Derek Carty

Preseason Position Battles

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Spring Battles: Nats, Cubs

Friday, March 07, 2008

Team: Washington Nationals
Position: Second Base and Shortstop
Combatants: Ronnie Belliard, Cristian Guzman, Felipe Lopez

Three guys are battling in Washington for two spots, yet the best fantasy option among them looks to be the odd man out. Back in December, team officials told Washington Post reporter Barry Svrluga that Belliard would be the starter at second base rather than Lopez, despite the fact that they had tendered Lopez and would be paying him $4.9 million this season. Around three weeks ago, manager Manny Acta confirmed this, saying that he viewed Guzman and Belliard as his starters. He did say, though, that Lopez would receive "every chance to win a [starting] job, whether it's second or shortstop."

This struck me as odd. If you read quotes from Acta since he took the reigns in Washington, you'll notice that he is a very progressive manager. He's talked about the importance of defensive positioning (as opposed to simply relying on a fielder's athleticism), about being selective when stealing bases, and about the value of on-base percentage, among other things.

Acta doesn't seem like the type of man who'd decide who his starter is based upon a handful of at-bats in March. Perhaps he's saying this to motivate Lopez, but even that seems slightly far fetched. It's true that Lopez had an off-year in 2007, but the other two really aren't great players.

Christian Guzman was very good last year, but had a sample size of just 174 at-bats and was largely aided by a lucky .364 batting average on balls in play and slightly uncharacteristic 88% contact and 8% walk rates. If he continues to play like that, he probably deserves one of the two spots, but if he plays like he did in from 2002 through 2005 (he didn't play at all in 2006), he's the worst of the trio.

If he wins a job–which seems pretty likely at this point–he won't have too much fantasy value. He might be able to hit around .280, steal a few bags, and score some runs leading off (which he'll likely do if Lopez doesn't start at second), but other than that he doesn't have much fantasy value. He's not really draftable except in NL-only leagues. Same goes for Belliard if he wins, except he won't get as many runs and will net you a handful of homers instead of steals.

If Acta is trying to motivate Lopez, it will be tough to give him the job if he continues hitting how he has thus far this spring. It's still early, but it wouldn't be good policy for Acta to tear Belliard's job away to give it to the underperformer in what he's essentially deemed a "competition."

If Lopez does win a job, he's a good bet to experience some semblance of a bounce-back. His BABIP was the worst of his career in 2007 and should rebound a good deal. His walk rate was also his lowest since 2002 and figures to bounce back at least a little. These things, combined with his solid 80% contact rate, should allow Lopez to regain his usual stolen base prowess.

If he wins a job, Acta says he'll bat leadoff, so he'll score a nice amount of runs as well with established power hitters like Ryan Zimmerman and Austin Kearns, high upside guys like Lastings Milledge and Wily Mo Pena, plus the winner of the first base battle behind him. The batting average might not be great, but he would provide enough value to merit a selection late in mixed leagues.

My guess is that the Nationals would like Lopez to do something this spring to allow them to start him. If he continues to do poorly, they might not be able to do that given some of their comments. I would bet, though, that he ends up starting at some point this year, maybe even for another team.

Team: Chicago Cubs
Position: Closer
Combatants: Carlos Marmol, Bob Howry, Kerry Wood
Long Shots: Ryan Dempster

The closing situation for the Cubs is an extremely interesting one to watch because whoever drafts the eventual winner is going to get a closer relatively cheaply. This becomes even more interesting when you consider how often the "favorite" has changed.

Earlier this week, the Chicago Sun Times reported that Marmol "has the look of a leader in the closer race." Up until this report–which may or not mean anything; what does "has the look of a lead" really mean?–Howry was considered the favorite ... and wasn't even getting drafted in some leagues!

A little less than two weeks ago, manager Lou Piniella said, "But the way I look at it is we have three pretty good choices, and as spring goes on, we'll see where it comes down. Right now Bobby is the most logical guy, but it doesn't always work out that way in spring and everything else, so we'll see."

He also said, "I think we have three capable guys, but for me, it's early in spring. Bobby showed what he can do last year, and for two years here he's pitched very well and been consistent and done a lot of good things"

This seemed to indicate that he favors Howry, but up until we heard these quotes, Kerry Wood was thought to be the favorite. There was lots of speculation that Wood signed his one-year deal with the Cubs despite having received multi-year offers from other teams. This led some to believe that Wood was given some sort of assurances that he'd be given first crack at the closer's job, or at least be the frontrunner going into spring training.

So what's really going on? Carlos Marmol, the least experienced but the most talented of the candidates, will almost surely end up closing at some point; it's just a matter of when. It could be right out of spring training, it could be in the middle of the year, or it could be in 2009 or later. Wood and Howry have underperformed this spring while Marmol has pitched well, so it's really anyone's guess who will end up closing. Unless it's Marmol, there's a decent chance it'll be someone else by the All-Star break.

Given his spring performance, his excellent skills, and the quote from the Sun-Times, I'm drafting Marmol first. Even if he doesn't win the job outright, he could easily claim it by mid-season and become a top closer. I'm taking Howry next and Wood last. Because of all the smoke surrounding this situation, all three need to be drafted. If you wind up with the victor, you're going to have yourself quite a bargain given the ADP of these guys.

Spring Training Stock Report

Stock Rising

Dan Johnson | OAK | 1B – Johnson has good talent, but he also has youngster Daric Barton to worry about. Barton has been having trouble with his hand, and yesterday it was announced that it may be more serious than was originally believed. Barton will see a hand specialist, and his loss looks to be Johnson's gain.

Scott Hatteberg | CIN | 1B – Hmmph ... Dusty's at it again. Baker doesn't seem to like Joey Votto's approach of taking pitches and his lack of "aggression." Says he takes too many third strikes. That Hatteberg rarely strikes out plays in his favor and probably makes him the favorite now.

Howie Kendrick | LAA | 2B – Howie Kendrick is likely to run more this season. Manager Mike Sciosca said, "Howie certainly has the ability to steal between 20 and 30 bases a year." He hovered around a 75% success rate in Double and Triple-A, so he could do well.

Hunter Pence | HOU | OF – Pence joined Michael Bourn for a special base-stealing training session this week, one that Kaz Matsui participated in the following day. Manager Cecil Cooper said, "These are guys that have ability to steal a base." That the Astros brought in Bourne and Matsui for the top of the lineup and Cooper's talk of doing "fundamental things" highlights the team's desire to run this season. Including Pence in this group could mean he'll make a jump in steals in '08.

Orlando Hernandez | NYM | SP – Struggling with health so far this spring, El Duque threw a good bullpen session on Wednesday and could see game action this weekend. He's also changing his delivery to try and stay healthy. Better news than more canceled pitching sessions.

Stock Falling

Moises Alou | NYM | OF – Alou looks like he'll be out up to eight weeks, needing to undergo hernia surgery.

C.J. Wilson | TEX | CL – The favorite for the closer's role in Texas, Wilson is suffering from biceps tendinitis. If he's out for an extended period, Eddie Guardado or Joaquin Benoit could take the job.

Jay Bruce | CIN | OF – With the signing of Corey Patterson and Jerry Hairston and the presence of Ryan Freel and Norris Hopper, it seems fairly likely Bruce will start the season in the minors. He'll need a strong performance the rest of the month to earn the starting job.

Ryan Theriot | CHC | MI – If the experiment with Kosuke Fukudome batting second sticks, Ryan Theriot would be pushed to the back of the lineup, limiting his run output and possibly his steals if he ends up batting eighth, although seventh might be a more likely spot.

Troy Patton | BAL | SP – The Orioles announced Friday that Patton will undergo season-ending shoulder surgery, completely wiping away any potential fantasy value for 2008 and likely most of 2009.

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