Sunday, March 11, 2012

Spring Training: Surprises On The Horizon?

Well, here we are a week into spring training games, and I think it's time to ask two age-old questions: Can some would-be rookies earn a spot on the team? And even more interesting: is it possible for an incumbent STARTER to be unseated?

In an age of options, waivers, major league service requirements, and the like, it’s not clear that a hot youngster will make the major league roster. There is also the question of whether such a player would be better served by getting more playing time in the minors. 

Case in point: Matt Hague. He has, as most of us know, torn it up every year in the minors. He is having a great camp and has seen action at AAA. There may still be things for him to learn at the AAA level, but if he continues to tear up the camp the rest of the spring, the Bucs brass will have a decision on its hands. 

Playing into that decision will be the playing time issue. Is he better off in AAA not only because he has more to learn, but also because he has the opportunity to play every? Is he therefor better served in the minors, compared to sitting on the bench at the major league level with occasional at-bats?

All of these questions must also be asked with respect to Starling Marte, the young OF who continues to tear it up. What if he stays hot all spring? What do you do with him?

This, however, is where the second question comes into play.  Marte is likely blocked in the OF, given that the team seems committed to Presley, McCutchen, and Tabata as their starters, with Nate as the fourth OF.  If you look up “entrenched” in the dictionary, it’s Andrew’s smiling face you will certainly see. They’ve committed long-term to Tabata so he’d be difficult to unseat.  There’s no point carrying Marte as a fourth OF, with limited at-bats.  So the main competition for Marte is Presley, who is having a so-so camp so far.  But Presley is a sparkplug, Marte has not played above AA, and it’s not likely that Marte will make the team straight out of camp.

Now, let’s return to the Matt Hague question. Or put another way, the Garrett Jones question.  Jones, the incumbent 1B, is having a decent spring. But Hague’s is better.  So, is there a genuine chance that Matt Hague could unseat Garrett Jones as our starting 1b?

One would hate to make that judgment based on a week of spring training. But let’s look at the big picture. Is Jones going to get any better? There’s no reason to think that he would. In fact, some of his play has declined the last couple years. Two, if Jones is supposed to be “platooning” at 1b and batting against right handed pitchers, is there any reason to think Hague wouldn’t  do just as well? Three, is Hague “risky,” especially since the team is on an upswing and finally looking to win NOW and not “in the future?”

The third question is intriguing.  In the past, the Bucs went into ST with many unsettled positions. Now, reflecting progress, the infield corners are really the only places where a serious competition could take place.  Well, Hague plays both 1st and 3rd, but 3rd, as we’ll discuss, could be harder to crack. So if it’s likely to be 1B for Matt, has the time come?

If Hague shows only minimal (or no?) tail-off as the spring progresses and he faces better pitching, then I think he will have earned the opportunity. And I don’t see much upside with Jones as a starter, whereas he could strengthen the bench considerably.

As for 3B, it’s Pedro’s to lose, and with a .167 spring average, he seems intent on doing just that.  Bur there’s still plenty of spring to go, and even if he doesn’t progress, I think he’ll be given the job out of spring only because so much has been invested in him.

However, Casey McGeehee wasn’t brought here to sit on the bench. Look at his spring – pretty spectacular. Like Hague, he is forcing the issue, particularly given his significant experience at the hot corner in the past. So if he outplays Pedro over the spring, is there a chance he’ll be our staring 3B?

I think because of the investment the team has made in Pedro and the lofty expectations for him, PEDRO will be the one handed the scholarship.  But scholarships can be taken away – just ask Jeff Clement, Brandon Moss, Kevin Hart, Andy LaRoche, and a long list of others.  It may not be long before McGeehee’s name will be our starting 3B. 

So summing up, I expect that Marte will begin the season in AAA but Hague will make the major league club.  He actually does better against lefties than McGeehee, so he may be the one who platoons with Jones. Or he might supplant Jones altogether.

As for McGeehee? I still think he’ll supplant Pedro by early June. I hope I am wrong - but only Pedro can make the case.  For the good of the Buccos, let’s hope he does.  If we end up with a hot Pedro and McGeehee and Hague sharing duties at 1B, we could be pretty darn good.

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