Thursday, January 15, 2009

2009 Roster Shaping Up

It's hot stove season in baseball, and that means it's time to start thinking about the RailCats 2009 roster, something now fifth-year Manager Greg Tagert has been doing for about the last four months. Questions are abound, like what do the RailCats need, who are the key new faces in 2009 and which RailCat is going to see a bigger role this season? Some answers won't come into focus until later this offseason so for now let's start the discussion at the top.

And don't forget to give us your opinion in the comments.

Without being able to predict the future of some of the RailCats veteran players - the RailCats may need more a couple weeks from now than they do today - here are some of the big early holes:

Third Base
When you lose a player the caliber of Tanner Townsend, the number one offseason priority automatically becomes replacing his production, a near impossible task. Without sounding overly cliche, no one will ever replace all Townsend does - the 2008 Northern League MVP was a great fielder, hitter and clubhouse presence - but the bigger question right now is who plays his position.

A candidate to see a little time at the hot corner could be Mike Rohde (pictured), who was the Northern League's Rookie of the Year last season splitting time between several positions, although he was primarily a first baseman. Rohde isn't the defensive third baseman Townsend was, but he was pretty solid when he did see time there last season.

Another early candidate could be Jeff Beachum, the Middle Tennessee State product the RailCats picked up in a trade with Washington in the Frontier League earlier this week. Beachum has only played second base and shortstop so far in his brief professional career, but would be forced to either first or third base if both Jay Pecci and Eric McNamee return for their fifth seasons in Gary.

The most likely replacement, however, is probably not yet under the RailCats control. The 'Cats have a lot of time left this offseason and could still go after a more experienced player at the position, a move that would not only lock down one of the toughest defensive positions on the field but also give the 'Cats a veteran bat in the lineup to try and make up for Townsend's lost production.

First Base/Designated Hitter
This job could be Rohde's from opening day, but with the retirement of Eric Blakeley the RailCats did lose their best defensive player at the position. Rohde was the RailCats designated hitter in the playoffs with Blakeley at first base, and if the RailCats decide to keep him in that role they would need someone to round out the infield at first.

If the RailCats opt to keep Rohde at first base - he played 65 games there last season - then the hole in the RailCats lineup ends up at designated hitter. Tagert has in the past been comfortable using a number of players at the DH spot during a season (using it at times as a half-day off for a regular), but if a middle-of-the-lineup type hitter becomes available to the RailCats they do have the flexibility to plug him in at DH.

Starting Pitching
Everyone needs starting pitching, but the RailCats again have some question marks in their rotation. Brian Forystek's retirement opens one spot on the four-man rotation, and while rookie Garret Holleran showed some very good things late last season in his 10 starts, he has still has only pitched in 14 games in his career. And the RailCats other two starters, Tony Cogan and Jeremy Plexico, are at the point in their careers where next season is never a guarantee, although it would not be surprising to see both back in a RailCats uniform in 2009.

So the RailCats need conservatively one starter, and pessimistically maybe three. The in-house candidates at the moment are limited as only newly acquired Zach Groh has any starting experience, but like Holleran, Groh's only professional season was 2008.

All this means the RailCats will likely be looking long and hard for a few good arms, something Tagert's been great at doing the last few offseasons, with signings like Josh Habel and Jason Shelley in 2006 and Plexico before last season. Look for Tagert to try and add at least one veteran starter with some affiliated experience (the three listed above all pitched in AA), although that move may not come until affiliated rosters thin out in March and April.

The RailCats under Tagert have almost always had a reliable option at the end of the bullpen, from Derek Lopez in 2005 to Cogan in 2007 and the nearly un-hittable Koichi Misawa last year. Sure, Misawa did not arrive until June in 2008, but the RailCats won't be banking on a pitcher of his caliber coming available again in 2009.

Like with the starters, it seems like the best possible candidates for the closers job will come from outside the organization right now. Aaron Cook is a possibility if he returns, although the RailCats really liked him as an eighth inning guy last year, and Tagert would love to have Misawa back, but approaching 35 years old and back in his native Japan, that's a major longshot.

The RailCats best two closers - Lopez and Cogan - both had experience in independent baseball and as closeres (as did P.J. Bevis, who started 2008 in the closers role), and all were guys with pretty impressive resumes. Tagert places a big emphasis on his bullpen and does have one veteran roster spot available with Forystek's retirement, so perhaps the 'Cats will go that route to find someone to get the final three outs.

What do you think is the RailCats biggest need this offseason? Let us know in the comments below, and don't forget to come back in the next few weeks when we'll break down the rest of the RailCats offseason and take a look around the Northern League to see how the 'Cats competition is shaping up.

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