Saturday, February 16, 2008

Spring training questions - the starting nine

Photo credit: Roger Dewitt

With pitchers and catchers and most other position players now down in Lakeland, it's time for spring training previews. I'll discuss the nine regular position players today. In future posts, I'll look at the bench and the pitchers. The starting nine is, of course, set:

C. Pudge Rodriguez
1B. Carlos Guillen
2B. Placido Polanco
SS. Edgar Renteria
3B. Miguel Cabrera
LF. Jacque Jones
CF. Curtos Granderson
RF. Magglio Ordonez
DH. Gary Sheffield

The actual line-up is still unknown and Jim Leyland will undoubtedly try many different combinations this spring. We probably won't get any clues from the early games but as the spring goes along, we should get an idea of the opening day line-up. It is pretty clear that Granderson and Polanco will bat one and two, Ordonez clean-up and Guillen sixth on most days. There is some question as to who will bat third and fifth between Sheffield and Cabrera.

The other line-up question of interest is whether Rodriguez will bat ninth. He is the weakest hitter in the line-up but Leyland may bat him 7th or 8th to protect his ego. If he does not bat ninth, it would likely be Edgar Renteria in that spot because I don't think the manager will want two lefties (Jones, Granderson) who struggle against left-handed hitters batting back to back. One possible line-up is:

CF. Granderson
2B. Polanco
DH. Sheffield
RF. Ordonez
3B. Cabrera
1B. Guillen
SS. Renteria
LF. Jones
C. Rodriguez

Another issue is a possible platoon in left field. Leyland does not generally like to do a lot of platooning but Jones (.825 vs. RHP and .636 vs. LHP lifetime) and Thames (.739 and .862) seems like a natural. Jones is the better fielder but the platoon split seems too big to ignore.

Whether or not Granderson can improve on the league's widest platoon split in 2007 (1.014, .494) is another question. I doubt Leyland would ever put one of baseball's best center fielders into a strict platoon but he could get benched against certain left-handed pitchers if he continues to have problems. It's something he will be working on for sure. After all, it is really the only part of his game that still needs a lot of polish.

With an aging starting line-up (7 players 32 or older), health is naturally going to be a question and I suspect you'll see their regulars get even more days off in the spring than they might if they were younger. The biggest potential health issue is Sheffield who was rendered useless by a shoulder injury the second half of last season. He is reportedly pain free after his off-season surgery but at 39 years old and with a history of shoulder problems, I still consider him a significant injury risk. If he does come back strong and healthy and has a reasonably full season, he could be the difference between a very good line-up and an elite line-up.

Defensively, one player to watch is Cabrera who had very poor range at third base over the last couple of years. He reportedly has good instincts and hands but was slowed by a weight problem. The good news is that he apparently lost 20 pounds over the winter but it remains to be seen whether he can translate that into increased range. On a pitching staff with three left-handers who induce good numbers of ground balls, decent defense at third is going to be important.

Later, I'll take a look at questions surrounding Brandon inge and the bench. Then, I'll try to sort out the pitching staff, the bullpen in particular.

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