While the offseason nears its end, there are still several contending clubs that have some glaring holes on their rosters.
Whether it comes through promoting a player from the minors or picking out of the bargain bin of what remains in free agency, these five clubs each will need to be creative to get production from a roster spot that could prove problematic in their chase for a playoff spot in 2012.
St. Louis Cardinals: second base
Last year, St. Louis used a rotation of veterans at the keystone position, giving the majority of the playing time to Skip Schumaker, Ryan Theriot and Nick Punto. Theriot and Punto have moved on, however, and Schumaker is better served in a utility role. For a veteran team coming off a World Series, there will be temptation to just stick the veteran in there or look outside the organization, but the Cardinals should stay in house and give Tyler Greene an opportunity to show what he can do on a regular basis.
Already 28 years old, Greene isn’t a youngster anymore, and he has nothing left to prove in Triple-A. He’s spent parts of four seasons at the highest level of the minors, racking up a .291/.373/.477 line in the process, showing both patience at the plate and above-average power for a middle infielder. That power hasn’t translated at the major league level yet, but given regular playing time, he should be able to drive balls into the gaps at Busch Stadium and provide more offense than any of the departed infielders provided for St. Louis a year ago. He’s a shortstop by trade, but has spent some time at second in the majors, and should be able to handle the spot at least as well as Schumaker, a converted outfielder who hadn’t played second as a pro until the Cardinals moved him there in 2009.
As an added bonus, Greene is a fantastic baserunner — he’s 68-for-78 in stolen base attempts in Triple-A and has never been caught in 16 attempts in the big leagues. That kind of efficiency only adds to his quality all-around game. He might lack the star potential of other notable young players, but the Cardinals should just give Greene the second base job and let him show them what he can do.
Milwaukee Brewers: first base
The Brewers have some big shoes to fill with the departure of Prince Fielder, and while they signed Aramis Ramirez to help offset some of the offense Fielder will take with him to Detroit, they’ll need real production from the first base replacement that they settle on in order to keep up in a competitive NL Central. Mat Gamel, 26, is expected to be first in line for the job, but despite superficially solid minor league numbers, he’s probably not a sufficient solution. His .310/.372/.540 line in Triple-A sounds nice, but 2011 was an amazing year for offense in the Pacific Coast League, and the average hitter posted an .807 OPS in the best hitters’ league in baseball. Given less friendly hitting confines and more challenging pitchers, Gamel is likely to flounder.
The better in-house solution might lie with another farmhand — third baseman Taylor Green. Green was Gamel’s teammate in Triple-A and outhit him in nearly every way (.336/.413/.583) while being a year younger. He walked more, struck out less, hit for more power, and he’s a significantly better defender than the lead-glove Gamel. The signing of Ramirez blocked Green’s path to the majors, but Ramirez is no gold glover himself, and it might not take the Brewers long to realize that their best alignment includes Green at third and Ramirez at first. By swapping out Gamel for Green, the team could improve both their offense and defense at the same time.
Detroit Tigers: No. 5 starter
Signing Fielder greatly improves the Tigers’ offense, but the cascading effect of pushing Miguel Cabrera to third base may very well wreak havoc with the team’s defense, making pitching depth even more necessary than it was before. While rookie Jacob Turner is well thought of and has a promising future, he’s also a 21-year-old with just three starts at Triple-A — not a guy you want to count on for 150 big league innings while pitching around the league’s worst infield defense.
The Tigers need a bridge to let Turner get his feet wet in the minors for the first few months of the season, and ideally, they’d get a pitcher who wouldn’t be overly affected by the team’s beer-league defensive alignment. Fortunately for them, no pitcher in baseball relies less on his defense than free agent Rich Harden — 141 of the 363 batters he faced (39 percent) last year either walked, were hit by a pitch, struck out or hit a home run. Harden’s also an extreme fly ball pitcher, allowing just 74 ground balls in 82 2/3 innings pitched last year.
Due to his long history of medical problems, Harden will come cheap and wouldn’t be a significant barrier if Turner proved to be ready earlier in the season. If they can keep Harden healthy for a few months, however, he could provide Turner valuable development time without getting destroyed by the infield defense of doom that Detroit plans on running out next year.
Philadelphia Phillies: left field
The nicest thing you can say about the Phillies’ current plan in left field is that they have a great pitching staff. Sure, Raul Ibanez was pretty lousy for them a year ago, so the bar for improvement isn’t very high. But the team is currently penciling Laynce Nix (and his career .288 OBP) into a platoon with either John Mayberry (a superior player who may be needed at first base until Ryan Howard is healthy) or Juan Pierre, an annual contender for the “worst hitter in baseball” crown. That a team with championship aspirations would actually consider handing left field over to Nix and Pierre is nothing short of amazing.
Thankfully, the Phillies don’t need to go outside the organization to find an upgrade — they simply have to put some faith in former top prospect Domonic Brown. A year ago, ESPN Insider’s Keith Law had Brown ranked as the No. 3 prospect in baseball, and at 24, he’s far too young to be written off as a bust. His .236/.314/.382 line in the majors up to this point hasn’t inspired much confidence, but for comparison, it’s no worse than Nix’s career .244/.288/.430 line, and Brown obviously wins the upside race. The Phillies just should abandon their plans to let two bench players share a regular role and give Brown regular playing time to see if he can claim the job. If he fails, there will be better options than either Nix or Pierre available on the trade market in the summer.
Boston Red Sox: starting pitcher
New GM Ben Cherington hasn’t hidden his desire to add another major league starter to the team’s rotation and was even willing to sacrifice starting shortstop Marco Scutaro in a salary dump in order to increase his odds of landing one of the two remaining free-agent starters who could make a real impact in the AL East. However, with Roy Oswalt apparently deciding that he prefers living in the Midwest, the Sox find themselves staring at one last decent option: Edwin Jackson.
Back in November, I wrote that Jackson was poised to be a bargain this winter, and given that he’s still unemployed as we approach February, it seems unlikely that he’ll land the kind of contract he had hoped for at the start of the offseason. So while he might not need the Red Sox as much as they need him, it’s a match made in whatever heaven Scott Boras qualifies to be involved in.
The Sox rotation is already full of upside guys with injury questions, so Oswalt simply would have added to the talented-but-unreliable group that contributed to the team’s demise last September. Jackson is nothing if not durable, and his ability to take the mound and give the team six innings every five days would be a welcome addition to the team’s rotation. Besides, is there an easier job in America than replacing John Lackey?
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