Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Updated: April 15, 3:16 AM ET
Some teams lack clarity at one position
By Jerry Crasnick
First, Crash Davis observed that strikeouts are fascist. Now we've learned that left fielders are "fungible."
Last week at Oakland Coliseum, Travis Buck achieved a distinction of sorts when he became the Athletics' 11th Opening Day left fielder in an 11-year span. The most recent Oakland player to start back-to-back openers at the position was Ben Grieve, who did it in 1999 and 2000.
Just to put that in perspective, Grieve played for Oakland at the same time David Forst was graduating from Harvard and giving professional ball a whirl with the Springfield (Ill.) Capitals of the Frontier League. Forst, now 33, just entered his seventh season as assistant general manager to Billy Beane.
So what does Forst make of Oakland's revolving door in left field?
"In general, a left fielder doesn't have the unique characteristics of a center fielder, who can run, or a right fielder, who can throw," Forst said. "He doesn't have a profile the same way the other outfield spots do. Just by nature, it's a more fungible position."
For the definitionally challenged, that means "interchangeable." For every Carl Crawford, Jason Bay or Matt Holliday who's a mainstay in left, there's a corresponding Reggie Sanders, Michael Tucker or Emil Brown who plays a year or two in one city, packs up and heads somewhere else.
The A's aren't alone in their quest for continuity, and left field isn't the only position rife with turnover. As comforting as it is for the Yankees to look up and see Derek Jeter at shortstop every year, lots of teams are plagued by instability at select spots on the field. The plight afflicts big- and small-market franchises alike.
The Cubs are working on their fourth closer in four years. Tampa Bay has had eight straight one-and-done starters in right field on Opening Day, and Minnesota has run through a passel of third basemen since Corey Koskie left town through free agency in 2004.
In this Travis Buck-tribute edition of "Starting 9" we look at nine spots on the field that give general managers anxiety and the players involved a feeling of insecurity and dislocation. That doesn't even include the fans, who can't tell the players without a scorecard -- or a link to www.baseball-reference.com.
Boston Red Sox shortstop
The history: Hanley Ramirez was the logical successor to Nomar Garciaparra at shortstop, but the Red Sox traded him to Florida in 2005. As painful as it's been for Fenway fans to watch Ramirez blossom into a superstar, Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell helped bring Boston a world championship in 2007. And Beckett, 29, just signed a four-year, $68 million extension that will keep him with the Sox through 2014.
Finding a shortstop is general manager Theo Epstein's holy grail. After Orlando Cabrera's World Series turn in 2004, the Red Sox spent a total of $76 million on Edgar Renteria and Julio Lugo, and wound up eating a lot of salary to make them go away. Alex Gonzalez, Jed Lowrie, Alex Cora and Nick Green have also logged considerable time at the position over the last five years.
The outlook: Marco Scutaro was reasonably priced at two years and $12.5 million, and he looks like a solid bridge to prospect Jose Iglesias, a 20-year-old Cuban defector who's off to a good start in the Double-A Eastern League.
Iglesias has all the tools to give Texas' Elvis Andrus Gold Glove competition for years to come. He has range, energy and an abundance of confidence -- all the requisite "survival skills," as one scout puts it -- to contribute, even when he has problems at the plate. And the consensus is that he'll be a serviceable offensive shortstop with time.
"He has balance at the plate and surprising strength," said an AL scout. "He's going to be a better hitter than people think. He just needs time to develop."
Atlanta Braves left field
The history: Ryan Klesko was a fixture in left field for Atlanta during the mid-1990s, but continuity has been fleeting since the Braves traded him to San Diego in a six-player deal in 1999.
Since then, Gerald Williams, Reggie Sanders, B.J. Surhoff, Chipper Jones, Charles Thomas, Kelly Johnson, Ryan Langerhans, Matt Diaz, Gregor Blanco and Garret Anderson have taken a stab at the job. Jones took a hiatus from third base from 2002 through 2004 before moving back to the infield.
"I can't really explain it," said Atlanta general manager Frank Wren. "It seems like left field is the 'leftover' position sometimes, and you wait to fill it last because of an abundance generally of left-field options on the market."
The outlook: There are worse things than a Matt Diaz-Melky Cabrera platoon in left. Diaz lacks prototypical corner outfielder power, but he's a .309 career hitter with a .917 OPS against lefties. Diaz and Cabrera are making a combined $5.65 million this year, so they're not exactly cheap.
One factor to consider with the Braves: Brian McCann, Jason Heyward, Jordan Schafer and Freddie Freeman -- the team's future offensive nucleus -- all bat from the left side, so Atlanta would prefer to find a right-handed bopper to play left field.
The long-term solution might come from the Braves' international efforts. Johnny Almaraz, Atlanta's director of international scouting, has signed several tool-laden young outfielders who are in the pipeline at the Braves' Dominican academy. But they're several years away from contributing at the big league level.
New York Mets right field
The history: Remember when the Mets were known for churning through third basemen? Now it's right fielders.
Since the mid-90s, Bobby Bonilla, Jeromy Burnitz, Butch Huskey, Carl Everett, Derek Bell, Darryl Hamilton, Karim Garcia, Eric Valent, Xavier Nady, Shawn Green and Ryan Church have all taken a crack at the job. So did Mike Cameron, who lasted 68 games in right field before a horrific collision with Carlos Beltran put him in the hospital. No player from this group has been able to supplant Ron Swoboda and Art Shamsky on the Mets' "most lovable" list.
"When you're a big-market club, if you don't have production, you have to move guys," general manager Omar Minaya said. "Anytime you can sign and develop a player from within, you're going to try and do that."
The Mets' long-term outfield stability took a hit when two highly regarded prospects, Alex Escobar and Lastings Milledge, failed to pan out. Minaya spent more than $180 million to sign Beltran to play center and Jason Bay to fill the team's power void in left.
The outlook: Jeff Francoeur is off to an encouraging start, but his history of first-pitch flailing leave scouts skeptical that he's the solution in right. Although Francoeur looks lither and more athletic now that he's shed the old muscular look from his Atlanta days, his defense (aside from his arm) has regressed, and that .313 career on-base percentage needs work.
"I don't know what it is, but he's never recovered that quick-burst athleticism since he got muscle-bound in Atlanta," said an NL scout.
The good news is that Fernando Martinez is still on the prospect map at age 21. He has 30-homer potential, but has to prove he can stay healthy and keep on top of his conditioning. ESPN's Keith Law says Martinez risks contracting "Chris Snelling disease" if he can't find a way to stay off the disabled list.
Seattle Mariners DH
The history: Milton Bradley recently became the 23rd Opening Day left fielder in 34 seasons for the Mariners. For years, the running joke was that Ken Griffey Jr. would look to his right and see a face he didn't recognize.
In recent years, the Mariners have had just as big a void at designated hitter. Edgar Martinez took his .933 career OPS into retirement in 2004, and the Mariners haven't had much luck finding a stable replacement. Since 2005, Seattle's designated hitters have ranked 11th, 14th, ninth, 14th and 13th in the American League in OPS.
Jose Vidro certainly wasn't the answer, and the Mariners traded former first-round pick Jeff Clement to Pittsburgh in the Jack Wilson-Ian Snell deal. Other than that, it's been a lot of Raul Ibanez and Carl Everett here and Mike Sweeney and Griffey there.
The outlook: The Mariners' situation reflects the organizational philosophy. GM Jack Zduriencik is a strong proponent of pitching and defense, and that doesn't jibe with the concept of funneling big money into a one-dimensional bat. As Cleveland's investment in Travis Hafner showed, that's a strategy fraught with risk. Safeco Field is also one of the least hitter-friendly parks in baseball, especially for righty power hitters, so that's another factor to consider.
This year manager Don Wakamatsu plans to divvy up the DH at-bats among Griffey, Sweeney and Bradley when he needs a rest in left field. In Seattle's scheme of things, the DH is more a complementary piece than a featured element of the offense.
Kansas City Royals left field
The history: The Royals haven't had any stability at the position since Bo Jackson was leaping tall buildings in the late 1980s. Incredibly, Kansas City has employed 20 Opening Day starters in left field in the past 21 years. Since there are no space limitations on the Internet, here's the list:
Gary Thurman, Keith Miller, Kevin McReynolds, Vince Coleman, Michael Tucker, Tom Goodwin, Bip Roberts, Hal Morris, Mark Quinn, Johnny Damon, Chuck Knoblauch, Raul Ibanez, Aaron Guiel, Terrence Long, Emil Brown, Ross Gload, Mark Teahen, David DeJesus and Scott Podsednik.
Former first-round pick Billy Butler even gave the position a whirl until his lack of foot speed and defensive aptitude prompted the Royals to move him to first base. Now he's a budding All-Star. Chris Lubanski, another former first-rounder, failed to have an impact and left for Toronto as a six-year free agent.
The outlook: Just when DeJesus was settling in here, the Royals shifted him to right field and signed Scott Podsednik to play left. Podsednik is a 34-year-old speed guy signed to a $1.75 million deal with a 2011 club option, so he doesn't exactly have "long-term solution" written all over him.
So what's Plan B? The Royals have outfielders David Lough, Jordan Parraz and Jarrod Dyson in Triple-A, but none of those players is regarded as a long-term cornerstone. If Alex Gordon ever figures it out at third base, there's a school of thought that prospect Mike Moustakas could shift from third to the outfield. But that move isn't on the organizational radar at the moment.
"It's too early to tell," said Royals general manager Dayton Moore. "When a player's offensive ability becomes close to major league-ready and there's no clear position for them, maybe you look to make adjustments with positions. But we're not there with Mike. It's not an area we've traveled down. Right now we're just preparing him at third base."
Oakland Athletics left field
The history: It's been a grab bag since Rickey Henderson's third stint with Oakland ended in 1998. Before Travis Buck's start last week, Ben Grieve, Johnny Damon, Jeremy Giambi, Terrence Long, Bobby Kielty, Eric Byrnes, Jay Payton, Shannon Stewart, Emil Brown and Matt Holliday went one-and-out in left field on Opening Day.
The outlook: The A's originally planned to use Rajai Davis in left field this season, but Buck was pressed into service when Coco Crisp broke his finger and Davis shifted to center field. When Crisp returns in May, Davis could move to left and give Oakland more of a defense-speed dynamic at the position.
Former Phillies prospect Michael Taylor is playing right field for Oakland's Triple-A club in Sacramento, but has the ability to play either corner outfield spot in the majors. Taylor is an imposing figure at 6-foot-6, 260 pounds, but he's more a .300, 40-doubles type than the classic left-field slugger. "He's a big guy with a small guy's approach," said an AL scout. "Normally, it's the other way around."
Milwaukee Brewers center field
The history: Since 2000, Marquis Grissom, Jeffrey Hammonds, Alex Sanchez, Scott Podsednik, Brady Clark, Bill Hall, Tony Gwynn Jr., Mike Cameron and Carlos Gomez have made Opening Day starts in center for the Brewers.
Two former first-round picks, Chad Green and David Krynzel, both washed out after several minor league seasons.
The outlook: Brett Lawrie, one of Milwaukee's top prospects, plays second base, and it's been suggested that Rickie Weeks could move to center field to make room for him. But Weeks was unenthusiastic, to say the least, when the possibility was raised last season, so the Brewers will have to do a big sell job on him if it's ever going to happen.
Gomez plays a wonderful defensive center field, but until he learns to cut down on his swing, put the ball in play and get on base, he's not the answer. Judging from those 22 walk-free plate appearances in the first week, he's not getting with the program. Prospect Lorenzo Cain has bat speed and good wheels, but he needs to develop some plate discipline and have a big year at Double-A Huntsville to work himself into the picture.
Chicago Cubs center field
The history: The Cubs haven't had a particularly long stretch of turnover in center field. But when you factor in the names and the dollars invested, it's been a thrill ride.
Mega-prospects Corey Patterson and Felix Pie both bombed in Chicago amid an abundance of hype. In 2001, Baseball America wrote that Patterson "has the best combination of athleticism and baseball skills of any prospect in the game." Nine years and five organizations later, Patterson just opted out of a minor league deal with Seattle. He's a .252 hitter in 1,007 career games.
The Cubs traded Ricky Nolasco to Florida for Juan Pierre, who gave them 204 hits and 58 stolen bases and parlayed it into a big free-agent payday with the Dodgers. Jacque Jones and Jim Edmonds both passed through Wrigley Field, and Alfonso Soriano and Kosuke Fukudome tried center field before moving to the corner outfield spots -- where they've both been disappointments.
The outlook: Marlon Byrd signed a three-year, $15 million deal in the offseason. Barring a sudden plot twist, he's the Cubs' center fielder through 2012.
Cincinnati Reds shortstop
The history: This is the infield equivalent of the post-Edgar Martinez DH situation in Seattle. Since Barry Larkin's retirement in 2004, Rich Aurilia, Felipe Lopez, Royce Clayton, Alex Gonzalez, Jeff Keppinger, Jerry Hairston and Paul Janish have been temporary fits at shortstop. Now it's Orlando Cabrera's turn.
The outlook: The Reds have occasionally kicked around the idea of shifting Brandon Phillips to shortstop. But he's a fine run-producer and a Gold Glove defender at second base, and they risk messing up two spots if they take the plunge and move him.
According to Baseball America, five of Cincinnati's top 17 prospects are shortstops. The group includes Billy Hamilton, Miguel Rojas, Netherlands native Mariekson Gregorius, Chris Valaika and Zack Cozart. Valaika, the quintessential "baseball rat," is probably better suited to second base or a super-utility role than full-time duty at shortstop. Cozart, a former All-American at Mississippi, can really defend. He might be the best long-term bet if his bat continues to develop.
Until someone emerges, the Reds will be scrambling.
"It's one thing to keep changing left fielders," said a National League front-office man. "But you like to be consistent up the middle. When you've got a revolving door at catcher, shortstop, second base or center field, then it's an issue."
Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License To Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.