Thursday, April 07, 2011

Kouz Gets Day Off; Why, Wally Pipp's Birthday?

Oakland Athletics manager Bob Geren has given Kevin Kouzmanoff the day off to rest after the starting third baseman committed three errors. Gee, thanks, skipper, where should I lie down, on the railroad tracks?

It's hard to imagine Kouz will be able to relax very much with a steaming locomotive gaining on him in the person of former Dodgers top infield prospect Andy La Roche, who in a brief trial is exhibiting all the characteristics of a post-hype, late bloomer.

Though La Roche hit an impressive .333 with 13 RBI and four homers in little more than 60 spring at-bats, realistically, it's much, much too soon to suggest that Kouzmanoff is actually going to be pipped, to use that arcane slang verb recalling Yankees first baseman Wally Pipp. Mister Pipp, as you remember, sat out for a day in 1926 and lost his job to some guy named Lou Gehrig.

Still, La Roche, who came to camp as a lowly, long-shot non-roster invitee, has not wasted his opportunity, hitting 3-6, a .500 clip, in two consecutive starts. Statistics in a small sample can be misleading, but there are a few noteworthy items in La Roche's pedigree that cannot be ignored:

No.1: he has a strong arm, big glove and has major league experience not only at third base but second and first.

No. 2: when he came up, scouts regarded him as an even better prospect than his brother, Adam La Roche, who owns a .271 career average and more than 160 homers in eight major league seasons.

No. 3: he is every bit as good as his brother defensively, and formerly had been regarded as better offensively after he hit .333, .322, .309, .309 in four of his 10 minor league stops before reaching the majors.

To be fair, Kouzmanoff is not chopped liver, having hit .260 with 23 homers for San Diego in 2008, though not otherwise distinguishing himself much. Still, it must be said that La Roche is blocked at third. More interesting are La Roche's possibilities at second base, where incubent journeyman Mark Ellis, who will be 34 in June, has missed significant time due to injury in nine major league seasons, never having had more than 500 at-bats but once.

For the record, Ellis missed the entire 2004 season among his five trips to the disabled list, and currently benched for his most novel malady to date, dizziness due to an inner ear problem. Also working in La Roche's favor in his bid for playing time is the fact that light-hitting starting first baseman Daric Barton, a left-hander who has hit only 26 homers in 371 major league at-bats, might give up a few plate appearances against tough left-handed pitching.

Any way you slice it, La Roche should be given ample opportunity to exhibit his talent this year, and may yet appear on the platform even if he has missed the train.