This is truly the dead period for baseball fans, with very little going on and the February days going by so slowly. For a writer, it can be hard to find topics, with it being a little early for preview-style material, late for transaction talk, and only so many times I can point out the problems with the World Baseball Classic. That’s why I was excited after Monday’s column on teams with big lineup holes, because I thought there was a fairly obvious follow-up piece: job battles. Instead of highlighting the places where there were no good candidates for a position, I could focus on the spots where there were too many.
It seemed like a great idea until I went browsing the depth charts again. I realized that, right now anyway, there aren’t that many interesting job battles to talk about. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of unsettled starting jobs across baseball, but many of them are being pursued by players of dubious merit. Yes, the Mets go into Port St. Lucie with the task of choosing between Kazuo Matsui and Bret Boone to play second base. That doesn’t warrant much dicussion, nor does the Cubs’ fifth-starter situation or the Orioles’ first-base mess.
This is actually a credit to MLB general managers, collectively. If you think back to late last season, and consider some of the situations that were emerging then, you find that the GMs who faced potential crowds did a good job of trading their way out of them. New Phillies’ GM Pat Gillick dealt Jim Thome and his contract to the White Sox, creating space for Ryan Howard and getting a true center fielder in the deal to boot. In Milwaukee, Doug Melvin solved his logjam by sending Lyle Overbay to Toronto for an underrated package of older prospects, giving Prince Fielder a clear path to a job. The Rangers traded Alfonso Soriano so that rookie Ian Kinsler could play.
With so much efficiency behind us, the remaining interesting job battles are few and far between. They include:
- Tigers’ corners: A healthy Magglio Ordonez–dare to dream–creates a domino effect for the Bengals, who watched Chris Shelton emerge as one of their best hitters last year, and Carlos Pena have a strong second half after returning from a demotion. The team also has Dmitri Young and Craig Monroe, both of whom hit 20 homers last year. Barring a silly decision to use Monroe in center field or something, one of these four has to be on the bench every day.
On merit, Shelton has to play. He is the best hitter of the four–he might be the best hitter on the team–and one of the few Tigers who’s a good bet for an above-average OBP. Pena is the best defensive player of the group, a plus first baseman who batted .286/.345/.662 after his August recall last year. The Tigers’ hopes for a surprising run at the wild card are very much tied to these two guys, 26 and 27 respectively, peaking. They both need to play, although platooning Pena is a viable choice (.216/.284/.418 vs. LHP since ’03).
That leaves Young and Monroe, two comparable hitters without much defensive value, to fight over playing time in left field. A platoon makes some sense; Monroe has destroyed lefties in his young career, and Young, a switch-hitter, has been much better from the left side of late. However, the two players led the team in homers and RBI last year, Monroe just signed a one-year deal for $2.8 million while Young is playing out the vesting option year on a ridiculous deal he signed back in 2002, making $8 million. Are the Tigers willing to spend nearly $11 million on a left field platoon?
Any solution that takes time away from Shelton (or Curtis Granderson, for that matter) is a mistake. The Tigers have to have the fortitude to play their best guys here, while recognizing that Monroe and Young are role players, not everyday ones, no matter how much money they’re making.
- Devil Rays’ outfield: The return of Rocco Baldelli squeezes an already tight situation, as the Devil Rays have four outfielders under 26 who are either starters who can make cases for a job, while also having two other good hitters occupying corner-outfield and DH slots.
We know that, if healthy, Baldelli and Carl Crawford are going to play. I’m not a big Baldelli fan, although getting him back does represent a defensive upgrade for the team, significant with a low-strikeout pitching staff. Jonny Gomes was the Rays’ best hitter last season and will probably be their best in 2006, getting most of his playing time at DH. Aubrey Huff is coming off a disappointing 2005, but at 29, can be expected to bounce back. The need to allow him to accumulate trade value means that he’ll play, and most likely in right field.
That leaves no room at the inn for Joey Gathright or Delmon Young. Gathright isn’t just a burner: he posted OBPs of .384 and .388 at Durham the last two years, and had a .254 EqA in limited time with the Rays last season. He doesn’t have much power, but a legitimate center fielder who can hit .280/.345/.360 with 30 or more net steals should be able to find a job. (PECOTA, I should note has him at .270/.334/.341, with 17 net steals, a bit more pessimistic than I.) I’ve said this before, but I’m not convinced that Baldelli is a better player than Gathright right now, and would prefer to see a competition between the two. Baldelli’s new contract probably means that won’t happen.
Young has even less chance to open the year in Florida. To be fair, he’s still just 20, and he did not fare well at Triple-A last season (.285/.303/.447, with four walks and 33 strikeouts in 234 plate appearances). Still, he is probably no more than a half-season from being ready, and it’s not inconceivable that he would impress enough in spring training to warrant a promotion. Young is an amazing hitter, and considering what he’s done relative to his age and level, looks like the next coming of Manny Ramirez.
At the start of the season, there just won’t be room for the two young outfielders, but Gathright is ready to play now and Young might well be. The Devil Rays have to follow the lead of Gillick, Melvin and Jon Daniels and make a move that creates space for their young talent. A trade is the only way out of this.
- Cubs’ second-base: Nominally a three-man competition, but if Neifi Perez is a regular again in 2006, I have to assume the heavens will open up and simply swallow Dusty Baker, toothpick and all.
That leaves Todd Walker and Jerry Hairston Jr. battling. The situation that could simply end up a platoon, with Hairston also getting some time in left field, where Matt Murton may be too young for Baker. Walker’s glove really is bad, and at 32, he’s no lock to continue posting good numbers at the plate. Hairston, meanwhile, lost some speed and saw his plate discipline go backwards last season, and he himself is 30 now, so as good as he was in 2004, he may not be much of a bargain.
As much as Baker likes defense, he did play Walker regularly last season, so as long as the veteran sustains his batting average, he will do no worse than a platoon role. I think you can expect Perez to be next in line, with his Baker-approved glove and experience, with Hairston reduced to a utility spot, picking up time at four or five positions, perhaps even working into a right-field platoon with Jacque Jones.
Some quick hitters:
- Expecting all of them to be healthy at once is a stretch, but the Giants do have four outfielders with a track record of being regulars. Steve Finley is the nominal odd man out; it will be interesting to see how he handles not playing regularly for the first time in more than a decade.
- The Twins brought Tony Batista back across the Pacific for $1.25 million. He might be better than Michael Cuddyer, but I doubt it. The Twins seem to have decided that Cuddyer is moving back to the outfield, although he isn’t a good right fielder and his bat becomes marginal out there.
This is a case of growing disenchanted with what you have, rather than evaluating it objectively. Cuddyer may not have become what the Twins hoped he would be, but even as a disappointment he’s a better player than Batista, a one-trick pony whose sub-.300 OBP is a lineup killer. Cuddyer has a career line of .261/.334/.425 and is coming into his age-27 year, and would have made a much better bet than Batista as a starting third baseman. Perhaps the Twins will realize that in a month.
- Alfonso Soriano has yet to retract his insistence that he won’t move to the outfield. If that holds, the Nationals will have one very expensive second-base platoon in Soriano and Jose Vidro. Perhaps Jim Bowden can take this opportunity to move Soriano before he destroys his trade value by opening the season in RFK Stadium, where his Ameriquest home runs are going to become RFK F7s.