Monthly archives: March 2006
Titanic Spring Roster Battles, Part Two: White Sox Closer
And so it begins... the annual closer controversy in Chicago.
For whatever reason, the White Sox go through closers the way teenagers go through crushes. Dustin Hermanson notched 34 saves last year, but neither began nor ended the season as the go-to guy at the back of the bullpen; prior to 2005, no White Sox reliever had managed to record even 20 saves since Keith Foulke's 42 in 2001. In between, six different pitchers got double-digit saves in a season for the Sox -- Foulke got 11 in '02 in between stints in Jerry Manuel's doghouse; Antonio Osuna also has 11 that season, while Damaso Marte got 10. Billy Koch opened 2003 with the job, but managed just 11 saves, while Tom Gordon ended up with 12 and Marte (again) had 11. 2004 saw Koch give way to Shingo Takatsu, who led the team with 19, but he spit the bit in 2005 and Hermanson took over, before Hermanson's back woes pushed Bobby Jenks into the job for the stretch run and playoffs.
Jenks was within shouting distance of brilliant in '05 -- including the postseason, he had a 58/18 K/BB ratio in 47 1/3 big league innings -- but so far in spring training he's looked more like the guy the Angels gave up on than the one who appeared in every game of the Sox's World Series sweep. No matter how you try to sugar-coat it, an 8/2 BB/K ratio in eight innings (yes, those numbers are in the right order) is ugly. If Jenks were simply competing for a job, instead of entering the season as the de facto closer, he'd probably already be back in minor league camp, with Ozzie Guillen's fat jokes ringing in his ears.
So if Jenks is about to go the way of Koch and Takatsu, who's in line to take over? Hermanson would be the logical choice, but his back problems have resurfaced, and he's receiving a series of epidurals just to try and get him back on the mound. Cliff Politte has been tried as a closer before, most recently in Toronto, with somewhat nighmarish results (11 home runs allowed in under 50 innings in 2003).
Logically the next candidate would be Neal Cotts, who has inherited Marte's role as top bullpen lefty, and whose career splits feature a better line against righties (.213/.333/.340) than against lefties (.238/.324/.395). But logic rarely has much to do with who closes in Chicago. Foulke getting pushed out the door, for instance, was just dumb. Takatsu, a soft-tosser from Japan, being unhittable one year and useless the next made no sense on the surface. And Jenks putting it all together, even if briefly, was the craziest twist yet. So assuming the logical candidate will get the job in Chicago, or keep it if he does, is assuming way too much.
Among the slightly silly candidates to fall into some saves this year is Brandon McCarthy. The Sox top (remaining) pitching prospect was supposed to have a swing man role this season until Hermanson came up gimpy, at which point the club started talking about using him in a short relief role. It's just a small step from pitching the seventh inning to pitching the ninth, at least when you're a highly touted arm.
Speaking of highly touted arms, Matt Thornton was a first-round pick once upon a time (well, 1998). Sox pitching coach Don Cooper has been trying to get him for a couple of years now, on the assumption that he can fix the mechanical problems that are scuttling his control and holding him back. Cooper wasn't pitching coach the last time the team tried something like this in 2002, with another ex-Mariner -- Damaso Marte. That one worked out pretty well, though, and Cooper's track record with the likes of Jon Garland indicates he knows his stuff, so it's possible Thornton will bust out in the 'pen just like Marte did.
If you want a really wacky pick, though, how about Sean Tracey? He's essentially a home-grown version of Jenks -- a kid with great stuff (a hard, sinking fastball and a slider are his best pitches) who's struggled to put things together. He's now 25, and while he doesn't quite have the jaw-dropping stuff Jenks does, he's also never been tried in the bullpen before either. If pitching in relief adds a bit of control and a couple mph to his mid-90s heat...
Hey, it's the White Sox. Anything can happen.
Joe Girardi, Master of Understatement
I was going to follow up Part One of 'Titanic Spring Roster Battles' by mentioning that Jason Stokes got hurt (his groin, not his wrist -- probably one of the few times a player is glad he strained his groin) and that Mike Jacobs had just about won the job by default as a result, but this quote says it so much better.
New Marlins manager Joe Girardi, on Jacobs, via their team page on MLB.com:
"He showed for a month last year that he was a guy who can hit some home runs. If you hit home runs, you obviously are going to put up big numbers. He had 11 in a month -- basically, in 100 at-bats. If you project that out, that would be real nice for any club."
66-odd home runs in a season would be "real nice"... I'd hate to see what he'd say if someone breaks Bonds' single season record. "Swell"? Maybe he'd really push the envelope and bust out a "Terrific".
Of course maybe the problem is that Girardi was a catcher, so when he says "project that out" he's thinking you only get 300 or so at bats in a year. These days, 33 home runs probably doesn't rate more than a "real nice".
Titanic Spring Roster Battles, Part One: Marlins First Base
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.
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