-- Nothing makes veteran scouts more nostalgic than a timely Rickey Henderson or Tim Raines reference. Given the fragile state of the leadoff hitter landscape, a lot of talent evaluators would be as giddy rehashing the career exploits of Brett Butler or Juan Pierre.
Scan the 30 MLB rosters, and it's getting harder to find hitters who have mastered the craft. Dee Gordon, Matt Carpenter, Ian Kinsler, Mookie Betts, Adam Eaton, Curtis Granderson, Jose Altuve and Dexter Fowler all warrant mentioning among the best in the game at the moment -- and Fowler's .478 batting average on balls in play suggests a regression is right around the corner.
The Yankees' $153 million investment in Jacoby Ellsbury has failed to generate the desired payoff, while Billy Hamilton's otherworldly speed has yet to translate into success in Cincinnati. The quirkiest team of all is Kansas City. The Royals won a World Series last year with Alcides Escobar at the top of the order, and they're off to a 12-7 start this season while he limps along with a .267 on base percentage.
Leadoff hitter job requirements can vary from team to team. Some clubs lean strongly toward on base percentage and view the speed element as gravy, while others prefer a blazer in the top spot. As MLB executives and managers routinely point out, the No. 1 hitter is only assured of leading off an inning once a game. But some see value in a leadoff man who can set a tone right out of the gate.
"It can build some momentum right away," said Angels general manager Billy Eppler. "You watch a guy go out there and have a good plate appearance, and whether it manifests itself in a base hit, a walk or an 8-9-10 pitch at-bat, it can definitely light the fire for the guys hitting behind him."
Several teams attempted to fill their leadoff voids from within this season. Kinsler, Tampa Bay's Logan Forsythe and Cincinnati's Zack Cozart have enjoyed early success while moving up in the batting order. Other clubs -- such as the Rangers ( Delino DeShields), Brewers ( Domingo Santana) and Phillies ( Freddy Galvis, Cesar Hernandez and Odubel Herrera -- are letting younger, inexperienced players try to embrace the nuances of the leadoff spot on the fly.
Meanwhile, a multitude of aspiring contenders made trades, signed free agents, relied on injury comebacks or, in one case, used the Rule 5 draft to resolve a leadoff issue. Keeping in mind that it's early and the numbers can change drastically in the span of a few days, here's a look at how 10 new leadoff hitters are faring on a scale of one to five baseballs.
The Diamondbacks appeared to be in trouble after trading Inciarte to Atlanta and losing Pollock to a devastating elbow injury before the opener. But they've gotten terrific production from Segura, who tore it up in the Cactus League and kept on mashing from Opening Day. He has also made a smooth transition to second base to accommodate the defensively-gifted Nick Ahmed at shortstop.
Segura, who went through a major personal crisis with the death of his 9-month-old son in 2014, looks a lot like the dynamic player who made an All-Star team with Milwaukee in 2013. He made a significant change in his stance in the offseason, dropping his hands at the behest of former big-league outfielder Luis Mercedes during winter workouts in the Dominican Republic. Segura has also found a comfort zone in Arizona with the help of catcher Welington Castillo and coaches Ariel Prieto and Dave Magadan, all of whom speak fluent Spanish.
The Diamondbacks have given Segura the freedom to be himself, which means letting the bat head fly and ripping balls to the gap. Segura's two walks in 95 plate appearances are a tad worrisome. But if he can give the Snakes a .330 OBP with 40-50 extra base hits, he'll fulfill his mandate in Arizona.
"We're not asking him to change his game and try to walk," Diamondbacks manager Chip Hale said. "We want him to be aggressive. Some leadoff hitters are OK hitters, but their skill is they can get on base. They can work a walk. Jean's skill is, he can really swing the bat. We don't want to take that away from him."
Sure, it's only April, but Utley is looking awfully spry for a 37-year-old guy with a history of knee problems. He has combined with Kiké Hernandez to give the Dodgers a major lift out of the top spot in the order.
Utley amassed a total of 11 starts and 51 plate appearances in the leadoff spot over his first 13 MLB seasons. While he always has had the skill set to hit at the top of the order, his combination of power and hitting acumen prompted the Phillies to use him almost exclusively in the 2-3 spots.
"He gives you a great at-bat," a National League executive said. "He's a smart hitter and one of the best baserunners I've ever seen. I think it was one of the most underrated signings of the winter. The way he's running the bases, it looks like his knees are in great shape."
Utley is playing so well, manager Dave Roberts' biggest challenge is summoning the willpower to rest him. Roberts gave Utley the night off against Marlins left-hander Wei-Yin Chen on Monday, and he'll be looking for more opportunities to sit Utley against assorted lefties. Amid all the positive omens, Utley's recent experience suggests the Dodgers might be pushing their luck if they try to squeeze more than 130-140 games out of him.
"He really can handle the bat," an American League scout said. "He has great instincts at the plate. He's very disciplined. He gets good pitches to hit, and he's an unselfish guy. He plays to the situation, and it's hard to find those guys. To me, he's an ideal No. 2 hitter if you have a legit leadoff guy."
That said, Jaso is 32 years old and with his fourth big-league organization. He has 15 stolen bases in 568 career games, and he has never had 350 at-bats or surpassed 10 homers in a season. He will not leg out many infield hits this summer, and he's no lock to score from first base on a double.
Will Jaso blossom in a more expanded role or fade from overexposure? A second scout is skeptical that he can maintain his current level of production.
"If my GM called me right now and said, 'Do you want Jaso as a leadoff hitter?' I'd say no,"' the scout said. "He hasn't been an everyday player, and now he's leading off every day? I don't see it."
Baltimore manager Buck Showalter began the season with Machado in the leadoff spot while expressing reservations about heaping too many expectations on Rickard, a Rule 5 pick from Tampa Bay.
Rickard made his debut in the leadoff spot with a home run off against Minnesota's Trevor May in the third game of the season, and he hit safely in 14 of his first 18 games while becoming an instant fan favorite in Baltimore.
Rickard never cracked a Baseball America top 30 prospects list in Tampa Bay, but he logged a .390 OBP in four minor-league seasons with the Rays. While a recent FanGraphs article mentioned Troy O'Leary, Gabe Gross and Endy Chavez as potential big-league comparables for Rickard, a National League scout thinks he's capable of more.
"He reminds me of a young, right-handed-hitting Steve Finley," the scout said. "He's got a live body. He's got a good approach at the plate, and he has tools. He can play all three outfield positions. He's got defensive skills. He runs well and he throws average. That's a good Rule 5 pick."
One early red flag for Rickard: 17 strikeouts and only three walks. Opposing pitchers are going to keep challenging him, so he'll have to hit his way to a .350 OBP.
Span has a career .353 OBP and three 10-triple seasons on his resume, and he's two years removed from leading the National League with 184 hits. The Giants signed him to a three-year, $31 million contract in January, and he looks like a nice, comfortable fit batting in front of Joe Panik, Matt Duffy and Buster Posey in manager Bruce Bochy's lineup.
After season-ending hip surgery in August, Span is still rounding out the rough edges in his game. Every day he gets four or five at-bats and continues to find his stroke, it's a step in the right direction.
"He just needs to go out there and play and get his timing," a scout said. "He'll progressively get better. If he stays healthy, he's just what you want at the top."
Davis' best production came during the 2009-2010 seasons, when he stole 91 bases in Oakland. He's 35 years old now, with a .316 career OBP, and Cleveland is his sixth MLB team. He has never scored 70 runs in a season, and realistically, he's the type of place-filler the Indians can expect when they're spending $5.25 million on a one-year deal.
"He has the speed of a leadoff guy, but he's never had the mindset of a leadoff guy," a scout said. "Now that he's experienced, he may have a little better ability to adapt because he knows the league so well. But you're always looking to upgrade the contact ratio with the mindset of what you expect out of that spot."
Carlos Santana, Cleveland's No. 5 hitter, has already made three starts at leadoff, so manager Terry Francona has made it clear he's willing to tinker in the quest for offense as Michael Brantley returns from a shoulder injury.
Escobar and the Angels' other big offseason acquisition, Andrelton Simmons, fit the profile as high-contact guys who can keep the line moving the way manager Mike Scioscia prefers. The organizational game plan was to find complementary offensive pieces to get on base and create RBI opportunities for Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Kole Calhoun and C.J. Cron in the middle of the order.
"We wanted two OBP guys," Eppler said. "It didn't have to be walk-based. Yunel's production relies on contact and some plate discipline, and those are things we wanted to gravitate to."
Escobar has been serviceable, but the rest of Los Angeles' lineup needs work. Simmons, Pujols, Cron and Giovatella are off to terrible starts, and the Angels' decision to fill the left-field spot on the cheap has not worked according to plan. The threesome of Craig Gentry, Daniel Nava (currently on the DL) and Rafael Ortega has a combined .485 OPS through 20 games. The Angels rank last in the American League with 63 runs, and they're not going anywhere with that kind of production.
While Aoki has yet to kick it in gear, he should be an upgrade over the hodgepodge of hitters that former manager Lloyd McClendon penciled into the No. 1 hole last year. It remains to be seen what the Aoki/ Leonys Martin/ Adam Lind makeover does for the Seattle lineup as a whole.
"We like what Nori brings," Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto wrote in a text message. "He's a contact-oriented hitter with a consistent track record for getting on base. Like many of our hitters, he got off to a slow start, but he'll be fine."
"There's something to be said for someone at the top of the order who is having a quality at-bat and seeing more pitches," Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins said. "Is there value to having someone who can run there? Absolutely. But it's not about stealing bases at the top of the order in this lineup. You're not going to run when you have [Josh] Donaldson, [Jose] Bautista and Edwin [Encarnacion] coming up next."
The Blue Jays began the season with Pillar in the No. 1 spot, then ditched the experiment when he hit .188 and failed to draw a walk in 48 plate appearances. Carrera has given the team a lift, but three leadoff men in 21 games does not bode well for stability.
Help could be on the way when Devon Travis returns from a shoulder injury sometime in May. Travis logged an .859 OPS in 62 games last year and was in the AL Rookie of the Year mix before he got hurt in July. He's a natural to assume a lot of the at-bats that were freed up when Chris Colabello received an 80-game PED suspension last week.
It's natural to wonder if the Nationals put a crimp in Taylor's confidence when they acquired Ben Revere from Toronto in an offseason trade, but Taylor looked just fine when he was tearing it up in the Grapefruit League. The problems began when Revere suffered an oblique injury on Opening Day and Taylor was suddenly thrust into the No. 1 spot. Taylor has plenty of tools, but he strikes out a lot and isn't well-suited to taking pitches and working counts.
Factor in his 32 leadoff starts last season, and Taylor has a career .196/.220/.329 slash line and an ugly 85-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the top spot. The Nationals planned to carry Taylor as their fourth outfielder this season, but he's off to such a rough start. They might have to consider sending him to the minors to get things together and using Chris Heisey and Matt den Dekker off the bench once Revere returns from the disabled list in mid-May.
The Nationals can afford to take their time with Revere now that they're off to a 14-4 start. The torrid Aprils of Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy and the team's 2.24 aggregate ERA have made Taylor's struggles an afterthought in the early going.