Spring training pushed player to rise to the level of their competition within the organization, and there are several intriguing battles being waged in every team's camp.
Some situations, though, have more going on than meets the eye. Some rookies may find out this spring that job security can be awfully tough to come by.
In Atlanta, Brian McCann steps in as the starter at catcher, but can Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the high Class A Carolina League’s top prospect, be far behind? The Pirates will give Chris Duffy and Nate McLouth at-bats in center field in 2006, but if they falter, Rajai Davis could get a chance of his own soon. The Devil Rays’ crowded outfield will make it hard for new manager Joe Maddon to get everyone enough at-bats, even if Delmon Young returns to Triple-A. And while the Mariners signed Japan’s Kenji Johjima for three seasons, 2005 first-round pick Jeff Clement should be ready soon enough to push Johjima for playing time.
The White Sox have perhaps the most high-profile case, with 2003 first-round pick Brian Anderson taking over as the everyday center fielder after Aaron Rowand was traded to Philadelphia in the Jim Thome trade. That became even more clear when the Sox dealt center fielder Chris Young--arguably a better overall talent with more power potential than Anderson--to the Diamondbacks in the Javier Vazquez deal. But with the emergence of center fielder Jerry Owens, Chicago has yet another potential impact player behind Anderson who will most likely start the year at Triple-A Charlotte.
Owens, who skipped high Class A after being acquired in a Feb. 2005 trade with the Nationals, was the catalyst on a Double-A Birmingham club that won the second half in the Southern League's South Division in 2005. He enters spring training coming off a brilliant performance for La Guaira in the Venezuelan League, where he batted .356-1-21 in 180 at-bats.
And while he doesn't have the power of Anderson or Young, he fits manager Ozzie Guillen's style of play with speed and sound fundamentals. running the bases aggressively and being one of the most fundamentally sound players in the organization.
A second-round pick of the Expos in 2003, Owens belied his football background (he played at UCLA for one season) by showing advanced hitting ability, batting .331-2-52 for the Barons last season.
"If we had to name an MVP on that team, it was Jerry," Barons manager Razor Shines said. "He hit three balls hard every night and did all the little things the right way. I didn't know if he'd be able to handle it when we broke camp in April, but that shows you what I know. I'll never doubt Jerry Owens again."
It's no accident that Shines will manage at Charlotte this season, where he'll be reunited with much of the same club he guided to an 84-57 record in 2005. That will mainly be to work on Owens' route-running in center, which--prior to last season--was considered by scouts and some in the organization to be below-average.
"When I saw him early last year, he was a fourth outfielder," said a scout with a National League club. "Then by midseason I saw him again and he was doing things so much better and with a lot more confidence. His range and jumps improved, and I think much of that was because he was realizing his comfort-zone. He looked so much more in control of his body movement defensively."
While he probably needs another year in the minors to hone up his game defensively and continue to work on the nuances of being a leadoff hitter, Owens isn't far away. So Anderson might need to hit the ground running this spring.
Nice Problem To Have
In other cases, some organizations are mind-bogglingly deep in several spots, creating intense competition. The Angels' middle infield depth is borderline ridiculous and will be one of the best things to watch in camp this spring.
While second baseman Adam Kennedy is in the final year of his contract, shortstop Orlando Cabrera has three years remaining on his deal. Throw in utilityman Chone Figgins and the major league roster up the middle seems complete. For now.
The interesting scenarios will unfold on the back fields in Tempe as Erick Aybar, Alberto Callaspo, Brandon Wood and Howie Kendrick will battle it out for Triple-A roster spots--and all four are frontline middle-of-the-diamond talents.
Aybar is coming off a solid winter season with Licey in the Dominican League, hitting .325 in 166 at-bats and playing a key role in the Caribbean Series for the Tigers. He likely will break camp as the starting shortstop at Triple-A Salt Lake, but both his bat and prowess with the glove will be difficult to keep on the farm.
It's much the same story with Callaspo, who spent the winter in his native Venezuela, hitting .304-3-24 in 121 at-bats for Oriente. The only difference between the two is Callaspo has shown more versatility in the last two years, moving from shortstop to second base, and played some third this past winter.
"Nothing can take away from what they've done or what they've been through the past few winters," Angels director of minor league operations Abe Flores said. "They've built their credentials to a high standard against a higher level of competition than Brandon or Howard."
And until last season, when someone mentioned Angels middle infielders of the future, Wood and Kendrick were at the back of the discussion. It was Aybar and Callaspo, earning the nickname, "Hoover and Oreck" for their brilliant defensive abilities.
"Those guys are in a bubble when they're together," Flores said. "They feed off each other so well and turn plays like no one has ever seen. They're fearless, and they completely wow you the way they play defense."
But a second tandem emerged beneath them as Wood put on a power display at every stop in 2006 and Kendrick, who owns a career .359 average in four minor league seasons, worked hard for his glove to catch up to his bat.
"No one deserves more credit on that than Howard himself," Flores said. "He's a self-made man. And one area where we wanted him to improve was his aggressiveness on the bases and he's come a heck of a long way from where he was when we signed him."
Kendrick worked even harder on his defense this offseason--when he wasn't helping his parents with their home remodeling business—by keeping in baseball shape during workouts with the Tennessee Volunteers.
The only thing separating the two tandems at this point--other than the superior defense of Aybar and Callaspo--are Wood and Kendrick's power upside. That's not to say the Aybar/Callaspo combo doesn’t contribute offensively, but certainly one or more of them could be looking at a position change sooner than later.
"They all hit and they're all good enough athletes to play other positions," Flores said. "The unique thing is each one of their bats lends into their versatility. These are great problems to have. I hope we can continue to pump in players and keep up this elite level of competition."
• The Devil Rays are determined to increase their presence in Latin America, and brought in Andres Reiner as an assistant to baseball operations. Reiner, who worked with Rays' senior vice president Gerry Hunsicker in Houston, founded the Astros’ Venezuelan academy that has produced more than 130 professional players--including Bobby Abreu, Richard Hildalgo, Melvin Mora, Carlos Guillen, Freddy Garcia and Johan Santana. Reiner, 70, will be an adviser to Tampa Bay director of international operations, Carlos Alfonso.
• The Pirates have three key arms returning from major surgery
this spring, as lefthander Sean Burnett and righthanders John Van
Benschoten and Bryan Bullington all are rehabbing from 2005 injuries.
At this point, Van Benschoten is considered to be ahead of Burnett
and Bullington, even though he underwent three surgeries. "Van
Benschoten is probably the closest to returning," farm director
Brian Graham said, noting that Bullington, who had labrum surgery
last October, won't take a mound competitively until June at the earliest--probably
at short-season Williamsport.