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AL Rookie to Watch: Eric Hinske

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At Blue Jays camp in Dunedin, Fla., J.P. Ricciardi is waiting for everyone to realize what a smart baseball man he is. It could be only a matter of time. Before Ricciardi was hired to replace Gord Ash as Toronto's general manager earlier this off-season, he was a talent evaluator for the Oakland A's. At the time, the A's had a strapping third baseman busting through the seams in the minor leagues. Ricciardi knew all about Eric Hinske back then. He also knew that the slugging third baseman would probably never make it to the hot corner for the A's because Oakland was set at third with Eric Chavez, who was quickly developing into an all-around star. So when Ricciardi was hired in Toronto and his former boss, Oakland GM Billy Beane, called to see if Blue Jays' closer Billy Koch was available, Ricciardi made sure that Beane included Hinske in any trade. And just like that, a door opened for Hinske. Hinske has never appeared in a major-league game. But barring a major defensive breakdown or an injury, he'll be the Jays' starting third baseman when they open the new season in Boston on April 1. The 24-year-old Hinske is projected as a potential 35-home run hitter, so there is little concern in Dunedin about his ability to adjust to the majors. In fact, before the Koch trade, the A's had Hinske playing first base in the Arizona Fall League because Jason Giambi was expected to leave the team as a free agent. If Hinske is good enough to replace Giambi in Oakland, he certainly fits the bill in Toronto, where Tony Batista was the starting third baseman for most of the 2001 season. Defense is where the questions arise. Hinske, who came up in the Chicago Cubs system, floated around the diamond during his minor-league career, playing left field, right field, first base and third. And many scouts contend that all the position changes were a result of Hinske's lack of defensive skill. But not so fast says the Jays' rookie. "I like to look at myself as a good defensive player," Hinske said. "I've improved every year that I have played the position. Last year was big for me because I got to play every day at third base (at Triple-A Sacramento). Before that I was bouncing around from right field to left field and first base to third. So I feel very comfortable there and I'm anxious to show everyone I can play third base." Count Jays manager Buck Martinez as one of the many people waiting to see what Hinske can do defensively. Prior to Toronto's spring opener last week against the Yankees, Martinez was asked what he would be looking for in the exhibition games: "(To see) how far along Eric Hinske is as a player," Martinez said. Through four spring games, Hinske's been flawless in the field. And he's 1-for-10 so far at the plate. "I try to look at it like this is my chance to play every day in the big leagues and I'm excited to be here," he said. "Hopefully I can show them that I can be a complete player doing the job both offensively and defensively." At 6-2, 225, Hinske has the physical credentials that warrant an outright claim to the third base job in Toronto. However, his physical tools aren't all that Ricciardi acquired him for. Hinske is hard-nosed and scrappy — just the type of player the Jays need to alter their style as a team that's overly reliant on the long ball. "He's a dirt bag, he plays hard," Ricciardi said of Hinske. "The one thing is to have the talent, the other is to want to do good. Those are the guys who have great careers and we hope we have one of those guys in Eric." Hinske will also provide Toronto with more speed. He stole a career-high 20 bases last season in triple-A. If he could combine those numbers with what the Jays expect from a power standpoint (he hit 25 and 20 homers, respectively, the last two seasons), then the Blue Jays could be looking at their first rookie of the year since Alfredo Griffin in 1979. Bryon Evje can be reached at bevje@e-sportsnation.com.
Tagged: Orioles, Athletics, Blue Jays, Cubs, Eric Chavez, Jason Giambi, Billy Koch

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