Ask BA

I always try to get in some reading when I put in my time on the household elliptical trainer, and I’ve really enjoyed “Rob Neyer’s Big Book Of Baseball Blunders” (Fireside, $16), scheduled for a June release. Rob focuses on blunders that were premeditated and reasonably could have been first-guessed at the time. Example: Bill Buckner’s error in the 1986 World Series game doesn’t qualify, but Red Sox manager John McNamara’s decision not to replace Buckner with Dave Stapleton does.

The book starts with a very intriguing blunder indeed. If the White Sox had correctly evaluated the worth of first baseman Jack Fournier’s bat and not replaced him with Chick Gandil in 1917, they might not have been vulnerable to gamblers in the World Series two years later. After that, it’s a series of ill-fated trades (though the Roger Maris deal wasn’t as lopsided and didn’t help the Yankees as much as you may think), managerial moves (Walter Alston had a particularly bad day on Oct. 3, 1962) and other decisions (it’s hard to say which was worse, hiring Maury Wills as a manager or Hawk Harrelson as a general manager). Even connoisseurs of baseball history will learn something new reading this book.

    What are the Devil Rays are planning to do with their plethora of young outfield talent? It seems they are almost overstocked with Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, Joey Gathright, Delmon Young and Elijah Dukes. How do you think this will all play out?

    John Plonka

After covering the Diamondbacks’ outfield logjam in the last Ask BA, it’s time to break down the Devil Rays’ most obvious strength. Let’s not forget about Jonny Gomes, who slugged 21 homers in 101 games as a rookie last year. In addition to Young and Dukes, there are also several other outfield prospects on our Tampa Bay Top 30 Prospects list in the 2006 Prospect Handbook: Fernando Perez, Shaun Cumberland, Andrew Lopez, John Matulia and Francisco Leandro. Given all the talent ahead of them, however, they’re probably out of luck, at least with the Devil Rays.

Gomes’ best position is standing in the batter’s box, so let’s put him at DH. And the rest of this actually is pretty simple to figure out.

All-star Carl Crawford keeps getting better and is signed through 2008 with club options that can tie him up through 2010, so left field is his for a while. Rocco Baldelli is likewise signed through 2008 with club options that can extend his deal through 2011. That makes it fairly obvious that he’ll be the long-term center fielder over Joey Gathright, and Baldelli is a more well-rounded player as well. Gathright likely will be used in a trade to acquire some pitching in the near future.

Young is merely the best prospect in baseball, and he won’t be able to become a free agent until after the 2012 season at the earliest. He’ll take over in right at some point this year. Dukes has fabulous tools and is developing nicely, but there’s no place for him to fit in. If he continues to progress and keeps his temper under control, he’s going to give the Rays another attractive trade chip.

All this outfield depth makes it pretty clear why Tampa Bay continues to hold out hope that B.J. Upton can play shortstop. If he can’t cut it there, third base looks like his most logical destination.

    Scott Hairston once was an elite prospect according to Baseball America and many others. He had a stint in the majors in 2004 where he struggled, and then he was relegated to the minors in 2005. He was playing well until he got hurt. Once the No. 1 prospect in Arizona’™s system, Hairston now seems stuck behind an avalanche of talented outfielders. What do you see happening to him?

    Bill Stinneford

Hairston ranked No. 26 on our Top 100 Prospects list in 2003 and No. 34 entering 2004, at which point he had hit .324/.404/.558 with 46 homers and 211 RBIs in 290 minor league games. There were a lot of questions about his ability to remain at second base, but he looked like a lock to have a better career than his older brother Jerry.

But Jerry has spent the last five years in the big leagues, while Scott is still trying to establish a foothold. The Diamondbacks gave him their second-base job in 2004, and he hit .248/.293/.442 with 13 homers and 29 RBIs in 101 games for a 111-loss team. He continued to look shaky at second base, so Arizona decided to send him back to Triple-A last year to make him an outfielder. He tore up Pacific Coast League pitching, batting .311/.384/.608 with 16 homers and 40 RBIs in 58 games (he also went 2-for-20 in a big league cameo) before dislocating his left shoulder in July.

Hairston’s window in Arizona appears closed, however. He’s now 25, and not only have the Diamondbacks committed to veterans Luis Gonzalez and Shawn Green on the outfield corners for 2006, but Hairston is only the third-best outfielder on the Tucson roster, behind Carlos Quentin and currently injured Chris Young. Arizona also has two more blue-chip outfield prospects on the way up in Justin Upton and Carlos Gonzales, so Hairston may never get another shot at playing regularly for the Diamondbacks.

I still think Hairston will hit in the big leagues if given the opportunity, but he’ll need a trade to get one. He had a tendency to overswing and lost his plate discipline in his major league debut, though that’s true of a lot of rookies.

    What do you think of Mets righthander Henry Owens? The New York papers were hyping him during spring training and his Double-A numbers (no hits, two walks, 14 strikeouts) are ridiculous so far, albeit in just six innings. Any chance we could see him in Shea Stadium this year?

    Jason Phillips

Owens is one of the best stories in a Mets system that has been depleted by trades. He hit just .277-6-20 at NCAA Division II Barry (Fla.) as a senior catcher/DH in 2001. With his baseball career figuring to end there, he planned on attending medical school. But scouts liked his arm strength, and the Pirates’ Delvy Santiago signed him as a nondrafted free agent with the intention of converting him to the mound.

Owens showed a mid-90s fastball and was able to simply blow heat by hitters in the low minors from the start, but coming up with an effective second pitch was more problematic. He was bothered by elbow tendinitis and back problems throughout 2004, after which the Mets grabbed him in the Triple-A phase of the Rule 5 draft.

It took Owens a couple of months to get fully healthy last year, but once he did, he had a 1.04 ERA and 41 strikeouts in his final 26 innings at high Class A St. Lucie. His fastball hit 100 mph when he pitched in the Puerto Rican Winter League, and his slider made some strides. It’s still not a finished product, however, as evidenced by Owens’ performance in big league camp this spring, when he had a 10.50 ERA and opponents strafed him for 12 hits in six innings.

The Mets are off to a good start, and Owens still has work to do on his slider, so a promotion isn’t imminent. But if he continues to perform and the slider improves, New York is going to be tempted to give him a look later this year.

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