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March 28, 2008

Prospectus Today

Spring Lessons

by Joe Sheehan

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I've pounded home the point that you can't learn anything from spring training performances, because of the small samples, the variability of competition, and the fact that people aren't playing to win. Outside of player performance, though, there are some insights that can be gained, largely from watching how managers run their rosters, and perhaps from other issues that crop up during the spring. Here are the most notable things I've picked up over the last six weeks.

The Mets have more problems than I thought they did. After the Johan Santana trade, I pegged the Mets as the best team in the National League, maybe five games better than the pack from which they separated by making that deal. As we've seen, though, while we think of Santana and David Wright and Jose Reyes when we think of the Mets, they actually have a fairly old, injury-prone lineup, and lack depth at the positions where they carry the most risk.

Moises Alou, Carlos Delgado, and Luis Castillo all missed time in the spring to injuries. All three routinely miss 20 games a year-and often more-to various ailments. Backing up those players right now are Endy Chavez-himself an injury case last year-Marlon Anderson, and Damion Easley. Fernando Tatis and Brady Clark are battling for the final roster spot. No, this isn't a retro league. If the Mets lose Delgado or Castillo for any length of time, especially after having placed Ruben Gotay on waivers, they'll have a hole they can't fill adequately. The core talent on hand, including a terrific rotation in the top four spots, makes this the best team in the NL; it's just tenuous due to the age, fragility and lack of depth at a number of positions.

The Giants are awful. Yeah, this hedges close to the notion of spring-training performance being meaningful, but I'll take the hit for that. It's not just the 8-21 record, the Cactus League-low 144 runs scored, or the league-leading 225 runs allowed. Well, it is the latter; they Giants were outscored by three runs a game in exhibition play.

The roster looks like someone's keeper list from the second Clinton Administration. Jose Castillo has washed out of two of the worst organizations in baseball, but was snapped up instantly once he became available last week, and might be the starting third baseman. That's better than the situation at shortstop, where in the absence of Omar Vizquel and his stories of a time before electricity, the Giants are going with something called Brian Bocock, who hit .220/.293/.328 in the Cal League at the age of 22 last season. Nothing against Bocock-it's not his fault his superiors can't run an organization-but what does it say that the second-best available option at shortstop in the system is a 23-year-old who was one of the worst players in High-A?

At the same time the Giants are assembling a roster of Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, and 23 Fresno Grizzlies, they're embarrassing themselves by erasing all mentions of Barry Bonds from AT&T Park. Bonds is responsible for that park, in the same way that Ken Griffey helped create Safeco Field and Tony Gwynn built Petco Park. It's one thing to squeeze every last dollar out of the man's career, another to discard your best player because of public-relations concerns, and another thing entirely to erase him from existence. Here's a tip for Giants management: pretending you're better off with Dave Roberts in left field instead of Bonds isn't made any more believable by changing signage and décor. The spin that a Bonds-free clubhouse will somehow make up for a Bonds-free baseball field has no credibility whatsoever. This is the worst team in baseball, and rapidly challenging for the label of worst organization.

The Dodgers might be all right. Without fanfare, without declarations, and with a minimum of drama, Joe Torre seems to be coming around to what outsiders have been saying all winter: Juan Pierre is his fourth outfielder. As March has progressed, as the three players make it very clear in which order they should receive playing time, Torre has said as little as possible about the situation, but increasingly doled out starts to Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp at Pierre's expense.

The biggest fear in the Dodgers' hiring of Torre is that the preference for experience he showed in the latter half of his Yankees tenure would carry over, and lead him to play Pierre over better players. It doesn't appear that is going to happen, and while the situation will have to be managed, better to manage a personnel situation and play the right guys than solve the happiness issue by making the baseball team worse.

The parallels between Juan Pierre and Luis Gonzalez are interesting. Gonzalez had a longstanding reputation as one of the good guys in the game, and I've no doubt that, outside of a baseball uniform, he earns that. In Arizona in 2006 and in Los Angeles in 2007, however, Gonzalez was a divisive presence the moment his playing time was reduced. Pierre, also by acclamation one of the game's better people, now finds himself in the same spot, and by all accounts, is grousing a bit about it.

To me, it goes to the whole notion of how players get labels, and how worthless those labels are in practice. Regardless, Torre has to put the best team on the field, and he appears prepared to do that. This decision bodes well for a future one on Andy LaRoche, who is a much better player than the current version of Nomar Garciaparra, and should similarly get the playing time ahead of the veteran once his thumb heals.

Dusty Baker really can screw it all up. Jay Bruce is in Triple-A, while Corey Patterson and his career .298 OBP are slated for the leadoff slot. There are few things you can do to an offense worse than sticking a terrible OBP guy in the #1 hole. That's what Patterson is, and if the decision to invite him to camp was a good one-he'd make an excellent fourth outfielder-and the decision to start him in center is marginally defensible, the decision to bat him first is just ridiculous.

The final verdict on the damage Baker might render isn't in, which makes the next three days critical for Reds fans. The team's lineups over the past few days are good signs, Patterson aside. Jeff Keppinger and Joey Votto have been starting at shortstop and first base, respectively, which is what the Reds need. Choosing the 1992 Braves (Mike Stanton and Kent Mercker) over Bill Bray for the bullpen isn't a good decision. Stanton is simply done, while Bray has the kind of live arm that can be a weapon in a situational or full-inning role.

We can't completely write off Baker. How he handles Votto's first bad week, or Keppinger's playing time once Alex Gonzalez returns, or Edwin Encarnacion, or the young pitchers in his charge once they appear at midseason, will all go into the final evaluation. The potential is there, however, for Baker to once again ride 88-win talent to 84 wins, and be hailed a hero for it.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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