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February 18, 2010

Camp Battles

AL West

by Christina Kahrl

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In a wee bit of roster oddity, the AL West has both some of the most and least compelling job fights going for it. Whereas every other team in the junior circuit has a meaningful battle for a frontline job-as opposed to the inevitable, smaller combats for back-end bullpen assignments, bench roles, backup catchery, or the like, TA's bread and butter for 15 years-the short stack has one club that has no meaningful job fights, the Angels.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: Zip.

It's not the fault of the Anaheimians of Planet Earth. If anything, it makes for a tidy camp. Sure, Fernando Rodney might cadge save opportunities from Brian Fuentes, but that's probably not going to be a product of spring performance as opposed to in-season doings or misdeeds. Similarly, third base belongs to Brandon Wood until he gives them a reason to believe otherwise. Whatever their frustrations with Ervin Santana, it isn't like Sean O'Sullivan or Trevor Bell or Matt Palmer's going to win a job-it'll take an injury, and that's definitively not a battle that forces a decision upon a skipper, but a simple mishap. Maicer Izturis will play, who winds up as the club's most-used fourth outfielder will be interesting, but the Angels' camp is going to be more about gearing up for an active title defense and keeping their ducks in a row.

Oakland Athletics: Who gets the at-bats at first base and DH? Is the outfield really set? Who's the fifth starter?

First base is perhaps the interesting position of the three up-for-grabs full-time jobs, because with the trade from a month ago for Kevin Kouzmanoff, it lumps the leftovers who might have contended for the hot corner playing time into an already desperate bit of short-time battling at first base and DH. Sure, Eric Chavez or Jake Fox might still get a few reps at third base, but Fox's willingness is handicapped by his immobility, while Chavez has to prove he can remain healthy enough to contribute anywhere for any length of time. If Chavez avoids injury, things get interesting, because of the question of whether the A's would really leave him on the bench as a literal white elephant from the franchise that once stood that label on its head. So, let's say we go to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe and pretend that Chavez shows up more often than Grandpere, what's the field of options?

Chavez, of course, gets cast as the former famous person gunning for a last chance. But then there's also Daric Barton-as perpetually stalled between promise and full development as Tiny Yokum; Barton may be only heading into his age-24 season, but first base is the bopper's spot, and he has yet to Grace us with matching even that possible best-case development; at least he has the benefit of only now being as old as the unsluggy Cub was in his rookie campaign. Speaking of Cubs, early-winter acquisition Fox is out of options, so whatever corner he's asked to play in the outfield or infield, he's not someone they can demote and expect to keep. And naturally, everyone's just playing for time, not just playing time, because top prospect Chris Carter is already coming over the horizon.

As for what to expect from this lot, quoth PECOTA:


Dude      AVG/ OBP/ SLG   EqA   WARP
Barton   .264/.359/.421  .269    1.5
Carter   .246/.335/.462  .269    0.9
Chavez   .234/.298/.413  .240    0.3
Cust     .237/.370/.455  .283    2.1
Fox      .252/.318/.447  .258    0.3
Kouzm'ff .261/.320/.439  .277    3.1

I've thrown in Cust and Kouzmanoff because DH and third base are positions where Fox or Chavez might get some playing time. Looking at this lot of projections, it would seem reasonable to expect that Kouzmanoff and Cust retain their starting roles, leaving first base as the only truly open job for the remaining quartet to contend for. Carter might have an incredible camp and make a case to get the job outright, but Barton seems likely to get a last spin, with Fox and Chavez hoping they can both contribute as part-time players.

However, there's a problem with that. Adam Rosales will probably be the utility infielder who can back up Mark Ellis and Cliff Pennington, which brings up the body-count issue: keeping Fox and Chavez already puts them at 13 total position players. That's a problem when we turn to the other potention job fight, in the outfield, where Eric Patterson is also out of options, and not guaranteed a job despite his offensive credentials. Coco Crisp and Ryan Sweeney seem set, for better or worse, which leaves left field. Rajai Davis might be able to hold onto the job, and/or he might rotate over into center to spot for Crisp quite a bit. Patterson's reputation as a hitter after a seemingly endless apprenticeship, however, doesn't quite measure up to the projected performance of the expected starters:


Dude       AVG/ OBP/ SLG   EqA   WARP
Crisp     .264/.342/.402  .259    1.7
Davis     .280/.348/.401  .264    2.1
Sweeney   .277/.351/.404  .261    2.0
Patterson .253/.317/.382  .243    0.5

What gets sort of lost in that comparison of projections is Patterson's big platoon split; last year in Sacramento, he hit .336/.410/.555 vs. right-handers, and .241/.298/.359 against PCL lefties. In contrast, Davis' splits suggest this could make a useful, if somewhat loose platoon, one where all four outfielders might get mixed in with some regularity, with Fox getting spotted in the outfield corners now and again as well.

Which leaves you with a problem or a more minor sort: You can't keep Chavez, Patterson, Fox, and a 12th pitcher. One of them's going to have to go. Obviously, Chavez might break, or the A's could put Patterson on waivers and ditch another element from the Harden trade from a year and a half ago that didn't look good then, and looks less so now.

There is at least one more happy contest, picking between Vin Mazzaro, Trevor Cahill, and Gio Gonzalez for the fifth slot in the rotation. Nobody's out of options, so this can wind up being a simple matter of letting camp performance influence past experience and evaluations and letting the best man du jour win. Later, if the winner struggles, or Ben Sheets or Justin Duchscherer break down, there's going to be further opportunities for the temporary losers.

Seattle Mariners: Left field and DH and Celebrity Cheerleader, and maybe picking from among their catchers.

It's been building for months, since the initial, seemingly odd decision to re-sign Ken Griffey Jr., followed by the inspired acquisition of the always exciting Milton Bradley, with the late decisions to also sign Eric Byrnes and Ryan Garko. Since they also have prospect Michael Saunders on hand, retained Ryan Langerhans, and gave Mike Sweeney a pity invitation to camp, they have plenty of bodies, but not necessarily all that much quality to sort through. To lean on another chart, the seven contestants don't really add up to a great group:


Dude        AVG/ OBP/ SLG   EqA   WARP
Bradley    .277/.395/.467  .297    3.2
Byrnes     .255/.328/.409  .251    0.6
Saunders   .249/.325/.400  .250    1.0
Griffey    .248/.349/.428  .267    0.8
Garko      .274/.356/.448  .278    1.6
Kotchman   .284/.363/.444  .277    2.1
Langerhans .233/.334/.375  .247    0.5
Sweeney    .262/.326/.405  .250    0.0

Surprising nobody, if Bradley's healthy and not suspended, banned, or defenestrated by an angry mob, he's going to be worth playing virtually every day, so there's really only one job we should be talking about: wherever Bradley isn't, between left field or DH. However good-tempered a teammate Sweeney might be, he's not to be taken seriously, not least because of his positionlessness. Langerhans has value as a defensive replacement as spare part, nothing more. Garko's defensive utility in the outfield is limited at best, so the question is more a matter of how much his playing time spills over into sharing time at first base with Kotchman, or claiming the DH role that Griffey might man infrequently at best. (There's always pinch-hitting for the catchers, but we'll get to them.)

Which goes to say that, however many bodies seem to crowd the field, the fight for staying and playing is really a contest between Saunders and Byrnes. They might make a nice platoon if Byrnes proves to be healthy enough to still handle left field, but it's hard to say whether the Mariners have the roster room for platoons or job-sharing arrangements at first base and left field plus a "fading famous guy" roster spot for Griffey while Bradley gets most of the DH at-bats. They could, but it would mean not keeping Langerhans as well as not keeping a 12th reliever. To my eyes, that's an extremely affordable and worthwhile proposition-Langerhans is basically waiver bait anyway, while Tacoma's proximity should suggest some relative ease in terms of the logistics of swapping out bodies in the last slot in the pen.

As for the catching situation, while Rob Johnson and Adam Moore have the advantage of being on the 40-man roster already, neither is especially young or has all that much upside, and there's not a lot about their receiving or their hitting that should automatically rule out challenges from Josh Bard, Guillermo Quiroz, or Eliezer Alfonzo. This is less a job battle than an opportunity for an otherwise ghastly candidate to get taken seriously, sort of like the 1920 Presidential election.

Texas Rangers: Picking the last three rotation starters from an exciting field of alternatives.

It might only be two slots, depending on how seriously you want to take the recently re-emigrated Colby Lewis; back from Japan, he's out of options, and given that the Rangers paid $5 million to see if his exceptional command translates to state-side success, it seems clear they do. But if he proves (again) to be a Quad-A phenomenon, then the contestants for the last two slots can cast a hungry eye at that other job in the rotation.

It's an exciting list beyond Scott Feldman, Rich Harden, and Lewis. Top prospects Derek Holland and Neftali Feliz are still in the picture, Tommy Hunter and Matt Harrison deserve to be taken seriously, and Brandon McCarthy's comeback would provide any team with a decent fourth starter. But then there's also the experiment with letting bullpen stalwart C.J. Wilson return to starting to consider, since that's still a popular idea among the club brass. If Wilson earns that trust, then we're really down to talking about one job, with Feliz almost certainly in the pen, and McCarthy, Holland, Hunter, and Harrison all optionable back down to Triple-A. From that crew, I'd anticipate McCarthy's getting the first shot, but there's obviously the possibility that one of the younger pitchers will make enough of a case to force the front office to consider making a deal.

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

Related Content:  Eric Chavez,  Ryan Sweeney,  The Who,  Quad-a

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