New faces at second base
In his Cactus League notebook, Jerry Crasnick says it appears the Padres and Rangers will start the season with rookies at second base.
PEORIA, Ariz. -- Managers and front-office executives have chugged enough coffee, held enough meetings and watched enough games to have a good idea how camp position battles will play out this spring. In some cases, the only remaining step is a formal declaration of the winners and losers.
That's the case at both ends of Bell Road, northwest of Phoenix, where Texas and San Diego both entered spring training with openings at second base. The Padres planned to look at rookie Josh Barfield and veteran Mark Bellhorn, while the Rangers threw open the competition to rookie Ian Kinsler and veteran Mark DeRosa.
Barring a late comeback, the rookies lead the competition, 2-0.
Kinsler has all but clinched the starting job in Texas, showing a quick bat and some pop while playing with poise and maturity around the bag. "He just looks like a ballplayer," said an executive with a National League team that trains in Arizona.
And Barfield has lived up to his billing as the Padres' No. 3 prospect by showing improved plate discipline and driving the ball to all fields.
"I want him to keep grinding, but he hasn't done anything to make us believe he shouldn't have the job," Padres general manager Kevin Towers said. "He's been by far our best player in camp."
Barfield, the son of former Toronto outfielder Jesse Barfield, has hit .300 in four of his five minor-league seasons. He was once considered a question mark in the field but has shown significant improvement. This spring Barfield is playing the hops more proficiently and showing what scouts call a better "clock" in the field.
"He knows the runners a little bit now -- when he needs to rush and when he has time to make a play," Towers said. "I've seen a huge difference in him defensively."
Two years ago the Padres pitted Khalil Greene against Rey Ordonez for the starting shortstop position. Greene played well enough to win the job and convince Ordonez to leave camp. Now they hope to have a double-play combination that can bond over the next four to five years, at a minimum.
While Barfield has the family genes and the name recognition, Kinsler is the classic overachiever. After a forgettable year at Arizona State, he transferred to Missouri to find his niche. The Rangers selected him in the 17th round of the 2003 draft, and Kinsler attracted attention by hitting .402 in 59 games for Class A Clinton two years ago.
Kinsler still has some convincing to do. Skeptics point out that he is a below-average runner, is too inclined to swing for the fences and is coming off a .274 season in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.
But no one questions his commitment. Kinsler declined an invitation to join the Team USA Olympic qualifying squad in November and returned to his old junior college in Arizona, where he worked on strength training, hitting and endless repetitions around the bag.
In Rangers camp, Kinsler has elicited comparisons to his new double-play partner, Michael Young, as the type of player who'll go down to the back fields and work until his hands bleed. He's Buck Showalter's type of player.
"It can be tough when you come into camp with that 'prospect' label and you're competing with a veteran," Rangers GM Jon Daniels said. "The players on this team love Mark DeRosa. But Ian has really impressed everybody with his work ethic and the way he's handled himself. He's just a sound, intelligent player."
Remember that Padres-Devil Rays change-of-scenery trade featuring two former first-round picks who were floundering? It isn't working out so well for Sean Burroughs. He failed to produce an extra-base hit in his first 27 Grapefruit League at-bats with Tampa Bay, and he won't get much playing time at third base if the Rays stick with Aubrey Huff at the position.
Dewon Brazelton, conversely, has pitched well enough to win a job in the San Diego rotation. The Padres think Brazelton was rushed in Tampa Bay and has the potential to thrive at Petco Park. Towers met with Brazelton in San Diego after the trade and came away convinced that Brazelton is ready to turn around his career now that he's free of the bonus-baby hype he encountered out of Middle Tennessee State.
"He just needed somebody to put an arm around him and say, 'We believe in you,'" Towers said. "He's a half-million dollar player now. He's not that big $5 million pick with all those expectations."
Still, some baseball people think Brazelton is a spring mirage because he's strictly a fastball-changeup pitcher. "You can't succeed as a big-league starter unless you have some kind of breaking ball -- even in a big park like San Diego," an AL front office man said.
Last year Chris Capuano won 18 games for Milwaukee, and Doug Davis struck out more batters than Carlos Zambrano, A.J. Burnett or Roger Clemens. So who is this year's leading candidate to flourish in the Mike Maddux finishing school? Try right-hander David Bush, who came to Milwaukee from Toronto in the Lyle Overbay trade in December.
Bush, a former second-round pick out of Wake Forest, never quite fit in Toronto. He relied too much on his breaking ball, and he lost confidence in part because of manager John Gibbons' quick hook. But he's a natural strike thrower, and he should benefit from the switch from the American League East to the NL Central.
Brewers GM Doug Melvin says Bush reminds him of a young Rick Helling because of his competitiveness, and farm director Reid Nichols sensed Bush might have an impact when he watched him throw batting practice early in camp.
"He's a little unorthodox," Nichols said, "but I know a lot of our guys were complaining about having to hit against him."
• Milwaukee shortstop J.J. Hardy recovered from a terrible first half in 2005 (.187, one homer) to hit .308 with eight homers after the All-Star break. The Brewers attribute the turnaround to Hardy's mental toughness and what Melvin calls his "selective contact approach" at the plate. In 427 plate appearances, Hardy drew 44 walks and struck out only 48 times.
Melvin's statistical analyst, Dave Lawson, crunched some numbers and found that Hardy's season was similar to Robin Ventura's rookie year with the White Sox in 1990. Ventura had more walks (55) than strikeouts (53) that season, while apparently sacrificing power for contact.
The following year, Ventura busted out for 23 homers and 100 RBI. Those power numbers are a reach for Hardy. But if he can steer clear of the back spasms that have bothered him this spring, the Brewers think he's capable of putting up Bobby Crosby-like numbers at short.
• Amid reports that Bobby Jenks' velocity is down this spring, the White Sox say they're not concerned. They clocked him at 95-96 mph in a Cactus League game against the Cubs on Saturday. While Jenks always warrants monitoring because of his history of weight and maturity issues, one big-league GM thinks he should be OK.
"Two years ago Joe Nathan was throwing 90-91 in spring training and people said, 'He's going to close for the Twins?'" the GM said. "Then as soon as the lights go on, he's throwing 98 with a 90-mph slider. I don't think closers turn the dial up sometime until they need to."
• After Mariners center fielderJeremy Reed hit .409 for the White Sox's Double-A Birmingham club in 2003, Baseball Prospectus labeled him its No. 2 prospect and tossed around a few Tony Gwynn and Don Mattingly comparisons. The hype seemed overblown when Reed hit .254 with a .674 combined on base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) for Seattle last season.
Reed's fans in front offices cite a wrist injury for his offensive problems, but there's skepticism among scouts that he'll never develop into an impact offensive player. "He's good defensively," a scout said. "But he doesn't show a lot of bat speed, and he doesn't run all that well for a table-setter." Now the most prominent comparable to Reed is Mark Kotsay, and even that might be wishful thinking.
• With Reed in center field, Kenji Johjima behind the plate and Cuba native Yuniesky Betancourt at shortstop, the Mariners should play terrific defense up the middle. It remains to be seen whether Betancourt will hit, but he's earning raves for his glove work. Two talent evaluators used the word "magician" to describe Betancourt in the field. Under the category of hyperbole, another scout calls him "Ozzie Smith with a better arm."
• Arizona's Brandon Webb is one of only six big-league starters (Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez, Tim Hudson, Livan Hernandez and Carlos Zambrano are the others) to throw at least 180 innings and post a sub-4.00 ERA in each of the past three seasons.
Webb has been death on righties in his first three seasons, holding them to a cumulative .208 batting average and a .548 OPS. Now he's focusing on doing a better job against lefties, who've hit .276 with a .793 OPS against him. Webb is working on throwing his sinker to both sides of the plate and pounding lefties with a cut fastball.
• Craig Counsell will probably be back from his torn labrum in time for Opening Day, but Stephen Drew's performance at shortstop this spring has convinced the Diamondbacks that he's good enough to warrant the coveted Scott Boras "special player" label. Unless Counsell has a setback, Drew will begin the season with Triple-A Tucson.
"The game is happening quickly, but he makes the right decisions," said Arizona GM Josh Byrnes. "And he's very calm in the batter's box, like J.D. [Drew]. He plays the game like he's been in the big leagues."
• It's one thing to label Texas' Michael Young the 30th-best defensive shortstop in the majors, but John Dewan's "The Fielding Bible" goes to extraordinary lengths to document Young's deficiencies. Dewan reviewed one video clip after another and found that Young routinely shades hitters to his right to take advantage of his strong throwing arm. The drawback to that approach: He misses too many balls up the middle.
"In 2005 the average major-league team allowed 292 hits up the middle or in the shortstop hole," Dewan writes. "The Rangers allowed 374. That was the most in baseball."
• Angels GM Bill Stoneman took some hits for refusing to trade prospects for immediate offensive help, but many of his peers think he made the right call. Casey Kotchman and Kendry Morales have crushed the ball this spring, and second baseman Howie Kendrick is going to be a monster.
"Kendrick could go to the big leagues right now and hit .300," a National League GM said. "He's way beyond his years with his approach at the plate."