AL East spring training preview: Starting pitching concerns abound
The Yankees' rotation was a glaring weakness until they traded for Michael Pineda and signed Hiroki Kuroda almost simultaneously on January 13. Now, they have CC Sabathia, Pineda and Kuroda locked into the top three spots and sophomore Ivan Nova a near lock for the fourth spot after a surprisingly strong rookie campaign that ended with his being the team's No. 2 starter in the playoffs.
That leaves 2010 rotation components A.J. Burnett, Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia vying for the final spot. Rumor has the Yankees close to swapping Burnett to the Pirates, but if that deal falls through, New York will have just one rotation spot for those three pitchers, one of whom they owe $33 million over the next two years (Burnett), another whom they re-signed for $4 million this winter (Garcia) and the last of whom was once their top prospect, won 18 games two years ago, and is still just 25. Hughes had great success as a set-up man in 2009, which makes a return to the bullpen a temptation, but he's also the pitcher in that trio most worth trying to re-establish in the rotation given his youth and two remaining years of team contractual control.
Ultimately, the rotation battle will be more about what the organization wants to do with those three pitchers than who pitches best in the spring. That makes the big battle in camp the fight over designated hitter duties, a position vacated when slugging prospect Jesus Montero was flipped to the Seattle Mariners for Pineda. Andruw Jones would seem to have the righthanded at-bats locked up, but he has hit just .208/.308/.467 against righties over the last three years. Swift-footed Chris Dickerson (.270/.355/.415 in 490 career plate appearances vs. RHP) has an inside track thanks to being on the 40-man roster and being able to simultaneously platoon with Jones as the team's fourth-outfielder when not DHing. Still, non-roster invitee Russell Branyan has a higher up-side as a lefty masher in the Yankees' new ballpark, where he has homered eight times in 52 career plate appearances.
Lefty starter Manny Bañuelos was the talk of last year's camp and remains the team's top prospect and a potential member of the 2013 starting rotation, but with Montero now a Mariner, Yankee fans might be even more interested to get their first proper look at teenage catching prospect Gary Sanchez, who will make his first appearance in major league camp this spring. The 19-year-old Sanchez has a lot of work to do on both sides of the ball, but he already has a ton of power and the most optimistic projections see him as being as good as Montero at the plate while being able to remain behind it at the major league level.
The 22-year-old lefty is the top pitching prospect in the game and turned in a gem as the team's Game 1 starter in the Division Series last year -- seven innings of two-hit shutout ball against the Rangers -- but the Rays won't guarantee him a rotation spot heading into camp. There's little reason to farm him back out in April, however, as the five-year contract the Rays signed him to in December eliminates any concerns about starting his arbitration clock. And, although he has just 19 1/3 major league innings to his name (including the postseason), there are no doubts about his ability to get big-league hitters out and to do so in pressure situations.
The only real obstacle to Moore making the roster is the Rays already jam-packed rotation. Moore should be an upgrade on either Jeff Niemann or Wade Davis, but the Rays failed to trade either righty this winter, and it seems awful early to toss out either's future as a starter without getting something in return for that potential. Both were well-regarded prospects in their own right, though not nearly as well-regarded as Moore. Davis is 26 and has just two years as a major league starter under his belt. The 6-foot-9 Niemann will be 29 at the end of the month, has had three years in the rotation, and has struggled due to shoulder and back injuries the last two years, but also had better peripherals than Davis in both seasons. One will have to move to the bullpen to make room for Moore at some point this season. It might as well be now.
Shortstop was a black hole for the Rays last year, so it should be encouraging for Rays fans to see Hak-Ju Lee in camp. Acquired from the Cubs in the Matt Garza trade (along with righty Chris Archer, another player worth checking out in camp, and catcher Robinson Chirinos, who will battle for a share of the catching duties behind veteran backup Jose Molina), the Korean Lee is a slick fielder who can hit for a bit of average, get on base at a respectable rate, and steal bags. He lacks real power, but he'll leg out his share of triples. As such he's a prototypical top-of-the-order middle infielder. The 21-year-old will start the season in Double-A and could crack the major league roster some time next year.
The Red Sox' implosion last September was largely the result of the collapse of their starting rotation, and before the World Series was over, the news broke that John Lackey needed Tommy John surgery and would miss the entire 2012 season. So this offseason, the Red Sox reinforced their rotation by . . . trading for a pair of closers.
Believe it or not, Boston didn't add a single major league starting pitcher to its 40-man roster this winter and instead will roll the dice on converting the 26-year-old Bard. He hasn't started a game since 2007, his first professional season (he posted a 7.08 ERA in 22 A-ball starts that season) and was part of the problem in September, walking nine men in 11 innings, posting a 10.64 ERA, blowing three saves and taking two other losses in 11 appearances.
Bard does have an impressive three-pitch repertoire (high-90s fastball, put-away slider, and 90 mph changeup) and he was a stud as a starter in college at North Carolina, but making him the primary solution to a rotation in desperate need of reinforcement is a major gamble that seems unlikely to pay off.
In trading for those two closers, Oakland's Andrew Bailey and Houston's Mark Melancon, the Red Sox downgraded rightfield, swapping sophomore Josh Reddick to the A's for underpowered veteran Ryan Sweeney, and sent their backup shortstop Jed Lowrie to the Astros. Then, in an effort to clear salary space, they gifted their starting shortstop, Marco Scutaro, on the Rockies.
Rather than use the savings to sign a starter like Roy Oswalt (which, to be fair, they still could) or Edwin Jackson, they used half of it on a potential platoon partner for the lefthanded Sweeney in the righthanded Cody Ross. The thing is, Ross isn't a clear upgrade on the righthanded platoon outfielder who was already on the roster, Darnell McDonald, and all three rightfielders could just be keeping the spot warm for prospect Ryan Kalish, who likely would have been in position to claim the job had his 2011 season not been ruined by a torn labrum in his left shoulder.
All four will jockey for playing time in camp, with the battle likely spilling over into the regular season as the Red Sox wait for leftfielder Carl Crawford to return from offseason wrist surgery, while free agent addition Nick Punto and late-2011 pick-up Mike Aviles will vie for the vacated shortstop job.
The Sox' top prospect is 19-year-old power-hitting shortstop Xander Bogaerts, but the most compelling prospect they'll have in major league camp this spring is 23-year-old third baseman Will Middlebrooks. Middlebrooks experienced a big jump in power in Double-A last year, hitting .302/.345/.520 with 18 home runs in 397 plate appearances at the level, while adding three more dingers on injury rehab in the New York-Penn League and two more in a small taste of Triple-A for a total of 23, nearly double his output from 2010, when he hit 12, all at high-A ball. That power surge was expected from the 6-foot-4 Middlebrooks and, in combination with his excellent play at the hot corner, makes him a player worth watching, though he still needs work on his plate discipline.
The Blue Jays appeared to pull off a coup at the 2011 trading deadline when they landed a 24-year-old centerfielder with superstar tools who had hit .276/.361/.498 as a sophomore the previous season in exchange for a weak starting pitching prospect, two veteran relievers approaching free agency (one of whom they've since reacquired), a lefty specialist and a fifth outfielder.
It will only be a coup, however, if they can get that centerfielder back on track. Rasmus hit just .225/.298/.391 last season, including .173/.201/.316 in 35 games with the Jays after being acquired from the Cardinals in a three-way trade. He also displayed an uncharacteristically awful plate approach over that span, drawing just five walks against 39 strikeouts. That will be the first area for Toronto hitting coach Dwayne Murphy to target, but Murphy is the man who helped create Jose Bautista, so there's reason for optimism. The biggest question is whether or not Rasmus will be as willing and dedicated a student.
Two prospects who disappointed last year, outfielder Travis Snider and starter Kyle Drabek, will try to convince the Jays that this year will be different, but the biggest battle in camp could be in the bullpen, where three off-season additions with solid resumes -- ex-closer Francisco Cordero, veteran lefty set-up man Darren Oliver, and long-time Blue Jay Jason Frasor -- will vie with incumbent Casey Janssen to be the primary set-up man for new closer Sergio Santos.
Blue Jays fans shouldn't get too attached to sophomore backstop J.P. Arencibia, because D'Arnaud, who came to the organization with Drabek in the Roy Halladay trade in Dec. 2009, is likely to unseat him as soon as the latter half of this year. D'Arnaud hit .311/.371/.542 in Double-A last year and is considered a good defender behind the plate with a strong arm. Arencibia has big-time power, but offers little else. D'Arnaud is the total package and a potential star.
Matusz was the fourth overall pick in the 2008 draft and rated the No. 5 prospect in all of baseball prior to the 2010 season and was the pre-season favorite for the Rookie of the Year. He had a slightly disappointing, but fairly typical series of rookie ups and downs that season, but finished strong, going 7-1 with a 2.18 ERA and 3.25 strikeout-to-walk ratio over the season's final two months.
Then, last year, he hit the disabled list with an intercostal strain before his first start of the regular season, didn't return until June, and after two solid but short starts, was awful the rest of the way, going 0-9 with a 13.03 ERA and 17 home runs allowed in 38 2/3 innings (nearly four homers per nine innings) over 10 starts interrupted by a July demotion. Matusz wasn't awful in Triple-A in July and August -- he posted a 3.62 ERA in eight starts, allowing just four home runs, and if you take out one disaster outing his ERA drops to 2.54 in seven starts -- but that only made his major league struggles all the more confusing. Was it a fluke, a side-effect of his seemingly minor injury, or the beginning of the end of a promising career?
At last count, the Orioles had 11 candidates for the starting rotation on the 40-man roster, and non-roster invitee Armando Gallaraga makes it an even dozen. In reality, sophomore lefty Zach Britton and offseason imports Tsuyoshi Wada and Wei-Yin Chen, both veterans of Nippon Professional Baseball, likely have spots sewn up. However, Wada and Chen are unproven as major leaguers and either could just as easily be the next Kei Igawa as the next Hiroki Kuroda in terms of stateside success.
Indeed, the list of candidates extends so far in part because of the limited resumes of the contestants. When Dana Eveland, Brad Bergesen and Alfredo Simon aren't obviously out of the running, you know the competition is weak. That former prospects Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta haven't separated themselves from this pack is bad news for the organization, to make no further mention of Matusz. That Jason Hammel, newly arrived from the Jeremy Guthrie trade after going 7-13 with a 4.76 ERA and 5.0 K/9 for Colorado in 2011, is one of the frontrunners suggests that the more things change in Baltimore, the more they stay the same.
Bundy, the No. 4 overall pick in last year's draft, has yet to throw a pitch as a professional, but the 19-year-old righty is among the handful of top pitching prospects in all of baseball. Thanks to the major league deal he signed last August (which includes a $4 million signing bonus and another $2.25 million guaranteed over five years), he's on the 40-man roster and will be in major league camp this spring. Bundy can hit triple-digits on the radar gun, has an excellent curve and cutter, a developing changeup, good control of all four, and is mature beyond his years. Look for him to make his professional debut in a full-season league in April and to move quickly through the Orioles' system.