With only a little over a week left in Spring Training, managers are beginning to post lineups which look a lot more like what we might see on Opening Day. Rotation candidates are pitching into the fifth and sixth innings with some frequency, using all their pitches, and focusing a little more on "the results."
There are a number of players who have a lot riding on their performance during the remainder of March, either because they are trying to make a major-league roster, or they are trying to gain a larger role. I take this opportunity to provide a team-by-team look at undecided position battles.
Their lineup is set, barring injuries, but the rotation is only 60% filled, since Brandon Webb appears likely to miss at least the first two or three turns. Billy Buckner was a leading candidate headed into the spring, but he's been rather dreadful, especially in his last outing, when he allowed eight earned runs in two inning against the Royals. Non-roster invitee, Rodrigo Lopez, has pitched fairly well, as has Kevin Mulvey, a post-hype prospect who came over in the Jon Rauch trade with Minnesota. While Mulvey doesn't have a ton of upside, neither does Buckner. The delay in Webb's rehab give the D-Backs an opportunity to give one or both of them a brief regular-season audition.
The Braves have no reason to leave Jason Heyward behind when they break camp. Bobby Cox and Chipper Jones have both given him ringing endorsements and poor springs from Nate McLouth and Matt Diaz have helped cement his place in the Opening Day lineup. The Braves only decision at this point is who secures the final spot on their bench. Brooks Conrad, Joe Thurston, Freddie Freeman, and Gregor Blanco have all played fairly well. With David Ross, Omar Infante, Eric Hinske, and Diaz already in the fold, they've got experienced pinch-hitters and defensive backups at every position, so it's very hard to predict which factors will weigh heavily for Cox and Frank Wren when making their final cuts.
The Orioles new going into March that they would have a tough time spreading around playing time at first base, designated hitter, and left field between this quintet of hitters: Nolan Reimold, Luke Scott, Garrett Atkins, Ty Wigginton, and Felix Pie. Reimold seemed like the only one assured of everyday at-bats, and thats probably still true, but he hasn't make a great case for himself this spring. Reimold has had only two hits in 27 at-bats, both singles, while the other players, Scott and Pie especially, have had much better showings. All will be on the Opening Day roster, but it's anybody's guess who will be in the Opening Day lineup.
Dave Trembley seems committed to a rotation of Jeremy Guthrie, Kevin Millwood, Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, and Brad Bergesen, but David Hernandez and Mark Hendrickson have both had strong showings this spring. The Orioles will have to decide whether their talents are best utilized in the bullpen or as insurance at AAA.
Boston Red Sox:
No big surprises in Red Sox camp. The progress of Dice-K will determine whether Tim Wakefield, who has had an excellent spring, starts in the rotation or the bullpen, but it is, of course, an uncertainty he is quite accustomed to.
Tyler Colvin has had an exceptional camp, hitting .438 with a 1062 OPS. That's great news for the Cubs, who could use an infusion of talent in their outfield from the '06 first-rounder in the near future, but Colvin won't get the call until a full-time job opens up. There are those that wouldn't mind it if Marlon Byrd or Kosuke Fukudome suffered a badly sprained ankle this April.
The major questions for Chicago are in the rotation. The timetable for Ted Lilly's return probably means the Cubs need two starters rather than just one from the group composed of Carlos Silva, Tom Gorzelanny, Jeff Samardzija, and Sean Marshall. Marshall has been the best pitcher this spring, but he and Samardzija are also among the best candidates to take over the primary set-up role left vacant after the injury to Angel Guzman. Jim Hendry seems stubbornly committed to proving he got something in return for Milton Bradley, so Cubs fans can probably look forward to a few desperate and ugly starts from Silva before the GM finally accepts that he's a gold-plated toad.
Chicago White Sox:
The White Sox are having a great March, Guillen family drama aside. The rotation is set, they've got depth in the bullpen, and everybody appears healthy. The only real source of concern is Mark Teahen, who's hitting .143, but he's a notoriously slow starter and will likely bat at the bottom of the order regardless.
Dusty Baker has a couple of tough decision ahead of him, but they are the kind of decision managers like to be presented with. The most notable, of course, is regarding Aroldis Chapman. If his back spasms clear up, as back spasms usually do, than Chapman has certainly earned his spot in the rotation, but Travis Wood and Mike Leake have pitched quite well also. There are also an abundance of good candidates in the outfield. Jay Bruce will play right, but Drew Stubbs, Chris Dickerson, Jonny Gomes, and Wladimire Balentien have all played well enough to deserve a shot in left or center. Juan Francisco, one of the Reds top hitting prospects, currently a third-baseman, probably won't start the season with the team, but he's also learning the outfield, since he's blocked by Scott Rolen at his natural position. Balentien and Stubbs definitely have the most long-range potential, but we all know that means jack squat to Baker, who gave 95 starts to Willy Taveras last year.
The Indians, who had as many question marks as any club heading into March, have already made some significant decisions. Carlos Santana will open the season at AAA, which mostly has to do with delaying his arbitration eligibility, so Lou Marson is the Opening Day catcher. Russell Branyan hasn't been able to play yet, so it's safe to say the Indians will go with their original plan - Matt LaPorta at first and Michael Brantley in left - until Branyan is ready for action. Both have played very well this spring. Jake Westbrook, Fausto Carmona, and Justin Masterson have all made strong claims in the rotation. Carlos Carrasco has pitched well, but it remains to be seen whether the rookie has jumped ahead of David Huff, Aaron Laffey, and Jeremy Sowers, none of whom have been particularly good.
There aren't many spots available on the Rockies roster, but Huston Street's injury created a little competition for fill-in closer. Franklin Morales, the leading candidate, has an ugly overall line, but has only allowed one run, three hits, and one walk in his last four outings. His ERA is 10.24 because he got shelled early in March when he was still trying to audition for the rotation. Manny Corpas, Morales's primary competitor, has also settled into a pretty good rhythm recently, allowing one run, four hits, and no walks in his last four outings.
Detroit fans are very concerned about whether Alex Avila, who played well in the latter part of '09, will make the Opening Day roster, but Jim Leyland's primary focus has to be the backend of the rotation. Three very expensive veterans are currently competing for two spots. Jeremy Bonderman definitely went into the spring favored as the #4 starter. His velocity has been very good, but his control his still a work in progress and the results thusfar have not been very good. Dontrelle Willis and Nate Robertson have also struggled with walks, but their overall numbers are much better (3.68 ERA for Robertson, 0.82 ERA for Willis). Willis showed some zip on his fastball (as high as 93 MPH) in his last outing, another encouraging sign for the Tigers. Leyland would probably really like to have an extra couple turns before he was required to make his decision regarding the Opening Day rotation.
The Marlins are also primarily concerned with filling out their rotation. Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco, and Anibel Sanchez are in. Chris Volstad has been terrible at times, but could probably solidify his spot with another strong outing following a rebound this past weekend. The final slot was Andrew Miller's to lose, but walking eight batters in eight innings of work is one way to do just that. Clay Hensley, who won 11 games for the Padres back in 2006, has jumped to the front of the line by not allowing a run or a walk in ten innings of work so far.
The biggest story in Astros camp is the battle between catching prospects J. R. Towles and Jason Castro. Towles, who is the frontrunner mainly because of service time is hitting .444 and Castro isn't far behind, at .391. Towles is the more mature hitter, but Castro is a superior prospect (first-round pick in '08) and the better defender. In all likelihood, Towles will be given two months to prove he can hold down the job (thus delaying Castro's free agency by a season).
The Astros also have an opening at the back of the rotation. Felipe Paulino and Brian Moehler are the leading candidates, with Paulino pulling well ahead thanks to five innings of excellent work on Tuesday afternoon.
Kansas City Royals:
With Alex Gordon opening the season on the D.L. and Rick Ankiel also sidelined by an injury, even less is certain about the Royals lineup. Mike Aviles is playing well enough that he may prove ready to take over shortstop on Opening Day. The Royals would like to get both Alberto Callaspo and Josh Fields into the lineup, but who will play 3B and who will DH is unclear. Brian Anderson and Mitch Maier are trying to force their way into the outfield picture, along with Ankiel, Jose Guillen, Scott Podsednik, and David DeJesus. Kila Ka'aihue, who has probably been the second-best hitter in the Royals organization for two years and has posted a 1103 OPS this spring is likely headed back to AAA, proving once again that no matter what decisions Dayton Moore and Trey Hillman make, they will probably be the wrong ones.
Los Angeles Angels:
The Angels are, unsurprisingly, the most prepared team in baseball at this point. Mike Scioscia may still be a little uncertain about the last pitcher in the bullpen and the last man on the bench, but everything else appears good to go. Brandon Wood has shown good patience at the plate and has yet to make an error this spring, proving himself ready to take over at third base. Unfortunately there is no place for Trevor Bell in the rotation, but he'll almost certainly get the first shot if and when an Angels starter goes down.
Los Angeles Dodgers:
The Dodgers open auditions for starting pitchers this spring yielded a surprising number of intriguing candidates. Ramon Ortiz, the 37-year-old form Angel who hasn't pitched in the majors since 2007, was a staple in Anaheim's rotation from 2000 to 2004, has surprised everybody be striking out 17 hitters in 13 innings. Following four fairly strong innings against a Texas lineup that included several Rangers starters, Ned Colletti and Joe Torre are now forced to take Ramon's bid seriously. Another Ortiz, Russ (no relation), the former Giants Ace, has also pitched impressively, as has 24-year-old rookie, Carlos Monasterios. The three men who opening March as favorites for the fifth spot - James McDonald, Jeff Weaver, and Charlie Haeger - no appear merely afterthoughts.