Commentary

Some teams seek clarity in leadoff spot

Giants, Angels and Tigers among the clubs with uncertainty about No. 1 spot in lineup

Originally Published: March 18, 2010
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

You can find good New York style pizza in the Phoenix area, a Circle K every other block and enough golf courses to occupy six vacations.

Legitimate top-of-the-order men are a little tougher to locate in the Valley of the Sun.

As Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker assessed his team's leadoff situation recently, he looked as though he wouldn't mind seeing former Atlanta Braves teammate Ralph "Roadrunner'' Garr magically appear in the desert.

"The hardest player in the world to find is a good leadoff guy,'' Baker said. "You can get sluggers easier than leadoff guys.''

Baker should know. Cincinnati is one of several teams sifting through candidates, hoping someone seizes the initiative this spring. At camps throughout Arizona and Florida, the young, inexperienced, miscast and on-base-impaired are competing for leadoff jobs simply because their teams have no better alternative.

In this Grapefruit and Cactus League installment of Starting 9, we focus on nine clubs whose leadoff spot is in a state of transition, flux or something potentially more worrisome. They're all looking for some clarity by Opening Day.

Aaron Rowand

Rowand

San Francisco Giants

It's a good thing the Giants have strong starting pitching, because their lineup lacks both patience and speed.

Pablo Sandoval (.387) is the only San Francisco hitter who posted an OBP better than .330 last year, and the eight players likely to make up manager Bruce Bochy's batting order stole a combined 27 bases in 2009. For sake of comparison, Boston Red Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury stole 31 bases in August and September.

With nowhere else to turn, Bochy called Aaron Rowand in the offseason and asked whether he would like to give the top spot a whirl. "We put him there last year, and he took it and ran with it,'' Bochy said. "That's his mindset now: He's going to be our leadoff hitter.''

Rowand spent lots of hours in the batting cage fixing some mechanical glitches, then arrived at camp 10 pounds lighter after a vigorous winter of cycling at his offseason home in Las Vegas. There's never any questioning Rowand's commitment. The next few months will show if he's a credible leadoff man or a square peg in a round hole.

Erick Aybar

Aybar

Los Angeles Angels

Shortstop Erick Aybar improved noticeably as a hitter when given the opportunity to play full-time last year. He raised his batting average from .277 to .312, hit the ball with more authority and seemed more at ease working deeper into counts. He saw an average of 3.48 pitches per plate appearance, up from 3.26 two years ago.

Now Aybar gets first crack at replacing Chone Figgins in the leadoff spot. He should improve upon his total of 14 stolen bases, and he'll take the Angels' typically aggressive approach in busting it from first to third on singles.

"He might not be a finished product now, but he has that ability,'' manager Mike Scioscia said. "What he lacks in on-base percentage, he's going to make up for in being in scoring position. He can absolutely fly.''

Aybar appeared in only six of the Angels' first 11 spring games because of a sore throwing arm, but the team says it's not serious.

The Angels' main alternative at leadoff is Maicer Izturis, who is capable of playing second, short and third. If Brandon Wood provides the desired pop at third, Scioscia is going to have a bigger challenge squeezing Izturis' name into the lineup.

Austin Jackson

Jackson

Detroit Tigers

The early reviews are positive on Austin Jackson, who is trying to make the transition to center field in Detroit after five years and 2,203 at-bats in the Yankees' farm system. He's shown a patient approach, used the entire field and laid off breaking pitches out of the zone.

"He's done nothing to dissuade them from keeping him in the leadoff spot,'' an American League scout said.

The 2009 Tigers led the majors with 34 home runs from the leadoff spot, thanks to Curtis Granderson. But Granderson's problems with lefties have been well-documented, and his .327 OBP last year was the lowest of his career.

If Jackson can hit .270 or .280, he's a threat to steal 25 bases and create some holes for No. 2 hitter Johnny Damon. He'll also allow rookie second baseman Scott Sizemore, who is off to a slow start this spring, to bat near the bottom of the order.

The Tigers needed an injection of youth, athleticism and speed, and they know Jackson will endure some fallow stretches. The big questions: How many, and for how long?

"This guy is going to face some bumps in the road,'' a scout said. "Just because he's doing it in March doesn't mean he'll be doing it on April 5. The first guy he's going to face is [Zack] Greinke. The speed limit is going to go up a little bit then.''

Drew Stubbs

Stubbs

Chris Dickerson

Dickerson

Cincinnati Reds

Willy Taveras and the rest of Cincinnati's leadoff contingent were last in baseball with a .650 OPS in 2009. Johnny Damon might have been a good fit here, except that he wasn't budget-friendly enough once the Reds committed $30.25 million to Aroldis Chapman.

So who leads off? Right now the Red Sox are looking at left fielder Chris Dickerson, who got off to a strong start in Arizona, and center fielder Drew Stubbs, who didn't.

Stubbs, a former first-round pick out of the University of Texas, hit three homers and stole 46 bases for Triple-A Louisville. Then he joined the Reds in August and hit eight homers in 180 at-bats. Seven came at hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park, where he posted a .616 slugging percentage.

Stubbs swung at only 19.4 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, according to fangraphs.com, so he's not afraid to work a count. Most projections have him striking out 130-plus times if he plays a full season with the Reds.

"A lot of times, the first or second pitch you see is the best pitch of the at-bat,'' Stubbs said. "I'll try to capitalize on that. But if the count gets deeper, I'm comfortable with that, too.''

Gary Matthews Jr.

Matthews

Angel Pagan

Pagan

New York Mets

Carlos Beltran's knee injury prompted Mets manager Jerry Manuel to move Jose Reyes to No. 3 in the order before spring training. Now Reyes is out with a thyroid condition, and the Mets are looking at David Wright, Jason Bay and Daniel Murphy in the 3-4-5 spots.

For the moment, leadoff belongs to Angel Pagan and Gary Matthews Jr., who'll share the center field duties until Beltran returns.

Pagan has done a nice job since general manager Omar Minaya re-acquired him from the Cubs in a trade for two minor leaguers in 2008. He slugged .508 in 77 games in the leadoff spot last year, and several teams inquired into his availability over the winter.

Still, the consensus is that Pagan, 28, is best served doing the Endy Chavez, fourth-outfielder thing instead of playing regularly for a team with contender aspirations. He still makes too many mental errors and takes some bad routes to ball in the outfield.

"He's done better than I would have expected years ago when I first saw him,'' an AL scout said. "He knows he's probably on a six-week audition with Matthews, so I don't think there's a lot of pressure on him. He knows he's going to be on that club regardless.''

Jose Bautista

Bautista

Toronto Blue Jays

Marco Scutaro was one of four leadoff men in baseball to score 100 runs last season. He also drew 90 walks and displayed one of the most discerning eyes in the game.

Now Scutaro is in Boston, and the Blue Jays are short on options. That spells opportunity for third baseman Jose Bautista, who posted an impressive .924 OPS in 17 games at leadoff last season.

Bautista is 29 years old and playing for his fifth professional organization. He was once the No. 7 prospect in the Pirates' chain, but never put it together for a full season. One year in the minors, he broke his hand punching a garbage can in the dugout.

"He's been plagued by immaturity and kind of a moodiness in the past,'' a scout said. "He's a kid who would play when he wanted to play. I think he's matured some now. You can see it in the way he does his early work and in the quality of his at-bats.''

With Edwin Encarnacion a non-factor because of a wrist injury, Bautista quickly asserted himself in Florida. He's hitting 11-for-17 (.647) with three home runs in the Grapefruit League.

"He's seeing a lot of fastballs and swinging the bat well,'' an AL scout said. "But nobody is using any scouting reports or pitching guys to their weaknesses yet. Most teams will tell you he's not a starting position player, but [the Jays] are kind of a cut-and-paste type of team right now.''

Adam Jones

Jones

Felix Pie

Pie

Baltimore Orioles

Forget the two 50-double seasons, four 100-run seasons, two All-Star appearances and sure-handed defense: The best thing about Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts is that he shows up.

Since 2004, Roberts has logged 3,629 at-bats -- seventh most in the major leagues behind Ichiro Suzuki, Jimmy Rollins, Michael Young, Derek Jeter, Miguel Tejada and Orlando Cabrera. Do those middle infielders eat nails for breakfast, or what?

Things haven't gone quite as smoothly for Roberts this spring. He suffered a herniated disc in his back during a winter workout in Arizona, and received an epidural Monday in Baltimore. Even if Roberts can start the season on time, the Orioles will have to monitor the injury for a while.

If Roberts isn't ready, manager Dave Trembley will probably choose from four options: Left fielder Felix Pie, center fielder Adam Jones, shortstop Cesar Izturis and second baseman Robert Andino.

All those guys can run better than they walk. The career OBPs rank from a high of .316 (Jones) to a low of .264 (Andino). Jones took a major step forward hitting second in the order last year, and the Orioles might just decide it's best for him to stay put.

Asdrubal Cabrera

Cabrera

Cleveland Indians

Grady Sizemore drops to second in the Cleveland batting order and Asdrubal Cabrera settles into the leadoff spot.

"Right off the bat, if Grady plays 150 games, that's 150 at-bats with nobody on,'' manager Manny Acta said. "When you have a guy who can pop 25 or 30 balls out of the ballpark every year, it would be a luxury to have him leading off.''

Cabrera is 24 years old, but this is his seventh professional season, and he hit .301 in a 32-game audition at leadoff last season. Someday soon the Indians envision outfielder Michael Brantley moving in at leadoff, Cabrera sliding down to second and Sizemore hitting third.

For now, with Sizemore, Shin-Soo Choo and Travis Hafner in the 2-3-4 spots, the Cleveland lineup has a decidedly left-handed tilt. Acta expects to plug another lefty hitter, Russell Branyan, into the No. 6 spot once his health permits. Branyan, recovering from a herniated disc in his back, has yet to appear in a spring training game.

Stephen Drew

Drew

Arizona Diamondbacks

Arizona manager A.J. Hinch has a handy formula for filling out his lineup card. He likes to begin with right fielder Justin Upton in the third spot and then "build back.''

Last year, Felipe Lopez was a fixture at leadoff before the Diamondbacks traded him to Milwaukee in July. Now Hinch is considering Stephen Drew, Kelly Johnson and Chris Young as potential replacements, and he has tinkered with the idea of batting Conor Jackson first.

"We have an open mind,'' Hinch said. "Ideally, you have a guy you're going to write in every day, and it's not a revolving door. In a perfect world we'll have a guy who can do it 100-plus times.''

Drew looks like the frontrunner even though he's posted OBPs of .313, .333 and .320 the past three seasons. Hinch likes the thought of having Drew in front of Johnson or Jackson, two good bat control guys who give him the flexibility to play hit-and-run and put things in motion.

Regardless of who hits leadoff, the addition of Adam LaRoche and Jackson's return from Valley Fever make the Arizona lineup deeper and more formidable than last season, when the Diamondbacks ranked eighth in the NL in runs scored.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License To Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer