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February 25, 1998

Rotisserie Turns: Spring Training Decisions, Part 2

NL position-player roles that are up for grabs

by Keith Law

Continuing our joint around the majors, we look at NL hitters embroiled in battles for starting jobs this spring. Projected starting lineups follow.

Catchers

Team: Arizona
Contenders: Kelly Stinnett, Jorge Fabregas

Not a true decision, since Fabregas has pretty much got the job locked up. The problem is that he is simply horrible at the plate, while Stinnett is more than adequate on offense and defense. Stinnett's a good bet to win the job, and you have to think Arizona is hoping to see him bring his AAA numbers (.321/.444/.565 at Tucson last year) to the majors a la Geronimo Berroa. I think it can happen.

Team: NY Mets
Contenders: Todd Pratt, Tim Spehr, Alberto Castillo, Vance Wilson

The Mets won't miss Todd Hundley, not with these guys ready to fill in the huge void left by Hundley's absence until the All-Star Break. Just kidding: the Mets' offense, weak with Hundley, is devastated without him. Todd Pratt won't exactly anchor the offense, but he could surprise people with a .270/.380/.450 season, and his defense has improved over the last few years. Spehr and Castillo aren't really factors in this race, since neither is the platoon-mate Pratt needs. Wilson is a real wild card. He was really nobody's prospect, even after adding 109 points to his SLG this year, since it was his first AA exposure at age 24. However, he hit .474 in the Arizona Fall League, and naturally finds himself in ST this year. I'm hardly convinced that he's learned to hit, but I wouldn't be surprised if he's made himself into an adequate backup.

Team: Saint Louis
Contenders: Eli Marrero, Tom Pagnozzi

I don't care what Pagnozzi's making; his playing career has been over for some time now, and there's no reason why a big-ass veteran contract should keep him playing over a talented rookie who's clearly ready. That said, LaRussa loves his veterans, and while Marrero is the projected starter here, don't be shocked to see TP get 250 AB this year.

Corner infield

Team: Montreal
Contenders: Shane Andrews, FP Santangelo, Scott Livingstone, Jose Vidro

A cast of thousands, yet none of them really good enough to play third every day. The best case scenario for Felipe & Co. is a healthy Shane Andrews portraying a poor man's Rob Deer - hurting your average while providing homers and RBI. The worst case is Scott Livingstone, he of the .164/.194/.194 last year in 67 AB. At 32, Livingstone is no more than a spare part, but that job is better filled by Vidro, who could at least provide some power backing up third and second. As for Santangelo, his ultimate role may depend on the failures of others, but Alou is likely to get FP 400 plate appearances one way or another.

Team: Cincinnati
Contenders: Roberto Petagine, Dmitri Young, Eduardo Perez (1b); Willie Greene, Aaron Boone (3b)

What a mess - albeit a mess caused by a surfeit of talent. That immediately separates the Reds from, say, the Cubs, who have the opposite mess. The Reds have tons of options at both corners, in left, and (if Reggie Sanders is traded) in right. Eduardo Perez will get extra consideration because he's something of an incumbent, but he is the worst option at either corner, as his .253/.321/.475 isn't great for a first baseman, yet reeks of an age 27 peak for Perez. Young came at a price (fan fave Jeff Brantley), so he's likely to split time with Petagine and Perez; Young and Greene could both move to left field if necessary. Greene is obviously a pretty big talent, although one who'll never reach the heights predicted, courtesy of the Reds' mishandling of him in 1995-96. Still, as the only Red with a solid shot to get 100 walks and 30 homers this season, he should inch closer to everyday status. Boone's playing time depends on where Greene is, but the organization's inclination is to get him in the lineup.

Team: Houston
Contenders: Sean Berry, Russ Johnson

Sean Berry was probably the 5th or 6th most valuable third baseman in the NL in '95-'96, and may have been the least valuable in '97. The nagging shoulder injury obviously wasn't healed, and the annual assortment of pulls and sprains hit Berry again last year. As a result, Houston non-tendered him, signed him to a minor-league deal, and invited him to ST to fight with rookie Russ Johnson for his old job. Both have value on a team that doesn't need offense at third, but this team does. I'd bet that Berry's power wins out over Johnson's walks, although Johnson should make the team as the left-infield backup.

Team: Pittsburgh
Contenders: Kevin Young, Ron Wright, Freddy Garcia, Doug Strange, Aramis Ramirez, Mark Smith

This is really a battle for the one available spot at both corners; Kevin Young will play, but it could be on either side of the diamond. The remaining candidates include Wright, a top 1b prospect who struggled with the strike zone last year and could use another 3 months in AAA; Garcia, the Rule V draft pick who hit a huge wall at the plate last year, but impressed Gene Lamont in September; Doug Strange, the free agent signee better suited to a utility role; and Ramirez, the top prospect in the system who could jump all the way from A-ball. Ramirez is the best candidate of all of them, but the Pirates have indicated that they prefer to move him up slowly (he's only 20); after Ramirez, Wright has the most talent. The decision will come down to how Garcia does this spring and what GM Cam Bonifay wishes to do with Wright developmentally. My money's on Wright at 1b this year.

Team: St. Louis
Contenders: John Mabry, Gary Gaetti

Who is the lesser of two evils? Gaetti is out to prove that he's not finished yet, but my money says he is. Mabry, on the other hand, is still learning the position, and brings a career .296/.347/.406 into 1997 - awful for a third baseman. This could be a disaster for the Cards, which is why I think they'll carry both players into the season: Mabry to start, and Gaetti for insurance. Incidentally, Mabry's 27 this year, so he might even slug .450.

Middle infield

Team: Florida
Contenders: Craig Counsell, Luis Castillo

Leyland et al have pointed to Castillo as the future at second base, so this is just a matter of time. With fan opinion so pointed against the Fish right now, moving Counsell might not play well with the 382 season ticket holders remaining, but the clock has already struck midnight on him. Castillo's outstanding winter ball gives him back the confidence he lost last year, and he can reclaim the job with a solid spring.

Team: Montreal
Contenders: Orlando Cabrera, Jose Vidro

Cabrera's the leading candidate to step into the sizable shoes of Mike Lansing and to take over the leadoff role inadequately filled by Mark Grudzielanek. Cabrera doesn't really walk enough to hit leadoff, has minimal power at best, and will probably only hit .250-.260 in the majors this year. That said, he could steal 30 bases, so you still care about him. Vidro is Cabrera with 15-20 HR power, fewer walks, and no speed. Vidro's also a candidate for the third base job, so the result there impacts the race here, but Cabrera's speed will probably propel him into an undeserved role at the top of the order.

Team: Philadelphia
Contenders: Desi Relaford, Alex Arias

Relaford's already getting raves about his defense from manager Terry Francona, which should help erase the conventional wisdom that his high error totals mean he's a poor defender. Our system looks at more than just errors, and rated Relaford the #2 defensive shortstop in the International League last year. Arias isn't really cut out to be a starter, but the Phils acknowledged that Relaford wasn't ready the way that Rolen was ready last spring. If Relaford hits at all, the starting job is his, but be warned: he'll be demoted if he struggles for an extended period, and his roto value is limited to 15-20 steals and 5-10 homers if he gets 500 PA.

Outfield

Team: Florida
Contenders: Cliff Floyd, Mark Kotsay, Todd Dunwoody, Derrek Lee (by association)

Floyd will play somewhere; while many have praised Montreal for their acquisition of Dustin Hermanson, Floyd will turn a lot of those sycophantic observers around this year as he vindicates GM Dave Dombrowski. Therefore, the real race here is between Kotsay, Dunwoody, and Lee for the two slots out of center/left/first base not occupied by Floyd. Dunwoody is the rawest of the three, showing good talent but stagnating in the plate discipline department, and is my pick for the most likely loser of the battle. Lee played better than expected at AAA last year, and while his power was down, his strike zone judgment was much improved, indicating that he's probably ready for the next step. Kotsay is simply ready, and is the most likely of the three to nail down a job this spring.

Team: Montreal
Contenders: FP Santangelo, Ryan McGuire, Derrick May, perhaps Wil Cordero

The Cordero rumor is relatively new, but would be a brilliant signing for Jim Beattie. Cordero was on his way to a breakout season last year when he demonstrated his lack of phone skills, and his actions created a controversy that destroyed his season. If he's receiving the proper counseling, there's no reason he shouldn't be allowed to play baseball on the condition that he continue treatment. Regardless, until he's signed, FP Santangelo is probably the leading candidate here, which (as mentioned earlier) impacts numerous other races for jobs in Montreal. McGuire had a brief torrid streak when recalled last summer, which may give him a reputation as a good hitter, something he is not. He's also a first baseman whose left field defense is not particularly strong. All that said, he's better than Derrick May.

Team: NY Mets
Contenders: Butch Huskey, Brian McRae, Rich Becker

Like others in this article, this "race" isn't really a race, but a situation to monitor. Huskey and McRae both have platoon splits, and McRae's was particularly pronounced (.278/.333/.444 vs. RHP, .230/.324/.361 vs. LHP) last year. Becker could enter a strict platoon with one or the other, or could see time spelling both at various points during the season. One would presume the Mets didn't acquire Becker to sit him, so consider the possible loss of plate appearances when valuing Huskey and McRae this year.

Team: Philadelphia
Contenders: Bob Abreu, Billy McMillon

Team officials have said that Abreu's the man in right, but he has struggled in the majors thus far, and while he's quite talented, the club may turn to McMillon if Abreu has a poor spring. Best case scenario here is that the club rids itself of either Jefferies or Brogna, moving one of the two prospects over to left.

Team: Cincinnati
Contenders: Chris Stynes, Melvin Nieves, Dmitri Young, Willie Greene, Pat Watkins

No matter how hard he tries, Jack McKeon can't fit all those bodies into one outfield spot, or even two if Reggie Sanders is indeed traded. The best guess here is that Greene gets the most AB, Stynes plays until he turns back into a pumpkin, Watkins returns to AAA, and Nieves and Young fight for playing time, with Young garnering some time at first. If Sanders leaves, Nieves is the immediate beneficiary, followed by Young. My main concern here is that it is not possible for Nieves, Young, Greene, Petagine, and Aaron Boone to all get 500 PA this year, so hedge your bets appropriately.

Team: Pittsburgh
Contenders: Jermaine Allensworth, Turner Ward

A team like the Pirates needs to concentrate its efforts on developing a steady stream of young talent, not on re-signing replaceable mediocrities like Turner Ward to two-year contracts. Ward did smack the hell out of the ball last year, but that just demonstrates is how easy it is to find outfielders who can hit. Allensworth isn't a future star in the Hermansen-Ramirez camp or even in the Wright camp, but he's not old (26, as opposed to Ward, who's 33), and at least has a small chance to turn into something useful. He has to win the job back this spring, but he's likely to do so, given the weak competition.

Team: Arizona
Contenders: David Dellucci, Brent Brede, Karim Garcia, Yamil Benitez

A well-chronicled competition that should be fun to watch. Dellucci's earns the scorn of scouts for his lack of tools, but he's probably the best bet in this group to perform in '98 in the majors. Garcia is the hot prospect here, and appears to be recovered from offseason shoulder surgery. Those two would be my picks for the left and right corners, respectively. Benitez hits lots of tape-measure shots, but has atrocious plate discipline and will likely lose any job given him this year. Brede's a WYSIWYG guy (what you see is what you get), who should hit for a nice average, draw lots of walks, and leave you a little short of power in that area of your lineup. He's a very useful guy on a team with lots of sluggers, but the D-backs ain't one of those.

Team: San Diego
Contenders: Ruben Rivera, Greg Vaughn

No contest; Rivera should win this by a mile, and Vaughn can take his sorry $5MM derriere to the bench - or to the unemployment line.

Projected lineups

   Atlanta	Florida		Montreal	NY Mets		Philadelphia
c  Lopez	Johnson, C	Widger		Pratt et al	Lieberthal
1b Galarraga	Lee, D		Fullmer		Olerud		Brogna
		Floyd
2b Graffanino	Counsell	Cabrera, O	Baerga		Lewis, M
		Castillo
ss Weiss	Renteria	Grudzielanek	Ordonez		Relaford
								Arias
3b Jones, C	Bonilla		Andrews		Alfonzo		Rolen
lf Klesko	Kotsay		Santangelo	Gilkey		Jeffries
		Dunwoody	McGuire
cf Jones, A	Floyd		White, R	McRae		Glanville
								Cummings
rf Tucker	Sheffield	Guerrero, V	Huskey/Becker	Abreu

   Chicago Cubs	Cincinnati	Houston		Milwaukee	Pittsburgh	St. Louis
c  Servais	Taubensee	Ausmus		Matheny		Kendall		Marrero
   Houston									Pagnozzi
1b Grace	Petagine	Bagwell		Jaha		Young, K	McGwire
		Perez, E					Wright
2b Morandini	Boone, B	Biggio		Vina		Womack		DeShields
ss Blauser	Larkin		Spiers		Valentin	Collier		Clayton
								Polcovich
3b Orie		Greene, W	Berry		Cirillo		Garcia, F	Mabry
		Boone, A	Johnson, R			Young, K	Gaetti
lf Rodriguez, H	Stynes		Alou		Nilsson		Martin		Gant
		Nieves
		Greene, W
		Young
cf Johnson, L	Nunnally	Hidalgo		Grissom		Allensworth	Lankford
				Everett
rf Sosa		Sanders, R	Bell, D		Burnitz		Guillen		Jordan

   Arizona	Colorado	Los Angeles	San Diego	San Francisco
c  Fabregas	Reed		Piazza		Hernandez, C	Johnson, B
						Myers, G
1b Lee, T	Helton		Karros		Joyner		Snow
2b Batista	Lansing		Young, E	Veras		Kent
ss Bell		Perez, N	Vizcaino	Gomez		Sanchez
3b Williams, M	Castilla	Zeile		Caminiti	Hayes
								Mueller
lf Dellucci	Bichette	Hollandsworth	Rivera		Bonds
   Brede					Vaughn, G
cf White, D	Burks		Cedeno, R	Finley		Hamilton
rf Garcia	Walker		Mondesi		Gwynn		Javier
   Benitez							Cruz

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