April 16, 2003

The Freedom Squad

The Twins beat the Tigers again last night. Detroit made a change in their lineup for the game that tells you pretty much all you need to know about the quality of their offense (and the whole team) this season: They moved Bobby Higginson from RF to CF in order to "get Craig Paquette's bat into the lineup." Seriously. That's the same Craig Paquette that is a career .240/.274/.413 hitter. He went 0-4 and is now hitting .167/.167/.167 on the year.

Meanwhile, the Twins' offense looked very good early and very bad late - combining to score only 4 runs against a couple of pitchers with career ERAs of 5.60 and 7.71 (coming into the game).

Despite getting 10 hits (all off Adam Bernero), the Twins saw a total of only 114 pitches in 8 innings, which has been a big trend all season thus far.

Rick Reed got the win and pitched well, but certainly didn't inspire any sort of confidence in me, which is also a trend. Reed allowed 2 runs to score in the top of the 5th and loaded the bases with 2 outs, before getting Dmiriti Young to end the inning and the threat.

The bullpen was, as usual, very good. Juan Rincon relieved Reed to start the 7th and got 2 quick outs before getting wild and walking 2 hitters in a row. No matter, Johan Santana relieved him, got Carlos Pena to fly out to end the inning and then got Detroit 1-2-3 in the 8th. Eddie Guardado relieved Johan and pitched a 1-2-3 9th for his 6th save of the season.

The top of the Twins' lineup was great. Jones, Guzman and Koskie combined to go 7-11 with 2 doubles, 2 RBI and 3 runs scored. My guy Bobby Kielty got a rare start and produced (of course) - hitting a double, taking a walk and scoring a run. He is now hitting .370 with a homer, 2 doubles, 3 walks, 3 runs and 5 RBI in only 23 at bats!

Speaking of Kielty...

Over at Baseball Primer there was an interesting discussion about who the hitters in most need a "freeing" (or FREEING) are right now. In other words, who isn't getting the playing time they deserve?

#1 on my list is Bobby Kielty, of course, and everyone seemed to agree with that. I was actually planning to write an entry devoted to this subject in the near future, but since Primer beat me to it, I might as well give you my top choices right now. Keep in mind, I am only considering hitters, not pitchers. If I did rank pitchers, You Know Who would be at the top of the list. So, here are the guys that most deserve to be given consistent, everyday playing time:

Bobby Kielty | OF | Minnesota

Bobby hit .291/.405/.484 in 348 PAs last season and posted .286/.391/.470 line in his Triple-A career. His on-base percentages in Single-A, Double-A, Triple-A and the Major Leagues are as follows: .400, .397, .391 and .379.

He's incredibly patient at the plate, has shown the ability to hit for a good average and get on base nearly 40% of the time. He has good doubles power and improving home run power and is a switch-hitter. Plus, he can play any of the 3 outfield positions, as well as first base.

If you want to know more about him, go check out my archives. You can basically pick any day and there is a good chance I said something about him.

Ramon Castro | C | Florida

Ramon Castro is probably the most "burried" of anyone on this list, because he is currently serving as the third string catcher for the Marlins. It's not so much that the other 2 guys don't deserve to play ahead of him (Ivan Rodriguez is a Hall of Famer and Mike Redmond is a good backup too), as much as it is Ramon Castro deserving to play somewhere, everyday.

Castro slugged .455 with 6 homers and 4 doubles in 101 ABs last year with Florida and is a career .307/.358/.563 Triple-A hitter in 272 games. Castro is a guy that has been hitting the crap out of the ball in the Florida minor league system for years now and just can't seem to get the Marlins to see his potential. He slugged .628 at Triple-A in both 2000 and 2001 and yet, somehow, couldn't get more than 101 ABs last year.

If some team would rescue him from the Marlins - and how much could it take to get their 3rd string catcher from them? - I am confident that, if given 450 ABs, he could hit .280 with 15-20 homers and 25-30 doubles. He's already 27, so it needs to happen sooner than later, because the clock on catchers ticks fast.

Jason Grabowski | C/OF/3B | Oakland

Jason Grabowski is my favorite minor leaguer in need of a major league job. Unlike most of the other guys on this list, he has yet to have any sort of extended time at the major league level. I love Grabowski's versatility. He was a catcher/shortstop in college and was drafted as a catcher by the Rangers. He has also spent significant time playing third base and the corner outfield spots and is passable at any of those positions.

Grabowski is also an excellent hitter ("I'm an excellent driver"). Check out his hitting at each level of the minor leagues:

LVL     AVG     OBP     SLG

AAA .296 .388 .492
AA .273 .383 .473
A .294 .392 .480

He is with the right organization for someone that is looking for a much deserved and long-awaited opportunity and I am pretty surprised he didn't make the A's out of spring training, because he seems like their kind of player. I think Jason Grabowski can be a quality everyday player and he would certainly be a tremendous bench player.

Think about it. A left-handed hitter that can play catcher, third base, first base, left field and right field, and will hit .280 with tons of walks and good doubles power? Sounds pretty good to me.

If Grabowski can handle catcher defensively, you are looking at a poor man's Jorge Posada. If not, he is an above-average corner player (1B/3B/OF) that would provide a ton of flexibility to any team.

Craig Wilson | C/OF/1B | Pittsburgh

Craig Wilson is the only true "slugger" on this list. He spent a lot of time in the minors playing catcher, but has also seen extended time at first base and in the outfield corners. Wherever he has played, he has hit.

Wilson hit .283/.379/.587 in 441 Triple-A at bats and .286/.376/.508 in 510 at bats in Double-A. He hit .310/.390/.589 with 13 homers in only 158 at bats with the Pirates in 2001 and followed that up by hitting .264/.355/.443 in some fairly significant playing time (368 ABs) last season.

To Pittsburgh's credit, they seem to be gradually realizing Wilson needs to be in the lineup more often and have used him as their backup catcher this year, as well as in the outfield.

Wilson is going to strike out a ton, but if you give him 500 at bats he can hit you 25+ homers and should be able to keep a fairly good batting average too.

Javier Valentin | C | Tampa Bay

In 287 career Triple-A games, Javier Valentin, a switch-hitter, is a .293/.356/.511 hitter. His most recent extended playing time in the majors was with the Twins in 1999, when he hit .248/.313/.381 in 218 ABs. While that line from 1999 was decent, is certainly wasn't great, but it came at the age of 23 and before he had even a single at bat in Triple-A.

Last year, Valentin hit .286 with 21 homers and 33 doubles in 455 at bats at Triple-A Edmonton. I was clamoring for him as the Twins' backup catcher (over Tom Prince), but instead the Twins dealt him (with Matt Kinney) to Milwaukee for a couple of pitching prospects. He lasted a couple months with the Brewers and was traded to Tampa Bay for Jason Conti. Now he is wasting away as the backup catcher in Tampa Bay.

Javy Valentin could easily hit .270 with 15 homers and 30 doubles if given the playing time and what team couldn't use a switch-hitting catcher capable of that?

Shawn Wooten | 1B/3B/C | Anaheim

Shawn Wooten has been a solid member of the Anaheim bench for a couple of seasons now, but I think he is capable of more.

Wooten is a career .340/.384/.551 Triple-A hitter and has an MLB hitting line of .307/.338/.460 so far. He can play catcher and third base, but is probably below-average at both spots. He's fine at 1B and even better at DH.

On a team like the Angels, Shawn Wooten is the perfect bench player. He can platoon with Brad Fullmer at DH and come off the bench hacking the rest of the time. He doesn't walk and his game is based solely on batting average and doubles, which fits right in with the other Angels.

Give him 500 at bats and Shawn Wooten will pound out 150 hits, with about 10+ homers and 25 doubles. He's a top-level bench player, but he could also be more.

Mike Kinkade | 1B/OF/3B/C | Los Angeles

Mike Kinkade is the final catcher on this list, I promise.

Kinkade has been bouncing around the minor leagues for forever now and has 2,647 career minor league at bats! He hit .341/.433/.575 at Triple-A last year (287 ABs) and .358/.434/.561 at Double-A in 2000 (344 ABs). Before that, he hit .308 at Triple-A in 1999 and .309 in 1998. Going back even earlier, you find a .385/.455/.588 performance at Double-A in 1997 (468 ABs).

As you can see, this is a guy that can just flat out hit. And, he's even hit pretty well in his limited major league time. In 272 career MLB at bats, Kinkade has hit .279/.357/.423, which is way below his minor league performances, but still pretty decent. That's only 272 at bats though and I would tend to trust his play during his 2,600+ minor league at bats too.

Give him a job, at first base, left field, DH or even third base or part-time catcher, and Kinkade could definitely be a .300+ hitter with 15 homers and 30 doubles. Like some of the other guys on this list, he would also provide a whole lot of flexibility and he's a great bench player.

Benji Gil | 2B/SS/1B | Anaheim

The only middle-infielder on this list and the second member of the Angels' bench, Benji Gil has made an amazing transition from a horrible hitter to a good one. Originally drafted in the first round of the 1991 draft by Texas, Gil hit very little in the minors and then struggled after being called up with the Rangers. In 794 at bats spread over 4 seasons with Texas, Gil hit only .215/.261/.322, which is really awful.

Texas gave up on him in 1997 and traded him to the White Sox, where he never saw any major league action. Chicago lost him to the Marlins in the Rule V draft a year later, but he never saw any time in Florida either. He signed with Anaheim in 2000 and actually saw quite a bit of action that year, although he continued to hit poorly (.239/.317/.352). And then, all of a sudden, Benji Gil became a hitter.

Combined in 2001 and 2002 he got 390 at bats and hit .292 with 11 homers, 23 doubles, 5 triples and a .462 slugging %. That might not seem so incredibly amazing, but coming from a guy that had been a .222/.277/.331 career hitter up until that point, it's pretty damn good.

Despite being on the wrong side of 30, Gil is still a good defensive player at either second base or shortstop and there are a ton of teams that he would be a big upgrade for at either of those spots. With the Angels he is, like Wooten, another quality bat that can come off the bench hacking.

So there you have it, 8 guys that deserve more playing time or to be "liberated" if you wanna get serious about it.

It is pretty amazing that there are so many guys that can play catcher on the list, because I often hear talk about the lack of quality catching in the majors and guys like Jorge Fabregas and Paul Bako get hundreds of at bats year after year.

If a team wanted to get creative and sacrifice a little defense, they could turn this group into an actual team...

 C    Ramon Castro

1B Shawn Wooten
2B Jason Grabowski
SS Benji Gil
3B Mike Kinkade
LF Javier Valentin
CF Bobby Kielty
RF Craig Wilson

That looks really bad defensively on paper and it probably would be pretty bad, but I don't think it's as horrible as it looks.

First of all, you have plenty of catching to go around! Kielty is a fine centerfielder and Gil is good at shortstop, so you've got the 3 most important spots covered. Wooten is good at first base and most of the other guys could play good D there too. Kinkade is stretched at third base and Grabowski is playing out of position at second. Valentin is out of position too, but he's fairly athletic and left field aint exactly rocket science. Craig Wilson plays RF for Pittsburgh a lot and is certainly decent.

Offensively, that is a very solid team. If they all perform up to their capabilities, you could easily have 7 or 8 above-average offensive players (compared to their positions). The one guy that probably wouldn't be a good bet to post average positional numbers is Valentin and that's because he's really a catcher. Wooten might also have a little trouble hitting like the average first baseman, although he certainly could.

The best thing about it is that those guy would make about $2 million dollars - combined - so a team could spend like 99.5% of the payroll on pitching!

I'm thinking this team should probably be in the American League and thus need a 9th hitter to add to the lineup. That's where you guys come in. Do you have a good candidate to join this group? A guy in need of a break and a full-time gig?

Here are the rules for choosing/nominating someone:

1) He has to be at least 25 years old. There are some younger guys that deserve playing time, but if they are 23 or 24, have they really been waiting that long?

2) He can never have had more than 400 at bats in a single major league season. Basically, if a guy has had everyday playing time, I don't feel that sorry for him.

3) Everything else goes. He can be a career minor leaguer, a guy wasting away on a major league bench for the last 5 years, whatever you want. And he can play any position.

So there you have it, a call for your favorite under-appreciated, under-used player. Please email me with all your nominees and I will pick the 9th member of the "Freedom Squad" next week.

And, as always, FREE BOBBY AND JOHAN!

Today's picks:

Colorado (Jennings) +220 over Arizona (Schilling)

Oakland (Halama) -105 over Seattle (Meche)

Tampa Bay (Kennedy) +330 over Boston (Martinez)

Kansas City (George) +155 over Chicago (Loaiza)

Total to date: + $1,265

W/L record: 32-28 (Went 2-2 again yesterday and picked up a nice +195 with Cory Lidle and the Jays)

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

No Comments

No comments yet.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.