As baseball gets underway in the Caribbean, Venezuela is once again the utility infielder capital of the world. With a vacancy for multi-purpose bench help, can the Phillies find what they’re looking for in the LVBP?
Venezuela has been a hotbed for versatile, slick-fielding infielders over the years, epitomized by Giants shortstop and Caracas native Omar Vizquel, who’s dazzled the baseball world with his glovework for 19 seasons. And for every Venezuelan infield standout like Vizquel, the country has produced about five quality role players, guys like Miguel Cairo, Marco Scutaro and others.
As the curtain opens on another LVBP campaign, we find the usual, loyal infield suspects slated for action, many of whom hold ties to the Phillies. Tomas Perez, who held Philadelphia’s utility torch for six seasons, returns to his old winter stomping ground. One can also find a number of current Phillies farmhands there, including Joe Thurston, Danny Sandoval, Carlos Leon, Peeter Ramos, along with a couple of ex-farmhands like Jesus Merchan and Anderson Machado. The list goes on and on, as the rosters are stacked with youngsters, grizzled vets and established stars who will only make an appearance or two, among them, Bobby Abreu, Miguel Cabrera and Carlos Guillen.
For Phillies purposes, there are a number of players entering their final arbitration years slated for LVBP play who may fit the bill as a potential replacement for Abraham Nunez, who did not have his option picked up by the club and will become a free agent.
One of baseball's best utility players, Oakland’s Marco Scutaro, a native of San Felipe, may be a little too valuable for a banged-up A’s club to let slip away. Scutaro, who just completed his sixth major league season, worked himself into 104 games in 2007, including 43 at short and 36 at third. The soon-to-be 32-year-old hit .260/.332/.361 with seven home runs.
Scutaro may not shake lose, but two of his top comps on Baseball Reference just may: Omar Infante and Jose Castillo, who’re also slated to play in the LVBP.
Infante, still 25 and a veteran of six seasons with Detroit, can play every position, including outfield, but his playing time has rapidly diminished since 2004 with the acquisition of Carlos Guillen, and later, the trade for Placido Polanco. A right-handed hitter, Infante would give the Phillies a hair more offense than Nunez. Last season he hit .271/.307/.355 with two homers. He will become an unrestricted free agent in 2009.
Castillo, coming off a terrible season with Pittsburgh, finds himself in a very dubious predicament. Castillo, 26, lost his job at third base to Jose Bautista, with Freddy Sanchez taking over at second. He ended the season with Nunez-type numbers, a .244/.270/.335 line with no homers. This is his final arbitration year and his future does not look good in Pittsburgh.
Another name to consider may be Castillo’s Pittsburgh teammate Cesar Izturis, also slated for play in the LVBP. Izturis, who was traded to the Pirates, with cash, for a player to be named later, becomes a free agent in a few days and is at a stage where his only future is in a utility role. Like Castillo, he can play third base, but he's a banjo hitter with possibly less power than Nunez.
Then, of course, there’s the possibility of resigning Nunez for less money, which seems 100 times more likely than signing veteran free agent Mark Loretta and his high price tag. The concern here would be the temptation of starting Nunez more than they should, but if they can acquire a full-time third baseman who can also field, Nunez would be a nice, comfortable spare part to back up the entire infield.
None of the options listed above can hit, otherwise they wouldn't be utility players. Nevertheless, the fact that guys like Cairo and Perez can hang on forever indicates the true value of quality glovework, which apparently grows on trees in Venezuela.