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February 17, 2010

Camp Battles

AL Central

by Christina Kahrl

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Continuing my run through the divisions to identify what I see as the interesting or only sort of interesting battles for regular jobs, let's turn to the always-interesting AL Central.

Chicago White Sox: Who gets the at-bats at DH?

Are we really, completely, absolutely, positively sure that Frank Thomas has to hang up his hitting gloves? The Sox were once guilty of prematurely retiring Harold Baines' number, after all, and doesn't that mean they could let the Big Hurt skip the ceremonies for a little while so that he could don his own jersey before they commit his number and numbers to history? Because let's face it, a choice between Mark Kotsay and Andruw Jones for at-bats at a definitively offensive position isn't just a non-choice, it may as well be an abdication of responsibility for finding one. It's the stuff that dreams are made of-if you're Alejandro De Aza, or Ramon Castro, or Jayson Nix. In short, it's bad news if you want to put up enough runs to do the division's best rotation a few favors on the scoreboard.

Happily, as ghastly as the options coming to camp may be, the free market still has answers to offer. Johnny Damon's name has come up, in the way that his name will be floated anywhere that any club has got an open lineup slot in the outfield or at DH, but he only gets to fix one situation on one team, and it's a bit dodgy on whether or not the White Sox would be willing to afford him. Would he be perfect? Of course he would be, not least because he'd provide the Sox with a part-time left fielder who could fill in when Carlos Quentin might need a day off from fielding, or when Juan Pierre spots for Alex Rios in center. Carlos Delgado wouldn't offer them that, and the question of whether or not he'd accept a lowball offer-even with a shot at the playoffs-might count him out. Russell Branyan's still out there, but his uses beyond first base are a bit doubtful, and between last year's season-ending back trouble and his coincidental .184/.290/.411 slump in July and August before being shut down for September, doubters about his ability to repeat his huge first half (.303/.400/.606 through June) can point to injury, age, and overexposure for reasons daunting enough to explain why they want to avoid offering the slugging surfer a sizable salary. Crabby old Gary Sheffield's still out there as well, but he might also be a bit too high-maintenance, and to some extent, he's just an older and perhaps more expensive variation on the theme they struck upon in signing up Jones.

There's the possibility that the Sox' designated hitter will be picked up in trade, or that a great camp might get Tyler Flowers some consideration. There's also the danger that they'd do something cheap and pointless, but attached to a formerly famous "name" player, and sign up the likes of Garret Anderson. Even that sort of futility runs into one of the contributing factors for why the Sox didn't work something out with Jim Thome: By locking up Omar Vizquel and Jones and re-upping Castro and Kotsay on top of having Nix around, they're already at 13 position players, and forgoing a 12th pitcher just doesn't seem to be in the cards while there are reasons to wonder how durable Jake Peavy or Freddy Garcia might be. Bringing in someone of Damon's and Delgado's stature is worth wishing for, but it's easy to come up with ways other people should spend their money.

Cleveland Indians: Picking the bodies for the last two jobs in the rotation.

Some job fights are exciting, because of what's at stake and what the outcome might tell us about how a team views itself and its immediate future. Sometimes it's young players trying to beat out veterans, or quaility prospects trying to pass one another up. All of those things are fun and interesting to follow, the sort of things that inspire fans and arguments, the stuff of fandom and hope springing eternal and all that happy poopadoodle.

And then there are those other job fights, the ones that are more like sorting out who's dogcatcher-in-chief in Kamchatkastan. These other job fights are the more desultory exercises, where winding up with "winners" just doesn't leave anyone involved feeling that much like a winner. Witness the contest for who gets to be the Indians' fourth and fifth starters; whatever modest ambitions remain for Aaron Laffey, Jeremy Sowers, or winter addition Mitch Talbot, or for David Huff after last year's rough rookie campaign, this spring's combat could be a form of last-chance sweepstakes for several of these guys. That quartet of question marks will contend with Carlos Carrasco, who's perhaps the prospect most on the spot from the increasingly awful-looking trade of Cliff Lee to the Phillies at last summer's deadline. Even the losers of such a battle can hang onto hope of some sort, because Fausto Carmona's seemingly unavoidable transmogrification from overnight ace back to perfect pumpkin could open up yet another slot. However, Carmona managed to avoid walking a single batter in his winter league action, and at this time of year, hope springs eternal.

Simply on the basis of last year's performances, Laffey and Huff might be the favorites. Huff did manage to close the year on an up note, running off five straight quality starts, and he managed a creditable 11 through the first six innings of his 23 big-league turns. Laffey's lack of velocity doesn't promise much in the way of upside, but he also managed to deliver quality starts about half of the time, managing 10 through six frames in his 19 starts. However, Sowers and Talbot are both out of options. As a former first-round pick, Sowers might be tough to cut outright, however disappointing he's been; he also has 400 major-league innings with a strikeout rate below four per nine and a definite case of the nibblies against right-handed hitters. Even stuffing him in the bullpen doesn't open up a job path for him, since the Tribe has both Rafael Perez and Tony Sipp for left-handed relief chores. Talbot would be tougher still to risk, and he did manage a good AFL campaign to end an injury-ruined 2009 on an high note.

Detroit Tigers: Who wins (and for however long) from among a fistful of options for center field, plus a tough choice between going young or old in the back end of the rotation.

Where the rest of the division's futzing around with oversights or unfortunate necessities, the Tigers are dealing with a far more interesting proposition: Who's their center fielder of the immediate future? In the rotation, will they deal in leftovers from big-deal mistakes entering the last years of their contracts-like Nate Robertson, Dontrelle Willis, and Jeremy Bonderman-or will they trust to once and future placeholders like Armando Galarraga, Eddie Bonine, or even Phil Coke? What makes this proposition especially interesting is that the Tigers haven't and shouldn't give up on their chances in the AL Central.

Sorting out who's in center is particularly interesting because the Tigers have already demonstrated some willingness to compromise between experience and youth in the lineup in the meantime. Rookie Scott Sizemore should be the starting second baseman, and it's up to Alex Avila to claim a chunk of the playing time behind the plate in camp, a challenge he has the talent to rise to. But will the Tigers add a third up-the-middle position to this prospective in-season kiddie corps? The alternatives on hand are certainly interesting enough to argue for it. Yankees prospect Austin Jackson's the long-term play after his inclusion in the Curtis Granderson deal, but injury-prone homegrown prospect Casper Wells deserves to be taken seriously after a solid season coming back from his latest hurt in Double-A capped by a fine spin in the AFL. But if neither prospect proves ready, they also have organizational soldier Clete Thomas, utility masher Ryan Raburn, and minor-league journeyman Don Kelly to consider.

Some of these are less reasonable propositions than others: Kelly has got speed and multi-positional utility going for him, but he's also already 30 and, even with an inspired spring, would be little more than a temp. Jim Leyland keeps talking up Thomas, which seems to be his major credential; I'm not sure how else to explain the fascination with a guy whose major career credit is that he had a big game against Tomo Ohka last year, and heading into his age-26 season, he's just a guy who can reach a walk rate of 10 percent if things go really well, but with a career minor-league ISO of .120, he'll be hard-pressed to manage that in the majors. He's seen as rangy enough for center, and has a strong arm, but here again, he'd be a placeholder if he wins the job. Raburn's most extended experience in center after washing out as a regular at third or second came in 2007 with the Mudhens; everyday play in center might prove a stretch.

So, to some extent the best bets might be Jackson and Wells, with Jackson the favorite because he's already made it through a full season at Triple-A, and is only headed into his age-23 season. To review the projections of all four:

Dude      AVG/ OBP/ SLG   EqA  WARP
Jackson  .261/.326/.396  .247   1.0
Raburn   .261/.342/.466  .270   1.6
Thomas   .236/.318/.362  .235   0.3
Wells    .228/.311/.410  .244   0.4

In other words, there's no obvious answer, not unless Raburn throws the leather and surprises everyone. Given that not even last year, when Curtis Granderson's flailing against lefties went begging for a worthy platoon partner, did the Tigers feel compelled to give Raburn an extended peek as that caddy, it's hard to get as enthusiastic as I'd like to be that this is an area where the club helps itself on offense. Jackson's the more highly regarded prospect, the youngest, and the one who projects best as a defender and hitter, but not so clearly to make this easy. While it's possible that Leyland's pulling a Sparky on us and talking up Thomas like a latter-day Chris Pittaro, I'd suggest this is one fight Jackson might win in the long run, but is in danger of losing if he doesn't make the best possible impression now.

As for the rotation, the vast sums of money expended upon Robertson, Bonderman, and Willis count for less than you'd think given their issues with injury and failure. Bonderman came to camp early, and is supposed to be sound after his shoulder surgery; the only way we'll know for sure is how well he pitches in camp. Robertson came back last year from surgery on his elbow to contribute as best he could down the stretch, but one quality start in six turns isn't exactly a strongly-staked claim on a slot. Willis is busily quibbling over whether he has a performance anxiety issue* or a confidence issue, but as far as what he's doing wrong, in the words of Art Fowler, Billy Martin's old pitching coach, "you're walking people, and Billy's pissed." Bonderman's probably the one who respresents the best bet to win a job behind the talented and young front three of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Rick Porcello, but that still leaves a slot open.

Beyond the expensive and uncertain threesome, the Tigers also have Galarraga, who contributed SNLVAR marks of 3.9 in 2008 and 1.5 in 2009; he may be 28, but he also stands to potentially lose the most, since he still has an option that could make him a Mudhen if he doesn't outpitch the veterans. After that, things get really speculative: organizational strike-throwers Zach Miner and Bonine would take turns and a few lickings if asked. Dave Dombrowski suggested Coke, the former Yankee, will be evaluated as a potential starter in camp; Coke had been used regularly in minor-league rotations through 2008, but a spotty changeup and inconsistent results with both a curve and a slider seem to leave him stranded a southpaw with decent velocity who may not have the range to stick as a starter. Leyland subsequently announced he sees Coke as more of a bullpen arm, but perhaps a few ugly camps from Galarraga and the veterans could open his mind on the subject. It's the sort of smudgy situation that could give even a longshot NRI type like Enrique Gonzalez or Phil Dumatrait reason to hope.

Kansas City Royals: A Keystone Combat and... a Trio of Rotation Slots?

Would that Mike Aviles was healthy, or we'd really have something to talk about, with both middle-infield positions possibly up for grabs. Or at least they ought to be; perhaps owning and operating your own Yuniesky Betancourt should come with your being issued protective radiation tags to let you know when you're in danger of receiving a lethal dose, just in case things as complicated and brain-bruising as numbers, adjectives, or flash cards with pictures of Angel Salazar, Angel Berroa, and Betancourt being equated with frowny faces end up being overly complicated.

So, in the meantime, there's really just the matter of sorting out who's at second base. Perhaps this is about demonstrating the Royals got something for dealing Mark Teahen, but it's also because they're less than sold on Alberto Callaspo at the keystone. So Chris Getz is going to get a shot for sheer scrappiness, which he has definitely going for him, and he's left-handed, and he runs well. Maybe this becomes a job-sharing arrangement, and maybe it becomes another unresolved symptom of the absence of a real plan for the Royals. To some extent, Callaspo seems to be a latter-day D'Angelo Jimenez, a player who contributes effectively enough at the plate-PECOTA projects a .361 OBP and a .261 EqA-but who also seems to have an uncanny knack for falling out of favor. Were it to happen with Callaspo this time around, it's worth noting that Getz isn't just a scrappy scrub, as he projects to a .355 OBP and a .254 EqA. On defense, Clay Davenport's FRAA and John Dewan's Plus/Minus didn't care for Callaspo at all last year; FRAA saw Getz as adequate, while Plus/Minus was harder on him, if not as negative as it was about Callaspo. So again, it's close enough to make for an interesting decision for Trey Hillman; if Getz wins the job, will Callaspo be used in the outfield? At third base? Or is that kind of roaming role already Willie Bloomquist's? We'll see what Hillman chooses, and what roles he creates for his bench if he adds Callaspo to it.

The rotation beyond Zack Greinke and Gil Meche is interesting as well, because it was supposed to be more certain by now than it is. Brian Bannister's failed to rise much past his status as sabermetrics' favorite right-handed junkballer, Kyle Davies had to pitch through an injury but earned a demotion, and has in general been a disappointment since coming over from Atlanta, and Luke Hochevar had an ugly sophomore season; none of them managed a SNWP above .500 last year, and Hochevar wound up below .400. However, PECOTA seems sanguine about Kansas City getting ERAs under 5.00 from Hochevar and Bannister, with Davies right there (5.10), which the Royals being the Royals, might seem like cause for celebration. If any of them falter, beyond the bold/crazy/desperate talk about Kyle Farnsworth's possible repurposing as a bad idea in the rotation, journeyman Robinson Tejeda had his moments last year, but he'd be an obvious fall-back.

This is less an outright job battle if Bannister, Hochevar, or Davies do what's expected to hold onto their slots. However, it's worth noting that Hochevar and Davies (and Tejeda) are out of options-but Bannister is not. The Royals gave Sir Sidney Ponson and Bruce Chen nine starts apiece last year, and desperation southpaw Lenny DiNardo another five in September, going 6-17 in those games. Obviously, this isn't a bad place to be if you're old and looking for a break and some service time, which goes towards explaining why Chen's back, and why Jorge Campillo and Brad Thompson are taking their chances as NRI guys.

Minnesota Twins: Picking between disappointments for the fifth starter, and disappointing picks for third base.

The club has all sorts of choices to sort through for their last rotation regular beyond an anticipated front four of Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Carl Pavano, and Kevin Slowey. We will of course have to see if Slowey's wrist has fully healed from last season's surgery, but let's take that as likely, at least for the sake of argument. That leaves Ron Gardenhire a crowded collection of choices, with Brian Duensing, Glen Perkins, and Francisco Liriano all having reasonable cases for why they'd make a fine fifth. Duensing's the one with the least upside, but he's also the one of the three who hasn't given any offense, either through on-field failure, injury, or sparring with management over both. Perkins has supposedly strengthened his shoulder sufficiently to avoid surgery, but after last fall's grievance and its subsequent cranky denouement, he may be too far out of favor to take seriously. Liriano failed to build on his 2008 comeback, instead proving to be equally exasperating. The Twins structured their arbitration-dodging deal to incentivize his season in either a starting or relief role, which suggests they're of two minds heading into camp, but he's the obvious upside possibility. All of them have at least one more option left, so nobody's secure from getting sent down in case he doesn't get the job or, in Perkins' case in particular, in case he isn't dealt. That said, if all of them do badly, there's always the chance that former prospect Anthony Swarzak gets a shot at redemption.

With the February decision to sign Orlando Hudson on top of trading for J.J. Hardy in December to finally give them a shortstop, what had been a weakness now looks like a good offense/defense combo up the middle, leaving last season's more blunt-toothed breed of piranhas shunted over to the hot corner for the time being. Whether Nick Punto or Brendan Harris winds up the starter is a relatively minor matter. Punto might provide better defense, modest speed, a few walks, and the occasional angry bunt, while Harris can lace the occasional extra-base hit and scare the occasional lefty, while providing clanky defense at the hot corner. Matt Tolbert might get some consideration as a poor man's Punto; he's arguably an even better bunter, which is sort of like selecting a lineup regular on the basis of penmanship, witty banter, or who's the better juggler. Danny Valencia might end up pushing his way into consideration, but it's unlikely that he'll win the job outright, and as I've argued in the past, he hasn't exactly done enough in the minors yet to achieve obviousness. Barring a late surprising addition, I'd expect a whole lot of Punto with dashes of Harris.

*: PAI for play?

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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