DeRosa Deserves A Chance

Will <B>Mark DeRosa</B> be a career utility player? Will he ever get the chance to be something more? Does he have the ability to be a full time starter, possibly at 3B in 2004? Editor Bill Shanks answers these questions and more.

He only has two more at bats in his career than Rafael Furcal had for the entire 2003 season. But that's only one sign that Mark DeRosa has been a career utility man. His numbers look like an incomplete player because his seasons usually are.

It's a role that many players have, and there's nothing wrong with being a utility guy. But there comes a point in many players' careers where they either move up to being a starter, or continue being a utility man for the majority of their career.

This is that fork in the road for Mark DeRosa.

The starter for the past two seasons at third base, Vinny Castilla, is a free agent. It appears the Braves may not even offer Castilla a contract. The starter for the future, Andy Marte, is not ready yet. These two consequences may present an opportunity for Mark DeRosa.

That's all he's ever wanted: an opportunity. When DeRosa went to Spring Training in 2001, he knew he didn't need to go back to the minor leagues. He had already played almost two complete seasons in AAA Richmond, and he was 26 years old. So Mark did everything in his power to make the Atlanta roster. He played positions (LF and 3B) that he had never played before, and did everything Bobby Cox asked of him.

DeRosa made the Atlanta team that spring, and has become the number one utility man over the past three seasons. But now, with a potential opening, the Braves must make a decision: Is DeRosa good enough to play everyday?

You hate to call DeRosa a stopgap, but that may be exactly what he would be. Andy Marte is the best position player prospect the Braves have had since Andruw Jones. Marte is a special player, but the 20-year-old won't be ready until 2005 at the earliest. So the Braves need someone until then. Considering Marte is around the corner, wouldn't giving DeRosa a chance to play everyday be more practical than signing someone who would possibly block Marte when he's ready?

The feeling here is yes DeRosa is good enough to be an everyday third baseman. He's had 666-career at bats, and has a .278 average with 14 home runs and 68 runs batted in. One would hope that if given consistent playing time, his production would be even more steady and impressive. Could he hit around his career average and possibly hit 15-20 home runs? Considering his salary (probably in the $500k range next season), wouldn't it be better to give DeRosa a try rather than spending big money on a free agent?

There is a history of players coming into the league and either seeing most of the action in a platoon or as a utility man before getting a chance to play everyday. One that comes to mind offhand is Edgardo Alfonso. He debuted for the Mets in 1995, playing in 29 games at second base, 58 at third base, and 6 at shortstop. Alfonso hit .278 with 4 home runs and 41 RBI in 335 at bats. 1996, when Alfonso was 22 years old, was almost the same story. Alfonso hit .261 with 4 homers, 40 RBI in 368 at bats. He played in 66 games at second base, 36 at third base, and 15 at shortstop.

But in 1997, Edgardo finally got significant playing time. He hit .315 with 10 home runs and 72 RBI in 518 at bats. He also played consistently at third base, appearing in 143 of his 158 total games at the hot corner. Alfonso really broke out in 1998 when he had 557 at bats, as he hit .278 with 17 home runs and 78 RBI.

Rich Aurilla, Tony Batista, David Bell, and Aaron Boone are a few other players who started their careers as part-timers, only to improve their production once they received significant and consistent playing time.

Now who knows if DeRosa can be as good as any of these five established major league starting infielders. But the Braves must be curious to see how productive DeRosa could be if he got 500 at bats. Castilla spent most of last season as the 8th place hitter in the lineup, and it's likely that whomever the third baseman is in 2004 will be somewhere in the bottom of the order. Taking DeRosa's numbers from 2003 (.263, 6HR, 22RBI in 266 at bats) and simply multiplying them by two (to give him over 500 at bats) would give a team decent production from that low in the order. Plus, you have to feel that if he played consistently, his numbers would take on a consistent nature as well.

Marte is the type of prospect who could move an average player out of a position. He's that good. But if in two years Mark DeRosa proves he can be a productive everyday major league player, he'll have more value to the Braves than he does now as a reserve. DeRosa could either be traded, or we could simply find room for him somewhere else.

But first, DeRosa deserves the chance to play everyday. He's been a spark plug, a player not afraid to show emotion in his role off the bench. Maybe he wouldn't put up the numbers that Castilla had in 2003 or the numbers we project from Marte in the future, but maybe he'll give us something more. The Florida Marlins proved this past season that you don't have to have stars at every position. You have to have winners, and players with determination and heart.

Mark has proven he has those qualities. Now he deserves a chance to prove that he is good enough to be an everyday player in the major leagues.

Bill Shanks hosts a weekly regional television show on the Atlanta Braves and its minor league system. He can be reached at thebravesshow@email.com

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