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March 16, 2011

Purpose Pitches

Day Seven in Cactus Country

by Christina Kahrl

MESA—Tuesday's game was one of those unsexy yet critical real-world fights that reflect spring training's high-end purpose. Sure, it exists to get people in shape, and also as a warm-weather money-making venture for the franchises and the attendant tourist industry. Still, at its root, there are actual job fights to be resolved. HoHoKam was exactly that sort of battlefield, as two of the leading contenders for the fifth slot in their respective teams' rotations squared off: Esmil Rogers of the Rockies and Randy Wells of the Cubs.

Admittedly, in each case the competition is a bit theoretical. Wells is being put through his paces, but the inclusion of journeymen Braden Looper and Todd Wellemeyer, or organizational soldiers James Russell and Casey Coleman, in the race to round out the rotation seems a matter of polite formality, not actual menace. Wells and Andrew Cashner and Carlos Silva are the pack, from which just two will emerge, and both Cashner and Wells pitched yesterday in split-squad action, to mixed results.

Wells had three of his likely starting infielders to lean on, but it wasn't the best three, with Starlin Castro traveling to Cashner's game against the A's. Wells' day had to involve Blake DeWitt's apparently never-ending process of becoming a second baseman, a Godot-like exercise that reflects how DeWitt, like so many former Dodger prospects, may be a fine athlete and good at some things—but playing second base is not necessarily among them. At short, Wells was tasked with utility aspirant Matt Camp. Camp's getting consideration for a bench job in fairly direct competition with Darwin Barney, and if he's going to win, he has to show he can play short. That's how Cactus action goes—you can ask for the A-team, but do and you're as likely to get B.A. Baracus as the guys you'd actually wanted.

Wells responded with a good game, but the infield did end up tasking him. After three hitless frames, he gave up a one-out base hit to Carlos Gonzalez that barely made it to the infield grass; maybe Geovany Soto could have gotten out of his crouch and pounced more quickly, but cat-like swiftness isn't among his better features as a receiver. Wells came for the ball, and couldn't get CarGo in time, trying to pivot and throw. He then threw what he later referred to as his one bad pitch of the day, which Jose Lopez singled to right, advancing CarGo to third, where he could score on a Todd Helton sac fly.

The two runs allowed in the fourth were more purely examples of a pitcher only being as good as his defense. Hernan Iribarren's one-out single to the hole was a matter of beating out Matt Camp's second baseman's arm. The double steal that followed was a different sort of defensive mess, as Rogers, a former position player, couldn't get the bunt down with the runners moving, but Soto's throw didn't beat Chris Iannetta to third—think on that, that's the catcher leading a "double steal"—and Iribarren's late-breaking move to second drew a throw from Aramis Ramirez that he beat out as well. As a matter of scoring the play, it was less a matter of Jim Tracy's design than sloppy play.

That put the bat back in Rogers' hands, producing a new defensive disaster: he flied to Alfonso Soriano in left. Soriano seemed as if he might have time to get Iannetta, but uncorked one of those throws that make you wonder when Strat's ever going to introduce T-ratings on outfield arms, as he uncorked a dribbler towards the Rockies dugout on the third-base line that let the alert Iribarren race home.

Afterwards, Wells was simultaneously diplomatic and philosophical, allowing that "some bad things happened" but adopting the same line Jake Peavy had the day before, that this allowed him to practice pitching from the stretch. Wells said he used the opportunity to go to his sinker with a man on first, keep his fastball inside, and not make any mistakes with fastball location—all reasonable goals.

As far as how he felt about the outing despite three runs allowed in five, Wells was upbeat. He said, "That was probably the best I've felt all spring. I had good life on the sinker, good life on the fastball." He certainly isn't going to make Mike Quade's rotation decision any easier, but outings like this and last week's effort seem to be inching him towards locking in the fourth slot, and leaving the fifth man scrum to Silva and Cashner.

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In the Rockies' fifth-man fight, Rogers seems to have the job to himself now that Aaron Cook's headed for the DL. As Geoff Young noted yesterday, Rogers' chief competition still standing is Greg Reynolds, but Rogers cruised through his five frames, facing the minimum 15 batters. The one hit he allowed, to Carlos Pena, went for naught when Pena tried to stretch a single to left and was thrown out at second. Like most shortstops (or catchers) put on the mound, Rogers throws more than hard enough, but it's the promise of his curve that might make him something more than a temp during Cook's absence. Given that Reynolds was once the second overall pick in the draft, while Rogers is yet another talented Dominican dredged up from the Rockies' prodigious scouting effort on the island, you can understand why the guys on the Rockies beat joke that the team would be better off skipping on pitchers until the later rounds in the draft.

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Tonight, I'll be heading out to Surprise to see the ubiquitous Rockies and focus more on the Rangers. The predicament Texas is in, having given Neftali Feliz a shot at starting and then seeing him decide that, yes, he'd really rather do that than log saves, is sort of interesting because of how it's left the Rangers robbing Peter to pay Paul. Dealing for a veteran reliever isn't that inconceivable at this late date in the spring, but it makes for an interesting contrast to the A's situation with Andrew Bailey. Where losing Bailey is frustrating, it isn't the end of the world when you have Grant Balfour and Michael Wuertz around, and that's just the start of the A's deep pool of alternatives from the pen.

In contrast, sans Feliz, the Rangers pen gets... exciting. Last season, they were very reluctant to use Alexi Ogando in anything other than "clean" innings, where he got to pitch full frames instead of come in to clean up other people's messes. That's obviously not a handicap if he is forced into the static "ninth-inning saves dude" role. Otherwise... yesterday a reader asked if a team has used two lefties in the eighth/ninth innings; give it a few more weeks, and we may have a new answer: the Rangers, with Darren Oliver and Arthur Rhodes.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

Related Content:  Esmil Rogers,  Andrew Cashner

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