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Hitching to a Star or Just a Wagon?

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Rather than delve into the bevy of puffery that's emanating from Winter Haven dispacthes thus far, how about some good old-fashioned roster talk?

Given that the Indians are actually relevant again, there's very little inexperience on the roster, unless you want to count Fernando Cabrera. The jobs that are up for competition are the bench jobs and the seventh man. Not exactly high-profile stuff, but I live for the marginal players. Ramon Vazquez or Brandon Phillips? Kelly Shoppach or Einar Diaz? Pepsi or Coke? Paper or Plastic?

One drawback to the Indians actually having designs on the playoffs is that the tolerance for "unproven" talent goes down a bit. Thus we have Aaron Boone manning third base in Cleveland and Andy Marte playing the hot corner for Buffalo. Which is understandable if you consider that the team has generally booted a grizzled veteren if outplayed by a fresh-faced rookie. See Alex Cora.  

But how do you choose between Vazquez and Brandon Phillips? Proven Mediocrity or Flameout with Possibility? I've given the battle some thought, and I still don't know what I'd do if given the power to declare the victor. The Indians don't have much in the minors to make punting Brandon tenable; Eider Torres has the defense and speed, but not much in the way of offense yet, Joe Inglett has the peskiness at the plate but not much range, and Jake Gautreau has consistency issues both at the plate and in the field. So either way, the Indians are tying themselves to the winner of the battle; neither player has an option, so whoever loses will be in another organization by Opening Day.

Brandon Phillips has all the tools to become a good middle infielder. But he hasn't yet showcased them at the major-league level. The danger the Indians face if they keep him around as the backup is if he had to fill in for either Peralta or Belliard and posted another .208/.242/.311 line. There hasn't been much of anything amounting to improvement since Brandon's dreadful 2003, unless the prospect of a summer in sunny Buffalo depressed his hitting.

Or Brandon could finally put things together and become the team's next second baseman. This is why teams tend to keep players with Promise much longer than they should; there's always that sinking feeling that a player with Promise will become a star somewhere else. "You kept Ramon Vazquez and waived All-Star Brandon Phillips?" the hindsighters will lament. But there's only so much patience a team can afford, and moreover they can't afford a backup infielder who barely hits his weight.

Or can they? Backup infielders in the American League are rarely called upon to bat. The Indians could bide their time with Brandon by having him spend time with Derek Shelton and keeping him out of the lineup. Ronnie Belliard is a free agent at season's end, and an inexpensive replacement-in-waiting saves the Indians a lot of money. If the Indians lose Belliard or Peralta to injury and  have to go with Brandon for a significant amount of time, they could be SOL. Such is the quandary that General Managers much think through.

Einar Diaz vs Kelly Shoppach is, in my humble opinion, an easy answer. You know what Diaz can do by now; Shapiro dumped him four years ago because he wasn't hitting, a skill he hasn't reaquired in the interim. But Einar has a good throwing arm, and the magical experience that gives catchers jobs through retirement age. There isn't much Shoppach can learn from another go-round in the International League, and if the Indians are really sincere about giving Victor Martinez more time off, they'll need a backup who can give pitchers at least some concern. Diaz is not that backup.