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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Gaping Holes

This week I'm taking a look at positions which are, as yet, conspicuously unfilled. This is different from positional battles, in which several players with potential are vying for one slot, such as Coco Crisp and Jacoby Ellsbury in Boston or Dmitri Young and Nick Johnson for the Nationals, but spots which are completely lacking viable options. For instance...

Baltimore Orioles - Shortstop

Miguel Tejada, coming off the worst season of his career, his first plagued by injuries, was dealt to the Astros, officially ending the steroid dynasty in Baltimore and starting what promises to be a prolonged rebuilding phase. The problem is that the position in the Orioles' infield occupied by Cal Ripken for a decade and a half (and by Tejada for the past four seasons) has no heir apparent on the horizon. The O's have begun spring training with Luis Hernandez as the frontrunner to man the space on Opening Day, but while Hernandez shows moderate defensive promise, his career OPS in the minors is only 621 and has fallen steadily as he moved up through the system. He would be, undoubtedly, the worst player with a starting position in the major leagues, possibly the worst hitter to make a 25-man roster. However, Baltimore's other options, Brandon Fahey and Freddie Bynum, also have very limited offensive potential and have no business playing shortstop.

So, the question is, will Baltimore essentially concede defeat at a critical position or will they sign or trade for a semi-respectable replacement. Even if they choose the latter, which I assume they will, the options remain limited. The only unsigned free agent middle infielders are Neifi Perez and Tony Graffanino. Perez is in the midst of serving an 80 game suspension for amphetamines and Graffanino is a 36-year-old journeyman who hasn't played more than 22 games at short in any of his twelve big-league seasons. Clearly, neither is a superior option to Hernandez.

The trade market is also bleak, but not as much so. The White Sox, having traded for Orlando Cabrera and signed Cuban defector Alexei Ramirez, would probably part with Juan Uribe for a lukewarm body (preferably one that clocks above 90 MPH). Uribe is certainly no Ripken, as his .235 average over the last two seasons demonstrates, but he has been a starting shortstop for half-a-dozen years, is still in his twenties, hits for power, and plays slightly better than league-average defense. In an infield that includes Kevin Millar and Melvin Mora, Uribe would not stand out as the glaring weakness.

If they want to be more ambitious they could attempt a trade within their division for Boston's Julio Lugo. Lugo was a major disappointment last year after signing a big contract. Boston might be willing to eat a significant portion in order to make room for top prospect Jed Lowrie, the organization's Minor League Player of the Year in 2007 (this in an organization that boast prospects like Ellsbury and Clay Buchholz). Lugo is 32, only an average defender, and hasn't been any better at the plate than Uribe since he left Tampa Bay at the 2006 trade deadline, but he costs twice as much. Uribe's contract only goes to the end of 2008, but Lugo is signed through 2010. Boston isn't likely to eat enough of that money to make is a wise move for the Orioles.

If Baltimore is willing to deal some of their stockpile of young pitching, they might be able to procure a promising young big-league ready shortstop like the Dodger's Chin-Lung Hu or the Angel's Maicer Izturis, both of whom are blocked with their current organizations, but the asking prices would be very high. Desperation measure might include Clint Barmes, Jack Wilson, or Ronny Cedeno (possibly piece of the rumored trade with the Cubs for Brian Roberts). Whatever the case, I sincerly doubt that the Orioles will take the field April 1 with a shortstop who couldn't hit .250 at AA.

San Diego Padres - Left Field

Unfortunately, I can imagine the Padres beginning the season with some combination of Scott Hairston and Jeff DaVanon in the lineup everyday, even though neither has ever had more than 339 at-bats in a season. In a platoon situation, switch-hitting DaVanon would get the lion's share of starts and Hairston would face lefties, against whom he has a very respectable 812 career OPS (compared to 704 against right-handers). However you look at it, neither player is a legitimate regular, especially on a notoriously low-scoring team which claims to have playoff aspirations coming out of a deep division. To a certain extent it is hard for me to take San Diego seriously, regardless of their left-fielder, with Jim Edmonds and Tadahito Iguchi representing their only offensive upgrades. There was a time when Edmonds and Brian Giles (combined with the underrated Adrian Gonzalez) would've comprised an intimidating middle of the order. But that time has past. If the Padres are going to have any hope of contending, they will have to upgrade in left field and upgrade in a major way. Remaining free agents like Kenny Lofton and Reggie Sanders are not likely to put them over the top.

What the Padres do have is Chase Headley. The 24-year-old third baseman owned AA last season with an OPS of 1017. There would undoubtedly be some growing pains, but he would be a defensive upgrade over reigning three-bagger Kevin Kouzmanoff. The Kouz, raking at a .317 clip with 13 HR in the second half of 2007, could potentially move to left where he would be slightly less of a butcher on defense...perhaps. In the hard-fought NL West, however, the Padres likely will not have the luxury of allowing a promising youngster to mature at the big-league level, as Kouzmanoff and Alex Gordon did in 2007.

The Padres have been rumored in trades for Jason Bay and Coco Crisp, both of which appear to have petered out. Andre Ethier, Xavier Nady, Marlon Byrd, and Jay Payton would all be "Plan B" options that still represent a sizable upgrade over the DaVanon/Hairston platoon. Ethier, who is blocked by Juan Pierre and Matt Kemp in L.A., has the most potential of the bunch, but also comes at the highest price. Ethier really struggled in big ballparks last season, hitting below .200 (in limited at-bats) at Petco, RFK, and Shea Stadium.

Florida Marlins - Catcher

The Marlins let Miguel Olivo sign a contract in Kansas City, which might not appear to be a considerable loss, but Olivo has hit 16 HR in each of the last two seasons and he threw out 33% of runners in 2007 (4th best among MLB regulars). Olivo got high marks from Joe Giradi when he was managing in Florida, and Giradi knows a thing or two about catching. The Marlins have a very young pitching staff with tons of potential, but now are without an established backstop.

The incumbent is Matt Treanor, who was Olivo's primary back-up last season. At 32, he has never appeared in more than 67 games or had more than 171 at-bats. Last season he showed good patience with a .357 OBP in limited time, but as an everyday player he will be among the easiest outs in the league. Moreover, he doesn't exactly dominate the running game. He threw out only 19% of basestealers in 2007 (after throwing out an impressive 47% in '06). Presumably, however, he knows the pitching staff and has their trust, so he'll probably get at least a couple of starts a week.

The new blood is Mike Rabelo, who spent 2007 as a rookie under the tutelage of Ivan Rodriguez in Detroit. Rabelo, 27, showed decent offensive potential in the minors, hitting around .275 for four consecutive seasons and showing a little power (9 HR in 100 G in 2006) as he developed. Rabelo gunned down a respectable 28% of basestealers last year. He will be given the opportunity to assert himself as a starter, but doesn't exactly project as a valuable asset offensively or defensively.

Florida isn't likely going anywhere this season in the stacked NL East, so they won't sacrifice money or prospects to bring in a veteran. But the Marlin program, as outlined by their World Series runs in '97 and '03, should have them back in contention sometime in '09 or '10. That program has always included a top-flight catcher (I-Rod in '03 and Charles Johnson in '97), so expect the Marlins to start thinking about an upgrade by midseason. They have a deep farm system and a stacked bullpen, plenty of arms which contenders (and non-contenders) are likely to covet. Texas (Gerald Laird, Taylor Teagarden, Max Ramirez), Arizona (Miguel Montero), Anaheim (Jeff Mathis, Hank Conger), and Baltimore (Guillermo Quiroz) might be viable trade partners.

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