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One of the more regular complaints about the staff of Baseball
Prospectus
is that we’re prospectaholics. It’s a fair charge, because I
know that we as a group, and myself in particular, are hard-core believers
in the idea that minor-league performance can tell us how well players can
play at the major-league level.

What we are guilty of, and maybe me more than most, is not putting enough
emphasis on that word can. As analysts, we can all try to cop a plea
when Tom Kelly finally says that he’s seen enough of Todd Walker.
We’ll rightly point out that Walker is the best man the Twins have to play
second base right now, and he hit as well in 1998 as we all expected or how
most projection systems predicted he would. Kelly can point out that
Walker’s defense hasn’t improved, and considering how much weaker our tools
to evaluate defense are compared to our tools to evaluate offense, it’s a
valid point. While Walker’s defense scores poorly by such measures as Range
Factor or the Davenport Fielding Translations, there just isn’t enough
evidence available to make useful assumptions about how a player’s
defensive skills develop over time. So it’s clear we could do a better job
of considering factors concerning on-field contributions (like defensive
skill) as well as less concrete ones (like anticipating Tom Kelly’s next
hot flash) to come up with some improved guesses about player development.

Keeping that in mind, let’s review some of the positions on teams around
the AL Central, where we wondered about how well they’d be filled with
adequate veterans while speculating about prospects they might have coming up.

Chicago White Sox

We expected the Sox would have a wide-open situation at the infield corners
and they do. While I’m probably one of Jerry Manuel’s harshest critics, the
man deserves credit for not shutting the door on Paul Konerko‘s
career as a third baseman or on Frank Thomas wearing a glove at all.
While using both of them, he’s managed to work in Greg Norton
effectively and use Craig Wilson to advantage.

What might have been a confused situation is much more than that. It’s a
tribute to maximum flexibility, where four players move through three
positions (first base, third base and DH) and get experience at each so
that the Sox aren’t forced into calling up Joe Crede too soon. While
Crede is off to a hot start at Birmingham, the Sox can afford to take their
time with him, because they’ve managed to make a wide-open situation into a
major asset by using established players.

Cleveland Indians

There isn’t much to say about the Indians and what they should be doing
with adequate veterans as opposed to young talent. The don’t have much of
either: the lineup is saddled with high-cost and high-quality veterans on
the tail end of the productive years of their careers, and Manny
Ramirez
and Jim Thome at the height of theirs. The only young
position player they have who’s ready (and good enough) to play regularly
in the majors is Enrique Wilson, and that’s only if something
happens to either Roberto Alomar or Omar Vizquel.

I’ve already belabored the absence of a legitimate center fielder in the
system to back up Kenny Lofton, but the Tribe is also stuck if any
important offensive regular goes down from among Ramirez, Thome, David
Justice
or Travis Fryman. If any of these guys go down, the
Tribe will have to make a trade, because they won’t trust Russ
Branyan
or Jeff Manto with playing time.

Detroit Tigers

The Tigers didn’t really have much in the way of choices in camp and don’t
really have any now. Their problem isn’t one of adequate veterans versus
almost-ready prospects. The problem is that they have nothing but
adequate or barely-adequate veterans, and the only ready prospects all play
catcher, DH or first base, and not center field or right field or left field.

While Brad Ausmus and Tony Clark are nice enough players for
the time being, the question the franchise has to deal with isn’t whether
those guys will or should eventually get beaten out by Javier
Cardona
or Eric Munson, respectively, or whether Rob Fick
could take either of their jobs. The Tigers are almost certainly better off
playing Ausmus and Clark until they can find a taker for them, and then
trading them for outfielders who can hit and walk and hopefully at least
one who can play center field. You know, the things people expect from
major league outfielders. If they can make that kind of deal in July or
August, then they can start deciding whether or not Cardona or Munson is
ready.

Kansas City Royals

The Royals have already made their choices as far as youth, generally going
with it. But leave it to Herk Robinson to make things a little more
interesting than they had to be. He created an artificial choice between
Mark Quinn and Jeremy Giambi when he could have kept both,
especially considering that it meant keeping minor-league veteran Dave
McCarty
instead. Dumping Giambi makes even less sense considering how
heavily the Royals’ lineup leans to the right. Robinson could have kept
Sal Fasano around to catch, but Fasano is hardly a spring chicken at 28,
and only has similar, and not significantly better, offensive skills to
Brian Johnson.

Veteran temps at third base (Joe Randa), catcher (Johnson and
Gregg Zaun) and shortstop (Rey Sanchez) are fine in the
absence of legitimate prospects, but the Royals’ problem is that they don’t
have the prospects to eventually replace them, or much worth trading to get
those prospects.

Minnesota Twins

Which brings us to the Twins, who have a strange balance between prospects
and inadequate veterans. Last year, they almost went out of their way to
discredit youth movements in general by letting guys like Doug
Mientkiewicz
and Chad Allen win regular jobs. This year, they’ve
gone with an odd mix of the adequate vets and prospects.

On the side of mediocrity, they’re using Butch Huskey, Ron
Coomer
and, arguably, Matt Lawton. On the side of talented
youth, they have David Ortiz and Matt LeCroy. They’ve excised
Mientkiewicz and Allen and Marty Cordova and Walker,
which looks like three guys who can’t hit well enough to man left field or
first base and a second baseman who can’t field his position. Maybe it’s
just me, but right now it doesn’t look like any of those guys will turn
into All-Stars, barring the good luck of a stint with the Rockies.

Meanwhile, Tom Kelly has kept playing Jacque Jones, Torii
Hunter
, Cristian Guzman and Corey Koskie. Sure, I’d like
it if he played Ortiz and LeCroy more regularly and turned Ron Coomer into
a nice bench player, and there was obviously no good excuse for why Ortiz
didn’t make the team last year. Nevertheless, it looks like Kelly isn’t
doing that horrible of a job of letting young players show whether or not
they can play. They’re already so convinced that Guzman is their shortstop
of the future that they’ve moved Luis Rivas to second base, and he
may fill that hole before the end of the season.

I’ll go over old ground to point out that this team isn’t really going to
be able to keep up with the White Sox or the Royals as far as rebuilding
until guys like Mike Cuddyer, Bobby Kielty, Mike
Restovich
and B.J. Garbe develop.

Chris Kahrl can be reached at ckahrl@baseballprospectus.com.