One of the bits of news from SoxFest was that Kenny Williams appeared satisfied with Brent Lillibridge, Alejandro De Aza and Dayan Viciedo competing for the final bench spot. Part of the reason for that satisfaction is undoubtedly money. But those players are the sorts that end up completing a roster.
Viciedo is the clear long shot. First, the 25th man is going to need to play outfield. While Viciedo has worked out in the outfield in the offseason (and supposedly, ahem, looks "good"), even if he's a prodigy, he still can't play center. Second, both Lillibridge
and De Aza are out of options, meaning if they don't make the 25 man roster, they will most likely be traded to, or claimed by, another team (edit: De Aza has an option remaining). Viciedo can be optioned to the minors without having to pass through waivers. A bit more time to develop both as a hitter and as a defender would benefit both Viciedo and the club long-term.
So what are the merits and demerits of the two remaining combatants?
Lillibridge has two advantages over De Aza. First, in addition to playing all three outfield positions, he can also play shortstop, second base and third base. Lillibridge hasn't really ever had a true positional home. In college, he was both a center fielder and shortstop. In the minors, he was a middle infielder. In the majors, he's been all over the diamond. Ozzie Guillen said he's a better outfielder than infielder, so the talk at least is that they'd be comfortable with him in the outfield. While it's small sample sizes, the eye test says to me that Lillibridge is at least competent in center. His play at second base is fine but he's a stretch at shortstop and there are plenty of questions about his ability at third base.
His second advantage is familiarity. Lillibridge has spent significant parts of the past two seasons on the major league roster. The players know him and, as one might expect from reading his famous Twitter account, he fits in well in the clubhouse. And a team never wants any drama from the bottom of their depth charts. More importantly, management knows him. Ozzie's comments, along with other comments from management, suggest everyone knows what they're going to get from Lillibridge.
Of course, what you'd get from him is in line with what you'd expect from a guy fighting to make a club. In addition to his positional flexibility, he's got speed and baserunning acumen, so you'd be comfortable using him as a pinch runner. These are pretty much the minimum qualifications for a non-catcher bench player. And that's pretty much all he's got. While he got up to .224/.248/.378 last season to bolster his career MLB line to .194/.254/.297, that may well represent his offensive ceiling. Continuing a theme of his career, he struck out in almost 37% of his plate appearances. He managed to hide that some by having a .333 BABIP (based on his past performance, suggestive of some luck) and an ISO of .153 (also a high figure based on past performance). As one might expect from a right-handed hitter, he's weak against the same side and better against left-handed pitching.
In 2011, I think you can expect little change in the strikeout rate - and, as we all know, failing to put the ball in play does not get one on Ozzie's good side. The power numbers, while being above expectations, may well stay close to last season considering Lillibridge is likely in his offensive prime. I'd also expect a bit of an uptick in his walk rate. Something like .230/.265/.370 over 150 plate appearances seems like a reasonable guess.
De Aza is a front office favorite. Assistant GM Rick Hahn was the driver behind the waiver claim that brought him to the White Sox and Williams recently asserted that De Aza is better than you think. I guess whether that's taken as the compliment it was meant to be depends upon what you think. De Aza has a couple advantages over Lillibridge. While he doesn't play the infield, he plays all three outfield positions and has a reputation as a plus defender at all three. Outfield play should arguably be more important to the White Sox because they already have a competent backup infielder on the roster in Omar Vizquel. They can't say the same for the outfield when Mark Teahen is currently second on the corner outfield depth chart. The need for a good defensive replacement is also more pressing in the outfield when Carlos Quentin is manning right field. The ability to move Alex Rios to right and insert De Aza in center late in a game should be a strong consideration.
His second advantage is a bit less certain but I think he's likely a superior offensive player to Lillibridge. While we're again dealing with small samples, he was the much better player at Charlotte last season. His skill set also suggests that he'll make more contact (Ozzie likes), walk more and have a bit more XBH potential. He did take advantage of his September call-up with a .300/.323/.400 line in 32 plate appearances and he did have a good spring in 2010 (while fighting an uphill battle with Andruw Jones and Mark Kotsay firmly entrenched on the roster), which may have made a positive impression on the coaching staff.
Like Lillibridge, he's fast so you'd be comfortable with him as a pinch runner. He bats from the left side and, again as you'd expect, he flails against lefties but hits well against righties. Platoon splits may not help De Aza, though, as Juan Pierre is also a left-handed hitter and does not exhibit much of a split - one of the reasons he plays 160+ games a year. Rios hits right-handed but also does not perform much differently against the same side.
De Aza's primary fault - and it is a glaring one - is an inability to stay healthy. In 2007, he won the starting centerfield job with the Marlins and injured his right ankle 8 games into the season. He missed four months, got his job back for three weeks and then lost it again to September. In 2008, he injured his left ankle at the end of spring training and was out the rest of the year. In both 2009 and 2010 he missed time with a variety of ailments. Perhaps a part-time role would make him less fragile.
Making a projection for De Aza is a lot more difficult because most of his major league plate appearances are from 2007. As I mentioned above, I think he'd be better than Lillibridge but I'd put more uncertainty around his projection. Something like .270/.315/.380 is a reasonable, perhaps bullish, guess (though not as bullish as Fangraphs last season). It's highly questionable, though, whether he could last the full season, even in a bench role.
Who's the man?
While I think De Aza is the superior baseball player, I'm not sure you can say either is favored for the last spot. There's enough differences between the two - notably defensive skills, health and handedness - that it may not come down to a classic roster spot battle based only on performance in spring training. But neither player can afford a bad spring. Should be an interesting story to follow once the games start. Which would you prefer?