Trio of Giants take aim at last open spot
Ellison, Sweeney and Niekro have all had big-league success
TUCSON, Ariz. -- Life on the proverbial "bubble," that state of purgatory between making the Opening Day roster and being released or waived, combines the certain and uncertain.Players in this state have no idea what their immediate future holds. All they know is that they must continue to play hard -- and well. Mark Sweeney, Jason Ellison and Lance Niekro are the Giants currently caught in roster limbo. Only one of them will make the team as a reserve if the Giants begin the season with a 12-man pitching staff, and assuming that catcher Eliezer Alfonzo, utilityman Kevin Frandsen, first baseman-outfielder Ryan Klesko and outfielder Todd Linden already have secured spots on the bench. "Nobody's told me anything, so it's one of those things where I just keep on doing what I've been doing," Ellison said before the Giants' 10-9 exhibition loss to the Chicago White Sox on Wednesday. Reasons to keep each of the tenuous trio are clear. So is the rationale for cutting any of them. Sweeney has value as a pinch-hitter; he's tied for fifth all-time in that category. But as a left-handed-batting first baseman-outfielder, he duplicates Klesko's profile. Ellison provides much-needed speed and can play any outfield spot. But he lacks power (seven home runs in 447 Major League at-bats) and has struggled against right-handed pitching (.229 lifetime). Linden's capability in center field, where he has played 55 innings this spring to Ellison's 27, might have eliminated the need for a fifth "pure" outfielder. Niekro, who contributed a fifth-inning RBI single against the White Sox, entered camp with Rich Aurilia, Klesko and Sweeney crowding him at first base. Though Niekro's the youngest of the group at 28, his squandering previous chances to claim the first-base job may have stigmatized him. Both Ellison and Niekro are out of Minor League options, which complicates matters further, since they can't be sent to Triple-A Fresno without being exposed to other teams through waivers first. Trades are always a possibility; Niekro played first base for the entire game against the White Sox in a possible instance of "showcasing" for other teams.
It's a difficult situation, but it could be hardest on Ellison, 28, who has made the team in each of the previous two springs. He has done all he can to prove himself, leading the Cactus League with a .551 on-base percentage and ranking third with a .476 average entering Wednesday."I can relate to Ellison, because I've been through his situation before, where you don't have options and he's playing his butt off," said Sweeney, 37, who's entering his 13th season. "... I mean, I had a manager tell me, 'You made the team, but I can't take you.'" Ellison's trying to remain optimistic in the face of the unknown.
"I think I've worked hard my whole career," said Ellison, "and I think I deserve something good to happen."Ellison pointed out that he thrives when he plays every day or even just semi-regularly. He hit a credible .264 in 131 games for the Giants in 2005, and posted a .406 mark in 46 games last season at Fresno when he wasn't coming off the bench for San Francisco (.222 in 84 games). It's said of players such as Ellison and Niekro that they're auditioning for all 29 teams, since their lack of Minor League options could prevent their current club from retaining them.
Asked if he feels that way, Ellison said, "I definitely do. Nobody's given me insight on what's happening here, so obviously you have to think like that."But thinking too much can drive a player nuts. "Generally speaking, if you go home at night and think about it, it's on your mind non-stop," Sweeney said. Therefore, Sweeney tries not to dwell on his status. "Nothing changes for me," he said. "I have to do my stuff to get myself ready. My experience probably comes into that. I've been through all that before -- many, many times." And many, many other players endure such mini-dramas, since every team has similar groups of capable veterans or former prospects out of options who are striving for jobs. "It's the good, bad and ugly of baseball," Sweeney said.
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.