Monday’s Bunts and Boots–Down With The Phenom
One of the central themes to spring training this year has involved the cutting of the super-prospect. Several teams have decided to demote–or at least they’re leaning in that direction– prized prospects that seem ready to make the jump to the major leagues. In some cases, the team’s motivation is to delay the so-called arbitration and free agent “clocks;” that way, a young player will have to wait longer before he can start to reap a financial windfall. In other cases, teams are committed to veteran players, even if they are inferior to their youthful competition.
Two National League teams demoted top young center fielders last week. The Reds announced that they had sent Jay Bruce, arguably the top prospect in either league, to Triple-A Louisville, thereby clearing the way for Corey Patterson to start the season in center field. There’s no doubt that Dusty Baker’s penchant for veterans played a hand in this; he likes his players proven and experienced. Some have defended Baker’s decision, citing Bruce’s age (21) and his lack of time at Triple-A. But most scouts agree that even a raw, unrefined Bruce is already a better hitter than the swing-and-miss Patterson. If the Reds end up losing a wildcard spot because they insisted that Bruce spend the first six weeks of the season at Louisville, they will rue that decision for months. Then there are the Braves, who informed Jordan Schafer that he would begin the season at Triple-A Richmond. Unlike Bruce, no one expected the 21-year-old Schafer to make the Opening Day roster, largely because he has never played a game above Class-A ball. But some scouts who watched Schafer play this spring say he’s ready to hold his own at the major league level and is already a better player than injury-plagued journeyman Mark Kotsay. That’s why we shouldn’t be surprised to see Schafer playing center for Atlanta by July, as the Braves try to push the Mets and Phillies for the NL East title. Hopefully, for the Braves’ sake, it won’t be too late.
In the American League, the Rays expect to be so improved that they will have a chance to play .500 ball for the first time in franchise history. They also need a third baseman. Given these two situations, it would seem inevitable that Evan Longoria, enjoying a terrific spring in the Grapefruit League, would be a cinch to make the Opening Day roster. Well, not so fast. The Rays are dropping hints that they will have Longoria start the season at Triple-A before giving him a chance to make his major league debut. The Rays won’t admit the real reason they’re contemplating such an option; by sending him to the Durham Bulls, Longoria might have to wait until 2011 before becoming eligible for arbitration. If the Rays do bury Longoria for half a season at Triple-A, they’ll have to rely on Willy Aybar, who has a history of off-the-field problems. They might cost themselves that shot at .500, and who knows, perhaps even an outside shot at contending for the wild card.
The Rangers have a different motivation with Jarrod Saltalamacchia who has already made his big league debut, but has not spent a full season in the majors. With Gerald Laird enjoying a terrific camp, the Rangers are committing to him as their starting catcher. They’re reluctant to keep Saltalamacchia as the backup, since that might stunt his development, and they have reservations about using him as a DH, too. So even though Saltalamacchia has shown that he can handle major league pitching, he will probably be wasting the early part of the season with some unnecessary time at Triple-A Oklahoma. Saltalamacchia won’t make a difference in the Rangers’ pennant chances, since they really don’t have any in ‘08, but their fans will surely be frustrated if the team’s rebuilding goes on without a prized piece of the future in place.
It’s really a shame that some of the game’s most talented young players won’t be showcased on Opening Day. After all, the primary objective of spring training is to assemble the finest possible team within a span of six weeks. Barring injury, teams should emerge from Florida and Arizona with their best 25-man rosters. In the cases of the Reds, Braves, Rays, and Rangers, they don’t appear to be achieving that goal…
Finally, a few quick hits from the weekend:
The Blue Jays released Reed Johnson, one of J.P. Ricciardi’s favorites but no longer the same player he was before undergoing back surgery. The Mets should jump on Johnson as a platoon left field partner for Endy Chavez, filling the void until Moises Alou comes back from hernia surgery…
In one of the more interesting roster battles this spring, Jason Botts appears to have won a backup outfield spot on the Rangers’ roster, beating out Nelson Cruz. The switch-hitting Botts can play the outfield, first base, or DH. Cruz, who will likely be designated for assignment, could end up being traded to a team like the Cardinals or the Giants…
The Orioles announced that Kevin Millar will be their cleanup hitter. The O’s, a proud franchise that has boasted cleanup men like Boog Powell, Frank Robinson, and Cal Ripken, Jr. in better years, might just have hit rock bottom with that proclamation.