With Stephen Strasburg optioned to AA, Jason Heyward penciled into the Braves Opening Day lineup, and Phil Hughes confirmed as the Yankees fifth starter, it may feel like March is coming to an anticlimactic end. Here are the best remaining storylines heading into the final week of Spring Training.
Every year there is an off-the-radar player who dominates the Grapefruit League and unexpectedly earns a spot on the major-league roster (remember Chris Shelton). Usually, that player is an afterthought by the middle of May, but that may not be the case with Sean Rodriguez. Rodriguez is hitting .413 and leading the league with six homers, while Pat Burrell (.171) and Gabe Kapler (.138) have been less than impressive. Matt Joyce's elbow injury may limit him to DH duties or even force him to the DL to begin the season, which may clear space for S-Rod in right field or at second base (with Ben Zobrist moving to right).
Rodriguez is a serious prospect, the key piece in the Scott Kazmir trade with the Angels last August. S-Rod has shown tremendous power throughout his minor-league career and in recent seasons has shown a steadily improving sense of the strike zone. He's going to swing and miss plenty, but at least he'll whiff primarily on pitches in the zone and could be make a run at 30 HR even as a rookie if he's given everyday at-bats. The Rays are "all-in" with Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena headed to free agency at the end of 2010, so I think they'll give S-Rod a chance to prove his March numbers are no fluke. If he produces during the time it takes Matt Joyce's elbow to heal, it could spell the end of the Pat the Bat experiment in Tampa Bay.
The Jeff Suppan Mercy Killing
The Brewers are facing an unfamiliar problem this spring: a dearth of starting pitching. With Yovani Gallardo, Randy Wolf, Doug Davis, and Manny Parra pretty much guaranteed spots in the rotation, only one remains for either Dave Bush, Jeff Suppan, or Chris Narveson.
Both Bush and Narveson have pitched extremely well this spring, while Suppan has not. The fact that Bush, Narveson, and Parra are all out of minor-league options and would undoubtedly be claimed off waivers, makes it almost impossible for the traditionally pitching poor Brewers to leave any one of them off the active roster.
Suppan has gotten progressively worse since coming to Milwaukee and seems now like a serious candidate for release, even though that would mean the Brewers would have to eat the remaining $14 Million on his contract. Better that, however, than lose a useful and relatively young pitcher like Narveson or Bush and get nothing in return.
No doubt Doug Melvin is beating the bushes trying to find a trading partner. That may not be far-fetched considering how many teams have starting pitching shortages, but they will be able to drive a hard bargain with the knowledge that Milwaukee's roster math just doesn't work at this juncture. It wouldn't surprise me terribly if the Brewers began the season with thirteen pitchers, or if Suppan came down with a convenient case of tendinitis that forced him to the 15-day DL.
Roll the Dice on Aroldis?
I've been saying it all spring and I still believe, assuming his back spasms aren't a recurring problem, Aroldis Chapman will be the Reds best option for the final spot in the rotation. I don't think he's the second-coming of Dwight Gooden. There will be some rough outings. But if the Reds are serious about contending during the final year of Dusty Baker's contract (and potentially the final year in Cincinnati for Aaron Harang, Bronson Arroyo, and Ramon Hernandez), Chapman has the best chance of helping them to that goal straight out of the gate.
Peter Gammons argues eloquently for giving Chapman a Strasburg-style six-week minor-league training program and I understand his logic, but I think it's safe to say that if the Nationals thought they had a legitimate shot at the postseason, they probably would've made Strasburg their Opening Day starter. Many in the Braves organization regret starting Tommy Hanson at AAA in '09, considering the Braves ended missing the playoffs by only six games and the men who kept Hanson's seat warm, primarily Jo-Jo Reyes and Kris Medlen, combined for only one win in April and May. There is quite a bit riding on this season, for Baker, for the Reds veterans, and for the front office. Making their first postseason appearance since 1995 would more than make up for the money they might lose if Chapman gets one more year of arbitration.
The Comeback Train?
The Tigers are going to pay $35 Million this season to Dontrelle Willis, Jeremy Bonderman, and Nate Robertson, but at this juncture it looks like there's only room or two of them in the rotation. Bonderman and Willis are clear favorites, both because they have more raw talent and because Robertson has a better chance of adapting to a relief role. I think it's safe to say that everybody's rooting for the affable, spirited D-Train, but while his increasing velocity and 1.20 ERA in fifteen spring innings are damn good signs, his eight walks are a red flag, especially considering that control problems are what derailed him in '08 and '09.
The Second Coming of R. Ortiz
Coming into Spring Training the Dodgers probably expected that the competition for fifth starter would come down to youngsters like James McDonald and Charlie Haeger. That has not been the case. There is still a rookie in the running, 24-year-old Carlos Monasterios, but frontrunners are a pair of guys named Ortiz, both of whom came into camp facing very long odds.
Ramon Ortiz, the former Angels workhorse who will turn 37 in May, hasn't pitched in a major-league game since 2007, but he has struck out nineteen batters in fourteen innings, posting a 1.29 ERA.
Russ Ortiz, the former Giants Ace, is a year younger, and got thirteen starts for the Astros in 2009, but he hasn't had even a mediocre season since 2004. Over the last five years he is 10-28 with a 6.56 ERA. However, this spring he's been dominant, allowing on two earned runs in thirteen innings (2.08 ERA).
Many were surprised yesterday when Joe Torre announced that Vicente Padilla would be his Opening Day starter. They're going to be even more surprised when he announces who gets the call on April 11th.