And All Is Right In The (Sports) World
The White Sox enter camp with at least three major positional battles. Let's start in center field. The incumbent in Brian Anderson, who is undoubtedly an outstanding defender, and last year was offensive on offense. Anderson hit only .218 last year, with an on-base percentage under .300. He was, however, 12 full runs above average in center field over the course of the season. That's outstanding. Projecting this year, PECOTA anticipates a more realistic .250 batting average, with an on-base percentage near .320, and 15 or so home runs. However, Anderson's defense will likely regress towards average as well. More importantly, the White Sox have a better option in my opinion. No not, Darrin Erstad, who is far too old to play center and likely too washed up to contribute at all. Ryan Sweeney is one of the few legitimate prospects the Sox have. He struggled in limited plate appearances at the major league level last year. But he hit .288 with an on-base percentage near .350, and a bit of power last summer in Charlotte. And, based on that performance, at the tender age of 21, PECOTA sees pretty big things for him this summer: a .277 batting average, .330 on base percentage, and 10-15 homeruns. He's an above-average corner outfielder, and can probably play an average center field. If he can, he's the answer there for the Sox, so I'll be rooting for him to win the job.
I'll also be rooting for a kid to win the job in left field. The incumbent, and the best of the Sox' veteran options out there is Scott Podsednik. Pods had a much detailed struggle in left last year. He hit .260 and his on-base percentage slipped below .340. And his defense, stellar in 2005, was below average in 2006. Next year PECOTA expects a further decline, with a batting average in the .250's and an on-base percentage below .330. Meanwhile, Josh Fields, another of the Sox few good prospects, is athletic enough to bring his impact bat to the lineup in left. Like Sweeney, Fields struggled with the big club last season. But he had an outstanding year at AAA. He hit .300 with a .370 on-base percentage, 19 homeruns and 28 stolen bases. PECOTA expects him to struggle reaching base if he spends the season at the big league level: .253 batting average, .325 on-base percentage. But it also expects more than 20 homeruns. Given Podsednik's fade, Fields seems like a better choice.
Finally, the most crowded battle is for the fifth rotation spot. Mark Buehrle, Javier Vazquez, Jose Contreras, and Jon Garland are an outstanding top four guys. But for the first time in a few years, a slot is open for a youngster to join the rotation. I'm not thrilled with the options here. The first shot will be given to Gavin Floyd, acquired in the trade that sent Freddy Garcia to Philly. Floyd, once highly touted, struggled mightily last year with the Phillies, posting an ERA over 7.00 in 11 starts. Nor was he much better at AAA, where he had an ERA of 5.64. PECOTA projects an ERA over 6.00 for Floyd this season if he makes 20 starts. A slightly better option is knuckle baller Charlie Haeger, who was terrible in his big league debut last season, but then pitched well out of the pen down the stretch. PECOTA has marginally better expectations for Haeger than Floyd: an EqERA around 5.30 (that's ERA adjusted to assume a league average of 4.50) over 20 starts. But again, the best option is to hand the ball to the youngster with the most upside. In this case, that's John Danks, the Rangers prospect acquired for Brandon McCarthy. Danks has only 13 starts at the AAA level, posting an ERA of 4.36 there. But Danks strikes a fair number out, and until AAA had never had control issues. PECOTA anticipates an EqERA of 5.09, with about 7 k's per 9 innings. Not great, but better than the alternatives. And Danks has the best upside.
The continued health and production of the Sox' big hitters and front-line starters will have more to do with the team's success than who wins these position battles. But maximizing team value at the margins is what spring training is all about, so this spring, I'll be rooting for the kids.