Saturday, April 02, 2005

Widger, Ozuna earn jobs as Sox set roster

The Sox' Opening Day roster has finally taken shape:

Starting pitchers: Mark Buehrle, Freddy Garcia, Orlando Hernandez, Jose Contreras, Jon Garland
Relief pitchers: Shingo Takatsu, Dustin Hermansen, Luis Vizcaino, Neal Cotts, Damaso Marte, Cliff Politte
Outfielders: Scott Posednik, Carl Everett, Jermaine Dye, Aaron Rowand, Timo Perez
Infielders: Joe Crede, Paul Konerko, Juan Uribe, Willie Harris, Ross Gload, Pablo Ozuna, Tadahito Iguchi
Catchers: A.J. Pierzynski, Chris Widger
DL: Frank Thomas, Felix Diaz

There was one big surprise, and that was Sox GM Kenny Williams' decision to send catcher Ben Davis to Charlotte after inking him to a $1 million, 1-year deal a day after non-tendering him at the arbitration deadline. Instead, non-roster invitee Chris Widger gets the backup job over Davis and Jamie Burke.

Widger spent last season playing in an indy league, hitting .267/.336/.576 against competition similar to what he'd see in AA ball. In his last ML season with more than 200 at-bats, back in 1999 with the Mariners, he hit .238/.311/.441. Widger also hit .235/.279/.324 for the Cardinals in 102 at-bats in 2003.

We all know the story with Davis. He hit an anemic .231/.276/.400 after coming over from Seattle last year to finish at .202/.307/.366. Davis now has a career line of .237/.306/.366 in 1,516 Major League at-bats, compared to .242/.299/.402 for Widger. With the extra power and the advantage of right-handedness on a bench full of lefty-swingers, the decision to keep Widger over Davis is pretty defensible.

At first glance, it lookes like the Sox blew a million bucks. It would be easy to criticize Williams for signing Davis to a contract in the first place, but I'll defend it for three reasons:

1) At the time, the Sox were looking at Davis as their starting catcher. It just happened that A.J. Pierzynski fell into their laps at a bargain price. So give the Sox credit for making the upgrade despite already making a move at the position.

2) Going into his age-28 season, Davis still has upside. Granted, his potential shrinks as pages fly off the calendar, but he's hit .266/.335/.423 in the minors, and has already played in parts of seven ML seasons. He'll never be a star like some thought after a great first half in the 2001 season, but his track record indicates he could still become a useful player. With his ability to hit right-handers better than left-handers, a manager could still cover some of his weaknesses as part of a useful platoon.

3) A million bucks is small beer in the big picture of a Big League payroll. It's not like the Sox signed Mike Matheny to something like, oh... say a 3-year, $10-million deal. No matter how craptacular Davis is from now until he retires, it's not a bad contract. Not bad like the one the Giants gave Matheny. Or the Marlins gave Charles Johnson four years ago ($35 million, 5-years). Those kind of deals become albatross contracts. This one won't -- not this year or ever.

Even if Davis were the primary backup on the 25-man roster, just look at what some other backup backstops are going to make this year. The Cubs gave Henry Blanco a 2-year, $2.7 million deal. Todd Greene got $750,000 for bringing his hacktastic ways back to Colorado. The ageless Dan Wilson is getting $1.75 million for another year with the Mariners. Greg Zaun, coming off injury, is getting more than a cool million from the Blue Jays. And Mike Redmond got a 2-year deal from the Twins for $1.8 million.

So giving a backup catcher a million dollars -- when you thought he'd be a starter -- isn't way out of line for where the market was. And even though Davis won't be on the 25-man roster, lets face it, he'll be starting behind the dish at the Cell should anything happen to Pierzynski.

Davis starting the year at Charlotte is probably the best thing anyway. The Sox can decide if they really think he'll ever find his bat, and they don't have to waste more Major League at-bats to do it.

The unfortunate part of this move is that it's Burke that really deserves the backup job over Widger. Now 34-years old, Burke isn't as good as the .789 OPS he had last year in 120 at-bats with the Sox, but he does have a career on-base percentage of .343 in more than 3,000 minor-league at-bats. He bats from the right side, same as Widger. Burke is probably the superior hitter at this point.

The only reason I can see for Burke starting the year at Charlotte while Widger takes a spot on the big club is if the Sox want to have Burke work out at third base for a few months. He's played there a little in the past, but looked bad there this spring. Burke would have more value if he could at least handle some other positionsWe'll have to see how this one plays out.

In other news, it was not really a surprise to see Ozuna also beat out Wilson Valdez for the untility infielder spot. Valdez arrived in the Sox organization in last summer's Billy Koch trade with the Marlins. At Charlotte, he hit .302 with a .338 on-base percentage after hitting .319/.357 for Albuquerque. Valdez was out of options, and subequently lost on waivers to the Met, but that's no big loss. Valdez is already 27-years old and has never slugged above .400 in any of his professional stops. His on-base percentage is also heavily dependent on his batting average. Mix in his so-so defense, and he's basically Mike Caruso with a slightly better glove.

Meanwhile, Ozuna hit .307/.344/.415 for Philadelphia's AAA team. Like Valdez, he'll have to hit for a pretty good average to get on base a lot, but he brings some power in his bat (.443 slugging in 8 minor-league seasons) to help compensate for that shortcoming. Ozuna should be able to give the Sox the same thing Tony Graffanino is giving the Royals this year, but at a far lesser cost.

If Ozuna makes good, it will make two straight years the Sox have been able to dig-up a quality untility infielder. In 2003, after letting Graffanino go despite a nice line of .260/.331/.428, Williams flipped Aaron Miles, an old second base prospect with limited upside, for Juan Uribe.

Besides being able to play every infield position, Uribe hit .283/.331/.506. Even in a hitter's park, that's a great performance from a utility infielder. And this year, Uribe will slide into the full-time shorstop job. And he's only 25-years old this year.

Obviously, Ozuna doesn't have the same upside. While he was once a top prospect, he was also an Agegate participant, adding years to his birth certificate during one of his winters. Now 30-years-old, Ozuna's chances at a full-time job are about gone, barring a phenomenal year as a super-sub that isn't likely. But he can still be a nice piece off the bench.

It's nice to know that the Sox are able to find inexpensive, but talented pieces to fill out the roster. It makes modest gaffes like the Davis contract much easier to live with.