Reclamation Projects Zito, Lidge Among NL X-Factors
Once, when Tony La Russa was managing the Oakland A's in the early 1990s, he said that if he had a team of nine Mike Bordicks, his teams would make the playoffs every year.
He was trying to explain how much he valued Bordick, but in that one sentence, La Russa, now the Cardinals' manager, summed up what winning baseball is all about.
Bordick, primarily a shortstop in his 14 years in the big leagues, was an All-Star once, in 2000 as an Oriole. He got one -- count it -- MVP vote in 1992 with the A's during his only .300 season.
What Bordick brought to the table was incredible defense and knowledge of the game that that limited his mistakes in all phases of the game to an absolute minimum. He once went 110 games at shortstop without making an error. Those qualities made everybody around him a better player.
As we look toward the opening of spring training camps in Florida and Arizona in the next week or so, we here at FanHouse were wondering just who the difference-makers are -- players who, though not superstars, can, if they reach a certain level of Bordick-ness, positively influence the pennant race.
So we'll dip into our Harry Potter-autographed Sorting Hat to see if we can figure out who those players might be this year.
National League Central
Cubs: Ted Lilly, starting pitcher. Four times has a Lilly team made it to the postseason. On none of those teams was Lilly the ace, not even in 2008 when he won a career-best 17 games. Ryan Dempster had as many wins and an ERA a full point better, and Carlos Zambrano was making a name for himself. But Lilly at his best chews up innings, wins more than he loses and makes a good team better.
Reds: Aroldis Chapman, starting pitcher. Let's face it -- nobody knows enough about this guy to be able to accurately say if he'll have any impact on the NL Central in 2010. What we do know is that he can touch 100 mph, that he's left-handed and that most scouts love his stuff. If he can somehow make a quick adjustment from Cuba to the U.S. he could have as much impact as any first-year player in the game.
Astros: Hunter Pence, right fielder. Although he was an All-Star last year, Pence takes a back seat, albeit slightly, to Houston's offensive leaders, Carlos Lee and Lance Berkman. But with Miguel Tejada no longer in the picture, the Astros need Pence to not just hit homers (25 last year) but to drive in runs with those homers. He was fourth on the team with 72 RBI last year, but at age 27 he should be coming into his own and be able to carry the Astros for a week or two at a time. Maybe right into the postseason.
Brewers: Corey Hart, right fielder. Hart seemed ready to be the third 100-RBI man in the Milwaukee lineup heading into last year after knocking in 91 in 2008. But a hand injury limited him to115 games and 46 RBI, one reason the Brewers were never quite in contention. That could change this year if a healthy Hart joins Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun in the big boppers club. He's got the swing and his plate discipline is improving, so he could get it done.
Pirates: Ronny Cedeno, shortstop. Cedeno's last two managers, Lou Piniella with the Cubs and Don Wakamatsu with the Mariners, have predicted big things for him, but somehow the fit has't been quite right yet. That may no longer be the case in Pittsburgh. Cedeno has a little bit of power and should hit for a better average, but his biggest boost in Pittsburgh is defense that could serve to make the Pirates pitching staff that much more effective.
Cardinals: Brad Penny, starting pitcher. Back-to-back 16-win seasons in 2006 and 2007 showed that Penny had the stuff to win in the big leagues. The 2008 and 2009 seasons proved how easily it can slip away. But Penny, with 10 big-league seasons under his belt, has a chance with the Cardinals to be that solid -- and badly needed -- third starter behind Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright.
National League East
Braves: Tommy Hanson, starting pitcher. At 22, Hanson had a fabulous 2009 season, going 11-4 with a 2.89 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP. The trouble is the Braves don't know if he can do it again. That's the worry with kids who have big rookie seasons. If Hanson can shine as a sophomore, then the Braves will have a chance to be the equal of any team in the division because ace Tim Hudson is back and healthy again.
Marlins: Chris Volstad, starting pitcher. Asking so much of a 22-year-old is tough, but if the Marlins are going to contend, Volstad may have to be the guy to step up and give Florida a solid third starter to keep the team competitive in the NL East. His 2.88 ERA of 2008 exploded to 5.21 last year, but his minor-league numbers suggest that he's got considerable upside.
Mets: Gary Matthews Jr., outfielder. The idea for some is that Matthews is on hand simply to be a placeholder until Carlos Beltran can get healthy and back in the lineup again. The trouble is, no one can really say when Beltran will be back. So it may be up to Matthews, at 35, to shake off the rust of part-time work with the Angels the last two years and be the player who hit 18 homers and drove in 72 runs his first year in Southern California in 2007.
Phillies: Brad Lidge, closer. Let's face it -- no one is going to be as bad as Lidge was last year, 0-8 and 7.21 and a 1.81 WHIP. That's because no team is going to give anyone the ball that much with so little to show for it. Lidge has been a quality closer as recently as 2008 (a perfect 41-for-41 in saves for the Phillies), so for now let's go on the assumption that 2009 was just one of those years and that Lidge will have the chance to pitch the Phillies back into the playoffs. We've got to admit, though, we'd feel better about this pick if he hadn't had "minor'' arthroscopic knee surgery just last month.
Nationals: Elijah Dukes, right fielder. It took some talking to and a demotion to Triple-A Syracuse to refocus Dukes on playing sound fundamental baseball last year. He was much improved when he was called back up, and, at 25, Dukes has the better part of three years' experience in the bigs. It's about time for him to be the third big bat in manager Jim Riggleman's lineup. If so, opposing pitchers will have to do more than put it on cruise control to get past the Nationals.
National League West
Diamondbacks: Chris Young, center fielder. Young fell on hard times last year, including a demotion to Triple-A. But the D'backs have reason to believe that Young's 32-homer power of 2007 is still kicking around. Young is, after all, only 26, and he should just now be coming into his own. Eight of his 15 homers and 14 of his 42 RBI last year came after his demotion ended, giving Arizona reason to believe he can be that solid third bat behind Mark Reynolds and Justin Upton.
Rockies: Jason Giambi, first baseman. The question here is whether or not Giambi has one more good year left in him. He hit 32 homers two years ago but just 13 last year. He's back with the Rockies, but without a chance to play every day. In his situation, he doesn't have to. What he must do is spell first baseman Todd Helton, who wore down noticeably at the end of the season. And he has to project that same upbeat positive influence in the Rockies' clubhouse that he did after coming over from Oakland late last season.
Dodgers: Hiroki Kuroda, starting pitcher. The Dodgers had hoped for more from Kuroda when they signed him out of Japan a couple of years ago, and the fact is after going 17-17 in his first two seasons, he may be ready to deliver. He's made the conversion from Japanese to American ball, and he's had two years to get to know the National League. A 2010 surge from Kuroda would be huge for the Dodgers after the losses of Randy Wolf and Jon Garland this offseason.
Padres: Chase Headley, third baseman. Normally a club would settle for a .262 average, a dozen homers and 64 RBI from a young infielder/outfielder like Headley. But his second half in 2009, when he averaged .293, suggests that the 25-year-old is capable of much more. And the Padres, as anemic as they are offensively, frankly need more from Headley in order to succeed.
Giants: Barry Zito, starting pitcher. OK, we know that until Tim Lincecum came on the scene, Zito was supposed to be top dog in San Francisco. We also know that he mostly has just barked -- three consecutive losing seasons with four years left on a seven-year contract too huge to move. It's time for the 2002 AL Cy Young Award winner to find his stuff again and be the pitcher he once was. Getting Zito on his A-game behind Lincecum and Matt Cain would give real teeth to San Francisco's rotation as they attempt to climb back to the playoffs.