Hey there, hardball fans. In this edition of the Roster Report, we’ll cover a couple of those exciting Spring Training position battles. We’ll keep things on the West Coast, with positional battles in the Bay Area and over by Puget Sound. One battle is due to the fact that there just plain aren’t any good players available, and another is due to an unsurprising injury.
The San Francisco Giants Middle Infield
I thought for sure that the Giants would take the opportunity over the offseason to make a move and address the team’s biggest weakness: a lack of talent in the middle of the diamond. Instead, the Giants reloaded with veteran retreads in an attempt to patch their hole, and now project to have very poor production from the middle of the infield. Ostensibly, the starters for this team are veteran 2B Freddy Sanchez and rookie SS Brandon Crawford, but one has to expect that backups Ryan Theriot and Mike Fontenot will see plenty of time in the middle as well. And that’s not a good thing.
We’ll start with Crawford, who certainly has his good points. He’s a solid defensive shortstop, and has done well from both a scouting and an analytical standpoint. In about 500 innings at short in 2011, Crawford managed to be worth about three runs with the leather, according to FanGraphs. That’s not half bad. Unfortunately, the glove (and arm…and range…and decent baserunning skill) is all Crawford has going for him. His bat is a work in progress, but even when that work is finished, it may not be any good. Brandon flashes virtually no power, makes fairly weak contact, and his burgeoning on-base skill can’t make up for his offensive failings. With a 60 wRC+ last season in limited action, he projects to be sub-par with the bat, and could be a real drain on an already soft Giant lineup. You have to play terrific D to hit as bad as Crawford does and stay a starter.
At second base is the veteran Freddy Sanchez. Sanchez is easily the best middle infielder on the Giants, capable of mixing above-average defense at the pivot with a bat that’s roughly league-average. At second base, that combination will certainly play. The Giants would have to be thrilled with a repeat of his 2010 performance, in which he was worth a full 2.5 FanGraphs WAR. But alas, Sanchez has become terribly injury-prone, and he’s on the downward slope of his career. Freddy only managed 111 games in both 2009 and 2010, then a meager 60 games in 2011. A late-season shoulder surgery should be recovered enough to have him start the season off the DL, but it remains to be seen if it affects his offensive output. Since Sanchez doesn’t hit for power or draw walks, his offense is tied to his ability to put balls in play, and if that skill fades, it will be a long season at second for the Giants.
The Giants are going to party like it is 2008 (and they’re the Cubs) with the combo of Ryan Theriot and Mike Fontenot in the middle infield. I can already predict how this is going to work: Theriot will get the first call at short when Crawford fails to hit, and Fontenot will get the first call at second when Sanchez needs an injury breather. The trouble is, neither player is a plus defender, and both posted similar wRC+ scores in 2011. Theriot managed an 84 wRC+, while Fontenot managed an 87 wRC+. Unfortunately, both those scores put them as below-average hitters. Neither player hits for any power, or provides substantive walk totals. Do you see a pattern forming here? They may hit better than Crawford, but not by enough to offset their defensive shortcomings.
I wouldn’t get too worked up though, if I were a Giants fan. I personally believe that the team’s long term answer at second base is already on the team’s roster! If you want to try and hazard a guess at who I’m thinking of, take a minute. I’ll wait.
That’s right. Buster Posey. I had the opportunity to watch him play while I attended FSU, and I can attest that he has the footwork and defensive chops (he played shortstop for the ‘Noles…as well as every other position on the team) to make the Biggio-transition if the need presents itself. And from a realistic standpoint, I truly believe that it will. I think we all want Posey to stay behind the dish for as long as possible, but his bat is just too talented to risk the near-constant wear and tear that inevitably leads to injury. Posey’s bat would certainly play better in a position like second or third base rather than first, which should be locked up for the foreseeable future by Brandon Belt anyways.
The Seattle Mariners Outfield
Before Spring Training began, the Mariner outfield looked pretty much set. Since Jesus Montero projects to get many of the at-bats at DH, the Mariners looked to run out a glove-friendly outfield of Ichiro Suzuki (RF), Franklin Gutierrez (CF), and Mike Carp (LF). Alas, Gutierrez proved his reputation as an injury-prone player, and wound up with a torn pectoral muscle. With Gutierrez looking to miss about a month (if not more), the Mariners are looking for a new defensive anchor in the outfield.
Given that the Mariners aren’t poised to be top contenders this season, it seems unlikely that they’d look for an outside option. The team has several interesting, if not earth-shattering options to fill in at center until “Death to Flying Things” returns. Those options, in no particular order, are Casper Wells, Trayvon Robinson, Michael Saunders, and Chone Figgins. Robinson had a terrific stat line at Triple-A last season hitting 26 homers, but he makes precious little contact. His numbers were likely inflated by the positive run environment in the PCL, and he looks more like a Triple-A hitter or occasional bench bat. His defense probably isn’t good enough to keep him in a regular CF role anyways. Chone Figgins…is Chone Figgins. I’m not even sure why his name has come up as a potential CF option, given that he hasn’t played the position since 2006, and wasn’t particularly good there anyways when he did play in center. Figgins’s bat has completely disappeared (.218 wOBA in 2011) since coming to Seattle, and there’s virtually no way he’d be a positive upgrade over any other player with the lumber.
That leaves Casper Wells and Michael Saunders as the two most likely options in center. Both players play solid defense, and they are both young(ish) and have shown promise in the minor leagues. Each player strikes out too much (28.3% K-rate for Saunders, 26.5% for Wells), but shows flashes of power, and each could play passable center field given the opportunity. In fact, the biggest difference between the two players is their handedness: Saunders hits lefty while Wells hits righty. Given that both players are likely to make the team (as utility outfielders, if nothing else), the best bet for the Mariners might be to take the platoon advantage and alternate the two young players. By mixing and matching, they may be taking ABs away from the young hitters, but they’ll also be maximizing their advantage in each game. Given that neither Saunders or Wells is a real blue-chip prospect, the idea of playing each guy against their best opponent could be a strategy that pays dividends in the short-term. And if either player gets hot and cements himself as a starter, all the better.