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March 24, 2011

Divide and Conquer, AL West

Let That Be Your Last Battlefield

by Joey Matschulat

It’s March 24, and the villagers are growing ever more restless. By this juncture in spring training, the beat writers charged with covering each team on a daily basis have all but exhausted their reserve of convenient storylines and mildly interesting interview subjects, and those of a more analysis-oriented mindset are generally found to be discussing one of two things: (a) season or individual player projections of a let’s-try-to-predict-the-future sort, or (b) Opening Day roster projections.

Alas, the latter rarely hold the kind of retrospective appeal that the former do, for the Opening Day roster is but a snapshot in time that is subject to modification from all directions as soon as the first game is in the books. In due time, the injured file dejectedly toward the disabled list, the vastly underperforming are faced with the prospect of a major reduction in playing time, demotion, or outright release, and the narrow losers of those heated spring training roster battles—especially the pitchers— very often earn another chance at winning a major-league roster spot later on in that same season. The end result? The initial makeup of a ballclub’s 25-man roster seems to matter greatly at the time, but usually doesn’t end up mattering that much (except for the most flagrant instances of choosing the wrong guy over a more qualified field of roster candidates), as the roster usually ends up sorting itself out in fairly short order. Operative word: usually. Fortunately, few of the AL West’s roster scrums buck the trend with a potentially irreversible outcome—the great exception residing with one foot in the Rangers' rotation, the other in the ‘pen.

Angels: There is nothing quite like attrition to sap all of the tension from a good fight for a roster spot; in Anaheim’s case, it has been enough attrition to buy temporary reprieves for no fewer than four different Angels, all of varying levels of experience and upside. Kendrys Morales’ setback in rehabbing from a broken leg will buy the power-hitting but free-swinging prospect Mark Trumbo (as Kevin Goldstein said with uncharacteristic gentleness, “He's an aggressive hitter who looks to drive fastballs early in the count and could benefit from a more patient approach”) regular playing time at first base for the duration of Morales’ remaining convalescence, as well as a likely fleeting opportunity for an out-of-options Brandon Wood to carve out a safe niche in the roster. Wood’s light theoretically could click on, but the scout’s take provided by John Perrotto yesterday really said it best: “He's the prototypical hitter who just can't make the transition to the major leagues. He's never learned any discipline at the plate and anything spinning baffles him.”

Elsewhere, you have Reggie Willits’ lingering calf strain buying a small window of time for 26-year-old Chris Pettit, who posted a quality .321/.383/.482 showing at Triple-A Salt Lake City two years ago but succumbed to a torn labrum in the spring of 2010; if things go right, it will serve as a brief taste of his future as a reserve outfielder. Finally, according to Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times, Joel Pineiro’s brief disabled list stay at the beginning of the season will work in conjunction with the quirks in Anaheim’s early-season schedule to buy offense-inclined catching prospect Hank Conger his second brief taste of the majors, as the Angels don’t need a fifth starter until April 10.

Athletics: Surprise, surprise,  it’s everyone’s favorite battle, the fifth starter competition! Well, sort of: Brandon McCarthy (who was the Athletics subject of my debut piece three weeks ago on the weakest pitching links in the division) seems to be emerging as the frontrunner to lock down the spot ahead of power right-hander Tyson Ross and veteran southpaw Bobby Cramer. The latter has piled up more than 300 innings between the Athletics’ various minor-league affiliates in three of the last four years with good peripherals in a mixed starting/relieving capacity (though he’s 31 and doesn’t exactly wield power stuff). This appears to be more of a question of who will start and who will claim a bullpen role rather than if they will both make it onto the roster.

Mariners: Here matters begin to get more interesting. The issue of pitching-prospect readiness has long been a sticky one, and more often than not you find that the issue involves promising but underdeveloped secondary offerings and an overall lack of polish, deficits that breed concern over whether said prospect can even survive initially in the majors. Somewhat predictably, the issue has again risen in the context of wunderkind right-hander Michael Pineda, who wields a special combination of fastball velocity and command as well as a usable slider. However, the argument has been made that his changeup isn’t anywhere near as consistent as it needs to be for him to thrive against left-handed hitters, and that there would be a fair degree of logic in consigning him to Triple-A Tacoma for the sake of his all-around development and instead giving Luke French the fifth-starter job in Seattle. That’s the hypothetical key roster battle, at least.

The problem is that if this battle really ever existed, it doesn’t seem to exist anymore, as all indications are pointing toward Seattle giving the nod to Pineda and being prepared to accept whatever growing pains result. That being said, the Mariners’ competitive position is such that Pineda could be reassigned to the minors with little difficulty if they should decide that he’s sinking more than swimming. This is certainly an important call, but by no means is it irreversible, and it is entirely possible (if not probable) that he’ll find himself replaced at some point, be it due to innings considerations, injury, or the simple need for more development time in a lower-stress environment.

Rangers: There is a late furor in Arizona over Julio Borbon’s shaky defense in center field this spring, and whether that should earn him a temporary demotion to Triple-A Round Rock for the purpose of “waking him up,” but make no mistake about it,  the only real battle here revolves around Neftali Feliz, the reigning American League Rookie of the Year whose electric fastball makes the angels weep with joy. C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis are obviously dead-certain rotation locks, and pitching coach Mike Maddux remarked last week that Tommy Hunter and Matt Harrison were “very likely” to win two more spots, leaving southpaws Michael Kirkman and Derek Holland to fight with Feliz for the last available berth.

Now, it could be that Holland or Kirkman still manage to surge past Harrison, but that’s not looking especially likely, so everything appears to hinge on how Feliz is deployed. Beyond a sprinkling of vague quotes from team president/CEO Nolan Ryan and the like that are being read into far too much, the organization still isn’t tipping its hand on which way it’s going to go, and that may be because the organization doesn’t actually know itself, as it has been reported that a 50-50 split exists among Rangers front-office personnel on whether Feliz should start this year, or whether he should continue to hold down the ninth-inning role. Among the complicating factors is that if the choice is the latter, the high likelihood is that he won’t be removed from his closer’s post during the middle of the season, and will thus have to wait until next spring before getting another crack at starting. In light of Brandon Webb’s latest alarming setback, it’s becoming more debatable as to whether Texas can have adequate starting pitching depth minus Feliz without a depth-bolstering trade of some sort.

As with the Pineda case, Feliz’s issues are related to his lack of polish and the underdeveloped secondary pitches (slider/cutter, changeup) that leave him particularly susceptible to major-league hitters during his second and/or third times through the lineup, and have left some, notably, our own Jason Parks – dubious as to whether he can be more valuable as a starter than as a closer in 2011. There is also a workload consideration in play; could Feliz be counted upon to go beyond 140-150 innings in his first season of starting in the big leagues, and could he be used in a way that maximizes the benefit to the Rangers in the regular season and the postseason, should they get that far? It’s a far more complex and nuanced issue than it appears to be at first glance, and my own prediction is that Feliz remains in the bullpen for the duration of the season; should he end up starting, however, look for Alexi Ogando to end up securing ninth-inning duties.

Related Content:  A's,  The Who,  Week In Quotes,  The Week In Quotes,  Roster

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