NL West spring training preview: Young players looking to shine
There are two ways to look at Trevor Cahill, the young righty the D-backs acquired in a trade with Oakland last December. The first is that he is a young stud who won't be 24 until March 1, went 18-8 with a 2.97 ERA in 2010, making that year's AL All-Star team, and has seen his strikeout rate improve in each of his three major league seasons. The other view is that he has a still-weak strikeout rate (6.4 K/9 in 2011) and poor numbers outside of the A's pitching-friendly ballpark (4.71 career road ERA), was helped in 2010 by an unsustainably low .237 opponents' batting average on balls in play and was merely average in his other two major league seasons.
There are also two ways to look at Jarrod Parker. The first is as a top-10 draft pick and future front-of-the-rotation pitcher who should crack Oakland's starting five this year. The second is as an unproven minor league righty who has already had one major surgery (Tommy John in 2009), is only eight months younger than Cahill, and might wind up in the bullpen.
This trade could go either way, but Cahill could help ease nervous Diamondbacks fans by getting a lot of groundballs and strikeouts this spring.
Another curious move the D-backs made this offseason was to sign lefthanded outfielder Jason Kubel to a two-year, $16 million contract despite the fact that he didn't represent a clear upgrade on the player he would seem to have been signed to replace in the lineup, fellow lefty Gerardo Parra. Kubel had a strong age-27 season in 2009 but has hit a combined .266/.331/.446 in the two seasons seasons prior to that one and the two since and is a liability in the field and on the bases thanks in part to a major knee injury suffered in his early twenties.
Parra, meanwhile, is a career .282/.331/.403 hitter in the major leagues, makes up for the difference in slugging with speed and legitimate Gold Glove quality defense, and, as a 24-year-old, is still maturing at the plate. The Diamondbacks' plan seems to be to give Kubel the majority of the playing time in leftfield while trying to keep Parra in the lineup on a semi-regular basis as a fourth outfielder playing all three positions. Instead, Parra should be given a fair chance to keep his job, while Kubel's defensive profile should be expanded to include first base.
One reason Arizona was able to gamble on the Parker/Cahill trade is that it has two more stud pitching prospects on the way in 21-year-old righty Trevor Bauer, the third overall pick in last year's draft, and 20-year-old lefty Tyler Skaggs, acquired from the Angels in the Dan Haren trade of 2010, both of whom struck out more than 11 men per nine innings after being promoted to Double-A late last year. Both will be in camp this spring and could be battling for a major league rotation spot a year from now.
A fifth-round pick in 2009, Belt has hit .343/.457/.596 in 825 minor league plate appearances over two seasons, including a .291/.436/.535 line in 273 trips for Triple-A Fresno. The 6-foot-5 lefty is exactly what the underpowered Giants' need, but last year they jerked him around, making him their Opening Day starter at first base only to demote him before the end of April. It was his bad luck to get hit on the wrist by a pitch soon after being recalled in late May, but after that fracture healed, the Giants kept him in the minors, then made him ride the major league bench in late July.
It wasn't until mid-August that they finally put him back in the lineup on a semi-regular basis as a leftfielder. All that so that Aubrey Huff could hit .249/.309/.381 at first base. The Giants ranked 29th out of the 30 major league teams with a mere 3.52 runs scored per game. So, seriously, now, where is Brandon Belt going to play this year?
Sophomore Brandon Crawford can pick 'em, but he can't hit 'em. Free agent addition Ryan Theriot can hit lefties (.301/.373/.401 career), but his viability at shortstop is questionable. Incumbent Mike Fontenot falls somewhere between the two, with solid defense and a capable, but not particularly thrilling platoon bat from the left-side (.267/.337/.413 against righties on his career). The Giants will need to piece together 162 games at shortstop from that trio.
The 24th overall pick in 2010 out of Cal State Fullerton, centerfielder Gary Brown made his full-season debut in High-A last year and hit .336/.407/.519 with 13 triples and 53 stolen bases. The California League can inflate hitting stats, but the 23-year-old Brown is the real deal and on the fast-track to the majors.
Sands is no Brandon Belt, but as a rookie last year, he out-hit Juan Rivera, his primary rival for the leftfield job this spring, and was within spitting distance of first baseman James Loney's modest batting line. The 24-year-old righty has played his share of both the outfield corners and first base in the minors and, on a team desperate from production from someone other than Matt Kemp, comes to camp as a .286/.376/.576 career hitter in the minor leagues, including a .278/.344/.586 line in 418 Triple-A plate appearances, though he got a boost from the hitting friendly environment in Las Vegas on that last line.
Sands -- who hit .253/.338/.389 in 61 games for Los Angeles last season -- isn't a future star, but given how little potential the Dodgers' lineup has, he should be given a chance to start somewhere this season as he would seem to have an upside his rivals lack.
The Dodgers will have open competitions at third base and catcher this spring, but the most interesting battle could take place in the bullpen. That's where Kenley Jansen, a 24-year-old with a career strikeout rate of 15.3 K/9, will challenge 26-year-old Javy Guerra for the closer's job, and where off-season addition Todd Coffey and the returning Mike MacDougal give the Dodgers eight pitchers who likely expect to break camp as a member of L.A.'s bullpen.
The Dodger's top prospect is 20-year-old righty starter Zach Lee, their top draft pick in 2010, but he won't be in major league camp this spring. Nor will several other of the organization's top pitching prospects, all of whom are still in the low minors. That makes 24-year-old outfielder Alfredo Silverio the prospect to watch.
The toolsy Silverio hit .306/.340/.542 in Double-A last year, with 18 triples helping to inflate that slugging percentage. He's not a perfect prospect. He's better in a corner than in center, is a lousy basestealer despite his speed, doesn't walk, will turn 25 in early May and has yet to crack Triple-A, but, as with Sands, the Dodgers need to focus more on what their hitting prospects might do than what they might not.
Ty Wigginton, Ian Stewart, Jose Lopez and Kevin Kouzmanoff combined to make 140 of the Rockies' 162 starts at third base last year. All four are gone, and 38-year-old new addition Casey Blake is only expected to be able to replace about half of those starts coming off an injury-riddled season that ended in neck surgery.
Among the candidates to share time with Blake are DJ LeMahieu, who came over from the Cubs in the Stewart trade, Jordan Pacheco, who is being squeezed out of the catching picture by the addition of veteran Ramon Hernandez and the approach of slugging prospect Wilin Rosario, infielders Chris Nelson and Jonathan Herrera, who shouldn't be needed at second base now that Marco Scutaro is manning the keystone. Another possibility is new rightfielder Michael Cuddyer, who has 150 career starts at the hot corner including 13 in 2010. Cuddyer was the only one of that bunch that didn't see time at third base in 2011, but none are primarily third basemen.
Most teams have a battle for the last couple of spots in their starting rotation in spring training, but the Rockies' is particularly compelling because of two players looking to make comebacks this spring, 25-year-old righty Juan Nicasio and 49-year-old lefty Jamie Moyer. The Rockies are expected to break camp with Jhoulys Chacin, new addition Jeremy Guthrie and lefthanded prospect Drew Pomeranz, which leaves two spots open for the likes of lesser offseason additions like Tyler Chatwood, Guillermo Moscoco or Josh Outman. Alex White, who came over from Cleveland with Pomeranz in the Ubaldo Jimenez trade, or righty Esmil Rogers, are also in the mix.
It's hard not to root for Nicasio and Moyer against that bunch. Moyer, the 49-year-old veteran who missed the 2011 season due to Tommy John surgery, would become just the fourth man to throw a major league pitch at that age if he makes the team. Nicasio, meanwhile, is attempting to come back from a broken neck suffered after he was hit by a comebacker on August 5 of last year. Nicasio was lucky to avoid paralysis or worse, and he's already facing live hitting and is expected to be in the thick of the rotation competition this spring. That's great news for both Nicasio and the Rockies as the young righty posted an above-average ERA and strong peripherals (3.22 K/BB) in 13 starts as a rookie last year and would likely have been a lock for this year's rotation if that ball had missed him.
Given the third base picture above, the temptation to rush top prospect Nolan Arenado must be considerable. But while Arenado looks like a lock to eventually solve the Rockies' problems at that position, right now he's still a kid who won't reach legal drinking age until mid-April and has yet to make the leap to Double-A. Arenado's power and defense have both improved considerably in his three professional seasons, and his ability to hit for average is well established both by his .302 career mark and his low strikeout totals (just 123 in 280 games against 82 walks and 126 extra-base hits).
Volquez's lone season as a front-line major league starting pitcher seems like ancient history now. In 2008, his first year with Cincinnati, the right-hander went 17-6 with a 3.21 ERA and 206 strikeouts and made the NL All-Star team. Tommy John surgery dashed his 2009 and 2010 seasons, and what was supposed to be his return to full strength last year after a dozen major league starts in late '10, was frustrating and disappointing. Volquez has struck out roughly a man per inning since his return, but those strikeouts have been accompanied by more than five walks per nine innings and an excess of home runs.
There's still reason to think that Volquez, who was acquired from the Reds in December, can lead the Padres' rotation. His control was better in 13 Triple-A starts last year (3.0 BB/9 to go with a 2.37 ERA), and getting out of the Great American Ball Park and into spacious Petco Park should help with the home runs (Volquez allowed three home runs in a game thrice last year, twice at home), which could, in turn, make him more willing to throw strikes. He still throws in the mid-90s with a devastating changeup and won't turn 30 until the middle of the 2013 season. Still, 2011 Padres fans would be wise to temper their expectations considerably.
For a team that lost 91 games last year and made several big trades this offseason, including the blockbuster that sent Mat Latos to the Reds in the Volquez deal, the Padres have surprisingly few questions heading into camp in terms of who will play where or fill what role. They nipped a potential first-base-prospect battle in the bud by flipping Anthony Rizzo to the Cubs, effectively handing the job to ex-Red Yonder Alonso, who came over with Volquez. They've already announced a plan to use Andrew Cashner, the key piece received for Rizzo, as a reliever, which eliminates any real rotation overflow. They acquired Huston Street to close, eliminating a battle over who will succeed departed free agent Heath Bell in the role, and the acquisition of Carlos Quentin would seem to signal a disinterest in finding out what slugger Kyle Blanks has to offer now that he's completely recovered from mid-2010 Tommy John surgery.
The most compelling fight might prove to be Blanks' lonely battle to win back his team's affections. The massive 25-year-old has hit 20 home runs in 482 major league plate appearances over three injury-riddled seasons, and is a .305/.392/.513 career hitter in the minors, including .308/.404/.568 in 436 Triple-A late appearances. Alonso and Quentin have filled his primary positions (first base and leftfield) and added considerable pop to the Padres lineup, but this team could still use Blanks' bat or whatever he could bring in a trade if he can prove that he can stay healthy and productive at the major league level.
Arguably the top player received in the Latos trade, 23-year-old catcher Yasmani Grandal immediately became the Padres' top prospect. The 12th overall pick in the 2010 draft out of the University of Miami, the switch-hitting Grandal hit .305/.401/.500 across the top three levels of the minor leagues last year in what was his first full professional season while throwing out 34 percent of attempting basestealers. Those numbers included just four games at Triple-A, but he should return there in April and could be pushing Nick Hundley for the starting job as early as mid-season.