Unexpected fill-ins make for skipper dilemmas

Unexpected fill-ins make for skipper dilemmas

Unexpected fill-ins make for skipper dilemmas
For Bryce Harper, it was only a matter of time before he got his shot in the big leagues. Rarely is breaking onto the scene that simple, though.

More common are the experiences of players like the Mets' Kirk Nieuwenhuis or the Brewers' Norichika Aoki, who start the season unsure of what contributions, if any, they'll be able to make at the big league level. But given the opportunity, Nieuwenhuis and Aoki, like some other rookies, have taken full advantage and made impressions.

Aoki has played all three outfield spots since making his Major League debut on April 6. The 30-year-old rookie, who won three Central League batting titles while playing in Japan, is hitting .289 with three triples and an inside-the-park home run. Brewers manager Ron Roenicke recently began experimenting by moving right fielder Corey Hart to first base in an attempt to keep Aoki in the lineup.

"As long as [Aoki] continues to do what he's doing and as long as we see that Corey going to first base helps us as an offense, then I would say [Aoki getting more playing time] is going to happen," Roenicke said.

It's something that happens every year -- a team suffers a string of early injuries or players start the year mired in offensive funks. In Aoki's case, it was a slow start by center fielder Nyjer Morgan that opened the door.

For Nieuwenhuis, it was an Opening Day injury to center fielder Andres Torres -- and then another more recently to left fielder Jason Bay -- that presented him with his first shot.

But with Torres back in center field and Bay activated from the disabled list on Wednesday, Mets manager Terry Collins now has four capable outfielders on his hands. Collins has already said Bay will assume his starting role, while Nieuwenhuis -- hitting .295 with three homers and 20 RBIs -- will serve as a sub at all three outfield positions.

"We're going to have to figure out something," Collins said. "Certainly we're very happy with the way Kirk's playing, but we have to get Jason back here and get him in the lineup. We'll have some fun decisions to make as we go down the road here."

Those types of decisions get even more difficult when it's a club's top prospect who steps in for an injured or struggling veteran and instantly puts up solid numbers.

That's exactly what has unfolded in Boston with Will Middlebrooks, the team's No. 1 prospect at the beginning of the season, according to MLB.com. When Kevin Youkilis went down with a lower back strain on April 28, he was hitting .219 with two homers and nine RBIs. In stepped Middlebrooks, who hit three home runs and drove in nine runs in his first four games.

Since returning, Youkilis has split time between third and first base, as Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine has tried keeping Middlebrooks at third, shifting Adrian Gonzalez from first base to right field away from Fenway. Even with Youkilis hitting .267 in his 13 games since coming off the disabled list, trade rumors have swirled around him, even though he has spent his entire career with Boston.

"There's not a lot of hypothetical talk," Valentine said. "There's talk about where we are and what we have at this present time. I guess [general manager] Ben [Cherington] is having a lot of, you know, thoughts, about the roster, because the roster is pretty complicated. It's going to continue to be challenging."

Obviously, managers cherish when a player like Middlebrooks comes through during a club's time of need, but it often presents a conundrum once the skipper is again playing with a full deck.

Jim Leyland is going through a similar situation in Detroit regarding his leadoff hitter. Center fielder Austin Jackson hasn't played since May 16 because of an abdominal injury, but he is expected to start a rehab assignment Thursday at Triple-A Toledo.

During Jackson's absence, Quintin Berry has burst onto the scene, hitting .310 with four doubles and two triples in 14 games. An impressive showing, for sure, but Berry will have a tough time dethroning Jackson at the top of the lineup.

After all, the 25-year-old Jackson was the runner-up for the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 2010 and tied for the AL lead with 11 triples a season ago. Leyland has tossed around the idea of playing Berry at one of the corner outfield positions -- something the 27-year-old rookie seems more than willing to do.

"[I] try to do everything I possibly can," Berry said. "If they need me to play first, I'll play first. If they need me to play short, I'll play short. It doesn't matter. I'm trying to show them everything I can do so I'll stay as long as I possibly can."

That's all it really comes down to. Once players reach The Show, it's all about performing when your number is called.

The list extends beyond the aforementioned players -- Wei-Yin Chen hurled another gem Wednesday night to improve to 5-2 for the Orioles, and though he went on the disabled list Thursday because of a lower back strain, Freddy Galvis proved to be one of the top defensive second basemen in the Majors as he filled in for the injured Chase Utley in Philadelphia.

There's always an unknown when a player dons a Major League uniform for the first time, and regardless of the initial returns, sometimes that unknown extends well after injured players start working their way back.

"You guys are getting way ahead of yourselves," Leyland said when asked if Berry will receive regular playing time after Jackson returns. "Let's not go there. Let's just see how it plays out. We'll see who's healthy, who's playing, who's not playing. Who's doing good, who's not doing good. But [Berry has] done well."

Paul Casella is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @paul_casella. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.