Questions facing clubs as spring draws near
The talk in Washington has centered on right-handed pitcher Stephen Strasburg, the No. 1 pick overall in last June’s draft. But there is another first-rounder from a year ago — right-hander Drew Storen — who is forcing the issue with the Nationals.
The 30 major league teams begin sorting out their questions for the 2010 season with the opening of spring training camps this week, and among the 10 most intriguing decisions to be made before the regular season opens in seven weeks will be how much of a challenge the Nationals decide Strasburg and Storen can handle.
Washington has to avoid temptations to rush Strasburg, who received a record-setting $15.1 million deal. He was hands-down No. 1 in the draft and is extremely refined, but he hasn’t faced a hitter in pro ball yet. He might be able to make the jump and survive, but club officials will have to take a step back and ask themselves, "Why the rush?"
Storen, meanwhile, was selected by Washington with the 10th pick overall, the compensation for the failure to sign their No. 1 pick a year earlier, right-hander Aaron Crow. While Strasberg spent the summer in an extended holdout and didn’t sign until it was too late to get some time in the minors, Storen agreed to terms quickly and made an impact in his pro debut. He made the climb from Low-A to High-A to Double-A and didn’t miss a beat. In 28 games, he was 2-1 with a 1.95 ERA and 11 saves, allowing 21 hits and eight walks while striking out 49 in 37 innings. And face it, a reliever doesn’t have to have the stamina or three-pitch command of a starter so by the nature of the role they should be able to move quicker.
Chone Figgins has created an interesting situation with two AL West teams in light of his decision to follow free agency from Anaheim to Seattle. The Angels are confident that Brandon Wood is ready to step in at third base, but he’s no leadoff hitter. Erick Aybar is expected to get a shot at the top lineup spot, but manager Mike Scioscia remains a believer in Maicer Izturis.
But Figgins could find himself moved into the No.2 or the No. 9 spot, along the lines of the Whitey Herzog double-leadoff hitter theory. After all, Seattle has Ichiro Suzuki hitting in the No. 1 slot and while Suzuki might seem better suited to hit a spot or two lower, the only way he would be moved out of the leadoff spot is if he indicates a desire to try something different.
Boston has its new third baseman with the signing of free agent Adrian Beltre, but it also has its old third baseman, Mike Lowell. The Red Sox thought they had Lowell dealt to Texas for prospect Max Ramirez in late December, but a torn thumb ligament that required surgery — a year after he had surgery for a torn labrum in his right hip that cut into his defensive range last season — prompted the Rangers to back out of the deal. The Red Sox are hoping that Lowell can go full speed when camp opens on Feb. 24 and then will try and stir up renewed trade interest. If not, they could have a DH platoon matching Lowell and David Ortiz.
Colorado left-hander Jeff Francis equaled a franchise-record with 17 wins in 2007, stumbled to a 4-10, 5.01 ERA season in 2008 and then missed all of 2009 recovering from shoulder surgery. Francis has complete medical clearance for spring training and the lefty, who majored in physics in college, is credited with having refined his mechanics during his year of rehab. But can he regain the command that is so key to his success? Can he handle the 162-game grind? And how long do the Rockies wait to make the decision? The prime alternatives would be either journeyman Tim Redding, signed to a minor-league contract but invited to camp, or lefty Greg Smith. Smith was the other player the Rockies acquired along with outfielder Carlos Gonzalez and closer Huston Street in the Matt Holliday-to-Oakland trade a year ago. He was limited by the flu and assorted ailments to 49 2/3 minor-league innings last year after a 190-inning effort his rookie season in Oakland.
Atlanta outfielder Jason Heyward is universally considered the best prospect in baseball. The Braves traditionally have been conservative with their younger players, which was evident when Heyward, their first-round pick in 2007, opened the 2009 season at the Single-A level. He did finish the year at Triple-A, but he has only 50 games and 173 at-bats above Single-A on his resume. And while he has hit .318 with a .391 on-base percentage in the minors, he has a total of 29 home runs, 125 RBIs and 26 stolen bases in 238 minor-league games.
The Dodgers are the consensus favorite in the NL West, but the team has only two sure things in the rotation: lefty Clayton Kershaw and right-hander Hiroki Kuroda. Can they trust Chad Billingsley to bounce back from his late-season disappearance? Will Vicente Padilla remain on good behavior like he was in the final weeks last year after being released by Texas or will he find a comfort zone and implode emotionally again? And who is even a legitimate No. 5 candidate?
Houston has an upside-down payroll, a farm system that has been panned on a regular basis in recent years, and an identity crisis. Do they want to try and patch a lineup together without enough depth to be a real contender or will new manager Brad Mills be given the mandate to try and rebuild? Tommy Manzella has the early edge on Jeff Keppinger for the shortstop job, but what about pushing Jason Castro, a first-round choice out of Stanford in 2008, for the catcher’s spot after a half season at Triple-A? Will they give Pedro Feliz the edge at third because he is a veteran and signed a $4.5 million deal or will they look to push Chris Johnson at third base?
The Chicago Cubs consider themselves contenders, but there is no room for hesitation if they are going to make a run at the NL Central. With All-Star lefty Ted Lilly out until at least mid-May and no sure thing for the fifth spot, are there enough games in the spring for the Cubs to sort through a seemingly endless list of candidates to fill out the rotation? The possibilities include Sean Marshall, Jeff Samardzija, Tom Gorzelanny, Carlos Silva, Mike Parisi, Andrew Cashner and Jay Jackson to fill out rotation behind Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster and Randy Wells.
St. Louis made the major move to retain outfielder Matt Holliday during the offseason, but the only other addition was right-hander Brad Penny. That leaves the Cardinals depending on St. Louis native David Freese at third base. If he doesn’t make it, where do they turn? There isn’t a player returning who started 10 games at third base for the Cardinals last year.
The New York Yankees say Joba Chamberlain will work as a starting pitcher during the spring, but that’s because it is easier to back him down to handle the bullpen load than it is to try and extend him late in the spring to start. And the Yankees, despite their $200 million payroll, are searching for a fifth starter. Is Phil Hughes ready to assume that role? If not, will Chamberlain be allowed to carry a regular rotation workload or will the Yankees have to choose the final starter from the trio of Chad Guadin, Sergio Mitre and Alfredo Aceves?