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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Anxiety in the Outfield

After a prolonged hiatus, I'm returning to the blogosphere to begin my discussion of the 2008 season. In the coming weeks and months, I will likely weigh in on the popular topics of the moment - the Mitchell Report, the Roger Clemens hearings, the Barry Bonds indictment, the Johan Santana trade, etc. - but I'd like to begin our broadcast season by looking at some of the more intriguing on-field situations to watch when spring training begins in just over a week. Today, in particular, I'll be addressing a few outfields which seem inevitably in flux. Obviously, there are implications for those fantasy-oriented members in the audience, but this is also of interest for the more casual baseball fan because, unlike in most offseasons, the dealing is not yet done. Look for teams to unload excess and fill holes using free agency and trades well into the spring training schedule.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

No matter how you look at it, the Angels are dealing from a position of strength. Sure, they dealt one of their most popular players, Orlando "Orange County" Cabrera, to secure Jon Garland from the White Sox, but they have three high-profile yougsters, Erick Aybar, Maicer Izturis, and Brandon Wood, ready to fill his shoes. They've also got depth in the rotation with Ervin Santana, Joe Saunders, and Nick Adenhart competing for the final slot. And, they've got a bullpen featuring one of baseball's most consistent, dominating closers, K-Rod, and two top set-up men, Scot Shields and Justin Speier. But today, as I was saying, we're focused on the outfield. The Angels surprised everybody when the signed one of this offseason's prime free agents, Torii Hunter, to a long, loaded contract. It wasn't that anybody doubted the Angels willingness to spend money in the free agent market. In recent years they've doled out hundreds of millions to high-profile players like Vladimir Guerrero, Bartolo Colon; however, their last major acquisition was Gary Matthews Jr., a moderately speedy, moderately powerful, superb defender, who might accurately be described as "Torii Hunter-lite." What do the Angels plan on doing with two gold-glove caliber centerfielders?

Well, we can safely assumed that $90 Million Dollar Man, Torii Hunter, with his seven consecutive gold gloves will be getting most of the starts in center. We can also safely assume that $50 Million Dollar Man, Gary Matthews Jr., will not be riding the pine. Although Matthews was dogged last season by nagging injuries and accustions that HGH was a major factor in his breakout season in 2006, he quietly put up another solid, though not outstanding, campaign. He hit 18 HR, scored 79 runs and drove in 72, stole 18 bases, and, of course, played highlight reel defense, despite the fact that he hit only .211 in the second-half. If he had kept up his first-half pace and not be dogged by problems with his knee, he numbers would've looked very similar to those he posted in Texas in 2006.

The Angels see know reason to move Matthews since, as I was saying, they are dealing from a position of strength throughout their roster. If injuries befall key players or the abundant youth in the system fail to develop as expected, Matthews could be traded during the season, but I expect him to be a sort of utility outfielder who plays everyday. Most of his starts will come in left, as Garret Anderson becomes the regular DH, but rightfielder Vladimir Guerrero , who's also suffered from knee injuries, will also see some time there (he was a DH for 41 games in '07), as will Hunter, who has spent all his career on the rock-hard surface in Minnesota, the same type of surface that is responsible for the hardships of guys like Vlad, Andre Dawson, and Larry Walker.

What further complicates the outfield situation in Anaheim is the presence of Reggie Willits and Juan Rivera. Willits is another speedy young Angel. He finished fifth in AL Rookie of the Year voting last season, after hitting .293 and stealing 27 bases while filling in for Anderson, Matthews, and Guerrero. Willits could be a useful leadoff hitter or fourth outfielder for many teams. His value is raised further by the amount of time left before he reaches free agency. If he isn't getting any playing time, look for him to be dealt for assistance at catcher or in the bullpen. Rivera is even further below the radar, but has more upside offensively than either Willits or Matthews. He is best suited for right field or DH, but he hit 23 HR, drove in 85 RBI, and batted .310 in 2006, before missing all of last season to a broken leg. He is still only 29 and may represent better protection for Vlad than either Anderson or Hunter, considered the leading candidates for the cleanup slot. If he is given the opportunity, beware!

Los Angeles Dodgers

The question for Dodgers fans is this: Which of these lineups would you rather see on the field?

C Russell Martin
1B James Loney
2B Jeff Kent
3B Nomar Garciaparra
SS Rafeal Furcal
LF Juan Pierre
CF Andruw Jones
RF Matt Kemp


C Martin
1B Loney
2B Tony Abreu
3B Andy LaRoche
SS Chin-Ling Hu
LF Andre Ethier
CF Delwyn Young
RF Kemp

I'm guessing most Dodger fans will still pick lineup A, and it may be the better choice for '08. I, however, would not want to bet on that. And, I can say with certainty that, come 2010, it is going to be lineup B (or something closely resembling it) taking the field at Chavez Ravine nightly. Each of the members of lineup B are in their early-to-mid twenties, have two years or less experience, and represent, along with pitchers like Chad Billingsley, Jonathan Broxton, and Clayton Kershaw, quite possibly the best conglomeration of young talent in the major leagues. Unfortunately, right now more than half of them don't have a chance of starting or even making the major league roster and there is noth to be gained from another year at AAA for guys like Ethier, Young, LaRoche, and Hu. Garciaparra, Kent, and Pierre will be on short leashes if they
again have slow starts or nagging injuries.

In the outfield, specifically, we can assumed that Matt Kemp's position is etched in stone. He arrived on the scene in a big way in 2006, when, as a 21-year-old rookie he hit 7 HRs and drove in 14 over an eleven game stretch. Then the league figured out that he was a free swinger and he was demoted for more seasoning. Last June he came to stay, batting .338 with 10 HR, 10 SB, and 39 RBI in less than 300 ABs. He is likely to benefit from the added presence of Andruw Jones protecting him in the lineup and roaming centerfield, as a mentor, but is also likely to outperform him offensively. Although he will go behind Jones and Juan Pierre in most fantasy drafts, his combination of batting average, speed, and power makes him more valuable than either of them and a great mid-round steal.

Jones is looking to rebound from a much-publicized year-long slump in 2007, which may have cost him a considerable amount of money on the free agent market, much to the chagrin of agent Scott Boras. Although there may be some truth to the pervasive rumors of declining speed, due largely to weight issues, it is hard to believe that Jones' offensive numbers are going to take a dramatic and permanent downward turn at the age of 30. He stopped stealing bases long ago, and it wasn't his foot-speed that allowed him to average 35+ homers a season from 2000-2006. The last time Jones had a slightly "down" year, in 2004 (29 HR, 91 RBI), he rebounded with the two best seasons of career (41/51 HR, 128/129 RBI). If he comes to spring training looking fit, don't necessarily expect an MVP-caliber season, but 35 HR and 110 RBI isn't at all unreasonable hitting in a lineup stacked with high-average, high-OBP guys like Martin, Loney, Kemp, Furcal, and Kent.

Juan Pierre is coming off three consecutive "down" years. After posting OBPs of .361 and .374 in his first two seasons with the Marlins ('03 and '04), he hasn't gotten above .331 in three seasons with Florida, Chicago (NL), and Los Angeles. As a pure lead-off hitter with no power, no arm, and only moderate range in the outfield due to his often strange jumps, Pierre's value to tied exclusively to his ability to get on base and steal bases. The second half of the equation is still no problem (he's averaged 60 steals a year for the past three seasons), but he can't nab second if he doesn't get to first and recently he hasn't gotten to first as often as 25-year-old Andre Ethier (.357 OBP in two seasons), who doesn't steal bases, but does have decent power and plate discipline. More dangerous perhaps is Delwyn Young, also 25. Young isn't a base-stealer either, but he hit .382 in a limited stint last September and he raked AAA to the tune of a .337 average, 955 OPS, 17 HR, 54 2B, and 97 RBI in 121 games.

Five outfielders this talented is probably at least one too many. If the Dodgers are willing to swallow some of his remaining salary, Pierre makes the most sense to deal, but the youngsters might also be valuable commodities in a trade to a rebuilding franchise like Oakland (Joe Blanton).

Washington Nationals

Last year, the Nationals had one of the weakest outfields in baseball and, as a result, one of the weakest offenses in baseball. Center field was particularly a problem. The combination of Nook Logan and Ryan Langerhans combined for six homers, 63 runs, and 43 RBI. Neither had an OPS above 700. Meanwhile, Ryan Church (28) and Austin Kearns (27), both high-potential hitters coming into the prime of their careers, turned in mediocre performances, not the "break-up" campaigns the Nationals were expecting. It was clear, even before the season ended, that this was the primary concern for GM Jim Bowden going into 2008. He traded for Wily Mo Pena in mid-August and Pena rewarded him with 8 HR and an 856 OPS in 37 games. Then, early in the offseason, he dealt Church and veteran catcher Brian Schneider to the Mets for top prospect Lastings Milledge and, soon thereafter, acquired Elijah Dukes from Tampa Bay.

All three come with abundant baggage. Pena has been a full-time major-leaguer for four seasons, even though he's only 26. But, unlike most players of his age with his talent, he has never been given the opportunity to play everyday, largely due to his inconsistency against right-handed pitching. He is one of those players who has been labeled as "difficult" in the clubhouse, but without much justification as to why.

In the cases of Milledge and Dukes, there is plenty of justification for the label. Milledge made a number of inappropriate public statements and gestures during his short tenure with the Mets which led to them letting him go, despite the fact that many look at the trade as highway robbery based on the pure talent of the players. Milledge is a prototypical tools player. There isn't anything amazing in his minor-league (or major-league) stats, largely because there aren't that many of them. He is only 22 and has spent much of the past two seasons on the Mets bench. Given a chance to play center every day, he is likely good for a .290 average, 10-15 HR, 80+ runs, and 25+ SB. All of those numbers, especially the power, as likely to escalate as he moves into his mid-twenties. He could eventually be something between Eric Byrnes and Carlos Beltran.

Dukes' ceiling is probably even higher, but the "difficulties" are greater, too. He was sent home last season after multiple "domestic disturbances," despite the fact that he hit 10 HR with the big club in only 200 plate appearances. Dukes has spectacular power and, more importantly, tremendous plate discipline, walking almost as often as he strikes out, a rare feat for a power-hitter. He also plays the outfield well and has base-stealing speed. If he can harness his temper, he will eventually supplant somebody in the Nationals outfield, and is the only player in this group with the chance to become a bonafide superstar. Although there has been even more publicity given to Dukes' extracurricular struggles, it would do us well to remember that Gary Sheffield was not exactly well-behaved (at least, according to the media) when he arrived in the majors, but, despite the fact that he remains out-spoken and controversial, he has become among the most respected clubhouse personalities in the league.

The comparison of young Sheffield with young Dukes seems warranted both on the field as well. Milwaukee brought Sheffield to the big club at the age of 19, after he absolutely torched minor-league pitching in 1987 and 1988 (222 RBI between AA and AAA, in only 263 games! When he was in his teens!). However, he tenure in Milwaukee was marred by injuries, "behavioral problems," and slumps. Sheffield didn't become the intimidating monster that we've come to know and love until he was moved to San Diego in 1992, the first season he played in more than 125 games. Nonetheless, despite all his struggles, from '88 to '91, Sheffield drew 97 walks while fanning only 96 times. Sheffield break-out 1992 season, in which he batted .330, hit 33 HR, and drove in 100 RBI, came at the age of 23. Elijah Dukes turned 23 on June 26, 2007, but the last time he suited up for a major league game was June 19.

The Other 27

In brief, here are a few other outfield battles to watch this spring:

Chicago Cubs: Soriano and Fukudome are solidified in the corner slots, but the Cubs need a center-fielder (what's new?). Felix Pie and Sam Fuld are the front-runners. The Cubs also still have Matt Murton, a seemingly forgotten prospect, who remains glued to the bench despite signs of being a productive regular. Look for him to be used as trade bait.

Chicago White Sox: Nick Swisher and Jermaine Dye are the stalwarts, while Jerry Owens, Carlos Quentin, Josh Fields, and Alexei Ramirez must compete for at-bats, along with third-baseman Joe Crede, who will probably get traded to free up a place for Fields in the infield. Quentin is the best offensive option of the group, but that leaves Swisher in center, which is not the ideal position for him.

Oakland Athletics: The rebuilding season in Oakland promises to be a revolving door at many position, including the outfield, where nobody is a safe bet to start consistently. The crop of probable candidates include Jack Cust (who will also DH), Carlos Gonzalez, Travis Buck, Ryan Sweeney, Emil Brown, and Jeff Fiorentino. Assuming some of these options don't pan out, don't be surprised if Billy Beane is willing to try guys like Dan Johnson, a first baseman by trade, and top catching prospect, Landon Powell, in left.

Seattle Mariners: Ichiro and Raul Ibanez will lock down left and center, and Adam Jones is no longer in the picture, so right is up for grabs. Brad Wilkerson and Wladimir Balentin will both see time there, with Balentin being the better choice in terms of long-term potential. However, don't forget that not so long ago Wilkerson was a disciplined hitter with good power. He just finished two dreadful seasons in Texas. Perhaps a new batting coach can get him back on track.

Texas Rangers: Speaking of Texas, where hitting seems to be a feast or famine enterprise (see Wilkerson, Texeira, Blalock, Matthews Jr., etc.), they have locked down Josh Hamilton in center and, on can assume, Milton Bradley will play right or DH when he is healthy. The remaining at-bats (quite plentiful, if precedent prevails) will be shared by Marlon Byrd, Frank Catalanatto, Nelson Cruz, David Murphy, and Jason Botts. All of who have enough power (save Murphy, probably) to feast at Arlington.

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