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February 16, 2010

Camp Battles

AL East

by Christina Kahrl

Outright job battles in spring training might not seem quite so common or epic these days, but a number of interesting fights loom as camps open. Several of them figure to be zero-sum contests, where it's not just a question of who gets the slightly larger share of the playing time, but who gets the job outright. Since big elements here are the organization's valuation of the player's present and future as well as how much they've invested in employing him, with camp performance playing an inevitable if sometimes overstated part, some of these battles are less obvious than others. While I usually end up talking a bit too much about benches and bullpens and spare parts on the transactions beat, here are the job fights I know I'll find interesting in the weeks to come, starting with the AL East:

Baltimore Orioles: Nothing major beyond sorting out the back end of the rotation, but how about first base?

In Baltimore, the operative question is whether or not the fourth and fifth starters wind up being Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman. Fast-forward just a few months, and that's what we expect will be the case, and fast forward to August or September, and you can probably add Jake Arrieta to the list. David Hernandez and perhaps Jason Berken will get due consideration for the time being, while veterans Koji Uehara and Mark Hendrickson are utility pitcher fall-backs in the unlikely event that all of the kids look terrible and/or get hurt, but that's a worst-case scenario that probably involves salmon mousse in the post-game buffet. All in all, it's a relatively happy, transitional process, where there isn't even much initial reason for upset if one particular pitcher issent down and the other iss kept up; eventually, Tillman and Matusz will be in the rotation, and the challenge for Hernandez or Berken is to prove they deserve consideration as eventual replacements for Kevin Millwood.

As for first base, depending on your frame of mind, you hope for or anticipate a job fight, because Garrett Atkins doesn't seem like the best candidate to successfully fend off challenges, even if they're only coming from the oft-injured Michael Aubrey or Ty Wigginton. However, the more interesting possibility is whether or not the O's re-start the experiment with having Luke Scott take reps at first base; if that happens, not only is Aubrey's ship sunk, but it probably comes as a ripple effect of a decision to get Felix Pie more playing time in the outfield, with Nolan Reimold probably taking a few turns at DH.

Boston Red Sox: What to do with Mike Lowell and Tim Wakefield?

So, what do viking funerals run for these days? That overstates the issue, but it looks like a pair of former heroes might have to settle for part-time roles, assuming there are not takers for Lowell, and Wakefield doesn't up and retire or something. There's nothing wrong with having depth, of course, and Wakefield's got enough experience in a relief role to be worth available in case anything goes amiss with the projected rotation. At any rate, forgoing a seventh reliever ought to be more doable if Wakefield's in the pen, especially in the early going, when days off effectively reduce the fifth starter to occasional long-relief chores as well.

Things are a bit more complicated for Lowell. His value in the field is very much in doubt, especially at third base as a backup to Adrian Beltre, and there's not much point in spotting him for Kevin Youkilis or Victor Martinez at first with any regularity. Lowell might have value as David Ortiz's platoon partner at DH, but keeping him would almost automatically crowd out either a 12th pitcher or someone like Jed Lowrie, potentially making Bill Hall the only middle-infield on-roster reserve of any sort. That's not really that big a deal, however, since Dustin Pedroia and Marco Scutaro should play almost every day, and Lowrie could almost certainly use more time at Pawtucket.

The other interesting factor is that Jeremy Hermida has got options left, which the Sox can use to send him to Pawtucket before August and his achievement of five years of service time; after that point, they'd have to get written permission, and we'll see how amenable he'll be. In general, he'd be handy to keep around as the man who starts in either outfield corner when Jacoby Ellsbury's not doing it for them in left, or when (inevitably) J.D. Drew needs a rest day in right. However, if Hermida's initially a PawSock, they could create playing time for Lowell by pushing Youkilis to the outfield corners whenever they want to sit Drew or Ellsbury (or Mike Cameron, with Ellsbury moving back into center).

New York Yankees: The fifth starter, and Randy Winn vs. Brett Gardner.

The Big Apple's favorite media circus enters a new phase, as the usual Jobadrama kicks into high gear. Will Joba Chamberlain start or relieve? Or will Phil Hughes get the job? Or will both tyros be in the pen, opening up the rotation slot to a more classically defined fifth-starter type like Chad Gaudin or the reliably bad Sergio Mitre? Or will Alfredo Aceves swap places with Hughes and Chamberlain and get the skippable fifth man's job? It makes for an interesting question because Chamberlain and Hughes have both been exceptional in stretches as relievers. With the decisions to acquire Javier Vazquez and retain Andy Pettitte, the fifth starter's slot ought to be skippable given an expensive quality front four; a quick run through the Yankees schedule suggests that the they could avoid starting anybody on short rest and reduce the fifth slot to 25 turns on the year. Part of that's the number of days off the team has in April (five) and June (four), but it also has the nice advantage of having the fifth starter face the Red Sox or Rays just once in 13 September games against their two most likely rivals, and they could easily turn that number into zero if they felt the need.

Of course, any such proposition relies on the front four being healthy and delivering, and I've already expressed my doubts about Javier Vazquez. However, the advantage of having Hughes and Chamberlain in long relief could produce a bullpen that might rank among the best units of all time. Last year's Yankees pen ranked 15th all-time in WXRL. The top 10 are an interesting enough crew:

Year Team      IP     SV  BS Holds  FRAr    ARP   WXRL
2003 Dodgers  472.2   58   8   83   2.62   110.5  21.3
2002 Braves   512     57  15   80   2.99    93.4  18.9
2006 Mets     542.2   43  17   75   3.64    83.3  17.8
1997 Orioles  477.2   59  13   74   3.64    86.1  17.7
2001 Mariners 470.2   56  19  101   3.14   106.7  17.7
2003 Astros   581.1   50  16   97   3.51    83.4  17.4
2002 Twins    530     47  21   86   3.86    70.5  16.7
1995 Indians  422     50  11   53   3.41    92.0  16.3
2004 Dodgers  518     51  10   60   3.47    81.4  16.3
2006 Twins    498     40  11   70   3.26   107.4  16.2

Unsurprisingly, the 2003 Dodgers also lead in ARP, but switch to a rate metric, and the all-time leader in relief-only FRA is the 1990 A's with a 2.50 mark, followed by the '68 Tigers and the '72 A's, with the '03 Dodgers having to settle for fourth place on that list. The 2009 Yankees might have done well via WXRL, but per FRA (4.18) and ARP (52.3) they didn't do so hot, suggesting that for however well things eventually turned out, the pen still has some obvious improvements to do as far as the support provided pre-Mariano. If the Bombers were to leave Hughes and Chamberlain in the bullpen for a combined 150-160 innings, it isn't hard to envision a dramatic improvement, and if Aceves ends up manning the middle innings, that might add up to a historically outstanding unit by any flavor of relief metric.

As for the outfield, I don't really see the contest as that dramatic, since I expect an initial job-sharing arrangement not unlike what happened last year between Gardner and Melky Cabrera. However, Winn's the sort of hurdle Gardner should be able to beat out over time, and regardless of the outcome both players should get plenty of at-bats, especially once the Yankees decide there's not much to be done about Curtis Granderson's issues against lefties.

Tampa Bay Rays: A revolving fight for who's manning second base, right field, and possibly DH, plus figuring out who the rotation's fifth starter is.

Unlike sorting out which fraction of playing time behind the plate goes to which catcher, the shuffle around second base and right field figures to have definite winners and losers, and even then, the winner might find himself dancing under the volcano.

From among an extensive field of options, there's only one obvious favorite for regular playing time in 2010: Ben Zobrist. After that, who gets at-bats and for how long will wind up being sorted out from among an ensemble cast so extensive even Robert Altman would have had a hard time finding face time for everybody. From among the outfield possibilities who would keep Zobrist in the infield, there's Gabe Kapler as a part-time and platoon-worthy option, but that's a reserve role. Matt Joyce was briefly a sabermetric hero of some notoriety, back when everyone in the analysis community was scrambling to congratulate the Rays for doing everything well. A merely decent year at Durham later, he's still worth keeping in mind, especially for having hit right-handed pitching at a .282/.394/.485 clip. Headed into his age-25 season, he's still interesting, just not the next big thing, and a building Joyceplertoon in right could be one way to go, with Zobrist playing second.

However, the long-term outfield picture is going to have Desmond Jennings in it as well. While Carl Crawford's anticipated departure via free agency creates an eventual outlet for his talent in left, it isn't inconceivable that Jennings turns enough heads in camp to set his own timetable for arrival, as Kevin Goldstein noted last month in the Rays' top prospects list.

Because of Jennings' eventual arrival, it seems likely that Ben Zobrist's eventual home in the lineup is going to be at second, creating a shorter window of opportunity for the infield's share of worthwhile prospects who might push Zobrist back out to right, at least until Jennings' arrival. Angels prospect Sean Rodriguez and homegrown goodie Reid Brignac headline the list. Additionally, Willy Aybar is locked in as an oft-used infield reserve who stands to be the main backup at first and third as well as starts at DH now and again; he might also get a bit more time at second base this year. Rodriguez is somewhat like Joyce, a player who does all the good things we love, hitting for power and drawing walks, but whose value we might also overstate. Certainly, if Jennings proves ready, Rodriguez is no more a stumbling block to the organization's top prospect than Joyce is.

Where the Rays might find at-bats for this bevy of hitting talent is obvious, given the job description: designated hitter. Not that anybody acted on any of the various Pat Burrell packages bandied about over the winter, but he might be dealable if he proves healthy in camp. Of course, if he isn't healthy, the at-bats can go to any or several of these alternatives, which is at least a silver lining in a deal already proving to be cause for regret.

As if that interesting gaggle of position-player choices wasn't exciting enough, the Rays would have potentially the division's most interesting rotation duel, which is no small thing given the names in play for the Yankees and Orioles. That's because their second- and third-best prospects after Jennings are both ready now and both starting pitchers. Wade Davis would seem to have called dibs of the fifth starter's slot as a matter of arriving first last fall, but Jeremy Hellickson is every bit as promising as talents go, and PECOTA suggests that Davis' advantage in the immediate future is somewhat slight. They're good enough that if anyone in front of them gets hurt, there won't be any grief over the opportunity afforded to the pair.

Toronto Blue Jays: Who's the last lineup regular, and will he play right field or DH?

Is this really going to be Randy Ruiz's big opportunity? As things now stand, the corner outfield and designated hitter slots have two obvious starters in Travis Snider and Adam Lind. Both are born DHs, and putting them in the corners at once might be cause for a pitching staff mutiny. However, the Jays did start both of them in the outfield 14 times last year—and went 4-10 while allowing 81 runs (5.8 R/G), for what that little that tells us, except that it represents a negative direct experience with the alignment. The initial alternative to Ruiz in the lineup as the club's DH with Lind and Snider flanking Vernon Wells on the Rogers Centre's turf could be to play Jose Bautista in right field ... which also doesn't sound like a great way to go, at least if run-scoring's an element of the agenda. It's possible the Jays might kick around the idea of moving Edwin Encarnacion to an outfield corner if they find his fielding at third as frustrating as the Reds did, but that just opens up third base for—yes, you guessed it—Jose Bautista.

All of which suggests to me that there's the chance something weird happens. Not really weird, like Brett Wallace getting to take over at third base with Encarnacion moving to the outfield, but Ruiz's track record is hardly a tale of reliable greatness. I wouldn't be surprised at all if the ninth man in the Blue Jays' opening day lineup isn't on the roster yet, and isn't even invited to their camp. Johnny Damon's been mentioned prominently, which would certainly leave Snider set for right field and Lind for the DH role. But the fact that the at-bats have to go to somebody could create an opportunity for all sorts of players who you wouldn't have guessed at a year ago. Is this where Royals rejects like Joey Gathright or Chris Lubanski or a guy like Jeremy Reed catches a big break? Or can Brian Dopirak supplant Ruiz and push Lind back out onto the field? Or will Bautista wind up splitting time with some other club's late-spring cut?

Next up, I'll look at the AL Central's job fights, where player options figure to make a particular impact on the decision-making process.

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

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