Titanic Spring Roster Battles, Part One: Marlins First Base
by Erik Siegrist
One of my favorite parts of spring training is watching roster battles unfold, whether it's for a spot at the heart of the club or for the privilege of being the last guy in the bullpen. Trying to discern who's doing well, not just by studying the entrails of spring stats but also by reading between the lines of what the team's brain trust tells the media about each player can give a fascinating glimpse into how major league organizations operate.
There are always plenty of battles to follow, but the one that's caught my eye right now wasn't even supposed to be a battle when camp started. Mike Jacobs, one of the keys to the Carlos Delgado deal, was expected to slide right in at first base for the Marlins, replacing the guy he got traded for. Jacobs' brief but impressive stint with the Mets in 2005, and power potential in a lineup starved for slugging, made him all but a lock to man first and hit behind Miggy Cabrera for the Fish. At worst there was a chance he might end up platooning with Josh Willingham if Willingham couldn't cut it defensively behind the plate or in left field.
Fortunately, nobody told Jason Stokes he had no job to compete for... likely because they were afraid he'd hurt his wrist picking up the phone to take the call.
If Stokes were a pitcher instead of a hitter, he'd be a TINSTAAPP poster boy. He busted out with 27 home runs and a .341/.421/.645 line at Kane County in 2002, but played in just 97 games due to a late-season injury. He managed 121 games in 2003 at High-A Jupiter, and 106 games for Double-A Carolina in 2004, but the wrist problems kept flaring up and he wasn't able to come close to those numbers, either in BA or SLG. His prospect status hit a wall last season, as he played in just 13 games for Triple-A Albuquerque.
Stokes had offseason surgery to fix both the wrist problem and a thumb injury that developed last year, and came to camp saying he was 100%. Well, so far in camp he's been about 150%, hitting .345/.355/.655 with half his hits going for extra bases. Jacobs, meanwhile, is hitting just .267 with a couple of doubles.
Aside from health, Stokes' other big flaw in the minors was erratic plate discipline, something it looks like he still needs to work on. His pattern was to start out slowly at a new level before gradually improving that aspect of his game though, so his 1/8 BB/K ratio in the spring isn't necessarily a deal-breaker. If he keeps launching the ball, the Marlins will almost be forced to find a spot for him.
Which is where the really interesting part comes into play. On Monday the team announced they were going to try Stokes in left field for a bit, reviving an experiment with him that they'd abandoned back in 2001. Stokes isn't much more than adequate around the bag at first, so it's hard to imagine he'll be able to cope in the outfield (especially in a big park like Florida's) but if he does make the adjustment the cascade effect on the rest of the roster would be huge. Josh Willingham would suddenly have nowhere else to go if he can't cut it behind the plate; Eric Reed, the best defender, would suddenly have to be considered the favorite to win the center field job (or the pressure to make a trade for the likes of Joey Gathright would get ramped up).
More likely, though, Stokes will prove to be a fine first baseman in left field, the experiment will get abandoned, and the Marlins will be faced with a tough choice between Stokes and Jacobs. Both have options left, so either one could go make some noise in hitter-friendly Albuquerque to start 2006. Florida might decide no decision is the best decision too. Jacobs is a lefty and Stokes a righty, so a platoon is always possible.
Of course the left field experiment might clear up the situation in another way -- Stokes' original wrist injury in 2002 came when diving for a ball...
How this plays out will say a lot about how the Marlins "think". Are they going to give the edge to Jacobs, one of the kids acquired in the Great Purge, even if he gets outplayed? Will Joe Girardi find creative ways to get his young sluggers in the lineup on a regular basis if they both make the club, or will he be a set 'em and forget 'em type manager when it comes to his lineup card?
If I had to guess I'd say Jacobs will win the battle, simply because it would give Girardi a nicely symmetrical L/R/L/R option in the heart of his order, assuming Jeremy Hermida hits second ahead of Cabrera with Willingham slotting in fifth. But a lot can happen in the last two weeks of the spring.