AL West spring training preview: Darvish, Pujols are main attractions
All American fans have really seen from the 25-year-old Darvish are a few innings in the 2009 World Baseball Classic (he struck out 20 men in 13 frames and vulture the win in the title game against Korea in extra innings), some brief highlights from Japan,and the crazy video-game numbers he has put up for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters (1.44 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 10.7 K/9, 7.67 K/BB in 232 innings in 2011).
All have been very impressive, but now that the Rangers have invested more than $107 million to bring him to the States, the only thing that matters is how well he can pitch to major league hitters, which is something he has precious little experience doing.
The addition of Darvish followed the Rangers' announcement that they were going to move closer Neftali Feliz into the starting rotation, a move reinforced by the $14.75 million they spent to bring in longtime Twins closer Joe Nathan to replace Feliz in his old role. As a result, the Texas rotation is overfull with Derek Holland, Alexi Ogando, Colby Lewis and Matt Harrison, all of whom pitched well out of the rotation last year, pushing the total number of legitimate candidates to six. Early scuttlebutt pegs Harrison as the odd-man out, but dropping a 26-year-old lefty who posted a 131 ERA+ in 185 2/3 innings last year from the rotation is far from a no-brainer. It's a nice problem to have for the Rangers, but one that will need a solution nonetheless.
The Rangers' top prospect, Jurickson Profar, will turn 19 next week and has yet to reach High-A. He's not on the team's current list of non-roster invitees and isn't expected to be. That makes 20-year-old Venezuelan lefty Martin Perez the top prospect in camp who has yet to make his major league debut. Perez has knock-out stuff (a mid-90s fastball with movement, a plus-changeup and plus-curve) and recovered from a shaky 2010 campaign with a strong showing in Double-A last year, though he struggled again in 10 Triple-A starts later in the season. Perez is young (he turns 21 in April), and the Rangers' rotation is already overflowing, so he'll get as much development time in the upper minors as he needs, but it likely won't be long before he's replacing Colby Lewis in the big league starting five.
Sure, Albert Pujols is the main attraction in Angels camp, but we know what he'll be doing come Opening Day. Trout, meanwhile, is a 20-year-old blue-chip centerfield prospect whose potential for superstardom is rivaled only by that of Bryce Harper and Matt Moore in all of baseball. He got his feet wet in the majors with 135 plate appearances last year, making the jump from Double-A, and after struggling in July, returned in mid-August and hit .250/.318/.450 in 88 plate appearances the rest of the way, a solid showing for a teenager.
It was also far better than the .218/.248/.412 season line posted by Vernon Wells, whom Trout would be an upgrade on right now both offensively and defensively. It wouldn't hurt Trout to give him a quick tune-up in Triple-A to start the season, but given how tough the Rangers are going to be to catch, can the Angels afford not to break camp with Trout in the everyday lineup?
The Trout/Wells matchup is the main attraction, but it will also be interesting to see how things play out at four other places. There's third base, where the Angels plan to give 2011 Rookie of the Year runner-up Mark Trumbo a look; catcher, where newly acquired ex-Rockie Chris Iannetta -- a career .208/.338/.369 hitter outside of Coors Field -- and sophomore Hank Conger, coming off a disappointing rookie campaign, both have something to prove; designated hitter, where the overflow from the outfield and first base could cut into incumbent Bobby Abreu's playing time; and the back of the rotation, where 2011 reclamation project Jerome Williams will try to hold off rookie Garrett Richards.
The early favorites are Iannetta, Abreu and Richards with Trumbo settling for a bench role that doesn't include much if any exposure at the hot corner.
Six-foot-nine righty John Hellweg was converted to the rotation mid-way through his High-A debut last year and dominated, going 4-1 with a 2.12 ERA, 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings, and an extreme groundball rate. He throws easy, high-90s gas, which he compliments with a sharp, tight curveball, but as you might expect from a tall flamethrower, struggles with his control. Middle infielder Jean Segura is the better prospect, but Angels fans got to see him last spring. The 23-year-old Hellweg, because of his stuff, his size and his sudden emergence as perhaps the organization's best minor league pitcher, is the prospect to watch in Angels' camp this year.
A five-tool player and a bona fide superstar in his native Cuba, slugging centerfielder Céspedes was one of the most talked about free agents this winter, even though he didn't officially become a free agent until late January and was only just permitted to sign with an American team by the United States' Office of Foreign Asset Control. His four-year, $36 million deal with the A's was agreed upon on Monday in the immediate wake of his being cleared by OFAC and on the first official day of spring training for the A's. Céspedes still needs to pass a physical, but should be in camp by the mandatory reporting date for all A's players a week from Friday.
Odds are that the 26-year-old Céspedes will indeed open the season in the majors, just as his countryman Alexei Ramirez did after signing with the White Sox at the same age, but one of the key battles in camp will now be to decide which of Cespedes or incumbent centerfielder Coco Crisp, whom the A's re-signed to a two-year, $14 million deal in early January, will move to one of the outfield corners. As for his production at the plate, Céspedes is expected to be a star in the major leagues but how much he'll need to adjust his game to get to that level and just how good he can be remains to be seen.
Putting Céspedes in the outfield with Crisp and Josh Reddick, who came over from the Red Sox in the Andrew Bailey trade, pushes free agent additions Seth Smith and Jonny Gomes into a natural platoon at designated hitter (their combined career line against opposite-handed pitching is .286/.369/.511, a impressive return for the $3.415 million the A's spent on them).
It also leaves only first base available for the quartet of fading first base prospects the A's have collected, a group that includes Chris Carter (25 years old), Brandon Allen (26), Daric Barton (26) and Kila Ka'aihue (27 in late March). The right-handed Carter could platoon with one of the others, all of whom bat lefty, but the A's would surely prefer that one of them -- ideally Carter, who is the youngest and has the least major league service time and the most remaining potential -- win the job outright.
The 10th overall pick in the 2010 draft, outfielder Michael Choice had a monster season at High-A as a 21-year-old last year, hitting .285/.376/.542 with 30 home runs in 118 games. But for A's fans bitter about the team trading its best major league pitchers this offseason, the prospect to watch is A.J. Cole, the 20-year-old righty who was said to be the jewel in the package received from Washington in the Gonzalez deal. Parker is disqualified from this section because he already made his major league debut, but he is new to A's fans, could be in the major league rotation sometime this season, has as much potential as Cole and is closer to realizing it.
The Mariners took a big gamble by trading an established 23-year-old stud starting pitcher in Michael Pineda for rookie slugger Montero. There are very few questions about the 22-year-old Montero's bat or the degree to which the Mariners need that sort of middle-of-the-lineup hitter, but how he fits defensively could greatly impact his overall value, and is a large reason why the Yankees were willing to trade him. If Montero can stick at catcher, the only position he ever played in the minors, he could be the next Mike Piazza, but the Yankees wouldn't have traded him (twice if you count the busted deal with Seattle for Cliff Lee at the 2010 trading deadline) if they thought he could. If he can't catch the slow-footed Montero's only alternatives are first base, where the Mariners really need Justin Smoak to start hitting as a compliment to Montero, or designated hitter.
The top three spots in the Mariners' rotation seem set with Felix Hernandez, of course, Jason Vargas, and Japanese import Hisashi Iwakuma. The final two spots, though, are wide open and will be contested by a range of pitchers including sophomores Hector Noesi (who came over in the Montero trade), Blake Beavan (who came over from the Rangers in the Lee trade), lefty Charles Furbush (who came from Detroit in the Doug Fister trade), veteran non-roster invitee Kevin Millwood, and possibly even the team's top 2011 draft pick, lefty Danny Hultzen.
Taken out of the University of Virginia with second overall pick in the 2011 draft, the 22-year-old Hultzen is expected to advance quickly, and the team's aggressive promotions of Pineda are a good indication that his chances to make the rotation are legitimate despite the fact that his only professional experience was in the Arizona fall League. A supplemental-round pick out of high school in 2010, 19-year-old righty Taijuan Walker won't get as long a look in camp, but he could ultimately be even better than Hultzen and will pitch in High-A this year.