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It’s not often you land in L.A. in March and think, “Boy, I sure miss the
weather back there,” but a trip to Phoenix completely skews the scales. Eighty
degrees and permasunny doesn’t take a whole lot of getting used to.

Scottsdale

Monday morning, the first of three games in two days–Giants/Rangers at
Scottsdale–looked like it was going to be a disappointment. Barry Bonds
wasn’t in the lineup. Alex Rodriguez was one of many Rangers’ starters
who didn’t make the trip. There were about six Giants pitchers I wanted to
see, and none of them were scheduled to pitch. It wasn’t all bad, though. It
was my first live game of the year, and that’s always a beautiful sight. Plus,
Buck Showalter was starting a right side of the infield consisting entirely of
third basemen, with Hank Blalock at second base and Mark
Teixeira
at first base.

Blalock had the better game of the two prospects, going 3-for-4 with two
doubles, including an absolute bomb to right-center field in the seventh off
of left-hander Joe Horgan. He was a mixed bag at second base, making a
nice tag on a steal attempt by Edwards Guzman in the third and turning
a double play in the sixth. On the other hand, he couldn’t recover back to his
left on a hit-and-run, allowing a single, and while he made the play on all
the other ground balls hit his way, it would be hard to describe him as “smooth.”

It’s very early in the transition for Blalock, too early to pass judgment on
whether he can become a good second baseman. While Showalter has spoken well
of his work there, Blalock needs innings to improve, and there’s a question as to
whether he’ll get them with Mike Young around. The more likely scenario
is that he ends up back at third base to start the season, especially with
Herb Perry‘s nagging injuries (no, really) keeping him off the field
this spring.

Teixeira isn’t playing as well as he did the last time he was in Arizona–the
Fall League, when he hit .333/.437/.616–which will give the Rangers ample
reason to let him spend a few months at Triple-A. Monday, he went 0-for-5 with
two strikeouts, and didn’t get a ball out of the infield. He made one nice
play at first base, starting a 3-6 double play, and I still think his defense
is better than advertised. For a big guy, he moves well, and doesn’t need to
be moved off of third base, much less moved out of the infield.

What to do with their young third basemen is just part of the Rangers’ roster
crunch. In addition to arranging four third basemen–did I forget to mention
Mike Lamb?–around the diamond, the outfield situation is interesting,
with lots of hitters but just one legitimate center fielder in Doug
Glanville
. Juan Gonzalez and Carl Everett will have to be in
the lineup if healthy, which leaves Showalter choosing between playing the
insanely popular Kevin Mench and forcing Everett to center field, and
benching Mench (or Teixeira or Young or Lamb) while getting Glanville onto the
field.

The whole situation sets up like a series of dominoes, but the first question,
the key question, is who plays center field. I’m not a big Doug Glanville fan,
but I think he has to be in the lineup, because an outfield of Mench, Everett
and Gonzalez will kill this team. Everett cannot play center field, and he
certainly can’t do it between two average/average-minus defenders. Assuming
that pushes Everett to left field with Gonzalez in right and Rafael
Palmeiro
at first base, that leaves Mench, Blalock, Lamb, Teixeira, Perry
and Young for second base, third base and DH. It may be even more complicated
than that: Ruben Sierra hit a three-run homer Monday and is trying to
force his way onto the team. The last thing the Rangers need is a guy no
better than their current options, but Sierra has support in the clubhouse and
is hitting .308 with two homers so far, so he could make the team.

Give credit to John Hart for recognizing the problem. He’s tried to get
Carlos Beltran, who would make a huge difference for this team, but
Allard Baird has asked for two oil wells and a lifetime supply of Texas chili.
That may change, and if it does, the price paid for Beltran will likely clear
up some of the other roster problems (Blalock would almost certainly be part
of the deal) while improving the Rangers by four or five games.

In the absence of Beltran, here’s the lineup I’d start Opening Day for the
Rangers:


Mench DH
Everett LF
Rodriguez SS
Palmeiro 1B
Gonzalez RF
Blalock 3B
Young 2B
Diaz C
Glanville CF


Mench in the leadoff spot is non-standard, but better the slow guy who might
post a .350 OBP than the faster guys like Young and Glanville who won’t. Mike
Lamb can push Blalock to second base twice a week. Herb Perry starts the year
on the DL, and Teixeira starts it as Oklahoma City’s third baseman. Ruben
Sierra goes away.

I haven’t mentioned Jermaine Clark yet. Clark has been a Ken Phelps
All-Star
for a number of years, posting solid OBPs at Triple-A and never
getting a real chance at a major-league job. Can he make this team? He’d be a
good bench player, providing some left-handed OBP and the ability to almost
play multiple positions. He tried to play shortstop Monday and looked pretty
lousy, but if there’s one team that doesn’t need a backup shortstop, it’s the
team with Alex Rodriguez. Clark could do what Frank Catalanotto
did for this team in two of the last three years, maybe working his way into a
job-sharing arrangement with Young at second base and Glanville in center
field.

Last week, I mentioned the concept of “Team Pretzel,” which is having multiple
players capable of playing a number of positions, especially guys who can play
both the infield and outfield. Showalter can have that if he builds his bench
properly, and he can leverage the presence of Lamb, Clark and Chad
Kreuter
to balance the Rangers’ need for an improved defense with their
need to avoid having three .300 OBPs in the lineup simultaneously.

I’ve already burned a bunch of electrons on the Giants’ lineup, and while I
know it was just a spring training road game, it was jarring to see Neifi
Perez
and Marquis Grissom hitting 1-2 Monday afternoon. Every time
that happens in the regular season–and Rich Aurilia isn’t the most
durable player in the world–the Diamondbacks and Dodgers will get that much
closer to October. Ray Durham is durable, though, so the Giants should
always have at least one good OBP batting in front of Bonds.

As I mentioned, the Giants didn’t bring any of their exciting young arms on
this trip. Livan Hernandez started, and Horgan threw three innings. At
least we know they have high-ceiling arms, though, which is a lot more than
you can say about their position-player prospects. In stark contrast to
Kurt Ainsworth, Jerome Williams and Jesse Foppert, the
position players in the system are just rancid. Tony Torcato hits for
average and little else. Lance Niekro walked seven times last year in
297 at-bats. Carlos Valderrama hasn’t recovered from a torn rotator
cuff. Cody Ransom, Edwards Guzman and Joe Jester are
utility players. There’s Todd Linden, who could be the right fielder in
2004 and who projects as a Bobby Higginson-type hitter, and there’s
nothing else. The Giants, who have done a great job drafting pitching, may
need to shift their focus for a season or two to bring some hitters,
especially at the defensive positions, into the organization.

Peoria

As bad as the pitching matchup was in Scottsdale, it was that good for Monday
night’s game between the Angels and Padres: Jake Peavy vs. Chris
Bootcheck
, with an appearance by Francisco Rodriguez and another by
Kevin Walker, who I really like.

The Angels sent Adam Kennedy, Troy Glaus and Scott
Spiezio
to the game, filling in around them with bench players and Salt
Lake Stingers. As with the Giants, the Angels don’t have the caliber of
prospects that you get excited about watching, so it was a bit disappointing.
The Padres benched Phil Nevin and Trevor Hoffman…oops. The Padres
have some issues to deal with, and the mood in their camp is pretty dark with
the loss of two of their three leaders.

Peavy and Bootcheck both looked very good, although I wonder how much you have
to discount for the second-tier lineups. Peavy, who won’t turn 22 until May,
pitched older than that, with a very loose, smooth motion and good command of
three pitches. He made Glaus look awful in the first inning as
he pitched out of a first-and-third, no-out situation, although Glaus got his
revenge with a booming double in the third. I think the Padres will want to be
careful with Peavy’s workload, but given his 2002 performance–90 strikeouts
and just 33 walks in 97 2/3 major-league innings–they should feel comfortable
going into the season with him in the rotation.

Bootcheck’s line for the game doesn’t look impressive–three runs on three hits
in four innings–but that’s deceptive. He came out throwing strikes and didn’t
allow a hit through three innings. He tired in the fourth, allowing three
straight hard-hit doubles that scored all three of the runs he allowed. He
didn’t show a dominant fastball, but like Peavy, was smooth on the mound with
good control.

Bootcheck presents a developmental problem for the Angels. While he’s not
ready for the majors, making him pitch at Salt Lake isn’t going to do him any
favors. The Twins lost a number of pitching prospects going through Triple-A
when they had their affiliate in Utah, because it’s not a nice place for
pitchers. I might be inclined to let Bootcheck start the year at Double-A,
calling him up to Triple-A in time for him to make, say, four of five starts
on the road, then move him into the Angels bullpen. Extended time at Salt Lake
could be damaging to both his arm and his psyche, and the fact that John
Lackey
went through there unscathed–2.57 ERA last year–while a credit to
Lackey, shouldn’t be seen as a standard to be met.

Francisco Rodriguez pitched the sixth inning and struggled. He walked three
guys before settling down and allowing just one run, on a sacrifice fly.

I’ve been fairly down on “K-Rod” coming into this season, pushing Rany
Jazayerli to lower him on BP’s Top 40 Prospects list and dropping him to 11th
in my own ranking of AL rookies for Rotowire’s magazine. Monday’s outing
showed, in a nutshell, why I’m not excited about him: I don’t think he’s very
effective from the stretch, and I’m not convinced he can get lefties out
consistently. His stuff is amazing, but he’s young, he has less than 100
innings of experience above A-ball, and his success in the postseason last year
means that the gap between his reputation and his record is staggering.

As a sanity check, I went through Rodriguez’s game logs to see what his splits
were in the postseason.


Vs. RHB: .114/.162/.200
Vs. LHB: .207/.281/.245

Bases empty: .167/.182/.238
Runners on: .181/.280/.318


Well, there’s a gap, but it’s not like he was bad when facing lefties or when
pitching with ducks on the pond, so I’d have to say I’ve overstated the
problem. While I remain skeptical that Rodriguez will be a dominant pitcher in
2003, I do so knowing that the evidence for my position is fairly weak.

The Padres wish they had the Angels’ problems, having lost a huge chunk of
their payroll to injuries this spring. In analyzing how they might make up for
the loss of Nevin the other day, I neglected to mention Brady Anderson,
who is in camp as a non-roster player. It’s no great loss–Anderson hasn’t been
a decent player in three years, and he isn’t hitting this spring–but I should
have included him.

One of the reasons the Padres moved Nevin to first base and Ryan Klesko
to the outfield before the 2002 season is that Klesko is a very bad defensive
first baseman. He doesn’t move all that poorly, but he may be the worst in the
game at handling throws. In this game, he dropped a pickoff throw and failed
to make a pick of a long throw by Donaldo Mendez. Now, the defensive
metrics we have do a decent job, but the one thing that isn’t factored in is a
first baseman’s ability to handle throws, so it’s hard to quantify what this
costs the Padres. I do know that it was an issue two years ago, and it’s going
to be an issue now.

The thing is, Klesko isn’t a bad outfielder. He got that reputation while with
the Braves, but it was largely a function of his size. He moves fairly well
and made himself into an average left fielder before becoming nearly a
full-time first baseman with the Padres. I think there’s a way the Padres can
solve the left-field problem, get Klesko out to a position where he’s
competent, perform a massive upgrade defensively and replace a good chunk of
Nevin’s production.

Mario Valdez is in the Padres’ camp. Valdez is a very good defensive
first baseman, and a hitter who provides good left-handed OBP and some power.
He was never able to get a clean shot with the White Sox despite some good
years in the minors. When he did finally get a job, with the A’s in 2001, he
suffered a broken hand that wiped out his season. He hit .260/.380/.362 with
Sacramento last year, his OBP skills returning but without the power he’d
shown. At worst, he’s capable of being Doug Mientkiewicz (although the
Padres won’t get the 50-point Scrabble bonus). At 28, there’s a good chance Valdez will be
better than that, especially if the power returns two years after the hand
injury. I think it’s reasonable to suggest that he’d be 2-3 wins better than
Klesko just with the glove, and he’d probably be no worse with the bat in 2003
than Xavier Nady will be.

Valdez put some coins in the bank Monday, making a nice play in the eighth on
a foul ball and roping a double down the right-field line in his only at-bat.
Hopefully, Bruce Bochy will give him more opportunities to win a job, because
he represents the Padres’ best chance to make lemonade out of a spring’s worth
of lemons.

Tomorrow: The A’s and Rockies at Phoenix Muni, and nuggets from the Arizona notebook.

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