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Camps are closing soon but key decisions must still be made

JUPITER, Fla. -- With just more than a week to go before the start of the regular season, some major issues remain, even in the camps of contenders. Here are among the more interesting debates still ongoing:

Luis Castillo has an eight-game audition after the Phillies signed the recently-released Met to a minor league contract. It can't hurt, beyond potentially being a waste of time. As he did with the Mets' Terry Collins, Castillo got of off on the wrong foot by showing up later than his manager expected. "If it was me? I'd have been here two days ago,'' Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said before Castillo arrived. The Phillies ultimately suggested it was a miscommunication between Castillo and his agent, which is no surprise since Castillo may lead the league in excuses. (He said he was late for Mets camp because he was doing a hospital visit yet he didn't visit Walter Reed last year because he was supposedly squeamish about hospitals.)

In any case, Castillo better hustle now if he wants to impress. With Chase Utley's return seemingly nowhere in sight, the Phillies hope he can recapture some magic from earlier in his career, when he made three All-Star teams from 2001-04. Otherwise, they will likely turn to Wilson Valdez, the slick fielder who filled in ably for shortstop Jimmy Rollins last year, or perhaps impressive Rule V pickup Michael Martinez or journeyman Josh Barfield. Scout Charlie Kerfeld was said to be trailing the Rangers' Michael Young for a while, but Philadelphia's payroll is closing in on a league-high $170 million and competitors don't see how they add Young's $16-million salary without somehow offsetting it.

Castillo is more experienced at second than anyone in their camp, with 1,720 games at that position, but his range is "close to zero'' one scout said, and it's hard to see this audition working long-term. It's good they have Valdez.

With Castillo gone and Justin Turner optioned Wednesday to the minors, Rule V pickup Brad Emaus appears to be the overwhelming favorite. In the biggest hint to date, Mets GM Sandy Alderson said that Wednesday's lineup, which had Emaus at second and Daniel Murphy at third, was "more revealing than anything I could say.''

Emaus is a solid hitter with a reputation for having a good eye but he doesn't look like a second baseman. "He's awfully round,'' one old-time scout said. Asked if he could turn himself into a second baseman, that scout said he remained skeptical.

Emaus isn't exactly tearing it up this spring, either (he is hitting .235 and has one RBI). But Emaus came with the recommendation of top Mets executive J.P. Ricciardi, who had him in Toronto. "He is J.P.'s boy,'' the scout noted of Emaus. He also walked 50 times last year, which is always noted in Moneyball regimes. Some have suggested he is reminiscent of Dan Uggla, but even Emaus thought that was a bit much. "We're both Rule V guys and have similar body types. But I'm not sure I'm going to hit thirty home runs,'' Emaus said, honestly.

Luis Hernandez is in camp, and for a few days he had Collins' attention. But as one scout said, "He's a 4-A player. (Collins) is cracked if he thinks Hernandez is going to be his second baseman'' He also has a lifetime .584 OPS, which won't impress the Moneyball set now running the team.

The scouts, meanwhile, are raving about Murphy's hitting ability, but one scout said he looked like less of a second baseman than Emaus. If Murphy avoids hurting or embarrassing himself, he could wind up platooning with Emaus. But it seems clear Emaus has at least part of the job.

The Red Sox are convinced that Jarrod Saltalamacchia is their man. "We're going with Salty,'' one Boston person said, flat out. They've loved his tools for years, and Salty spent the winter working out with their vaunted catching coach Gary Tuck, enhancing his chances. Longtime Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek is said to be embracing his role as a backup/mentor, which is positive news. Boston, however, is looking for a veteran catching presence for Triple-A for added depth behind Saltalamacchia, who has been injury-prone, and Varitek, who's been around quite awhile. They won't rule out needing to upgrade come June, but for now Salty appears to be the choice.

Youngster Ivan Nova (1-0, 1.29 ERA) has been nothing short of brilliant and has nailed down the No. 4 job provided nothing crazy happens. He had a six inning no-hitter in a recent outing vs. the Orioles, backing up his stated claim to the job. The No. 5 job is likely going to come down to Bartolo Colon (1-0, 2.40) or Freddy Garcia (1-1, 5.93), though Sergio Mitre (1-1, 5.73) is officially in the mix. Colon has pitched very well, and probably surprised a few folks by lasting six innings his last time out, despite having apparently gotten into CC Sabathia's Cap'n Crunch stash. "He was really good. He was throwing hard and his pitch-ability was excellent,'' one AL scout said. As for Garcia, the scout said, "He's going to have to trick people.''

Yankees GM Brian Cashman concurred that Colon has been "terrific'' but wouldn't tip his hand on either of the two spots. "Going into the season, I think they're going to be more comfortable with Colon,'' the scout surmised. "He's at an age where they can only hope to ride him when he's hot.'' Complicating matters somewhat, the Yankees don't know if Colon or Garcia would consider accepting a minor league assignment, and only Colon (plus Mitre) is likely to be able to fill a bullpen role, which could go to one of the runners-up. They also know Garcia has a history of poor springs, so this is nothing new for him.

While the Yankees won't say, judging by the past, where they have rewarded the better spring performance, the best guess now is that Nova and Colon will man the Nos. 4 and 5 starters spots.

With Francisco Cervelli breaking his foot early in camp, the door was opened or one of two rookies, hitting prodigy Jesus Montero or defensively adept Austin Romine, to win a backup role. While the assumption earlier was that Montero, having played at Triple-A, had the inside track, that isn't necessarily the case now.

"If you could combine the two guys, you'd have one helluva player,'' one competing exec said, meaning to combine Montero's offense with Romine's defense. Neither has exactly ripped the cover off the ball this spring, though Montero has hit better. He's batting .222 with two RBIs while Romine is at .150 with no RBIs.

Romine has, though, lived up to his scouting report as a very solid defender, while Montero has been up and down defensively. "He's struggled with good stuff behind the plate,'' said one scout, meaning he didn't always handle the best fastballs and splitters. The Yankees thought Montero was very good defensively early, that he slipped for a 10-day period while he was struggling with the bat, and has come on lately. "If they want a (defensive) catcher first, there's no comparison,'' one scout said. Regarding Montero's defense, that scout said, "He needs a lot of work.''

Cashman answers to the question of which one should get the job by saying "it depends on who you ask.'' So it's still all up for debate. As for the starting catcher, they are impressed by free-agent pickup Russell Martin, who's looked solid (.222, 1 home run, 2 RBIs) except for one game that was especially hot at Dunedin the day after St. Patrick's Day. "We're very pleased with Russell Martin,'' Cashman said. "He's been really good. He's going to really help us."

As for the backup. the conventional wisdom seems to be now that since the Yankees' stellar lineup doesn't need another hitting star, they are more likely to tab Romine. "Romine can go in there and catch and throw. He's not going to be called on to hit third, fourth, fifth or sixth in that lineup,'' one scout pointed out. "I think he might be a better choice for the short term.''

In an upset, it appears Romine is a slight favorite.

Rangers people are supposed to meet soon to determine whether Neftali Feliz should continue working as a starter or go back to the bullpen as the star closer, the role from which he won AL Rookie of the Year in 2010. Some Rangers people were hoping to make him a starter, and he has fared well this spring, going 1-0 with a 1.93 ERA while starting three times and relieving once. But they are uncertain whether they can find a viable closing answer on short notice (the in-house candidates are the talented but untested Alexi Ogando plus Mark Lowe.)

While the assumption is that the Rangers have been serious about Feliz's rotation tryout, they are more likely than not to install him back as the closer, which would probably please their manager Ron Washington. That would leave Derek Holland (2-0, 3.21), Matt Harrison (2-0, 3.46), Michael Kirkman (0-1, 5.56) and Ogando (0-1, 5.19) as the main contenders for the back of the rotation, at least until Brandon Webb is able to come back from shoulder trouble that's caused him to miss almost all the last two seasons.

Holland and Harrison have had nice springs, but the outside opinions are all over the board on this one. "I do like Holland,'' one competing scout said. "I think Ogando is pretty good,'' said a competing exec. Ogando may, in fact, may be the most talented of the lot (after Feliz), but one scout suggested at this point he belongs in the pen.

This one is hard to call, but the guess is that Feliz regains his closers job and Holland fills one of the rotation spots.

The issue here really isn't about who should start at first but what to do about Brandon Belt, the Giants' exceptional prospect. "This guy can really hit,'' one scout said, echoing what every other scout is saying.

The Giants weren't expecting to even consider Belt, a former No. 1 draft choice, at this time. And to start him with the big club, they'd have to dump someone with a major league contract, as they have no options on the others vying for a first base or outfield spot. That group includes Mark DeRosa, Nate Schierholtz, Aaron Rowand, Pat Burrell and Travis Ishikawa.

Belt has been only a first baseman with the Giants but was an outfielder in college, raising speculation they could take him either as the left fielder or first baseman (in that case, they'd have to move Aubrey Huff to leftfield, which seems unlikely). While Belt (.265, 2, 10) has looked superb, it still seems more likely he goes to the minors. "Why take a chance?'' one competing scout said. "Send him to Triple-A and let him tear it up.''

For Belt that still seems the most likely scenario.

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