WTNYMarch 03, 2006
Shifting Gears
By Bryan Smith

There are few surer signs of spring each year than the annual decision to change a prospect's position. Thanks to the defensive spectrum, organizations often leave prospects in one spot for too long, and when making the Major Leagues becomes a reality, they need a check on their defense. In another scenario, changing positions can enhance a player's value, as his athleticism might better suit the system. Anyway, this happens each year, and it certainly bears watching.

In the last week, two of my top 100 prospects were announced to have changed positions. Unsurprisingly, the Dodgers finally started to move Joel Guzman, pushing the tall, future slugger to left field. The other player with a brand new glove this March has been Wes Bankston, the Devil Rays athletic former first baseman, who Tampa Bay has decided to give a chance at the hot corner during spring. Whether you like these decisions or not -- and it's hard not to in both cases -- there is no question that above all else, it shows that two new front offices are creating long-term plans.

In the case of the Devil Rays, this position change is more important for who is staying put. By moving Bankston to third base, Andy Friedman made the B.J. Upton decision that had been hanging over the organization's head. With a crowded outfield and athleticism through the roof, I believe this was the right choice by Tampa, even if Upton is never anything near a positive in the field. However, here's to hoping Tampa doesn't just change its mind by April when they realize how difficult moving up the defensive spectrum is. As athletic as Wes Bankston may be, it's very unlikely he will be a good third baseman.

Fantasy owners should be investing in Upton with late-round picks, as the future shortstop should provide very good value in the stolen base category, while holding significant upside in terms of home runs and even batting average and RBI. It's odd, but with their best lineup yet, the Devil Rays actually have multiple players that could post big RBI totals. By midseason this team will really be fun to watch, as this lineup will be thrown on the field everyday:

C - Toby Hall
1B - Wes Bankston (didn't Austin Kearns try this same thing?)
2B - Jorge Cantu
SS - B.J. Upton
3B - Yuck: Burroughs, Wigginton, Branyan
LF - Carl Crawford
CF - Rocco Baldelli
RF - Delmon Young
DH - Jonny Gomes

You will notice this isn't exactly the list you had been anticipating if you followed the Devil Rays roster construction. However, the lack of Aubrey Huff, Julio Lugo and Joey Gathright from this list is intentional, as I think Friedman needs to continue to show the long-term plan by making a few deals. With good starts, both Huff and Lugo should be able to bring in big pieces during the season. And I also truly hope that if the Marlins are offering anything close to what has been rumored for Gathright, that Friedman has tried to accept. Gathright is fine, but he's a far cry from Scott Olsen.

Furthermore, this is a team in desperate need of pitching. While Rich's recent metrics have shown that Scott Kazmir possesses a lot of upside, he's the only Devil Ray starter with long-term value. Jeff Niemann is a good prospect, Hammel is a good bet for a back-end starter and Wade Davis is everyone's favorite breakout candidate. Both Chuck Tiffany and Edwin Jackson were acquired for 75 cents on the dollar, and sooner or later, Wade Townsend might be healthy again. Finally, the team also is months from landing either Max Scherzer, Ian Kennedy, or another arm that this draft is so full of. However, it's still not enough. Tampa needs to follow their Floridian mates, the Marlins, and simply stockpile pitchers one on top of the other.

Few teams present better scenarios for armchair GMs than the Devil Rays, who appear to have so much upside. However, let's be honest, the way the divisions are currently aligned, it's possible this team is destined to be a let down. As good as that future lineup sounds, $100 million sounds good, too. Tampa has become one of my favorite organizations since I started following prospects, but there has to be a concern in Tampa that Major League Baseball has set them up to fail. For those of you keeping score at home, that's now 2 organizations (Colorado, too) for which this fact is true.

As for the Dodgers, their position change doesn't answer a ton of questions, but it shows long-term faith in their third base prospects. With Bill Mueller in the Majors, Andy LaRoche on the horizon and Blake DeWitt holding so much breakout potential, the Dodgers have seemed set at third to most prospect evaluators for a year. However, with word that the team was going to move Guzman to the hot corner as well, it appeared that Dodger brass -- a group talented enough to build a farm system like this -- did not like LaRoche's long-term value. That no longer appears to be the case.

While LaRoche has little chance to be a rookie before 2007, the Dodgers seem quite impressed by Guzman and Chad Billingsley. Could both surprise and add to the deep NL Rookie of the Year race? As good as Guzman was in a tough environment last year, I doubt it, as learning a new position and retaining the bat simultaneously is a tough thing to do. Furthermore, the team loses very little in starting Joel in Las Vegas, a place where Guzman's bat will have a hard time not gaining confidence. Next thing you know, this guy could be Jeff Francoeur, version 2006.

As for Billingsley, I think the time could very well be now according to reports of his stuff this spring. Vegas is a horrendous place for pitchers, and Chad really seemed to turn a corner in AA after July last year. While I have bashed the roles created for players like Brandon McCarthy and Anthony Reyes, Billingsley would be fantastic starting the year in a long relief role to become acclimated to the Majors. Once consistency sets in, the team would move him back to the rotation, where it would appear replacing Jeff Weaver was an extremely easy task.

March is a month light on hard news in baseball. And while the Guzman and Bankston position changes provided good copy for desperate beat reporters, it also shows a long-term plan is in place for two organizations that needed to show their fan bases just that.


Don't forget Eric Duncan changed positions not to long ago also.

Just like Guzman, he was moved because a) his glove at the hot corner wasn't good, and b) there's a better 3B ahead of him in the organization (LaRoche and A-rod).

The decision to not move BJ Upton is not one based on fielding potential but one based on roster depth and talent in the outfield. BJ would be better off in the outfield where his natural athleticism would aloww his offense to flourish.
The Diamondbacks will have a similar decision with Justin Upton who isn't even as good a ss as BJ.

The Dodgers moved Joel to the outfield not b/c he can't play defensively at 3b, but rather b/c left field is the quickest route the the Majors. Mueller is signed there for two more years. Joel could also play right field. Also LaRoche is a little behind and will be ready to step in at third. They want to get all these young guys in the lineup in the near future with Russell Martin and possibly James lonely on the horizon as well. Just don't count out Guzman being able to play third or right field in the future like Miguel Cabrera is doing now with the Marlins

Sweet fancy Moses! Bankston and Upton side-by-side in the Tampa Bay infield? Comedy gold, Jerry!

Branyan's not so yuck in a strict platoon, at least offensively.