Though he entered camp as nothing more than a non-roster invitee, Blake Lalli is turning heads and reportedly has a chance to make the Opening Day roster.
“Maybe,” Roenicke said of Lalli’s chances. “He’s impressing a lot of people. Not just with what he’s doing but this guy is really sharp. He’s going to call a great game if we have him behind the plate. He’s a really smart guy. And he gives you a nice at-bat.”
We’ve seen this story before. An unheralded player lights up the Cactus League and forces the organization to consider including him on the 25-man roster on Opening Day. We’ve actually seen this in the last couple years with Jeremy Reed, Chris Duffy, and most recently, with Erick Almonte.
The common thread? All were unusable at the major-league level and quickly sent to Triple-A or cut. After all, it’s almost as if one scorching-hot month doesn’t outweigh a player’s career performance levels and teams shouldn’t expect the outlying performance to continue.
But, cynicism aside, I understand the desire to move forward with players like Almonte and Lalli. Running a baseball organization as a meritocracy is important. It’s important for morale throughout the minor-league system, and it’s also an important piece of attracting minor-league free agents. You play well, you’ll play. It’s a simple, intuitive and attractive characteristic for an organization.
At the same time, Blake Lalli is a 30-year-old journeyman who could only manage a pedestrian .256/.291/.396 slash line in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League last year. Granted, he is a career .296/.357/.416 hitter in seven minor-league seasons, but he’s 30 years old and has only played one season above Double-A … and we already know it wasn’t a positive season. That player profile simply doesn’t project well at the major-league level, especially at first base where his bat must carry the largest burden.
In my mind, the sudden excitement surrounding Lalli isn’t necessarily an endorsement of his abilities. It’s more a condemnation of Taylor Green and his overall performance. The 26-year-old has yet to hit at the major-league level, and he’s struggling yet again this spring with a .139/.244/.222 slash line as of Wednesday morning.
The organization wants a left-handed option to pair with Alex Gonzalez at first base for the first couple months of the season. With Hunter Morris needing extra seasoning in Triple-A, Ron Roenicke appears to have turned to Lalli as a potential left-handed counterpart to Gonzalez. It also would give the organization flexibility at catcher because Roenicke loves to utilize both Jonathan Lucroy and Martin Maldonado as pinch hitters, normally leaving the team vulnerable should the team lose a catcher to injury after the backup pinch hit earlier in the game.
Then again, does Alex Gonzalez really need a platoon partner at first base?
That’s perhaps a misleading question. Throughout his career, Gonzalez has almost identical numbers against righties (.249/.293/.400) and lefties (.243/.289/.399) — so he’s not a traditional platoon player in the sense that he struggles more against same-handed pitching — but neither slash line is particularly good. Neither boasts an on-base percentage above .300, and the organization could simply platoon Gonzalez with someone like Blake Lalli if they believe he will perform better against right-handed pitching than Gonzalez has traditionally done.
Then that’s really the question. Can we project Blake Lalli to hit righties better than Alex Gonzalez would otherwise do?
I don’t think we can comfortably project that. Of course, based upon what we’ve seen in the past couple years, I also don’t think we can project Taylor Green to perform better than Alex Gonzalez against right-handers, either, so the organization might as well go with the player hitting the baseball better in spring. Either that, or if possible, try to swipe someone off waivers as Opening Day approaches.
Players such as Blake Lalli are wonderful spring training stories. After all, it’s inspiring to see 30-somethings who have toiled away in the minors for the better part of a decade finally have a chance (or another chance) to realize their big-league dreams. Those players have an everyman quality to them that endears them to the fan base. Unfortunately, the stories rarely have a fairy-tale ending, but until Corey Hart returns from his knee injury in May, the organization can turn to someone like Lalli for a handful of plate appearances without heavily impacting the team’s postseason chances.