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February 16, 2009

Prospectus Hit and Run

Job Battles

by Jay Jaffe

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As camps open in Arizona and Florida, nearly every team has at least one key spot in their lineup, rotation, or bullpen which is up for grabs, whether due to a legitimate vacancy, an injury, or an artificially-created "competition" ensuring that nobody takes promotion to a pivotal role lightly. Here's a PECOTA-based look at some of the spring's significant battles and their best solutions, with an emphasis on the teams which the system sees as contenders rather than pretenders.

New York Yankees: Center Field, Right Field
As they attempt to rebound from their first non-playoff season since 1993, the Yankees' biggest question mark looms in center field. After solid performances in '06 and '07, Melky Cabrera's horrid 2008 (.249/.301/.341) threw the job up for grabs, and while Triple-A farmhand Brett Gardner didn't clinch it, his .294/.333/.412 showing in 73 plate appearances after a mid-August recall may have given him a leg up. PECOTA doesn't see either as a slam dunk, but favors Gardner's blend of speed and OBP, forecasting a .253/.339/.351 showing with 32 steals (2.4 WARP), compared to Cabrera's .267/.326/.376/10 steal forecast (1.8 WARP). Meanwhile, in right field, the system is more sanguine about off-season acquisition Nick Swisher's ability to shake off a down year than it is about Xavier Nady living up to the career bests he set in all three triple-slash categories. It forecasts a .244/.353/.460 performance for Swisher, compared to .270/.323/.444 for Nady. A platoon arrangement limiting the latter to lefty-mashing would maximize the duo's production.

Boston Red Sox: #5 Starting Pitcher, Shortstop
Touted as the game's top pitching prospect going into last year, Clay Buchholz thoroughly flopped (2-9, 6.75 ERA), plagued by mechanical woes. Hot stove rumors had him Texas-bound in exchange for a young catcher, but he returns to compete for the rotation's fifth spot against Brad Penny and John Smoltz, two veteran free agents attempting comebacks from shoulder injuries. PECOTA remains optimistic about the 24-year-old Buchholz, forecasting a 4.56 ERA and 8.0 strikeouts per nine. Penny, who made a miserable showing in LA (6-9, 6.27 ERA) after a Cy Young-caliber 2007, was initially forecast for a 4.47 ERA, but that adjusts to 4.85 in the move to Fenway. Smoltz, who needed labrum surgery after just 28 IP last year, is forecast for the best ERA of the three (3.57), but he won't return until June, and the number of innings left in the 42-year-old's arm is an open question, so the additional depth is a bonus. As for shortstop, PECOTA is bullish on the 25-year-old Lowrie (.260/.341/.432, 2 Fielding Runs Above Average) outdoing Lugo (.255/.325/.347, -2 FRAA), though the $18 million remaining on the latter's deal is a tough pill to swallow.

Cleveland Indians: #3, #4, and #5 Starting Pitchers
The only two certainties in Cleveland's rotation are 2008 Cy Young winner Cliff Lee and 2007 19-game winner Fausto Carmona, who fell victim to injuries and mechanical woes last year but who has since returned to form in the Dominican Winter League. Not counting bullpen-bound top pitching prospect Adam Miller and mid-season Tommy John returnee Jake Westbrook, that still leaves a half-dozen candidates for the final three slots, none of whom are beloved by PECOTA due to their below-average strikeout rates. First dibs will likely go to reclamation project Anthony Reyes (forecast for a 5.19 ERA), a one-time top prospect who fell out of favor with the Cardinals, and free agent Carl Pavano (5.60 ERA), whose injuries turned him into a punch line amid a four-year, 26-start stint with the Yankees. PECOTA's favorite among this cattle call is command-and-control lefty Scott Lewis (4.64 ERA), who pitched well in a four-start September stint. It's not nearly so keen on fellow southpaws Aaron Laffey (5.33) or Jeremy Sowers (5.16), both of whom have shuffled off to Triple-A Buffalo countless times in recent years, and it's downright pessimistic on yet another lefty, Zach Jackson (5.86).

Chicago Cubs: Closer
Despite Kerry Wood's outstanding work in his first season as closer (3.26 ERA, 34 saves, 11.4 K/9), the Cubs let him depart as a free agent before the injury bug bit yet again. That's because they've got an obvious heir apparent in set-up man Carlos Marmol, who's punched out a major league-best 12.6 hitters per nine over the past two years while maintaining a 2.12 ERA. Wary of simply handing the job to the 26-year-old fireballer, the Cubs acquired Kevin Gregg from the Marlins last November to provide insurance. Gregg notched 61 saves in 2007-2008 before losing his job late last year due to knee troubles. PECOTA gives Marmol (3.42 ERA, 10.9 K/9) a solid edge over Gregg (4.06 ERA, 8.3 K/9), but in order to offset the loss of his capability as a multi-inning set-up man, skipper Lou Piniella should make a habit of bringing him into the occasional eighth-inning jam.

Oakland Athletics: First Base, Right Field, DH
The return of Jason Giambi to the green-and-gold fold creates a three-position logjam that contrasts the need to play high-upside youngsters against the defensive limitations of the team's most potent sluggers. Giambi himself is projected for a .232/.346/.450 line, park-suppressed numbers that still beat the majors' average DH performance last year (.255/.338/.433), but that lose luster if his defensive forecast at first base (-7 FRAA) is factored in. Jack Cust provides an additional OBP bump but otherwise projects similarly to Giambi with the bat (.234/.375/.456), though even worse with the leather (-15 FRAA in right field). One of them will have to play the field, leaving the team to decide whether to bench first baseman Daric Barton or right fielder Travis Buck, both horrible last year, and neither forecast to produce at levels acceptable for such offense-first positions. The 23-year-old Barton, a former top prospect despite his power shortage, suffered through an awful rookie campaign and projects for a meager .252/.344/.403 line. The 25-year-old Buck projects for a .251/.328/.409 performance after being limited to 38 games last year due to shin splints, a concussion, and vertigo, but his sizzling September (.367/.415/.673) is cause for optimism that he'll exceed that. The best solution may involve sending Barton back to Triple-A and ensuring Giambi has a sound defensive caddy.

The Rest: Freddy Garcia is the best bet in the Mets' fifth-starter derby, a field crowded by this weekend's signing of Livan Hernandez, whose greatest talent is showing up for work. ... The Nationals' signing of Adam Dunn clutters an already-crowded first base and corner-outfield picture. With Dunn taking over first base, Josh Willingham and Elijah Dukes remain the best options in left and right, respectively, while Nick Johnson is trade bait. ... The Cardinals' sudden release of Adam Kennedy leaves the second-base job wide open, but barring the slim likelihood of a successful outfield-to-second conversion of Skip Schumaker, the correct answer among a field including Brian Barden, Jarrett Hoffpauir, Brendan Ryan, and Joe Thurston is "call Orlando Hudson's agent now!" ... Noah Lowry missed all of last year due to a wrist injury, but an ugly forecast (4.99 ERA) and a remaining minor league option suggest an easy solution to the two-slot battle in the Giants' rotation, which includes pricey Barry Zito (4.61 ERA) and talented Jonathan Sanchez (4.25 ERA).

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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