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Continuing our joint around the majors, we look at NL hitters embroiled
in battles for starting jobs this spring. Projected starting lineups
follow.

Catchers

Team: Arizona
Contenders: Kelly Stinnett, Jorge Fabregas


Not a true decision, since Fabregas has pretty much got the job locked
up. The problem is that he is simply horrible at the plate, while
Stinnett is more than adequate on offense and defense. Stinnett’s a good
bet to win the job, and you have to think Arizona is hoping to see him
bring his AAA numbers (.321/.444/.565 at Tucson last year) to the majors
a la Geronimo Berroa. I think it can happen.

Team: NY Mets
Contenders: Todd Pratt, Tim Spehr,
Alberto Castillo, Vance Wilson


The Mets won’t miss Todd Hundley, not with these guys ready to fill in
the huge void left by Hundley’s absence until the All-Star Break. Just
kidding: the Mets’ offense, weak with Hundley, is devastated without
him. Todd Pratt won’t exactly anchor the offense, but he could surprise
people with a .270/.380/.450 season, and his defense has improved over
the last few years. Spehr and Castillo aren’t really factors in this
race, since neither is the platoon-mate Pratt needs. Wilson is a real
wild card. He was really nobody’s prospect, even after adding 109 points
to his SLG this year, since it was his first AA exposure at age 24.
However, he hit .474 in the Arizona Fall League, and naturally finds
himself in ST this year. I’m hardly convinced that he’s learned to hit,
but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s made himself into an adequate
backup.

Team: Saint Louis
Contenders: Eli Marrero, Tom Pagnozzi


I don’t care what Pagnozzi’s making; his playing career has been over
for some time now, and there’s no reason why a big-ass veteran contract
should keep him playing over a talented rookie who’s clearly ready. That
said, LaRussa loves his veterans, and while Marrero is the projected
starter here, don’t be shocked to see TP get 250 AB this year.


Corner infield

Team: Montreal
Contenders: Shane Andrews, FP Santangelo,
Scott Livingstone, Jose Vidro


A cast of thousands, yet none of them really good enough to play third
every day. The best case scenario for Felipe & Co. is a healthy Shane
Andrews portraying a poor man’s Rob Deer – hurting your average while
providing homers and RBI. The worst case is Scott Livingstone, he of the
.164/.194/.194 last year in 67 AB. At 32, Livingstone is no more than a
spare part, but that job is better filled by Vidro, who could at least
provide some power backing up third and second. As for Santangelo, his
ultimate role may depend on the failures of others, but Alou is likely
to get FP 400 plate appearances one way or another.

Team: Cincinnati
Contenders: Roberto Petagine, Dmitri Young,
Eduardo Perez (1b); Willie Greene, Aaron Boone (3b)


What a mess – albeit a mess caused by a surfeit of talent. That
immediately separates the Reds from, say, the Cubs, who have the
opposite mess. The Reds have tons of options at both corners, in left,
and (if Reggie Sanders is traded) in right. Eduardo Perez will get extra
consideration because he’s something of an incumbent, but he is the
worst option at either corner, as his .253/.321/.475 isn’t great for a
first baseman, yet reeks of an age 27 peak for Perez. Young came at a
price (fan fave Jeff Brantley), so he’s likely to split time with
Petagine and Perez; Young and Greene could both move to left field if
necessary. Greene is obviously a pretty big talent, although one who’ll
never reach the heights predicted, courtesy of the Reds’ mishandling of
him in 1995-96. Still, as the only Red with a solid shot to get 100
walks and 30 homers this season, he should inch closer to everyday
status. Boone’s playing time depends on where Greene is, but the
organization’s inclination is to get him in the lineup.

Team: Houston
Contenders: Sean Berry, Russ Johnson


Sean Berry was probably the 5th or 6th most valuable third baseman in
the NL in ’95-’96, and may have been the least valuable in ’97. The
nagging shoulder injury obviously wasn’t healed, and the annual
assortment of pulls and sprains hit Berry again last year. As a result,
Houston non-tendered him, signed him to a minor-league deal, and invited
him to ST to fight with rookie Russ Johnson for his old job. Both have
value on a team that doesn’t need offense at third, but this team does.
I’d bet that Berry’s power wins out over Johnson’s walks, although
Johnson should make the team as the left-infield backup.

Team: Pittsburgh
Contenders: Kevin Young, Ron Wright, Freddy Garcia,
Doug Strange, Aramis Ramirez, Mark Smith


This is really a battle for the one available spot at both corners;
Kevin Young will play, but it could be on either side of the diamond.
The remaining candidates include Wright, a top 1b prospect who struggled
with the strike zone last year and could use another 3 months in AAA;
Garcia, the Rule V draft pick who hit a huge wall at the plate last
year, but impressed Gene Lamont in September; Doug Strange, the free
agent signee better suited to a utility role; and Ramirez, the top
prospect in the system who could jump all the way from A-ball. Ramirez
is the best candidate of all of them, but the Pirates have indicated
that they prefer to move him up slowly (he’s only 20); after Ramirez,
Wright has the most talent. The decision will come down to how Garcia
does this spring and what GM Cam Bonifay wishes to do with Wright
developmentally. My money’s on Wright at 1b this year.

Team: St. Louis
Contenders: John Mabry, Gary Gaetti


Who is the lesser of two evils? Gaetti is out to prove that he’s not
finished yet, but my money says he is. Mabry, on the other hand, is
still learning the position, and brings a career .296/.347/.406 into
1997 – awful for a third baseman. This could be a disaster for the
Cards, which is why I think they’ll carry both players into the season:
Mabry to start, and Gaetti for insurance. Incidentally, Mabry’s 27 this
year, so he might even slug .450.


Middle infield

Team: Florida
Contenders: Craig Counsell, Luis Castillo


Leyland et al have pointed to Castillo as the future at second base, so
this is just a matter of time. With fan opinion so pointed against the
Fish right now, moving Counsell might not play well with the 382 season
ticket holders remaining, but the clock has already struck midnight on
him. Castillo’s outstanding winter ball gives him back the confidence he
lost last year, and he can reclaim the job with a solid spring.

Team: Montreal
Contenders: Orlando Cabrera, Jose Vidro


Cabrera’s the leading candidate to step into the sizable shoes of Mike
Lansing and to take over the leadoff role inadequately filled by Mark
Grudzielanek. Cabrera doesn’t really walk enough to hit leadoff, has
minimal power at best, and will probably only hit .250-.260 in the
majors this year. That said, he could steal 30 bases, so you still care
about him. Vidro is Cabrera with 15-20 HR power, fewer walks, and no
speed. Vidro’s also a candidate for the third base job, so the result
there impacts the race here, but Cabrera’s speed will probably propel
him into an undeserved role at the top of the order.

Team: Philadelphia
Contenders: Desi Relaford, Alex Arias


Relaford’s already getting raves about his defense from manager Terry
Francona, which should help erase the conventional wisdom that his high
error totals mean he’s a poor defender. Our system looks at more than
just errors, and rated Relaford the #2 defensive shortstop in the
International League last year. Arias isn’t really cut out to be a
starter, but the Phils acknowledged that Relaford wasn’t ready the way
that Rolen was ready last spring. If Relaford hits at all, the starting
job is his, but be warned: he’ll be demoted if he struggles for an
extended period, and his roto value is limited to 15-20 steals and 5-10
homers if he gets 500 PA.


Outfield

Team: Florida
Contenders: Cliff Floyd, Mark Kotsay, Todd Dunwoody,
Derrek Lee (by association)


Floyd will play somewhere; while many have praised Montreal for their
acquisition of Dustin Hermanson, Floyd will turn a lot of those
sycophantic observers around this year as he vindicates GM Dave
Dombrowski. Therefore, the real race here is between Kotsay, Dunwoody,
and Lee for the two slots out of center/left/first base not occupied by
Floyd. Dunwoody is the rawest of the three, showing good talent but
stagnating in the plate discipline department, and is my pick for the
most likely loser of the battle. Lee played better than expected at AAA
last year, and while his power was down, his strike zone judgment was
much improved, indicating that he’s probably ready for the next step.
Kotsay is simply ready, and is the most likely of the three to nail down
a job this spring.

Team: Montreal
Contenders: FP Santangelo, Ryan McGuire, Derrick May,
perhaps Wil Cordero


The Cordero rumor is relatively new, but would be a brilliant signing
for Jim Beattie. Cordero was on his way to a breakout season last year
when he demonstrated his lack of phone skills, and his actions created a
controversy that destroyed his season. If he’s receiving the proper
counseling, there’s no reason he shouldn’t be allowed to play baseball
on the condition that he continue treatment. Regardless, until he’s
signed, FP Santangelo is probably the leading candidate here, which (as
mentioned earlier) impacts numerous other races for jobs in Montreal.
McGuire had a brief torrid streak when recalled last summer, which may
give him a reputation as a good hitter, something he is not. He’s also a
first baseman whose left field defense is not particularly strong. All
that said, he’s better than Derrick May.

Team: NY Mets
Contenders: Butch Huskey, Brian McRae, Rich Becker


Like others in this article, this “race” isn’t really a race, but a
situation to monitor. Huskey and McRae both have platoon splits, and
McRae’s was particularly pronounced (.278/.333/.444 vs. RHP,
.230/.324/.361 vs. LHP) last year. Becker could enter a strict platoon
with one or the other, or could see time spelling both at various points
during the season. One would presume the Mets didn’t acquire Becker to
sit him, so consider the possible loss of plate appearances when valuing
Huskey and McRae this year.

Team: Philadelphia
Contenders: Bob Abreu, Billy McMillon


Team officials have said that Abreu’s the man in right, but he has
struggled in the majors thus far, and while he’s quite talented, the
club may turn to McMillon if Abreu has a poor spring. Best case scenario
here is that the club rids itself of either Jefferies or Brogna, moving
one of the two prospects over to left.

Team: Cincinnati
Contenders: Chris Stynes, Melvin Nieves, Dmitri Young,
Willie Greene, Pat Watkins


No matter how hard he tries, Jack McKeon can’t fit all those bodies into
one outfield spot, or even two if Reggie Sanders is indeed traded. The
best guess here is that Greene gets the most AB, Stynes plays until he
turns back into a pumpkin, Watkins returns to AAA, and Nieves and Young
fight for playing time, with Young garnering some time at first. If
Sanders leaves, Nieves is the immediate beneficiary, followed by Young.
My main concern here is that it is not possible for Nieves, Young,
Greene, Petagine, and Aaron Boone to all get 500 PA this year, so hedge
your bets appropriately.

Team: Pittsburgh
Contenders: Jermaine Allensworth, Turner Ward


A team like the Pirates needs to concentrate its efforts on developing a
steady stream of young talent, not on re-signing replaceable
mediocrities like Turner Ward to two-year contracts. Ward did smack the
hell out of the ball last year, but that just demonstrates is how easy
it is to find outfielders who can hit. Allensworth isn’t a future star
in the Hermansen-Ramirez camp or even in the Wright camp, but he’s not
old (26, as opposed to Ward, who’s 33), and at least has a small chance
to turn into something useful. He has to win the job back this spring,
but he’s likely to do so, given the weak competition.

Team: Arizona
Contenders: David Dellucci, Brent Brede, Karim Garcia,
Yamil Benitez


A well-chronicled competition that should be fun to watch. Dellucci’s
earns the scorn of scouts for his lack of tools, but he’s probably the
best bet in this group to perform in ’98 in the majors. Garcia is the
hot prospect here, and appears to be recovered from offseason shoulder
surgery. Those two would be my picks for the left and right corners,
respectively. Benitez hits lots of tape-measure shots, but has atrocious
plate discipline and will likely lose any job given him this year.
Brede’s a WYSIWYG guy (what you see is what you get), who should hit for
a nice average, draw lots of walks, and leave you a little short of
power in that area of your lineup. He’s a very useful guy on a team with
lots of sluggers, but the D-backs ain’t one of those.

Team: San Diego
Contenders: Ruben Rivera, Greg Vaughn


No contest; Rivera should win this by a mile, and Vaughn can take his
sorry $5MM derriere to the bench – or to the unemployment line.


Projected lineups

   Atlanta	Florida		Montreal	NY Mets		Philadelphia
c  Lopez	Johnson, C	Widger		Pratt et al	Lieberthal
1b Galarraga	Lee, D		Fullmer		Olerud		Brogna
		Floyd
2b Graffanino	Counsell	Cabrera, O	Baerga		Lewis, M
		Castillo
ss Weiss	Renteria	Grudzielanek	Ordonez		Relaford
								Arias
3b Jones, C	Bonilla		Andrews		Alfonzo		Rolen
lf Klesko	Kotsay		Santangelo	Gilkey		Jeffries
		Dunwoody	McGuire
cf Jones, A	Floyd		White, R	McRae		Glanville
								Cummings
rf Tucker	Sheffield	Guerrero, V	Huskey/Becker	Abreu

   Chicago Cubs	Cincinnati	Houston		Milwaukee	Pittsburgh	St. Louis
c  Servais	Taubensee	Ausmus		Matheny		Kendall		Marrero
   Houston									Pagnozzi
1b Grace	Petagine	Bagwell		Jaha		Young, K	McGwire
		Perez, E					Wright
2b Morandini	Boone, B	Biggio		Vina		Womack		DeShields
ss Blauser	Larkin		Spiers		Valentin	Collier		Clayton
								Polcovich
3b Orie		Greene, W	Berry		Cirillo		Garcia, F	Mabry
		Boone, A	Johnson, R			Young, K	Gaetti
lf Rodriguez, H	Stynes		Alou		Nilsson		Martin		Gant
		Nieves
		Greene, W
		Young
cf Johnson, L	Nunnally	Hidalgo		Grissom		Allensworth	Lankford
				Everett
rf Sosa		Sanders, R	Bell, D		Burnitz		Guillen		Jordan

   Arizona	Colorado	Los Angeles	San Diego	San Francisco
c  Fabregas	Reed		Piazza		Hernandez, C	Johnson, B
						Myers, G
1b Lee, T	Helton		Karros		Joyner		Snow
2b Batista	Lansing		Young, E	Veras		Kent
ss Bell		Perez, N	Vizcaino	Gomez		Sanchez
3b Williams, M	Castilla	Zeile		Caminiti	Hayes
								Mueller
lf Dellucci	Bichette	Hollandsworth	Rivera		Bonds
   Brede					Vaughn, G
cf White, D	Burks		Cedeno, R	Finley		Hamilton
rf Garcia	Walker		Mondesi		Gwynn		Javier
   Benitez							Cruz