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March 27, 2006

Fantasy Focus

NL Spring Job Battles

by Peter Schoenke

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[Ed. Note: Peter Schoenke compiled and edited the following report from RotoWire's beat reports--JDE]

Arizona Diamondbacks

SS: Craig Counsell has a shoulder injury, but it looks like he may make it back by Opening Day after all, or close to it. That would ensure Stephen Drew starts the year in the minors.

5th starter: Brad Halsey appeared to win the job with Claudio Vargas moving into long relief. Now that's up in the air after the trade of Hasley to Oakland for Juan Cruz.

Atlanta Braves

1B: Right-handed half of platoon: Brian Jordan vs. James Jurries. The Braves don't want to give Adam LaRoche full-time at bats, so they'll replace departed Julio Franco with Jordan or Jurries. Jordan is hitting .357 (10-for-28) this spring and shown he's adequate at first base. The choice is whether manager Bobby Cox wants to keep a promising rookie or a veteran. Cox has always had a soft spot for Jordan (as evident by him making a start in the playoffs last season) so this could go either way.

LF: Right-handed half of platoon: Matt Diaz appears to have won a job as a reserve outfielder with a hot spring, and may platoon with Ryan Langerhans. Jordan could also win playing time as a right-handed bat here as well.

Closer: Chris Reitsma will begin the season as the closer, but Joey Devine could share the role or take it over before too long. Oscar Villarreal has looked healthy this spring. As a result, he's the third option in the bullpen to close games.

Chicago Cubs

Second Base: Jerry Hairston Jr. vs. Todd Walker vs. Neifi Perez. For now, Hairston is the front runner because he's a little quicker and has more range than Walker defensively, though Hairston's far from a great defensive second baseman. But in Dusty Baker's mind the difference between him and Walker is significant, and that's all that matters. Hairston is finally healthy after having ankle surgery at the end of 2004--last season he was still struggling to get back--so he should run a little more. Hairston does get on base, so he has a little offensive value to the team.

The Cubs don't like Walker's defense, and as a result, they're trying to deal him despite his steady bat. If the Cubs can't move him (right now they're talking to the Orioles), he could win the job, but he'd be on a short leash defensively if he does.

Perez does all the little things, bunts well, moves runners over, doesn't strike out a ton and is solid defensively. He just doesn't get on base and doesn't hit for power. He's probably the least likely of the three to start at second, especially because the Cubs might want to spot him at short if Ronny Cedeno struggles.

Shortstop: Ronny Cedeno vs. Neifi Perez. Cedeno's the guy for now, but Dusty Baker is already harping on him, first saying he's too tight, and then saying he's been "getting himself out." This is classic Dusty, and it bodes badly if Cedeno struggles at all, given Baker's love affair with Perez.

Initial Fifth Starter: Rich Hill vs. Angel Guzman vs. Sean Marshall vs. Jae Kuk Ryu. With Kerry Wood out about a month, and Mark Prior out indefinitely, the Cubs will go with a rotation of Carlos Zambrano/Greg Maddux/Glendon Rusch/Jerome Williams. They won't need a fifth starter until April 15, but when they do, these four will be in the running. Guzman was once one of the top pitching prospects in the game, and he's apparently healthy this spring. Hill has a nasty curve ball and a great strikeout rate in the minors, but he walks too many batters and leaves pitches out over the plate at times. Marshall hasn't had a ton of experience in the high minors, but he was very good at High-A last year, and kept it up during a brief stint at Double-A. He has impressed the Cubs in camp. Ryu pitched decently at Double-A last year, but he's a long shot to get the call. We'd give the edge to Hill due to experience, with Guzman having a chance due to his high ceiling.

Real Fifth Starter: Jerome Williams vs. Glendon Rusch. Assuming Mark Prior and Kerry Wood return at some point, Williams and Rusch will vie to stay in the rotation. If Williams pitches well, we think he'll keep the job since the team is comfortable using Rusch out of the pen.

Cincinnati Reds

2B: This battle is still undecided, but the trade of Wily Mo Pena creates one extra avenue of playing time. On days when Adam Dunn either plays first base or sits, Ryan Freel can move to the outfield, creating more of an opportunity for either Tony Womack or Rich Aurilia. Reds manager Jerry Narron has been fairly silent on who is winning the job, but our gut tells us Freel has the lead.

Closer: Still officially a committee here, but David Weathers is the head of that committee. The big problem for the Reds is none of their current relievers really has a closer's stat set--Ryan Wagner could be that guy eventually, but has been too inconsistent to rely upon so far.

1B/LF: As alluded to above, the trade of Pena creates a little wiggle room for the Reds. Dunn will move to LF most often, with Scott Hatteberg playing first base. When Dunn does play first base, Freel will start in LF.

Colorado Rockies

5th Rotation Spot: Josh Fogg vs. Zach Day vs. Sun Woo Kim. Fogg has missed time this spring due to a groin injury and has only recently thrown off a mound. Day has struggled this spring and has done nothing to show Manager Clint Hurdle he deserves the job. In the meantime, Kim was pitching for Korea in the World Baseball Classic. He pitched a total of three innings and will not be at full strength by opening day. The impression he made at the end of 2005 has not been forgotten by Hurdle, but it was not enough for him to win the spot outright, so the competition is still wide open. Day is out of minor league options and will end up in the bullpen if he loses out while Fogg or Kim could be sent to the minors.

Fourth Outfield: Choo Freeman vs. Jorge Piedra vs. Ryan Shealy vs. Ryan Spilborghs. Freeman has had a terrific spring and is the favorite to win the job, hitting .366 (15-for-41) with 10 RBI and 13 runs. Spilborghs is making the decision tough on Hurdle as he has hit .343 (12-for-35), but he will most likely start the season at Triple-A. Shealy, originally a first baseman, has been sidelined with a sore elbow for much of the spring due to all the extra time he has spent practicing in the outfield. Piedra has been out with a foot injury (plantar fasciitis) and has not played much. Both Shealy and Piedra will most likely start the season on the disabled list.

Utility/Backup Infielder: Eli Marrero vs. Jamey Carroll vs. Omar Quintanilla vs. Josh Wilson. Manager Clint Hurdle has been impressed with Marrero's ability to play outfield, first base and catcher, and he's almost a lock to make the team. Jamey Carroll has also almost locked up a spot, as his constant hustle has given him an edge over the other utility infielders. Quintanilla and Wilson are both younger players who still need some seasoning before they can take on big league pitching. Both will probably start the season in the minors.

Catcher: Yorvit Torrealba vs. Danny Ardoin. Torrealba was acquired in the offseason with the intention to make him the everyday catcher. He spent much of the winter working out and bulking up which lead to a shoulder injury which has limited him much of spring training. This opened the door for veteran minor leaguer Danny Ardoin to prove himself. He has hit .385 (10-for-26) this spring and has taken advantage of the opportunity. Torrealba has recently begun playing in the field but it may already be too late for him to win the job by Opening Day. Look for the Rockies to use a platoon to start the season until one catcher proves he can consistently hit major league pitching.

Florida Marlins

C: Josh Willingham vs. Miguel Olivo vs. Matt Treanor. The Marlins have said Willingham will play every day, but that he'll split his time between left field and catcher. That likely gives Olivo the bulk of work behind the plate.

1B: Mike Jacobs has won the starting job.

2B: Rule 5 draft pick Dan Uggla has won the starting job.

SS: Hanley Ramirez has won the starting job and may even hit leadoff. Robert Andino was sent to the minors, but could get a chance this season.

LF: Willingham will get playing time here but it looks like Chris Aguila is the leading candidate to start when Willingham is behind the plate. Eric Reed could also get ABs here as well. The position is in flux and probably will be even once the regular season begins.

CF: Reggie Abercrombie is hitting .409 with three homers this spring and appears to have won the job over Eric Reed and Chris Aguila. There is still talk that the Marlins could trade for a center fielder, with Joey Gathright's name still coming up in trade rumors.

Rotation: Aside from Dontrelle Willis, all the rest of the rotation spots are open. Sergio Mitre, Brian Moehler and Jason Vargas appear in the lead for the No. 2 through No. 4 spots. The fifth spot is likely a battle between Josh Johnson and Scott Olsen. However, the Marlins may open the season with six starters and use one or two of them out of the bullpen.

Closer: With the demotion of Travis Bowyer to the minors, Joe Borowski would appear to have won the closer role. However, there's been no official announcement and a committee system could still be in play.

Houston Astros

5th Starter: This four man race is still up in the air. Youngsters Taylor Buchholz and Fernando Nieve have looked good in recent outings, and it is believed they are the front-runners. Carlos Hernandez and Steve Sparks are also in the mix. Phil Garner probably will wait until the end of spring training before naming the winner.

1B/RF: This was less of a competition and more of a test of Jeff Bagwell's surgically repaired shoulder. The Astros announced on March 25 that Bagwell would start the season on the DL as he goes under the knife for another surgery on his shoulder. That works perfectly for Houston, as they will start Lance Berkman at first and Jason Lane in right field.

Los Angeles Dodgers

LF: Jose Cruz Jr. vs. Joel Guzman. Guzman has yet to be re-assigned to minor league camp, so it appears he is still in the running for the job. Cruz is getting paid close to $3 million in 2006, so you have to figure he's the favorite. Guzman, though, has impressed everyone in camp with his prodigious power and his ability to hit over .300. Defensively, he remains a work in progress as he's transitioning from SS, but he doesn't appear to be embarrassing himself in the field. Still, look for Cruz to win the job initially, and Guzman to get his shot sometime this summer.

C: Dioner Navarro vs. Russell Martin. Navarro is just 1-for-16 this spring and nursing a sore hamstring. Martin is hitting .345/.406/.448 and impressing everybody. Despite that, Navarro is expected to be the team's primary catcher when he's healthy. Martin could theoretically see time while Navarro is on the DL and if he's hitting .400, he could make it tough for the team to send him back to Triple-A.

Bullpen: Manager Grady Little is likely to carry 11 pitchers to start the season, meaning that there appears to be just two spots for Hong-Chih Kuo, Tim Hamulack, Franquelis Osoria, D.J. Houlton, Aaron Sele, Kelly Wunsch, and Jonathan Broxton. Takashi Saito has already been optioned down despite a 1:12 BB:K ratio. Right now the favorites appear to be Kuo and Osoria to join Eric Gagne, Danys Baez, Yhency Brazoban, and Lance Carter in the Dodgers' bullpen.

Milwaukee Brewers

5th starter: Manager Ned Yost has said that Dave Bush will get the job after a strong spring (0.90 ERA).

New York Mets

RF: Victor Diaz vs. Xavier Nady. Nady, who appeared to be the frontrunner for the Mets' open right field job after being acquired this winter for Mike Cameron, has solidified his hold on the position by hitting .366 with two homers and a team-leading 11 runs batted in. Diaz can be sent to the minors without being exposed to waivers and may open the season at Triple-A Norfolk.

2B: Kaz Matsui vs. Anderson Hernandez vs. Jeff Keppinger vs. Chris Woodward. Matsui, the incumbent, had gotten off to a slow start but seemed to be rounding back into form when he sprained the medial collateral ligament in his right knee sliding into second base Thursday, will not take part in any baseball activities for three weeks. Hernandez, who had a breakthrough season last year and an excellent winter league campaign, will apparently get every chance to win the job. Keppinger missed most of last year with a fractured tibial plate in his left knee on a dirty takeout slide after opening some eyes with his fine 2004 season in Triple-A and in the majors. He will probably start the year at Norfolk. Woodward acknowledges that his value as a utility player makes it less likely he will win the everyday job, so don't look for him to get the job.

5th Starter: Aaron Heilman vs. Brian Bannister. Heilman entered camp as a seeming lock for the fifth starter spot with Victor Zambrano penciled in as the fourth starter. Heilman has pitched well--giving up just one run in nine innings--but Bannister has come out of nowhere to force his way into the picture, giving up only one earned run in 14 innings and is a legit contender for the fifth starter's spot. There are three possible scenarios: 1) Heilman is the fifth starter and Bannister heads to Triple-A. Bannister, while being the camp's biggest surprise, has never appeared in a major league game, and there are tons of pitchers who did well in spring training but flopped when the regular season started; 2) Heilman is in the bullpen and Bannister is in the rotation. The advantage here would be that Heilman would return to a role in which he starred last year and also provide the Mets with another reliever to face lefties, which is a key with Juan Padilla--who was effective against lefties--out for the year; and, 3) Bannister goes to Triple-A and Heilman goes into the rotation, albeit delayed. With two off-days in the first eight days of the regular season, the Mets could get by without a fifth starter until April 17, two weeks into the schedule. Another outside scenario has both of them in the rotation if Pedro Martinez's injured toe forces him to miss the start of the season.

Philadelphia Phillies

3B: Abraham Nunez will likely get regular at bats at third base if David Bell's back problems keeps him sidelined when the regular season begins.

Pittsburgh Pirates

CF: Chris Duffy vs. Nate McLouth in center field. It was widely assumed that Duffy would start the season as the starter in center, but due to his injuries and McLouth's fine play, manager Jim Tracy has become unwilling to give Duffy his seal of approval as the team's starter. Duffy has the better speed and defense, which will probably get him the starting job, but McLouth has become a favorite of Jim Tracy.

St. Louis Cardinals

LF: Larry Bigbie vs. So Taguchi. Bigbie will be out two to three weeks with a stress fracture in his left foot, and Taguchi will start the season with the job. We ultimately expect both to get a good number of at-bats.

5th Starter: Sidney Ponson has won the job over Anthony Reyes and Adam Wainwright.

San Diego Padres

2B: Josh Barfield appears to have won the starting job over Mark Bellhorn and Eric Young.

San Francisco Giants

5th Rotation Spot: Kevin Correia vs. Brad Hennessey vs. Jamey Wright. With Hennessey struggling with a 6.57 spring ERA, it appears the 5th spot is coming down to Wright and Correia. Correia has retired the last 19 batters faced limiting hitters to a paltry .074 average during that time. Wright has been impressive as well and has yet to give up an earned run in nine innings. The fifth spot is TBA, but both Correia and Wright seem to deserve a roster spot whether in the rotation or in long relief. Hennessey will most likely start the season in Triple-A.

Washington Nationals

SS: Royce Clayton will start at shortstop with Cristian Guzman out with a shoulder injury. Guzman is trying to rehab the injury but it's likely he'll need season-ending surgery at some point.

CF: Ryan Church has likely won the majority of at bats, but he could platoon with Marlon Byrd.

LF: With Alfonso Soriano agreeing to play left field, Brandon Watson may not make the final roster even though manager Frank Robinson says he's his preferred leadoff hitter.

Rotation: Pedro Astacio, Ramon Ortiz and Tony Armas Jr. have won the final three spots.

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