Derek Carty

Preseason Position Battles

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Spring Battles: Yankees, Rays

Friday, March 14, 2008

Team: Tampa Bay Rays
Position: Third Base
Combatants: Evan Longoria, Joel Guzman, Willy Aybar
Long shots: Eric Hinske

Longoria, the third overall pick in the 2006 amateur draft, is the future at third base for the Rays. It's simply a matter of how soon that future is going to come. Back at the end of last season, manager Joe Maddon said that Longoria had a 50-50 shot at starting this year. His .368 batting average and .737 slugging percentage so far this spring can't have hurt those chances.

More recently, according to the St. Petersburg Times executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and Maddon have noted that "they'll consider a series of factors beyond actual performance and results, everything from how Longoria carries himself and interacts in the clubhouse; his thought process at the plate and how he makes adjustments during, and between, at-bats; his preparation, work ethic and knowledge of the game; how he plays defense and does the 'little' things."

And, if you listen to Longoria, he understands this. He has said, "I just try to have that extra drive and that extra desire to want to do something better. I think that's what takes guys to that next level."

His teammates sure seem to like him too. When asked if he was ready, center fielder B.J. Upton said, "Hell, yes. Ready right damn now." Shortstop Jason Bartlett said, "You can call him, 'Evan Almighty.'" When asked to describe why Longoria is so special, Triple-A hitting coach Gary Gaetti said, "It's that thing. He's in the game. He's in the fire."

Friedman has recently said that "his attitude and approach so far is exactly what we hoped for and exactly what we wanted to see" and that "to Evan's credit, we haven't seen him fail and that's something that's part of fully understanding the player."

After Longoria's first home run of the spring the other day, Maddon said, "Nice pinch-hit at-bat. Then he hit a rocket to the second baseman [in his final at-bat]. Just a nice little flick of the bat, and he got the ball up in the air. Sitting around all day and having a good at-bat, that's not easy." Does the ability to do that count as one the "little things" they were looking for? Adaptability, making adjustments?

They've also, however, talked about how Alex Gordon struggled when he began 2007 in the majors and how Ryan Braun dominated when called up later in the year. They've talked about how important this decision is and how they don't want to rush Longoria … that his development is most important.

Rays brass have let us know that this isn't a position battle in the general sense of the word. It's more of a decision that will be made based solely upon Longoria, and whether or not he's ready. If they decide he is, he could be a very good fantasy contributor right away.

Between Double-A and Triple-A in 2007, he showed excellent power with a 19% HR/FB rate, although his fly ball rate was just 37%. His BABIP was .341 and his contact rate was 78%, indicating that he could help with batting average as well. He also has very good patience, putting up a 13% walk rate. If it isn't Longoria, Willy Aybar or Joel Guzman would start the year at third base, with the edge probably in Aybar's favor.

Guzman has decent power but only okay batting average skills while Aybar has decent batting average skills but little power. Neither would make good fantasy choices, especially when you realize that even if Longoria doesn't break camp with the team, he'll likely be starting by the end of May, at the latest. Longoria currently isn't being drafted in the top 250 fantasy picks, making him a great late-draft selection for you. Even if he only plays for four months, getting him that late could provide great value.

Team: New York Yankees
Position: First Base
Combatants: Jason Giambi, Shelley Duncan, Wilson Betemit
Long shots: Morgan Ensberg, Jason Lane
Really long shots: Johnny Damon

This is a very crowded situation with tons of decent players but no clear-cut favorite. Back in January, when asked about the possibility of bringing in another first baseman, general manager Brian Cashman said, "We have Giambi, Shelley and Wilson Betemit and (Juan) Miranda is coming off a terrific Double-A season."

Miranda has been optioned to the minors, so that leaves three guys as the primary competition for the job. Ensberg and Lane have been signed to minor league deals since then, but they both seem like long shots. Giambi is the best offensive player, from a pure baseball standpoint, although he and Shelly Duncan would be comparable from a fantasy standpoint.

Giambi has hit 53% fly balls the past two years, and though his HR/FB dropped in 2007, 14% is nothing to sneeze at. Combine those two numbers and give Giambi 450 at-bats, and you have a 25-homer hitter. The problem will be getting that many at-bats and hoping the HR/FB rate doesn't fall off any farther.

At the end of February, Giambi relayed a conversation with manager Joe Girardi: "[Girardi] told me, 'I need you at first base.'" The problem is that the more Giambi plays in the field, the more likely he is to get injured. But with four outfielders the Yankees are confident in, there is no longer a DH slot for Giambi to hide in.

The outlook isn't as rosy for his batting average. His BABIP has been above .264 just once since 2002, and his contact rate has been hovering around 75% for years. If the BABIP doesn't get above .270 or his power doesn't regain its prior levels, Giambi will only hit around .240.

Duncan doesn't hit as many fly balls as Giambi, but his HR/FB was 20% in Triple-A last year and 32% in the majors. That was in a very small sample size, though, and will come down. Over the same 450 at-bats, given a 16% HR/FB and 45% fly ball rate, Duncan would be expected to hit 24 home runs. Duncan makes contact at a very similar rate to Giambi but has a better chance of putting up a decent BABIP. His batting average might end up around .245 but has a little more upward mobility than Giambi's.

Betemit gets less attention than either Giambi or Duncan, but he would probably be the best fantasy contributor of the lot. His fly ball rate has increased each year he's been in the majors and his HR/FB rate has been 22% and 18% the past two years. Interestingly, extrapolated over 450 at-bats, Betemit too would be expected to hit roughly 24 home runs.

His batting average would likely be better than that of his competition, though. He has similar power, similar contact rates, but better BABIPs. Expect a batting average around .260 or .270. Considering all of this, Betemit seems to possess the best fantasy skills, although he might be the least likely of the three to win the job.

Given Girardi's quote, I'd say Giambi will probably get the most time there to start the year, with Duncan and Betemit playing occasionally and picking up spare at-bats. Betemit is the best defender of the group and could pick up at-bats late in games.
Because of this arrangement, none of the three will likely get enough at-bats to have real fantasy value. If someone broke away from the pack and began to pick up 75% or 80% of the at-bats, he could have decent value given the power they all possess and the RBI and run potential hitting in the Yankees' lineup.

Watch how the rest of spring plays out, and don't overextend yourself trying to draft any of these guys. You might find yourself picking one up on the waiver wire this year, though.

Spring Training Stock Report

Stock Rising

Kazuo Fukumori | TEX | RP – With C.J. Wilson and Joaquin Benoit struggling with injuries and Eddie Guardado struggling with being good, Fukumori could wiggle his way into some save opportunities. There's even a chance he'll break camp as the closer given his good spring performance.

Ryan Theriot | CHC | MI – It looks like Theriot won't be batting at the bottom of the order after all. He's now batting leadoff, which bodes really well for his steals and runs potential if the Cubs don't deal for Brian Roberts.

Matt Diaz | ATL | OF – While it was thought Diaz could platoon with Brandon Jones, it now appears that Braves brass is willing to give him the full-time job.

Denard Span/Carlos Gomez | MIN | OF – Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said this week that he doesn't view Jason Pridie as a candidate to start in center field, which lessens the competition for Span and Gomez.

Kyle Lohse | STL | SP – Lohse finally signed with a team on Thursday, just two weeks before Opening Day. Lohse isn't great, nor is the offense supporting him, but at least he's signed. Plus, Busch Stadium depresses runs by 6% and home runs by 20%.

Stock Falling

Rocco Baldelli | TB | OF – Baldelli declared his most recent health issues potentially life-threatening. Not good news for his career, much less his 2008 season. Best of luck to Rocco in his recovery.

Josh Fields | CHW | 3B/OF - General manager Kenny Williams said this week that Joe Crede would start at third base if he isn't traded before Opening Day. With the crowded Chicago outfield, that means Josh Fields would likely start the year in Triple-A. This could be a ploy to get better offers for Crede, but if it's not, Fields's value takes a big hit.

Reggie Willits | LAA | OF – Two bouts of bad news for Willits this week. We knew that there wasn't a starting spot for Willits, but now the team is saying that they won't trade him and could even send him to the minors, eliminating whatever fantasy value he had left.

Homer Bailey | CIN | SP – Despite his top prospect status, Homer Bailey isn't assured a rotation spot this year, while Dusty Baker has hinted that Johnny Cueto would have one if the season started this week. That's one less open spot for Bailey, and one less for the rest of his competition: Josh Fogg, Jeremy Affeldt, Matt Belisle, and Edinson Volquez.

Dallas McPherson | FLA | 3B – McPherson is no longer in the running for the third base job, leaving the competition to Jorge Cantu and Jose Castillo. It was once thought that McPherson could platoon with one of them if he didn't win the job outright, but that no longer appears to be an option.

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