30 Questions: Who will start in left field and third base?
Thirty teams, 30 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each major league team.
One of the trickiest parts of draft preparation is handicapping spring position battles. Often, one player has more offensive potential, but another has more experience, better defensive skills, fewer remaining minor league options and/or some other advantage. Managerial whim plays a big part in this process, and perhaps no manager is more unpredictable than the White Sox's Ozzie Guillen. It's not surprising the Sox again have a couple of unsettled positions this deep into spring training.
Chicago traded away two of its better prospects for Nick Swisher in hopes that the slugger can provide adequate defense in center field. Guillen seems pleased with Swisher in center thus far, which would appear to open left field for Carlos Quentin, who was acquired from the Diamondbacks in a December trade. However, Quentin faces a challenge from Jerry Owens, who stole 32 bases in backup duty last season.
Jerry Owens: The speedy Owens is a better defender than Quentin. In fact, he's the best defensive outfielder on the team. Guillen likes what Owens brings to his self-styled "smartball" game, but as long as the manager is happy with Swisher in center, Owens will be forced to seek at-bats in left field. The 27-year-old has no power whatsoever, but his speed is legitimate, he has acceptable plate discipline, and he did hit for average in the minors. His skill set is that of a prototypical reserve outfielder. Owens has publicly stated that his goal is to steal 65 bases in 2008. While that figure is quite a stretch, his speed does make him an intriguing draft candidate even if Quentin is named the starter in left. Owens could steal 30 bases again even without full-time at-bats.
Carlos Quentin: The 25-year-old Quentin has far more upside offensively and is not a bad defender himself. A first-round pick in 2003, the Stanford product cruised through the minors -- albeit in hitters' parks -- posting an impressive career line of .312/.427/.526. Quentin has a power bat and has hit for average while demonstrating an excellent batting eye at every minor league level. With only 395 career at-bats in the majors, he will need further development time, but in the long term, he profiles as an above-average regular starter at his position.
So it's between those two, and Owens has the early edge, thanks in part to Quentin's struggles to stay healthy this spring. Quentin missed almost a week this spring because of soreness in his left shoulder, which underwent labrum and rotator-cuff surgery in October. If healthy, however, Quentin clearly wields the superior bat. Expect Quentin to be the Opening Day starter in left field, and expect him to hit well enough to keep the job as long as he's past his shoulder woes. However, Quentin is probably a couple of years away from his prime, so even if he plays well enough to amass 500 at-bats in left field, Owens could actually be the bigger fantasy earner in rotisserie (5x5) leagues leagues because of his speed off the bench. Both are draft-worthy in most leagues, though Quentin is the stronger offensive player and a prime choice in keeper leagues. Projected winner: Quentin.
The position battle at third base is almost as intriguing. The team hoped to trade incumbent starter Joe Crede this offseason to make room for 25-year-old Josh Fields but hasn't been able to land an acceptable offer. As trade talks -- mainly with the Giants -- continue to stall, it appears more and more likely that Crede will still be in Chicago on Opening Day.
Joe Crede: If the Sox are unable to trade Crede -- and he's healthy -- look for the veteran to start. After three straight years of steadily improving power and contact skills, Crede suffered from lower back problems last year, finally undergoing season-ending surgery in June. A poor walk rate has prevented him from developing into more than an average regular, but he was making progress offensively and should return to hitting 20-plus homers annually if healthy.
Josh Fields: Fields, meanwhile, has a legitimate power bat but hasn't shown much in the way of plate skills. The former Oklahoma State quarterback struck out more than once per game at every minor league level! The 23 home runs in 373 major league at-bats last year displays Fields' power, but his woeful 66 percent contact rate suggests that he'll have a hard time replicating even the meager .244 batting average. In addition to striking out excessively, Fields struggles mightily with right-handed pitching. He has potential, and the power is real, but right now his skills are those of a bench or platoon player, not an everyday starter. Fields is a more valuable pick in keeper leagues than he is for 2008.
In February, Guillen said that Fields was atop his depth chart, though he acknowledged that questions about Crede's health prompted the remark. In mid-March, however, general manager Ken Williams declared Crede the starter. While the Sox would indeed love to trade Crede and make room for Fields' bat in the lineup, the reality is that Fields might be overmatched in the majors until he develops a better grasp of the strike zone. Expect Crede to get the bulk of the time at third base unless he can't put his injury behind him, which is always a risk with back troubles. Projected winner: Crede.
Will Harris is a fantasy baseball and college football analyst for ESPN.com.