The World Baseball Classic’s affect on players has largely focused on pitchers, and whether the competitive stress they take on in March has a negative effect on their health and performance. The evidence that the 2006 Classic caused problems for its participants is inconclusive, and self-selection probably cuts off potential issues early. Players who think that playing in the WBC will cost them in the regular season simply decline the invitation.
The issue that receives less attention is that players sometimes have to choose between battling for a major league job and playing in the WBC. The Rangers‘ Luis Mendoza comes to mind, as the right-hander expressly stated that he would skip the event so that he could battle for a job in the Rangers’ rotation. Teammate Max Ramirez hasn’t had much chance to be a factor in the Rangers’ crowded catcher/DH/first-base race while getting into four games in two weeks for Venezuela. The Braves‘ Jorge Campillo might have been better off in camp, where Tom Glavine may take his job, than pitching for Mexico. We think about the WBC and its star-laden United States and Dominican Republic rosters, and we enjoy the curiosity of teams on which there are very few major leaguers, but teams in between often have players who are on the line between major leaguer and minor leaguer, and those players are the ones who need spring training the most. I can scream until I’m blue in the face that 30 at-bats over six weeks against varied opposition in games no one cares about winning are a terrible evaluation tool, but managers and GMs rarely see it that way. You can play your way into or out of a job in the March sunshine.
This effect may be impacting one team’s roster decisions in a way that hurts both the team and the player. While Gregor Blanco was helping Venezuela into the WBC semifinals-a run that ended last night in a 10-2 loss to Korea-he was losing ground in the Braves’ outfield. Despite being the best of the three players involved, despite having the longest track record of success in Atlanta, and despite the team’s need for his exact skill set, Blanco is behind Josh Anderson for the center-field job, and behind silly signee Garret Anderson in left.
Just to provide a framework for the discussion, here are the PECOTA weighted-mean projections for the three:
AVG/ OBP/ SLG SB CS EqA Def Blanco .264/.361/.346 11 5 .259 -3 CF J. Anderson .274/.319/.354 33 9 .244 -8 CF G. Anderson .279/.326/.432 4 1 .261 -2 LF
I’ll go on the record as thinking very little of that defensive projection for Josh Anderson. UZR loves him, Plus/Minus loves him, and observers love him. He’s better than that, and by enough to change the symbol in front of that “8”.
Setting that argument aside, it’s clear that Blanco is the best player-essentially the same hitter as Garret Anderson, and likely to be a better defender if allowed to play left field. When the Braves signed Anderson, I compared his production to that of Brandon Jones, the player whose at-bats he seemed most likely to inherit, and discovered that it was acceptable, if not a big step forward. It actually never occurred to me that Blanco’s job would be in danger after playing well a year ago. In fact, comparing the Andersons didn’t go particularly well for the veteran, as his edge with the bat over Josh would be more than wiped out by the difference in defense between the two alignments (Garret in left and Blanco in center, versus Blanco in left and Josh in center).
Throw out what Blanco did in the WBC-he played well, but the variability in opposition is even worse than in spring training-and just focus on what his skills are, what the Braves need, and who the competition is. At worst, his arrival should reduce the outfield question to an all-Anderson affair. At best, Cox will look at the two sets of twenty-something legs, and realize that he doesn’t need a left fielder whose best asset is that he was really good in 2001.
Let’s not forget that the Braves’ rotation isn’t projected to strike out a ton of batters. Only Javier Vazquez is a high-strikeout pitcher, while Derek Lowe, Jair Jurrjens, and whoever wins the fifth-starter’s job between Campillo and Glavine all rely heavily on their defense. An outfield of Blanco, Josh Anderson, and Jeff Francoeur would be very strong, one of the best fly-catching crews in the league. I can’t back this up, but I think that the effect of playing multiple good defensive outfielders is greater than the sum of the individual defensive performances, enough to take many runs off the board.
The Braves’ pitching upgrades mean that they can compete with the Mets and Phillies in the NL East, and even win the division. Making the right decisions everywhere else on the roster is the only way to get the most out of those investments. When Blanco gets back to Braves camp this week, Bobby Cox needs to walk over and give him a big hug. Blanco may be a no-profile player who has been traipsing all over the hemisphere for a month, but he’s also the second-best outfielder on the team, and the Braves aren’t so deep that they can be cavalier about a .360 OBP from a player with some speed and the ability to save runs in left field.