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Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The Anticipation Is Killing Me (Spring Training Primer)

In honor of the opening of the Spring Training schedule, I'd like to draw your attention to some of the burning questions for each organization this March.  Sure, as a baseball addict, you're probably jonesing so bad by now that you're willing to watch a split-squad scrimmage, even though it hardly resembles the game you love (Why is Bill Hall pinch-hitting for David Ortiz?).  Hopefully, this can act as a guide to which spring performances really do matter.

Arizona Diamondbacks:

How healthy is Brandon Webb?
For more perspective, check out the ongoing Shoulder Surgery Survey, but needless to say, the D-Backs are a whole lot better with the man who was arguably the best pitcher in the NL from 2006 to 2008.

Who's going to be the fifth starter?
Rotation depth was a major problem for the D-Backs last season.  The return of Webb and the acquisition of Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy will make a difference, but the D-Backs still have a vacancy at the backend.  Billy Buckner, Kevin Mulvey, and Bryan Augenstein are probably the leading candidates, but it's an open audition.

Is Chad Qualls still the closer?
In Qualls first full season as a closer he was okay, going 24 for 29 in save opportunities and posting a 3.63 ERA.  Those are, certainly, not dominating numbers.  The closer of the future is Juan Gutierrez, who went 8 for 8 with a 3.29 ERA when the D-Backs gave him an audition last September.  That, to me, suggests that the future is now.

Atlanta Braves:

Will Jason Heyward be the Opening Day right-fielder?
Bobby Cox is already on the record saying the job is Heyward's to lose.  He may have dodged a bullet when the Braves finished second in the Johnny Damon bidding, but that doesn't mean Atlanta won't bring in another free agent outfielder in the next month.  Obviously, I'm drooling over Heyward's talent, but he's only 20.  Even if he's a future superstar, he may not be the Braves best everyday option this year.  Are they really trying to win a championship in Bobby Cox's final season?  If so, I don't think Heyward will stick.

Baltimore Orioles:

Exactly which rookies will be joining Jeremy Guthrie and Kevin Millwood in the rotation?
Several of the candidates lost their official rookie status by getting a handful of starts last season, but for all intents and purposes, Chris Tillman, Brian Matusz, Brad Bergesen, Troy Patton, Koji Uehara, and David Hernandez are still rookies.  And they've also got Jake Arrieta, a true rookie, who's on the verge of being major-league ready.  Injuries may dictate Baltimore's decision and they may conclude that Uehara and Hernandez make more sense as relievers.  In any case, all of them will be pitching this spring for the opportunity to stay in "the show."

Who will assert himself in the LF/1B/DH rotation?
There's a lot of talent already in the Orioles lineup, but they could use more power.  The most likely candidates to provide it are Nolan Reimold, Garrett Atkins, Ty Wigginton, and Luke Scott.  All will probably get 400+ AB this year, but a good spring could determine who has the upper hand for playing everyday.  The wild card here is Felix Pie, who doesn't project for as much power, but is a more complete player and a better defensive option in the outfield.  If both he and Reimold have big springs, the trio of veterans may find themselves sharing the DH role.

Boston Red Sox:

What are the BoSox gonna do with ole Mike Lowell?
When Boston's deal with the Rangers fell through, Lowell became an All-Star without a position.  If Lowell can prove himself fully healthy, Theo Epstein might try again to trade him, but if he isn't successful, Terry Francona will have the perhaps enviable chore of trying to rotate Lowell into a lineup already crowded with talent.

What are the BoSox gonna do with ole Timothy Wakefield?
Wakefield is looking around and wondering at how quickly his All-Star performance from 2009 was forgotten.  Like Lowell, he's been ousted from the rotation.  Wakefield has lots of experience as a long reliever, so shouldn't be a problem.  The question is whether Wakefield will quietly resume his place in the bullpen at this point in his career.

Can Jed Lowrie or Jeremy Hermida make the veterans uncomfortable?
It's not a stretch to suggest that Lowrie and Hermida possess more talent than Marco Scutaro and Mike Cameron.  As yet, however, they haven't turned that talent into actual production.  If one of them seems primed for a breakout campaign, will Terry Francona have the guts to bench one of the Red Sox major free agent acquisitions?

Chicago Cubs:

Will Ted Lilly be ready by April 11th?
The 11th is the first day that Chicago need its fifth starter.  Lilly has been the Cubs most reliable pitcher the last three years, but arrived at camp still feeling pain in his surgically-repaired shoulder.  The rotation is much shakier without him.

Which outfielders will Lou Pinella favor?
Jim Hendry brought in Marlon Byrd and Xavier Nady to compete with Kosuke Fukudome, who can play either right or center.  Nady has the most upside, but he missed all of last year after Tommy John surgery.  Pinella has repeatedly expressed frustration with the Japanese megastar.  This may be the year he becomes a fourth outfielder.

Will the Cubs get any production from second base?
Many, including myself, expected the Cubs to sign a free agent middle infielder like Orlando Hudson or Placido Polanco.  Instead they chose to go back to the well with once-promising youngsters Mike Fontenot and Jeff Baker, who bit it hard in 2009.  It's a bold move and, in some ways, a likable one.  If it doesn't pay off, we'll probably get a look at Starlin Castro by midseason.

Chicago White Sox:

Can Andruw Jones be an everyday player again?
There was an unseemly break-up with Jermaine Dye last fall, following a mutually beneficial and amiable divorce with Jim Thome, so Kenny Williams has turned the DH position over to Andruw Jones, who re-established himself somewhat with Texas after a remarkably bad showing in L.A.  The Rangers limited Jones at-bats, especially in the second half, and he hasn't hit as many as 20 HR or played as many as 90 games since 2007.

Does Tyler Flowers make the major-league roster?
Flowers is Chicago's top prospect and it would be great for him to share major-league time with A. J. Pierzynski this year, so the veteran could show him the ropes.  The problem is, Pierzynski is notoriously cranky and may not like being constantly reminded of his impending departure from the team he's captained since 2005.

Cincinnati Reds:

Is Aroldis Chapman the Reds fifth starter?
One of the most exciting aspects of Spring Training will be appearances by the hard-throwing lefthander who's spent his whole career behind the Iron Curtain.  With Edinson Volquez out of action until midseason following Tommy John, there is an opening in the major-league rotation.  If Chapman pitches well, it may be difficult for Dusty Baker to rationalize handing the final spot to a mediocre known commodity like Micah Owings or Justin Lehr.

Who will Dusty Baker favor in the outfield?
Walt Jocketty made sure his manager couldn't waste a starting position on Wily Taveras by trading the veteran to Oakland, where Billy Beane promptly released him.  That leaves Baker with four relatively young options for left and center: Chris Dickerson, Drew Stubbs, Wladimir Balentien, and Jonny Gomes.  

Cleveland Indians:

What does the Russell Branyan signing mean?
Before the Indians brought in Branyan, it seemed safe to say that Matt LaPorta was going to be entrenched at first base.  Now, one wonders who is the odd man out.  Is Branyan headed back to a bench role, despite having a 30 HR season in Seattle?  Is LaPorta headed back to AAA, despite absolutely shelling the International League in '09?  Does Cleveland plan on shifting LaPorta back to left field and canning their plans to promote Michael Brantley?  Or, is their something the Indians aren't telling us about Travis Hafner's or Grady Sizemore's health?

Which young arms break the rotation?
Nobody is safe.  Jake Westbrook is a solid bet for Opening Day, but since he's coming back from Tommy John, that's hardly assured.  Fausto Carmona has a major-league contract, so he's got a roster spot, but the Indians are still reeling from his 5-12, 6.32 ERA performance in 2009.  Aaron Laffey, David Huff, and Jeremy Sowers each made 20+ starts in '09, but none of them pitched well enough to guarantee they'll be in the rotation again.  And then there's top prospects Justin Masterson and Carlos Carrasco, who the Indians acquired in the V-Mart and Cliff Lee trades.  Your guess is as good as mine.

Will Carlos Santana by the Opening Day catcher?
Santana is one of the top catching prospects in baseball and there's nobody obviously blocking him (his closest competition is Lou Marson, another 23-year-old).  Will Cleveland hand him their season from the start, or will they put him on the Matt Wieters plan and go with Marson or journeyman Mike Redmond on Opening Day.

Colorado Rockies:

Who's the fifth starter?
David Nied would never believe it, but there is actually fairly impressive rotation in Colorado these days.  If Jeff Francis stays on track with his rehabilitation, there is only one spot still up for grabs.  The frontrunner is Jason Hammel, who pitched fairly well down the stretch in '09.  He'll be pushed by Greg Smith, Tim Redding, Franklin Morales, and Jhoulys Chacin.  The latter two definitely have the best long-term prospects, but the Rocks may prefer to leave Morales in the bullpen, at least for now.

How will the Rockies use Miguel Olivo?
Going into last season, many believed Chris Iannetta was on the verge of a breakout season.  He was good enough to be selected as one of the catchers on Team USA for the WBC.  Unfortunately, by midseason he lost his job to Yorvit Torrealba.  This year he'll be pushed by Olivo, who has great power and is a decent defender.  Some would argue that Olivo has performed well enough in the last couple seasons to deserve a starting position somewhere.  Can Iannetta hold him off?

Detroit Tigers:

Does Johnny Damon replace Clete Thomas or Austin Jackson?
When Detroit started the offseason by trading away Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson, it seemed likely that they were headed into rebuilding mode, which meant Thomas and A-Jax (who came over in the Granderson deal with the Yankees) were slated for full-time gigs.  However, Dave Dombrowski couldn't ignore the fact that the Tigers still had a shot at the weak AL Central, so he signed a no-risk, one-year deal with another former Yankee, Johnny Damon.  That means one of the youngsters is probably headed back to AAA.  The question is, quite simply, does Jim Leyland prioritize defense or offense?  Thomas is a more polished hitter, but Jackson is a better center-fielder.

Does Alex Avila oust Gerald Laird?
Laird is an excellent thrower, but a useless hitter and he didn't help his cause by getting arrested after a brawl at a Celtics game during the offseason.  Avila is the catcher of the future in Detroit.  His 965 OPS last September combined with a good spring could be enough to convince Leyland to make him the primary backstop in 2010.  

Which starting pitchers are fully recovered from their injuries?
The front three - Verlander, Porcello, and Scherzer - is locked down for the Tigers, but they've got a lot of experienced pitchers vying for the backend of the rotation.  They'll be paying Jeremy Bonderman, Nate Robertson, and Dontrelle Willis a combined $34.5 Million in 2010, it would be nice if they got a little return on that investment.  They'll also take a long look at Armando Galarraga.

Florida Marlins:

Who follows Josh Johnson and Ricky Nolasco?
There's plenty of options.  Chris Volstad, Andrew Miller, Anibal Sanchez, Rick VandenHurk, and Sean West are all quality young arms who are seemingly on the verge of breaking out.  Though only 26, Sanchez is the oldest.  He pitched very well in the second half of '09 (2.68 ERA in 9 starts), so he's probably the safest bet.

Which rookie mans first base?
The safe money is on Gaby Sanchez, who is a decent enough prospect, because Logan Morrison and Mike Stanton haven't taken a single hack at AAA yet.  Stanton is actually an outfielder, but the Marlins could consider moving pieces around (Coghlan to 2B, Uggla to 3B, Cantu to 1B) when he's ready.  Both he and Morrison are superlative hitting prospects, the kind the scouts drool over.

Is Leo Nunez still the closer?
Nunez did a mediocre job last year, with 26 save is 33 chances, but he showed flashes of brilliance.  The Marlins have invited former closers like Derrick Turnbow and Mike MacDougal to Spring Training to challenge him.  And, they've got top prospect Jose Ceda waiting in the wings.

Houston Astros:

Who's the closer?
Ed Wade brought in Brandon Lyon and Matt Lindstrom this offseason to replace Jose Valverde and Latroy Hawkins, but it was not clear who was replacing whom.  Both have experience as closers and as set-up men.

Who's the shortstop?
Early reports favor the rookie, Tommy Manzella, but don't count out the journeyman, Jeff Keppinger, who might actually hit a little.

Who's the fifth starter?
The 'Stros could go back to the tank with Brian Moehler, the 38-year-old with a 4.80 career ERA.  Or, they could go with a youngster, probably either Yorman Bazardo or Felipe Paulino.  The darkhorse is Gustavo Chacin.  Chacin hasn't pitched in the majors since '07, having battled a series of injuries following his breakout '05 season, when he threw 200 innings and won 13 games for the Blue Jays.  He's fast approaching thirty, but it will be interesting to see what he can do if his arm is healthy.  

Kansas City Royals:

Will Trey Hillman find room for Alberto Callaspo?
Callaspo was probably the Royals second most productive hitter in 2009, but with the additions of Chris Getz and Josh Fields (presumably to play 2B and DH) he is a man without a position.  If history is any indication, this won't be an issue come May, because half a dozen KC players will be on the DL.

Can Mike Aviles put Yuniesky Betancourt out of his misery?
If you want to read more about Betancourt's woes, you can do so here.  Aviles was a Rookie of the Year candidate in '08, but missed nearly all of last season for Tommy John surgery.  Position players generally come back quicker than pitchers from the operation, but, of course, a shortstop depends more heavily than most on the meat of his chicken wing.

Who earns the right to be the human sacrifice which accompanies the seventh inning stretch in Kansas City?
Joakim Soria has quietly become one of the best closers in baseball.  The Royals rotation is bad, but perhaps not as bad people expect.  The middle innings, well, that's just a horrific ordeal.  Nobody who contributed more than ten innings to the Kansas City pen in '09 (except Soria) had an ERA lower than 4.07 (Robinson Tejeda) and on 19 occasions they failed to get the ball to Soria with a lead still intact.

Los Angeles Angels:

Is Brian Fuentes still the closer?
Seems unfair to ask this question about the guy who led all of baseball in saves last season, but he struggled in the second half and then blew a critical save in the ALCS.  He did not seem to have Mike Scioscia's confidence in October, while Kevin Jepsen did.  To make Fuentes more anxious, the Angels signed Fernando Rodney, who went 37-for-38 in save opportunities in '09.

Will Mike Scioscia trust Brandon Wood at third base?
Brandon Wood is only 24, but he's already hit 160 HR in the minor leagues.  But, what Mike Scioscia keeps thinking, every time this point is made by those that want to see more of him in Anaheim, is that he's also made 150 errors in the minor leagues.  The Angels just don't tolerate bad defense.  They just don't.  So, until he proves he can pick it, Wood's thunder-stick might be buried behind Maicer Izturis and his .393 career slugging percentage.  

Los Angeles Dodgers:

Can Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley carry the rotation?
As recently as the All-Star Break in 2009 this would've seemed like a silly question.  At that point, Kershaw and Billingsley were a combined 16-9 with a 3.25 ERA and the Dodgers had the best record in the National League.  Unfortunately, the went just 6-9 in the second half as Billingsley especially strugged with injuries.  This is one of those glass half full, glass half empty situations which Dodgers fans will be watching very closely.

Who's the fifth starter?
Kershaw and Billingsley will be followed by Hiroki Kuroda and Vincente Padilla.  After that, who knows?  The youth movement favors Charlie Haeger, Jon Link, or James McDonald, but the Dodgers have also invited some cagey veterans to camp, including Russ Ortiz and Jeff Weaver.

Is Russell Martin okay?
Coltrane went from being one of the best hitting catchers in all of baseball to being less than mediocre in 2009.  He completely lost his power (.329 SLG) and hit just .239 in the second half.  Odds are he was nursing some sort of injury and he'll be back to business as usual, but if not, the Dodgers organization, famed for grooming catchers, have a couple promising ones waiting in the wings.  Martin's leash won't be as long in 2010.

Minnesota Twins:

Who's going to play third base?
Minnesota fans aren't crazy about any of the options.  Last year they got a long look at Brendan Harris, Matt Tolbert, and Nick Punto, who in posted a combined OPS under 650 in over 1100 plate appearances.  If you don't know much about OPS, 650 is bad.  It's really very, very bad, any way you slice it.

How will Ron Gardenhire use Jim Thome?
Many people are sick of Delmon Young, the former #1 pick who hasn't lived up to the hype, but he's still only 24-years-old and he hit .300 in the second half of '09.  Young needs regular playing time, as does Jason Kubel, following his breakout year.  Maybe Jimmy can play third?  He's logged almost 500 major-league games there, after all (the last one was in 1996).

Is the rotation finally rehabilitated?
When the Twins young pitchers aren't getting lit up, they're spending most of their time in the training room or on the surgeon's table.  Minnesota hopes their new ballpark can help to change that bad luck.  Francisco Liriano looked great in the winter leagues (but then, so did 45-year-old Orlando Hernandez) and is now two full years removed from Tommy John.  Kevin Slowey had a couple pins inserted in his pitching wrist and fully admits that he doesn't quite feel like himself.

Milwaukee Brewers:

Who's the fifth starter?
Familiar question, right?  The backend of the Milwaukee rotation posted an ERA well above 6.00 last season.  Hopefully, the additions of Randy Wolf and Doug Davis, as well as another year of experience for Manny Parra, will help somewhat, but that still leaves that pesky five-hole.  Does the Forty Million Dollar Man, Jeff Suppan, still have a little left in the tank?  Could David Bush be the quality innings-eater he was from '06 until '08?  Chris Narveson pitched well in his brief audition at the tail-end of last season, but 28-year-old rookies aren't exactly a high-percentage play.  And then, there's my personal favorite, Chris Capuano, the once promising 18-game winner who's had a pair of Tommy John surgeries and hasn't pitched in the majors since 2007.

Where will they play Mat Gamel?
Gamel's shown pretty conclusively that he can hit minor-league pitching, but the Brewers don't appear to have a spot for him in their everyday lineup.  Will he be asked to have another go-round at AAA?  Will Rickie Weeks surgically-repaired wrist be ready for Opening Day?  Or, will the Brewers realize that Casey Magehee's '09 performance was a mirage?

Is Gregg Zaun the Opening Day catcher?
Last year, Gregg Zaun suited up for April starts in Baltimore knowing full well Matt Wieters would be pushing him to the bench sometime in the not too distant future.  This year the Brewers may ask for a repeat performance, as they wait on Angel Salome, or they may slot him immediately into the bench role he's performed so admirably in throughout his 15-year career.

New York Mets:

How many franchise players will begin the season on the disabled list?
Jose Reyes says he's healthy.  Johan Santana says he's healthy.  The Mets say Carlos Beltran is healthy (or, at least, he will be by May).  Nobody believes them.

Can anybody pitch?
Anybody?  Seriously, anybody?  Obviously, there's Johan, if he's healthy.  Behind him, however, the rotation is in shambles.  Mets fans had high hopes for Mike Pelfrey, but so far he hasn't looked like much more than a #3 at best.  Oliver Perez is progressively becoming a cautionary tale, John Maine's star is fading after two straight years of declining production, and there aren't really any prospects to get excited about.  Bueller?

New York Yankees:

What are the new Joba rules?
There's Stephen Strasburg and Aroldis Chapman, the young flamethrowers everybody wants to get a look at.  The other big story this spring is a familiar one.  Will New York use Joba as a starter or a reliever?  This also effects Phil Hughes who, presumably, will occupy whichever role Chamberlain's not in.

Who will Joe Girardi favor in the outfield rotation?
The Yanks will probably carry five outfielders, which is slightly unusual for an AL team: Curtis Granderson, Nick Swisher, Brett Gardner, Randy Winn, and Marcus Thames.  Two lefties, a righty, and a pair of switch-hitters.  Granderson and Gardner are the best defenders, but neither can hit a lick against left-handed pitching.  Neither can Randy Winn, at least not recently.  I assume it won't matter in Granderson's case.  He and Swisher will play almost everyday, leaving the other three in a dogfight for left field.

Oakland Athletics:

Who can play?  What position?
Kurt Suzuki is probably the only position player who's guaranteed to be in the A's Opening Day lineup.  Mark Ellis, Kevin Kouzmanoff, Rajai Davis, and Coco Crisp are probably the safest bets, but even they will face some stiff competition.  Billy Beane has loaded up on potential and I've got to assume that he and Bob Geren are going to play the hot hands.

Which promising young starters are headed back to AAA?
There is, of course, little to guarantee that Ben Sheets and Justin Duchscherer, fragile as they are, will still be available come April, but if they are, that's bad news for some of Oakland's talented sophomores.  Trevor Cahill, Dallas Braden, Gio Gonzalez, Josh Outman, and Vin Mazzaro all got at least a dozen starts in 2009.  But with Sheets, Dutch, and Brett Anderson fronting the rotation, there will only be room for a pair of them in 2010.

Philadelphia Phillies:

Who's the fifth starter?
The Phillies aren't leaving much to chance, as they aim to be back in the World Series for the third consecutive year, but they do have an opening in the rotation.  The frontrunners are Kyle Kendrick and Jamie Moyer, but don't rule out a darkhorse like Antonio Bastardo or Jose Contreras.

Pittsburgh Pirates:

Is Pedro Alvarez ready?
Pirates fans got a taste of 2005 first-rounder, Andrew McCutchen, and now their appetite is whetted.  The #2 pick of the '08 draft posted a 1009 OPS at AA last year and that's enough to convince a good many people he's ready for the Show.  The Pirates would probably like to delay his arbitration clock one more year, but if he has a big spring, they may opt instead for the potential ticket sales.  A lineup including Alvarez, McCutchen, Andy LaRoche, and Ryan Doumit would be the most talent Pirates fans have seen on the field since the early nineties.

Is there an everyday shortstop?
They'd like it to be former Rookie of the Year, Bobby Crosby, but he'll have to prove he can still play the position and stay healthy.  The other options are Ronny Cedeno and Ramon Vazquez.

Um, who'd like to pitch on Friday?
Yes, unfortunately, you need five starting pitchers.  The Pirates are satisfied with three: Zach Duke, Ross Ohlendorf, and Paul Maholm.  For the rest of their rotation you might as well draw straws.  Potential victims include Daniel McCutchen, Kevin Hart, Donnie Veal, Charlie Morton, and Jeff Karstens.

St. Louis Cardinals:

How much magic can Dave Duncan work?
The Cardinals rotation is pretty top heavy.  Carpenter and Wainwright are a pair of Aces, but Brad Penny, Kyle Lohse, and Rich Hill are all reclamation projects.  Perhaps 23-year-old lefty, Jaime Garcia, is ready.  One thing I know for sure is that Tony LaRussa has his eyes on a championship this season.  This team is designed to win now.  And Tony doesn't generally put a whole lot of trust in rookie pitchers...unless he has no other choice.

Who closes if/when Ryan Franklin realizes he's still Ryan Franklin?
I enjoyed Ryan Franklin and his Samson beard as much as anybody in 2009, but, realistically, how often does a pitcher discover closer stuff at the age of 36.  The sharks will be circling from the first moment he takes the mound in 2010.  Young men with eyes on his job included Kyle McClellan, Jason Motte, and Blake Hawksworth.

San Diego Padres:

Who's the Opening Day second baseman?
The Friars are fully immersed in rebuilding mode and if there's one thing that David Eckstein and Jerry Hairston Jr. don't possess, it's long-term potential.  A couple years ago the position was being held for Matt Antonelli, but he absolutely bombed upon reaching AAA, managing only a 652 OPS in two seasons there.  Have the Padres given up on him?  We'll see.

Which rookies make the rotation?
Perhaps the better question would be, which rookies don't?  They've got at least two open spots.  San Diego will audition Mat Latos, Aaron Poreda, Clayton Richard, Sean Gallagher, Wade LeBlanc, and Radhames Liz.  Not all of these guys are officially rookies, but none have a full year of experience yet.

San Francisco Giants:

Is Madison Bumgarner ready?
The Giants have a number of quality pitching prospects, but Bumgarner's on the fast track.  He looked good in his ten-inning cup of coffee in '09 (1.80 ERA, 10 K), but he's only 20-years-old.  He needs to make a statement during Spring Training or the Giants may be persuaded to go with one of their older rookies, like Henry Sosa, Kevin Pucetas, or Joe Martinez.

Does Buster Posey make the major-league roster?
Brian Sabean acted for most of the offseason like he was ready to hand Posey a starting job, then he re-signed Bengie Molina.  Now, he's got himself a real pickle.  If Molina isn't better than he was last year, everybody's going to be calling for the mega-prospect they've been hearing so much about.  If he goes with Posey on Opening Day, Molina will feel betrayed and could devolve into a clubhouse cancer.  Should he implement a timeshare from the start?

Who's the right-fielder?
Early reports favor Nate Schierholtz, but nothing about his limited performance in '09 suggest he's got the job locked up.  Eugenio Velez has shown some potential as well, as have Fred Lewis and Andres Torres.

Seattle Mariners:

Who's the fifth starter?
Even the most optimistic prognosis suggests Erik Bedard won't be ready for at least six weeks into the regular season.  So, Seattle's going to need at least a short-term solution to round out the starting five (which makes it rather odd that they traded away Brandon Morrow).  Doug Fister, Garrett Olson, and Jason Vargas are the front-runners, but don't count out Yusmeiro Petit.  Petit has experience as both a starter and a reliever with the D-Back.  He's only 25 and already has three years in the bigs.  He's a deep sleeper for a breakout year.  

Can any Mariners catcher hit, even a little?
The short answer is: no.  But Rob Johnson, Adam Moore, and Josh Bard will all be given opportunities to try.

How will Don Wakamatsu use Ken Griffey Jr. and Milton Bradley?
You've got a couple of proud, brittle veterans, both of whom are still capable getting hot and raking for a few weeks at a time.  They are among the few potential sources of power on the Mariners roster.  Will they rotate between left field and DH?  Will Wakamatsu also incorporate promising rookie outfielder Michael Saunders?  Can Griffey and his manager conspire to keep Bradley healthy and happy?

Tampa Bay Rays:

Who's the final piece of the wrecking crew?
The Rays can rake.  They led the AL in runs during the first half of last seasons.  In 2010, they're looking to add just a little more thunder from a group of young candidates including Matt Joyce, Sean Rodriguez, Reid Brignac, and Desmond Jennings.  Whoever wins the Spring Training brouhaha will play either second base or right field, with Ben Zobrist holding down the other spot.  Jennings is a long shot, mainly because of his age.  He's more likely to be Carl Crawford's replacement in 2011.  I expect Joyce is the most polished hitter, possessing power, discipline, and even a little speed.  He hit fairly well in a brief run with Detroit in '08.

Is Kelly Shoppach going to be Dioner Navarro's back-up, or his replacement?
Navarro took a big step backward at the plate in '09, but he's only 26-years-old and showed considerable promise in '08.  Shoppach was primarily a back-up in Cleveland, but he's got some power potential given everyday at-bats (21 HR, .517 SLG in '08).

Will they remain patient with Pat Burrell?
Burrell bombed in '09 and the Rays spent all winter trying to give him away.  No takers.  With Joyce, Shoppach, Willy Aybar, Rodriguez, Brignac, and possibly Jennings vying for ABs, Tampa Bay doesn't have a whole lot of reason to keep Burrell in the lineup unless he's putting up numbers.

Texas Rangers:

Can Chris Davis hold off Justin Smoak, at least temporarily?
Davis and Smoak both have tons of potential, but they are very different hitters.  Davis is a free-swinging masher who's probably never going to hit .275 or have a league-average OBP.  Smoak has shown limited power, especially for a first-baseman, but he could contend for a batting title some day.  For Davis to keep his job in 2010, he's going to need to cut back somewhat on the strikeouts and make good on his 30 HR upside.

Is Josh Hamilton still a center-fielder?
The Hamilton situation is sad, reminiscent of the Ken Griffey Jr. years in Cincinnati.  You've got a guy with a best-of-his-generation type swing who's also a tremendous defender, but his body is getting older and breaking down on him and he refuses to give an inch - diving for everything, slamming into wall, sliding headfirst into home plate.  If the Rangers want to keep Hamilton in the lineup, they may have to force him to DH.

Which catchers are on the Opening Day roster?
Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Taylor Teagarden, and Max Ramirez have all been considered top prospects.  They've failed to live up to the hype so far, but there's still time.

Toronto Blue Jays:

Who will be the Opening Day starter?
Dustin McGowan or Shaun Marcum or Brandon Morrow or Marc Rzepczynski or Brett Cecil or Rich Romero or Scott Richmond or Dana Eveland or Kyle Drabek.  It's a free for all.

Where will all the designated hitters play?
Adam Lind, Brett Wallace, Vernon Wells, Edwin Encarnacion, and Jose Bautista all have serious defensive limitations, but only one can be the everyday DH.  It won't be Wells, who was at one time a good centerfielder.

Which catchers are on the Opening Day roster?
You can see my in-depth analysis of this situation here.  It's riveting.

Washington Nationals:

Can the Nats keep Stephen Strasburg off the Opening Day roster?
If the Nats still had Jordan Zimmerman and Ross Detwiler as options, it would be one thing, but with them disabled for a significant amount of the season and Chien-Ming Wang probably not available until at least May, the Nats really have no excuse for keeping the #1 pick out of the rotation, especially if he pitches well during the spring.  Who else are they going to use?  Tyler Clippard?  Ron Villone?

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