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Exhibition games begin today, and performances over the next four weeks
will go a long way towards determining who gets a chance at fame and
fortune and who gets six at-bats a week. In the AL East, there are a couple
of knock-down, drag-out job battles that will bear watching throughout March.

Delino DeShields vs. Jerry Hairston for the Orioles’ second-base
job.

Projections from Baseball Prospectus 2000 (BA/OBP/SLG/EqA):

DeShields: .265/.352/.394/.262

Hairston: .273/.328/.418/.254

For the long-term health of the franchise, Jerry Hairston should be given
the job and allowed to run with it. But new Oriole manager Mike Hargrove
has stated that Delino DeShields is the early front-runner. The veteran is
entering the second year of an ill-advised three-year contract, one of many
questionable signings by the Angelos Orioles. His presence is just a
reflection of the current organizational delusion: this Oriole team cannot
and will not contend for anything in the American League.

Hairston isn’t a great prospect, certainly not on the level of the American
League’s best young second baseman, Carlos Febles. He has a broad
base of skills, including some power and plate discipline, and he plays the
position well. He is still developing, and chances are that a healthy
DeShields would outperform Hairston in 2000.

But there’s part of the rub. DeShields’s inability to stay healthy in 1999
was what allowed Hairston to get playing time late in the year. His nagging
injuries consistently bring down his performance, and mean there’s never
any expectation that he’ll be able to play more than 115 games. Regardless
of what happens in the spring, Hairston is in line to get at least as many
major-league at-bats as he did last year.

One potential solution is a platoon. DeShields’s platoon split has
increased markedly since his Dodger days, and Hairston, a right-handed
batter, hammers left-handed pitching. Limiting DeShields’s playing time
could keep him healthier as well. The downside is in making a 24-year-old a
part-time player.

The best-case scenario for the Orioles would be for DeShields to play well
enough, and stay healthy enough, for them to trade him at midseason to a
team with a big problem at the position. Neither DeShields nor Hairston is
really cut out for a utility infield job.

DeShields will probably be the Opening Day second baseman. Hargrove’s hands
are tied by DeShields’s contract and the expectations for his team. If
you’re an Oriole fan, though, you have to hope that by the time August
rolls around, Hairston has moved onto the diamond to stay.

Jose Cruz Jr. vs. Vernon Wells for the Blue Jays’ center-field job.
Projections from Baseball Prospectus 2000 (BA/OBP/SLG/EqA):

Cruz Jr.: .242/.352/.426/.269

Wells: .296/.349/.447/.270

If you’re Jose Cruz Jr., you can’t help but be a little amused by all the
hype surrounding Vernon Wells. Just two years ago, Cruz was 24 and coming
off a 26-homer rookie season, ready to become a superstar in the Blue Jays’
outfield. It didn’t happen. Cruz got off to a lousy start in 1998 and was
demoted, coming back to have a good second half for the Jays. Last year, he
again scuffled, showing good plate discipline but disappointing power, and
again spent part of the summer at Syracuse.

It was that second demotion in August of 1999, that set the stage for
Wells’s major-league debut. Wells won top prospect honors in all three
minor leagues he played in in 1999, blasting through three levels before
reaching Toronto in August. He is unquestionably the top center-field
prospect in the game, combining great physical tools with an understanding
of the strike zone and good outfield play. In most quarters, he’s seen as a
candidate for the AL’s Rookie of the Year award.

Wells and Cruz have taken very different paths to a warm March in Dunedin,
and this is about as even a battle as you’re going to find. But while Wells
has a halo, media and analyst accolades and a better glove, it’s unlikely
that he’s ready for the majors just yet. While his EqA held steady at every
minor-league level in 1999, his walk-to-strikeout ratio and walk rate
deteriorated, and they collapsed in Toronto (four walks and 18 strikeouts
in 88 at-bats).

Cruz, on the other hand, fits the Jays’ 2000 lineup better. With Raul
Mondesi
replacing Shawn Green, and Alex Gonzalez in for
the 1999 version of Tony Fernandez, the Jays are going to be missing
baserunners. They’re also going to be more right-handed. Cruz is a
switch-hitter with a good OBP, just now coming into his peak.

If the Jays are looking for an excuse to send Wells to Syracuse, they can
find one at first base. Carlos Delgado made the Jays off a great
spring in 1994, and started the year like a house on fire. After he slumped
badly, the Jays demoted him in May, and Delgado lost the rest of 1994 and
all of 1995 before restarting his career in 1996.

Vernon Wells is going to be a great player, possibly as soon as 2001. For
now, however, Toronto would be best served by letting him work on his game
in Triple-A, and letting Jose Cruz give them what they need in Toronto.