Not the Center of Attention
August 3 was a newsworthy day for all three members of the Devil Rays' smallest problem.
Let us assume for a minute -- a stretch, I know -- that Chuck Lamar has a plan. At the top we can guess is to find Delmon Young and B.J. Upton jobs for next year. If that means firing Lou at this point, you have to think that's the move that must be made. Somewhere in the plan is to find a one-year stop gap at first base, as the club is set there for the future with Wes Bankston. The plan is likely to trade Aubrey Huff, who will make some money in arbitration, for someone that could help a rotation with only two serviceable starters.
Not many places in the plan is too much depth an issue. This is not an organization used to this, so guessing how they will handle their newfound issues in center field is a fool's game. But, as early as next February and going into 2007, Tampa's front office will be forced into picking from a trio of solid players to man the middle of Tropicana's outfield. This may have been ignorable for the last few months, while Damon Hollins and Alex Sanchez were jockeying for position, but not since last Wednesday.
Joey Gathright was the only one of the three playing, and he made news landing a rare start, and collecting two hits en route to what would be a 7/16, four-game hit streak. Rocco Baldelli was left watching it, but credited with helping the club he hasn't played for this season nonetheless, as he was their new good luck charm. The opposite display of gamesmanship was on display in the Devil Rays' AA affiliate, Montomery, in which Elijah Dukes was serving yet another suspension for yet another run-in with an umpire.
One is all speed, no power. Another is all tools, no polish. The last is all talent, no toughness. And all have formidable arguments for landing the full-time job in Tampa during one of the next two seasons.
Argument A: Joey Gathright
This is an organization that respects speed. In an age in which stolen bases are avoided, Tampa has two men that currently have swiped thirty. Still, both of these players are slower in a foot race than Gathright, who might just be the fastest baseball player alive.
However, we know that foot speed does not make a viable centerfield option. In fact, these type of players are normally classified into two groups in the minors: either the Juan Pierre/Willy Taveras acceptable leadoff man, or the Tom Goodwin of the 21st century bench position. Gathright has been thought of as the next version of Pierre since hitting a combined .334 in 2003.
Although Gathright was feared to be a poor man's Pierre, as his power was even worse than Juan's at the same age. This was an understandable concern, as Gathright's 208 AB debut in 2002 yielded just one extra-base hit. However, it seems as those worries have been absolved, as Joey seems to have developed power at a later age than Pierre or Taveras. Here are their extra-base hit percentages at a variety of levels:
Lvl JP JG WT A 5.81% 1.82% 5.52% AA 4.56% 3.32% 3.91% MLB 1.00% 4.00% 4.86%(with MLB meaning the player's first 50ish games)
Pierre went on to increase that rate by more than five percentage points the next year, more than catching up with the numbers of Gathright and Taveras. I think those numbers tell me that while Joey has caught up since his days below 2%, he still should have less power than the two Major Leaguers, meaning a .100 ISO will always be a strength.
Gathright also strikes out more than Pierre. With more balls put in play, it follows that Pierre will generally hit for a higher average than Gathright.". However, Joey has better discipline numbers, meaning he could likely match or better the OBP rates that Pierre has put up over the ages. Considering Pierre spent 2001-2004 hitting about .310/.360/.385, expecting Gathright's line to look like .290/.360/.360 over the next few seasons. Oh, and with about 50 stolen bases a season at that.
Argument B: Rocco Baldelli
We can project Gathright and Dukes all we want, but Baldelli is the real question mark. No one knows what will be there of the player that captured Tampa by storm in 2003. After both knee and elbow surgeries, it's impossible to guess what will become of a former Gold Glove-caliber center fielder.
His offense is a question mark, as well. I should mention that PECOTA, the BP forecasting system, had Tommy Davis pegged as Baldelli's #2 comp before the season. Davis, for those who don't remember, was fantastic for the Dodgers in the early-60s before missing nearly a whole season, and never again playing as well as people had been guessing. We can only guess that Baldelli -- a true gamer with the MLB logo on his ankle -- can avoid the luck Davis fell victim to.
My guess is that Baldelli takes about a season, or maybe only a half-season, to find his old offensive skills. Unfortunately, it's hard to think that Rocco will remain so skilled defensively, after suffering injuries to both his leg and arm.
Argument C: Elijah Dukes
Player A: .329/.391/.526 14 SB 33W/61K in 346 AB
Simply put, in this scenario, Player B is just 40 points of average from being identical to Player A. In other words, save a midseason slump, Elijah Dukes has been a spitting image of the AA version of Milton Bradley this season. Bradley's season was limited to just 350 at-bats, however, as injuries have been known to cut many seasons short for the Dodger outfielder. The Devil Rays are hoping that Dukes can become the player Bradley is, while avoiding those health issues.
What Elijah hasn't avoided, unfortunately, are the same make-up issues that plague Bradley. The Indians were forced into trading Milton in Spring Training, after the outfielder continually embarassed the Cleveland front office. Dukes is now suspended in the Southern League for too many ejections via argument, and has even drawn blame for an attitude change that Delmon Young has undergone this season.
We will never know if it was injuries or not, but Bradley was very slow to break into the Majors. It took three horrendous seasons before Milton came to realize his potential, and by then, he had been run out of two organizations. I have no doubt that Bradley could be special under the right scenario, it's just that we have still yet to see too much from the Expos former top prospect.
Because of Dukes' extreme resemblance to Bradley, and Milton's slow development, I would actually advise the Devil Rays to trade Elijah. I believe his ceiling is higher than both Gathright and Baldelli, but he also could cause exponentially more headaches during his tenure in Tampa. Using his current high stock to acquire a pre-arbitration player would be intelligent, even if the Devil Rays end up kicking themselves for someone that got away down the line.
In conclusion, I'm going to preach the Devil Rays' motto of patience in this situation. This is a problem that will likely solve itself, as six-to-eighteen more months will probably yield the best option. However, during that time, I would keep both Gathright and Baldelli, while remaining amicable to trading Dukes for the right player. If Dukes is traded and neither Gathright or Rocco are good fits, B.J. Upton will always need a new position. And you can bet that the Upton problem is a little higher on ol' Lamar's priority list.