from among Ramirez, Thome, David Justice or Travis Fryman. If any of these guys go down, the Tribe will have to make a trade, because they won't trust Russ Branyan or Jeff Manto with playing time.
The Tigers didn't really have much in the way of choices in camp and don't really have any now. Their problem isn't one of adequate veterans versus almost-ready prospects. The problem is that they have nothing but adequate or barely-adequate veterans, and the only ready prospects all play catcher, DH or first base, and not center field or right field or left field.
While Brad Ausmus and Tony Clark are nice enough players for the time being, the question the franchise has to deal with isn't whether those guys will or should eventually get beaten out by Javier Cardona or Eric Munson, respectively, or whether Rob Fick could take either of their jobs. The Tigers are almost certainly better off playing Ausmus and Clark until they can find a taker for them, and then trading them for outfielders who can hit and walk and hopefully at least one who can play center field. You know, the things people expect from major league outfielders. If they can make that kind of deal in July or August, then they can start deciding whether or not Cardona or Munson is ready.
Kansas City Royals
The Royals have already made their choices as far as youth, generally going with it. But leave it to Herk Robinson to make things a little more interesting than they had to be. He created an artificial choice between Mark Quinn and Jeremy Giambi when he could have kept both, especially considering that it meant keeping minor-league veteran Dave McCarty instead. Dumping Giambi makes even less sense considering how heavily the Royals' lineup leans to the right. Robinson could have kept Sal Fasano around to catch, but Fasano is hardly a spring chicken at 28, and only has similar, and not significantly better, offensive skills to Brian Johnson.
Veteran temps at third base (Joe Randa), catcher (Johnson and Gregg Zaun) and shortstop (Rey Sanchez) are fine in the absence of legitimate prospects, but the Royals' problem is that they don't have the prospects to eventually replace them, or much worth trading to get those prospects.
Which brings us to the Twins, who have a strange balance between prospects and inadequate veterans. Last year, they almost went out of their way to discredit youth movements in general by letting guys like Doug Mientkiewicz and Chad Allen win regular jobs. This year, they've gone with an odd mix of the adequate vets and prospects.
On the side of mediocrity, they're using Butch Huskey, Ron Coomer and, arguably, Matt Lawton. On the side of talented youth, they have David Ortiz and Matt LeCroy. They've excised Mientkiewicz and Allen and Marty Cordova and Walker, which looks like three guys who can't hit well enough to man left field or first base and a second baseman who can't field his position. Maybe it's just me, but right now it doesn't look like any of those guys will turn into All-Stars, barring the good luck of a stint with the Rockies.
Meanwhile, Tom Kelly has kept playing Jacque Jones, Torii Hunter, Cristian Guzman and Corey Koskie. Sure, I'd like it if he played Ortiz and LeCroy more regularly and turned Ron Coomer into a nice bench player, and there was obviously no good excuse for why Ortiz didn't make the team last year. Nevertheless, it looks like Kelly isn't doing that horrible of a job of letting young players show whether or not they can play. They're already so convinced that Guzman is their shortstop of the future that they've moved Luis Rivas to second base, and he may fill that hole before the end of the season.
I'll go over old ground to point out that this team isn't really going to be able to keep up with the White Sox or the Royals as far as rebuilding until guys like Mike Cuddyer, Bobby Kielty, Mike Restovich and B.J. Garbe develop.
Chris Kahrl can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.