Commentary

More opportunity for job seekers

Thanks to WBC, fringe players get longer looks at major league camps this spring

Originally Published: March 12, 2009
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

The World Baseball Classic has been bad for Felipe Alou's managerial legacy and even worse for Dominican baseball pride.

It's been good for Eugene Kingsale bobblehead sales, Pudge Rodriguez's job aspirations, fans of baseball "Rocky" stories, and hotel and restaurant owners in Florida and Arizona who believe there's nothing better than a spring training that lasts forever.

The players taking part in the WBC aren't the only ones affected. Throughout the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues, fringe players and prospects alike are trying to capitalize on the opportunity for more at-bats or innings pitched.

Maybe they'll win jobs on the Opening Day roster, or at least give the manager something to file away for future reference come May or June.

Some players are faring better than others. In this mid-March installment of Starting 9, we take stock of nine individuals or groups of players who are trying to make an impression in training camps while the big boys are away competing for international pride.

Andruw Jones, Rangers

lastname Texas general manager Jon Daniels figured Jones was worth a shot after the Dodgers dumped him. The financial investment was negligible. The Rangers had hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo to help with the transition. And with Nelson Cruz playing for the Dominican Republic in the WBC, Rangers manager Ron Washington had a few extra at-bats to throw Jones' way.

[+] EnlargeAndruw Jones
Ron Vesely/MLB Photos /Getty ImagesGood: Andruw Jones is batting .308 and slugging .500 this spring. Bad: He's got 11 whiffs in 29 PAs.

The logic was sound, and Jones has looked better of late after a terrible start. He's hitting .308 with 11 strikeouts in 26 at-bats this spring.

But it will take more than a good week or two for Jones to erase the memory of his Dodgers debacle.

Jones is 31 years old, and some talent evaluators talk about him with a sense of wistfulness bordering on sadness. Quite often, the words used are in the past tense.

"Remember what Andruw used to do with hanging breaking balls?" one scout said. "Even when his rear end came flying out, he could hit the ball a long way. He can still hit a mistake now, but it's basically the same stuff we've been seeing the last couple of years."

Even Jones' defense is suspect these days. One scout said Jones' bat speed is still adequate, but wondered if he has a vision problem.

"He's not tracking balls well in the outfield, and he's swinging and missing at some pitches by a foot," the scout said.

Jones' deal with Texas allows him to opt out March 20 and seek employment elsewhere if he' s not added to the big league roster. The Rangers have a nice outfield contingent in Josh Hamilton, David Murphy, Cruz and Marlon Byrd, so it' s hard to see where Jones fits.

If the Rangers decide to keep Jones, they might have to dump Frank Catalanotto and eat his $6 million salary to make room. Don't bet on that happening.

Jones has dug such a hole for himself, he'll need more than one spring training to dig himself out. Some baseball people think he is young enough that a refresher course in Triple-A ball or the independent leagues wouldn't hurt him.

Jeff Samardzija, Cubs

lastname Lefty Sean Marshall continues to have the inside track on the fifth starting spot in manager Lou Piniella's rotation. But with Team USA member Ted Lilly's innings up for grabs, Samardzija and Aaron Heilman, a recent trade acquisition, have both impressed Piniella with the way they've thrown the ball in camp.

Samardzija, the former Notre Dame football star, was a work-in-progress when the Cubs lured him from the NFL with a five-year, $10 million deal. There's still some debate within the Cubs' organization about whether Samardzija's long-term future will be as a starter or a reliever. But the tools and aptitude to learn are there.

After hitting 96 mph on the radar gun last year, Samardzija has eased in at a nice, comfortable 92 this spring. He's focused on location and improving his secondary pitches, and he's made progress with his slider and splitter.

If Marshall cracks the Cubs' rotation, Heilman, Chad Gaudin and Luis Vizcaino are among the righty bullpen options for Piniella. So where does Samardzija fit? Given his relative lack of experience, it wouldn't hurt him to open the season with Triple-A Iowa. But he's not making the Cubs' decision any easier.

Jeff Clement, Mariners

lastname With Kenji Johjima playing for Japan in the WBC, Seattle manager Don Wakamatsu is divvying up the catching at-bats among Clement, Rob Johnson, Jamie Burke and Adam Moore. After a slow start, Clement seems to be finding his comfort zone.

One scout in Arizona expressed reservations about Clement's throwing and his ability to hit breaking balls, but Clement has a sweet swing and good power, and the Mariners need all the offense they can get.

Interestingly enough, Clement is 0-for-7 this spring as a designated hitter and 5-for-13 when he' s behind the plate. The majority of his at-bats this season are likely to come as a DH, because the Mariners aren' t going to pay Johjima $8 million to crack jokes on the bench.

The Mariners could send Clement to Triple-A Tacoma to start the season, but he's not counting heads or dwelling on his fate at the moment.

"If I play to my capabilities, I think everything is going to work out," Clement said. "I believe it's going to work out either way. A great spring, an average spring, a bad spring. You have to have the mentality that it's a long season and you always have to be ready for the next day."

Micah Owings and Homer Bailey, Reds

lastname Reds manager Dusty Baker wasn't too broken up over the Netherlands' shocking upset of the Dominican Republic, because it means that starters Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto are on their way back to Cincinnati's spring training camp.

[+] EnlargeHomer Bailey
AP Photo/Tony DejakRight-hander Homer Bailey has allowed 10 hits in 10 innings this spring but only one earned run.

While the young guns were away, Owings and Bailey both performed ably in bids for the fifth spot in the rotation.

Bailey, 22, reported to camp in better shape after working out with tennis player Andy Roddick in Austin, Texas. Bailey is throwing harder and with better command, and handling himself with a more mature demeanor than in his previous call-ups.

Nick Masset, acquired from the White Sox in the Ken Griffey Jr. trade, is also competing for a starting spot, although his stuff probably translates better to the bullpen. If Baker needs a tie-breaker, Owings's .552 career slugging percentage won't hurt his cause.

Dallas McPherson, Marlins

lastname McPherson, a Citadel product and former Angels mega-prospect, put himself back on the map with 42 home runs for Florida's Triple-A farm club in Albuquerque last season. Now he's 28 years old and hoping to add to that meager total of 371 major league at-bats.

McPherson and shortstop Robert Andino have played more than expected this spring while Jorge Cantu, Hanley Ramirez and Alfredo Amezaga were away at the WBC. McPherson is homerless in 25 at-bats and Andino has three errors in seven games, so neither player has taken Florida by storm.

Amezaga, the most versatile Marlin, sprained his knee in the WBC and will miss four to six weeks. The Marlins could fill the void with Andino, Emilio Bonifacio or one of several young outfielders in camp.

McPherson is trying to win the starting third base job and force the Marlins to shift Cantu to first base. Plan 1A is for Cantu to remain at third, Gaby Sanchez to break camp at first and McPherson to compete for a job as a lefty bat off the bench. Given his limited range at third and big strikeout totals, McPherson is not ideally suited for that role.

Cleveland's kids

lastname Young Matt LaPorta had a memorable 2008. He played in the Futures Game and the Summer Olympics, got traded from Milwaukee to Cleveland for CC Sabathia, then got married and played winter ball in Venezuela. No wonder he was grateful for spring training: It' s the first chance he's had to relax in months.

[+] EnlargeMatt LaPorta
AP Photo/Paul ConnorsAfter 20 spring at-bats, Matt LaPorta is slugging .550. Three of his six hits have been for extra bases.

While the scouts like LaPorta for his bat, if not necessarily his glove, some other Cleveland outfielders are making a bigger splash this spring.

Trevor Crowe, a former first-round pick, and Michael Brantley, son of former big leaguer Mickey Brantley and the player to be named later in the Sabathia trade, have earned rave reviews for their performances while Shin-Soo Choo is playing for Korea in the WBC.

"That kid can really play," one scout said of Brantley. "Every at-bat is a quality at-bat."

Indians general manager Mark Shapiro spent several minutes gushing over Brantley, Crowe, LaPorta, catcher Carlos Santana, third baseman Wes Hodges and several other prospects during a conversation with reporters Wednesday.

"It's the best layer of talent we've had in a long, long period of time here," Shapiro said.

Phillies bench candidates

lastname Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino are playing for Team USA, Chase Utley and Pedro Feliz are rehabbing from offseason surgery, and Phillies manager Charlie Manuel has been doling out at-bats to all comers in Clearwater, Fla.

While Pablo Ozuna and Marcus Giles have both played adequately, much of the talk in camp has centered around minor leaguers Jason Donald and John Mayberry Jr.

Mayberry, acquired from Texas for Greg Golson in a swap of two stalled prospects, slugged .677 in his first 10 spring games. The Phillies are short on right-handed power with the exception of Jayson Werth, so they'll monitor Mayberry closely if he begins the season with Triple-A Lehigh Valley.

Donald, former Arizona Wildcats shortstop, is playing as if he has no plans to go anywhere. He's hitting .486 (11 for 29) with six walks in Florida. While spring training stats can be deceptive, Donald's baseball sense and intangibles transcend the numbers.

"He's one of those guys who's going to make himself a Major League Baseball player," said a National League front-office man.

The Phils auditioned Donald at third base in the Arizona Fall League and again this spring. He could be a candidate to inherit the position once Feliz's two-year deal runs out in November.

The Mets' outfield scramble

lastname The Mets sent the WBC a major league-high 16 players, including Carlos Beltran and Fernando Tatis. That's allowed manager Jerry Manuel to give more at-bats to outfielders Bobby Kielty, Cory Sullivan, Jeremy Reed and incumbent utilityman Marlon Anderson.

At the moment, those four players appear to be competing for two bench spots, although an additional job might be available if Manuel begins the season with 11 pitchers instead of 12.

Anderson was terrible last season, with a .530 OPS in 138 at-bats, but he's the only one of the quartet owed guaranteed money. True, it's only $1.15 million, but that might be enough to give him an edge for a roster spot. Sullivan and Reed are similar players -- strong defenders with suspect bats -- while Kielty would add some welcome right-handed balance to the roster.

Manuel's decision will probably come down to the final few spring games. Rabid Mets fans will be waiting breathlessly for him to make the call.

Detroit's outfield fill-ins

lastname Manager Jim Leyland's entire starting outfield is in the Classic. Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen are playing for Venezuela, while Curtis Granderson is with Team USA.

In their stead, Clete Thomas, Ryan Raburn, Jeff Larish, Brent Clevlen, Marcus Thames, Wilkin Ramirez and Casper Wells have been carrying the load in the Tigers' outfield. And not with much distinction.

Thames suffered a strained abdominal muscle Tuesday against St. Louis and is expected to miss a week. Larish and Clevlen are the only two hitting better than .230, and the Tigers scored a total of 10 runs in five games before breaking out in a 7-4 win over the Yankees on Wednesday.

Leyland has done his part to help spread the gospel of global baseball. Now he'd like his starting outfield back, thank you.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. He can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer