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March 17, 2011

Overthinking It

Small Samplings of Spring, NL Edition

by Ben Lindbergh

Picking up where we left off on Tuesday, let’s complete our circuit of the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues by identifying some less established NL players who may have put themselves in stronger consideration for roster spots this season on the basis of small-sample spring performances thus far.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Brandon Allen (.353/.361/.559, 34 AB): Allen hasn’t showcased much of his minor-league promise in either of his first two abbreviated auditions in Arizona, but voids at first base and in left field should give him ample opportunity to make his third time the charm. Kevin Goldstein gave the 25-year-old a vote of confidence on Monday, but his hot spring might be even more persuasive to the Diamondbacks, allowing him to steal playing time from a slumping Xavier Nady in left. His primary competitor at first base, Juan Miranda, has also hit well (.233/.395/.500, 30 AB), but the Cuban import’s lack of minor-league options may prove to be his best ally.

Barry Enright (2.25 ERA, 6:2 K:BB, 4 G, 12 IP): Aaron Heilman has been pining for a starting rotation spot since he last occupied one in 2005, and the Diamondbacks have been gracious or gullible enough to let him compete for a spot this spring. Unsurprisingly, he’s only confirmed that he’s best employed as bullpen fodder, which should allow Enright to earn a starting gig in the injured Zach Duke’s absence.

Atlanta Braves

Wilkin Ramirez (.375/.400/.583, 24 AB): Ramirez was picked up by Atlanta last July after his once-promising Tigers career came to a DFA-flavored end. The athletic 25-year-old has earned Pedro Cerrano comparisons in the past, but he’s inserted himself into the team’s fourth-outfielder mix by getting off to a hot start following a Rocky training montage of an offseason. The most encouraging aspect of the contact-challenged lapsed prospect’s exhibition performance is that he’s whiffed only three times. What’s more, Jordan Schafer isn’t doing much to displace him, turning in an 8-for-44 performance thus far.

Mike Minor (0.90 ERA, 7:4 K:BB, 3 G, 10 IP): Minor’s unsightly BABIP in eight late-season starts in 2010 obscured his impressive peripherals, but the balls have been bouncing better for him this spring. However, Brandon Beachy has matched him inning-for-inning, making the race for the final rotation slot the most heated in camp. Both are qualified candidates, and even if Fredi Gonzalez bases his choice on the remainder of this month’s frivolous events in Florida, either way he’ll be rewarded with one of the league’s strongest fifth starters. In the bullpen, Jonny Venters has solidified his hold on the closer role by hurling seven scoreless innings to Craig Kimbrel’s four runs in 6 1/3 frames.

Chicago Cubs

Jeff Baker (.400/.471/.500, 30 AB): Blake DeWitt became the starter at the keystone after coming to the Cubs in the Ted Lilly trade, but he could be ceding ground to Baker after hitting .176/.200/.235 in approximately the same playing time this spring. Baker crushes lefties (.308/.363/.545 career), so at the very least he could be playing himself into the short half of a productive platoon.

Randy Wells (1.29 ERA, 8:3 K:BB, 4 G, 14 IP): One would think that Wells had done enough over the past two seasons to lock up a spot behind Ryan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano, and Matt Garza in the North Siders’ rotation, but Cubs pitchers and catchers reported with the team’s fourth- and fifth-starter slots unallocated. Wells has done enough to ensure that one of those positions will fall to him, but the same can’t be said of Carlos Silva, who’s allowed 18 runs in 8 1/3 innings. Andrew Cashner could be the beneficiary of Silva's largesse.

Cincinnati Reds

Chris Heisey (.320/.393/.600, 25 AB): Fred Lewis entered the spring with a chance to displace Jonny Gomes in left field against right-handers, but he’s hit under .200 in exhibition play. Of course, Gomes has hit under .100, so he’s hardly solidified his standing. As David Laurila wrote last month, Heisey might be a better option than either of them; while he’s less likely to be called upon, it won’t be because he looked bad in spring training. Also in contention to end Gomes’ replacement-level run is recently-signed Red Jeremy Hermida, who’s shown patience and power to the tune of a .350/.500/.650 line.

Travis Wood (4.00 ERA, 9:2 K:BB, 3 G, 9 IP): The battle for Cincinnati’s fifth-starter slot might seem like a case of déjà vu, but only up to a point: Mike Leake topped Wood in 2010’s competition, but after suffering from fatigue down the stretch last season and struggling in the early going this spring, he’s unlikely to do so again this year.

Colorado Rockies

Jonathan Herrera (.353/.421/.588, 34 AB): Second base was expected to play host to the most prominent position battle in Rockies camp, but injuries affected the composition of the combatants, as Eric Young Jr. was sidelined until recently due to the aftereffects of a fractured right tibia. In his absence, Herrera has received as much playing time as any Rockie this side of Willy Taveras, and he’s made the most of it while rival Jose Lopez has slumped (although Lopez has already managed to draw roughly as many walks—three—as he averaged during each of the first five months of last season). The Rockies would be better off with Lopez as the starter, despite his somewhat deceptive struggles in Safeco, but Herrera’s prior Colorado experience and hot start to the spring might help him make inroads on the roster.

Franklin Morales (0.00 ERA, 1:1 K:BB, 5 G, 5 IP): It’s tough to get excited about the scrums at the end of the Rockies’ rotation or relief corps, but after Morales' unsuccessful stint in Colorado last season, his scoreless spring could earn him a return to the bullpen. As with Juan Miranda, being out of options won’t hurt.

Florida Marlins

Matt Dominguez (.233/.324/.467, 30 AB): Dominguez hasn’t set the Grapefruit League on fire, but he has held his own at the plate. Given the makeup of the Marlins’ 2010 hot-corner crew, which primarily featured the sub-replacement stylings of Wes Helms and the departed Jorge Cantu, a third-base battle this spring was inevitable. In light of his potentially elite glove, a demonstration of offensive competency may be all Dominguez needs to become the Opening Day starter as a fresh-faced rookie.

Leo Nunez (3.00 ERA, 2:0 K:BB, 3 G, 3 IP): With the Marlins’ rotation essentially set, all eyes—well, a few eyes, at least—are fixed on their closer carousel. Nunez surrendered closing duties to Clay Hensley last September, but he appears to have reclaimed the role over the winter without throwing a pitch, and the early returns on his refined slider have been positive. Hensley, meanwhile, has coughed up four runs in five innings.

Houston Astros

Brett Wallace (.350/.381/.600, 40 AB): Much of Wallace’s prospect luster has worn off, and deservedly so, but he appears to be cementing his status as the team’s first baseman of the present, if not necessarily the future. Unfortunately, every game Wallace plays at first is one in which Carlos Lee will be forced to lumber out to left, making this a potentially pyrrhic victory from a team perspective. Of course, the outcomes of Astros position battles are largely academic, given that even an emergency transfusion of Tiger Blood couldn’t transform this depleted roster into a winning team.

Jordan Lyles (1.80 ERA, 5:2 K:BB, 4 G, 10 IP): Yes, Lyles is only 20 and still a long shot to crack the rotation before the latter part of this season, but the longer Houston has to look at the likes of Ryan Rowland-Smith and Nelson Figueroa on the major-league roster, the better Lyles’ spring showing will seem.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Tony Gwynn Jr. (.323/.382/.419, 31 AB): Regardless of who emerges victorious from the Dodgers’ slap fight in left field, the position will likely be a net negative for the club in 2011. Marcus Thames has hit well (.320/.370/.520), but Thin Gwynn’s work with the stick qualifies as an even greater surprise, so he gets the nod here. (Jay Gibbons, the position’s third wheel, has gone 2-for-22.) Unless Los Angeles can figure out how to create a hybrid player featuring Gwynn’s glove and Thames’ bat, this won’t end well.

Mike MacDougal (0.00 ERA, 2:2 K:BB, 5 G, 4 1/3 IP): There aren’t many moving parts on the Dodgers’ staff, but the back of the bullpen remains unsettled. That’s good news for MacDougal, as the itinerant sometime-closer could be in position to pick up a roster spot on the strength of spring performance and name recognition alone.

Milwaukee Brewers

Carlos Gomez (.364/.364/.727, 33 AB): Gomez began 2010 with a firm handle on the starting center field job, but his campaign went downhill from there. Still, with last season’s usurper, Lorenzo Cain, in Kansas City, his only real competition entering 2011 was Chris Dickerson, who would’ve needed a special spring to displace him. Thus far, Gomez has had the superior spring, so he’ll likely get another shot at the gig, though the absence of any walks from his exhibition record suggests that little has changed.

Brandon Kintzler (1.04 ERA, 6:0 K:BB, 6 G, 8 2/3 IP): An independent-league find for the Brewers, Kintzler posted superb numbers in the upper minors before earning a short stay in the majors marked by a profusion of all three of the true outcomes. As is the case with most teams come spring training, Milwaukee has room for a couple of wild cards at the back end of its bullpen, and Kintzler is pitching like he deserves to be one of them.

New York Mets

Luis Hernandez (.385/.429/.538, 13 AB): Evidently disgusted by what he’s seen from his other candidates for second base, Terry Collins seems to be leaning toward dubbing Hernandez the starter in an act of self-immolation, pending approval by a front office that probably won’t be eager to get out the rubber stamp in this instance. On occasion, position battles are actually won this way, though making a judgment based on 13 at-bats would be taking even the concept of exhibition-based decision-making to an extreme. In the event that Collins comes to his senses, Daniel Murphy’s .324/.343/.500 line in 34 at-bats could catch his eye. In other positional news, Josh Thole appears to have erased any uncertainty that he would be the team’s starting catcher. Not only did his primary competitor, Ronny Paulino, effectively forfeit by getting sidelined with visa issues, but Thole hit .419/.455/.677 in 31 at-bats just for good measure.

Jason Isringhausen (1.80 ERA, 1:2 K:BB, 5 G, 5 IP): It’s still unlikely that Izzy will make any return to the organization with which he constituted one third of “Generation K,” let alone a triumphant one, but it would make a nice story, in a bullpen Ouroboros sort of way. What’s more, highlighting him here saves me from writing about Manny Acosta, D.J. Carrasco, or Pedro Beato, all of whom represent more likely candidates to make the pen.

Philadelphia Phillies

John Mayberry Jr. (.333/.404/.714, 42 AB) and Ben Francisco (.368/.429/.737, 38 AB): The Phillies’ right field race was reduced to two horses when Domonic Brown was put out to pasture with a broken hamate bone, granting Mayberry and Francisco several weeks to—forgive me—make hay. To their credit, they’ve seized the opportunity. However, since both bat from the right side, there’s no platoon potential here. Francisco will likely inherit the bulk of the playing time, but Mayberry has likely guaranteed some occasional cameos at the expense of Ross Gload (who’s hitting a fleeting .429 himself).

Ryan Madson (3.00 ERA, 11:2 K:BB, 5 G, 6 IP): Madson has been dominant this spring, for what that’s worth, while incumbent closer Brad Lidge has looked shaky and complained of soreness, which our injury analysis team fears could be indicative of more serious trouble on the horizon. Madson has been the more effective pitcher for a couple of seasons now, so any breakdown on Lidge’s part could be the younger righty’s ticket to his first ten-plus-save campaign.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Matt Diaz (.300/.364/.467, 30 AB): The stakes might not be as high—unless you're one of the players involved—but even perennial losers have position battles. This one isn’t so much a battle as a classic platoon in the making, as both Diaz and Garrett Jones excel, relatively speaking, when freed from their same-handed handcuffs. That could make for a fun exercise in roster management, although the real excitement in Pittsburgh’s outfield won’t be in right, but in left and center, where two cornerstones of the Pirates’ future play.

Charlie Morton (2.25 ERA, 3:1 K:BB, 3 G, 8 IP): Morton owns a 2.73 ERA in 230 2/3 innings at Triple-A and a 5.98 ERA in just over 250 innings in the majors. He’ll be attempting to narrow the gap this season (and not by pitching poorly at Triple-A), but first he’ll have to get past Brad Lincoln, his only competition for the fifth-starter job in Scott Olsen’s absence. That much, at least, he’s likely already accomplished.

San Diego Padres

Brad Hawpe (.350/.409/.500, 20 AB): Much like Alexander the Great, Adrian Gonzalez departed without leaving a strong successor, so the territory he conquered around the first-base bag has been divided among lesser pretenders to the throne, including Hawpe, Jorge Cantu, and Jesus Guzman. Hawpe had the upper hand entering camp and has done nothing to surrender it, but the writing may already be on the wall: it reads, “Kyle Blanks faced live pitching,” and it’s dated “March 15.” While Blanks could enter the first-base mix later this season, Adrian’s true heir might be Anthony Rizzo, who came west in the trade that sent Gonzalez east. Rizzo has hit .421/.476/.737 in Padres camp this spring, but he’ll require additional minor-league seasoning before assuming the throne.

Dustin Moseley (2.08 ERA, 6:2 K:BB, 3 G, 8 2/3 IP): Moseley has posted the lowest spring ERA of the Padres’ trio of fifth-starter candidates, but Wade LeBlanc and Cory Luebke have the superior peripherals and best chances of sustained success. In this case, the ERA might win the day, especially since Bud Black is familiar with Moseley from his days with the Angels—not that greater familiarity should necessarily help Moseley’s cause. None of these three are likely to follow in the footsteps of Mat Latos, who went on to acehood after becoming the team’s fifth starter out of spring training last year.

San Francisco Giants

Brandon Belt (.302/.362/.558, 43 AB): The Giants’ top prospect has more than held his own this spring, leading to increasing speculation that he’ll receive the Opening Day first-base assignment. However, Belt at first base would mean Aubrey Huff in left field, and Huff has yet to play there this spring. That could be a sign that GM Brian Sabean is planning a reprise of the Buster Posey Arbitration Clock Experience. If so, here’s hoping that he’s polished the “Triple-A baseball isn’t very good” defense that fell flat in 2010.

Ryan Vogelsong (2.13 ERA, 11:7 K:BB, 4 G, 12 2/3 IP): The Giants are looking for a long reliever—you know, because their starting pitching is so shaky—and Vogelsong has been the most superficially successful of a pack of mediocre candidates that also includes Jeff Suppan, Guillermo Mota, and Dan Runzler.

St. Louis Cardinals

David Freese (.381/.381/.714, 21 AB): Third base was a black hole for the Cardinals last season, and while Freese can supply capable offense at the position, his relatively advanced age and the injuries that robbed him of playing time last year prevented him from entering the spring on completely firm footing. Freese hasn’t displayed his trademark patience, but he has hit enough to fend off prospect Matt Carpenter and retain his tenuous hold on the job, with an assist from Nick Punto’s sports hernia.

Kyle McClellan (0.75 ERA, 9:3 K:BB, 3 G, 12 IP): McClellan’s transition from the bullpen has gone extremely smoothly this spring, leaving little doubt that he'll inherit the innings the Cardinals were hoping to entrust to Adam Wainwright. As Rob Neyer observed, the Cardinals are on the verge of tasking McClellan with an assignment he’s never handled before, and while that means plenty of risk, at least their solution is a lot more creative than signing Kevin Millwood. It’s also more likely to pay off.

Washington Nationals

Mike Morse (.429/.436/.914, 35 AB): Washington’s outfield picture is a bit crowded, not only because Roger Bernadina swelled to twice his previous size over the winter, but because Rick Ankiel and Nyjer Morgan are also in camp (in addition to that Jayson Werth guy). Morse was everyone’s favorite sleeper even before he started pacing the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues in home runs, and while someone in this group will have to sacrifice some playing time, he’s all but ensured that it won’t be him. Morse will probably receive the bulk of the opportunities in left, though his experience at the infield corners could make room for others in the outfield on occasion.

Sean Burnett (0.00 ERA, 2:0 K:BB, 6 G, 5 1/3 IP): The Nationals seem to be going with a closer-by-committee to begin the season, which probably has something to do with Drew Storen’s 10.13 exhibition ERA. Storen has struck out eight and walked one in 5 1/3 innings, and whoever ends up sharing the role that was presumed to be his a month ago will almost certainly have to be content with merely keeping it warm, but opportunity knocks nonetheless. Since Tyler Clippard’s ERA is pushing 15 and Todd Coffey’s hasn’t quite neared respectable territory, Burnett could stand to gain a save here and there in the early going.

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

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