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Battle For the 25th Spot: Why It Should Go to De Aza

by Mike DePilla
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
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As a former first-round draft choice with a high ceiling, tons of tools, a new haircut and an improved work ethic, Lastings Milledge has received a lot of positive press from Sox camp this spring.

Milledge hit his second homerun of the spring yesterday, a bomb to the opposite field, raising his spring slash line to .267/.378/.467. That line isn't really meaningful in only 30 at bats, but hey, it's baseballs season and I wanted to break out the averages.

What is meaningful is the fact that the Sox have a real dogfight going on in the battle for the last reserve outfielder spot.

The contenders:
  1. Lastings Milledge
  2. Brent Lillibridge
  3. Alejandro De Aza
While there is a chance the hot-hitting Mark Teahen will be dealt before Opening Day, and an even-slimmer chance that he will be the starting third baseman (Ozzie said it's still possible, though he was probably just challenging Brent Morel, who shouldn't be handed anything Brian Anderson-style without earning it), chances are Teahen's role will be as a rotating back up, leaving one roster spot for Milledge, Lillibridge and De Aza.

Like everyone else, I have been impressed with what we've seen out of Milledge, and I can't help thinking whether Ken Williams could turn this into a position player version of Matt Thornton or Bobby Jenks- a high-pedigree failed prospect who clicks with a change of scenery.

However, when I take everything into consideration, I believe the White Sox would be best off starting Milledge in Triple-A, trading Lillibridge and taking De Aza north on the 25-man roster.

Huh? Considering how well Milledge is playing, and how versatile and familiar Lillibridge is, that is surely not a popular sentiment. But consider how that last bench spot will be used:
  • Defensive replacement for all three OF positions
  • Pinch runner
  • Very rarely start a game and get multiple at bats.
Between De Aza and Milledge, De Aza is the better defender- especially in center- the better baserunner (slightly) and the less important to keep sharp with regular at bats.

Lillibridge plays a solid center, but his main value lies in his flexibility in the infield. Unfortunately for him, the Sox already have a infield-defensive whiz, and they are not paying Omar Vizquel $1.75 million to split the back up duties with Lillibridge. If there's a need at second, third or short, Vizquel is the guy. Offering nothing with the bat, Lillibridge is best off as a back up infielder back in the NL.

Milledge's defense, while better than Carlos Quentin or even Teahen, is something of a question. De Aza is better in left and right, but the the drop off probably isn't very significant. However, Milledge's glove in center doesn't seem so hot. He hasn't played center in the big leagues since 2009, and owns an uninspiring career -15.0 UZR there. Granted it is a relatively small sample size, but it is a larger sample size than his career 2.8 UZR in LF and -8.3 in RF. (His overall UZRs the last three seasons have been -16.8, 1.8, and -0.8.) There seems to be a reason he was moved to the corners.

De Aza doesn't have enough major league experience for an even remotely meaningful UZR, but he's more than likely the better bet defensively there by a solid margin. That is important, because if Lillibridge doesn't make this team Ozzie will need someone who can back up Alex Rios in center, and De Aza is the most capable.

Now, if given 20 at bats per week, Milledge will outshine De Aza with the bat. But that's just it- there won't be many at bats at all for this player. Any days Quentin gets off in right will go to Teahen. Juan Pierre, a lefty who would theoretically work best with a right-handed understudy, doesn't take days off. A few scraps behind Rios in center is all Milledge/De Aza will likely see.

Milledge still does have the chance to become a MLB starting outfielder. However, he needs to prove that by getting consistent at bats in the minors, staying sharp and racking up some success to maintain his spring momentum. Much like Dayan Viciedo, playing once a week with the Sox won't get him that- this back up role shouldn't be awarded to the man with the most upside. If this were a platoon role, the outcome would be much different.

Ultimately, De Aza plays better defense at all three positions and is a speedier runner. His time is not better spent developing in the minors, and he is out of minor league options anyway. Milledge can be sent to the minors without passing through waivers, and has already said he would accept that assignment cheerfully.

Now, when Quentin and/or De Aza suffer their first injury, an event likely to happen sooner rather than later considering their histories, it would be fascinating to see Viciedo and Milledge duke it out in Triple-A to see who gets the call to Chicago to replace them. Until then, De Aza is a better fir for what this team needs right now.

Besides, guys whose last name begin "D-e-capital letter" are always just plain awesome, am I right?

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