The NL champions head into camp with a lot of questions. The biggest seems
to be what they’re going to do at shortstop, where Walt Weiss is 36
and a bad, bad player. The team’s only alternative may be to push
19-year-old Rafael Furcal, one of the top prospects in baseball but
with no experience above A ball. Furcal would be well served by spending
some quality time at Double-A against stiffer opposition, but as the Braves
have proven with Andruw Jones, they’re willing to make the high-risk
gamble of bringing Furcal up and giving him all the time he needs. Furcal’s
spring performance may determine which way the Braves go. Ozzie
Guillen will be a complaining bystander either way, and would be
released except for his bizarre hold on GM John Schuerholz.
First base is also a mess. Will Andres Galarraga come back from
cancer and, if not, how will they arrange Brian Hunter and Wally
Joyner, once the latter returns from his broken foot? Hunter did well
in a platoon role in 1999, hitting .290/.379/.492 against left-handers,
while Joyner was used primarily against right-handers, hitting a weak
.248/.370/.322, so a strict platoon is possible. Galarraga was a great
hitter, but he’s 39 now, and coming off a year of inactivity, Joyner is 38
and has been inadequate the last few years, and Hunter is 32, so there’s
actually a good chance that the whole house of toothpicks could fall apart.
The Braves don’t have any good first-base prospects in the system, so
should that happen they would have to go to Randall Simon, who isn’t
good enough offensively or defensively to take the field every day. The
only way this can turn out well for Atlanta is if Galarraga makes a full
recovery and returns close to form. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Braves
look to acquire someone with a bat to wait patiently in Triple-A, like
long-time Zumsteg favorite J.R. “Deer” Phillips.
Javy Lopez is back from his torn ACL, but catchers and knee injuries
are a bad combination. We’re starting to hear that he’s nursing a hand
injury as well, and catching is not going to help that heal. The Braves may
also be looking to pick up a backup who can hit, someone in the Bill
Haselman mold. Greg Maddux‘s imprimatur may guarantee Eddie
Perez‘s job security, but that doesn’t mean he should be counted on for
anything beyond cheerleading and bench varnishing.
In the bullpen, Rocker’s spouting and related unwarranted punishment will
give McGlinchy the chance to win the closer spot out of spring training,
and they’ll test Mulholland to see if he can pitch another year of swing
relief out of those knees, and the rest should shake itself out.
Derrek Lee is dying to lose his job again, but it’s his to lose, and
Brant Brown will have to read up on where first base is to challenge
for it. Kevin Millar isn’t that good either, but one of these three
will take the field on Opening Day, and spring training will decide which
one it is.
One of the serious battles in camp is going to be for the utility infielder
spot, contested among Amaury Garcia, Matt Erickson and
Chris Clapinski, all decent hitters who can play the field. Three
shall enter, and there’s only room for two, max. In the outfield, Mark
Kotsay will need to stave off an early challenge from Julio
Ramirez to delay the inevitable in right field.
The starting rotation is also fluid, with Alex Fernandez, Ryan
Dempster and Vladimir Nunez slated for the first three slots,
and A.J. Burnett, Brad Penny and Jason Grilli
competing for the last two places. Burnett didn’t do a lot to warrant a
callup before pitching well in the majors in September, but he does cook
with some hot, hot gas. Penny is a great prospect who isn’t ready and
Grilli needs some time in the minors, too. Two of them will be thrown to
the fire on the basis of their spring-training performances, which means
that it may well be the loser who gets the best deal of the bunch.
Rondell White‘s spring training is probably going to be more a dog
show than anything. He wants to get out and the Expos have a set of young
outfielders in Peter Bergeron and Milton Bradley to play
alongside Vladimir Guerrero. If Jim Beattie can’t pull off a trade,
expect White to be found in the team library next to a discarded
candlestick, and the two cheerful 22-year olds to have mutually-supporting
The Expos will be watching their pitchers carefully. While they’ve got a
talented young rotation of Javier Vazquez, Dustin Hermanson
and Mike Thurman, led by, er, veteran pitcher Hideki Irabu,
they’d like to see Carl Pavano put together a good season and take
the fifth starter spot, leaving Miguel Batista to play a swing role.
Ted Lilly and Antonio Armas could steal rotation spots from
Thurman and Pavano out of spring training and push those two into the
bullpen. Commentators are going to talk about the need for some of the
young starters to "step up", but they’d all be welcome in the
rotations of most clubs in the league.
If Bob Henley proves he’s healthy and can hit like the Expos believe
he can, he could share the catching duties with Chris Widger, who
used to sit in the bullpen in Seattle patiently, talking to fans like me,
while plotting his escape.
New York Mets
It will be interesting if the Mets see their problems in spring training or
if it will be well into the season when it hits them. With Rickey
Henderson likely to be dealt to whoever’s willing to take him (and I’d
like to again point out that Vegas could use a MLB franchise, where a
poker-playing fiend like Rickey would feel right at home), the Mets are
going to need to shake out an outfield.
It looks like Benny Agbayani will stick as a left fielder, Derek
Bell will play right field and be blamed for the team’s problems, lost
super-prospect Alex Escobar will be given the chance to win the
center field spot, Darryl Hamilton will arm-wrestle Jon
Nunnally for the chance to be the backup outfielder and left-handed
bat, and Jay Payton will somehow injure himself and take himself out
of the mix. A poor performance by Escobar could send him to the minors to
retrain and put the center field job up for grabs. A strong spring for
suddenly-28-year-old "prospect" Jorge Toca could win him
some playing time in the outfield and first base, stealing ABs from Todd
The back of the Met rotation is a mess, with Bobby Jones (the worse
one), Pat Mahomes and Grant Roberts, who’s only 22 and could
develop given the chance to cut his hit rate. The major-league club,
unfortunately, is not that place. Eric Cammack might even make a
decent starter, but the organization has him down for relieving, and that’s
where he’ll be. The Mets will likely go with Bobby Jones regardless
of what happens in spring training, and Mahomes will join Armando
Benitez, John Franco, Turk Wendell, Dennis Cook
and Jesse Orosco in the bullpen.
The real battle this spring will be between offensive super-prospect Pat
Burrell and collapsed star Ron Gant. Burrell could be a complete
hitter next year, hitting .300/.400/.600, a leading Rookie of the Year
candidate and one of the best left fielders in the game. In the opposite
corner, the 35-year-old Gant is a fair bet to be the worst regular left fielder
in the league. If Gant has a strong spring, and Burrell falters, Gant could
be traded to a gullible team or be able to rest easy until mid-season.
Otherwise, Gant should be the most expensive fourth outfielder in baseball,
as hard as that move will be to make.
With Curt Schilling out until May, there’s a chance for young,
abused Randy Wolf to find a rotation slot. Robert Person
seems to have figured out how to pitch, which leaves only the fifth spot
open. Amaury Telemaco may be motivated enough by last year’s bizarre
usage to win it outright, but it’s going to be an open audition against
him. Cliff Politte may also have a chance, but the Phillies have had
such a hard time figuring out what to do with him that it’s unlikely his
spring will determine his role.