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March 10, 1998

Rotisserie Turns: Spring Training Decisions, Part 3

American League rotation and closer questions

by Keith Law

Starting Pitchers

Oakland
Slots: #3-5
Candidates: Jimmy Haynes, Brad Rigby, Mike Oquist, Ariel Prieto, Willie Adams

If it were my decision, this wouldn't be so difficult. Adams doesn't get to start until he gets his act together, and Oquist goes to long relief or to Edmonton to wait for the first injury or collapse. Of course, the organization may have other thoughts, and it's still unlikely that former #1 draft choice Prieto will be cut loose just yet.

Seattle
Slots: #5
Candidates: Felipe Lira, Paul Spoljaric, Bill Swift

Lira's a great sleeper if you're looking for $1 pitchers who could bust out, or for starters to stash on a reserve/Ultra list. He looked like he was on the verge of a breakthrough after the '96 season, but struggled early in Detroit and eventually was traded to Seattle, where ever-patient Lou Piniella drove him further down. Unfortunately, I doubt Lira will get first crack at the #5 job in '98, as Paul Spoljaric is getting increasing mention as the likely 5th starter. Spoljaric was a starter as recently as '95 in the minors, but has worked exclusively in relief since then. The reason he's getting such a lengthy trial as a starter is simple: the M's desperately need to show that the Cruz trade wasn't the worst transaction since Bagwell for Andersen. Swift, of course, can only throw about 50 innings a year without getting hurt, and he's using most of them up in spring training. Spoljaric is the de facto leader based on Piniella's blunt comments to the media, but isn't any better than the other two guys. I expect each to get 7-12 starts this season.

Texas
Slots: #4-5
Candidates: Roger Pavlik, Bobby Witt, Rick Helling

Organizational inertia at its finest. The Rangers wanted to get rid of Witt, but couldn't seem to accept the notion of letting him go without receiving some compensation, so they offered him arbitration. He looked in the market, found no takers, and accepted the Rangers' offer. What are the odds they'll put him in the pen? About 100:1 against. Similarly, Pavlik is another Ranger veteran (and former undeserving All-Star) who will probably win the job on name and experience alone. All that said, if the Rangers are really serious about winning this year, they'll put Helling in the rotation immediately, preferably in the 3-hole ahead of Aaron Sele. He continues to show flashes of brilliance when placed in the rotation, and yet has been maddeningly inconsistent in relief. He's a great $1-3 gamble if you're bottom-fishing.

Boston
Slots: #3-5
Candidates: Steve Avery, Robinson Checo, Tim Wakefield, Bret Saberhagen, Brian Rose, Derek Lowe, John Wasdin, perhaps Tom Gordon

I love to hear that the Sox' rotation is "thin" or that the team lacks starting pitching. If someone's going to pay you to write a damn column, then do some research first: the Sox are overflowing with starting pitching; the flaw is that nothing beyond Pedro Martinez is a lock. Still, the Sox are in the luxurious position of having options should any of their 5 initial starters bomb out. My best interpretation is that Gordon, Lowe, and Wasdin will go to the bullpen, Rose will start the year in AAA (his numbers last year weren't all that impressive beyond his W/L record), with the last three starters coming from Avery, Checo, Sabes, and Wakefield. Since the first three of those four had injury problems last year, plenty of these other worthy candidates will see time in the rotation this year. Please note that I'm assuming here that Butch Henry will be in the rotation behind Pedro, since Henry's arm can't take the stress of regular relief duty, and Sox officials have publicly said as much in the past.

NY Yankees
Slots: #5
Candidates: Ramiro Mendoza, Darren Holmes, Willie Banks, Mike Jerzembeck

I know most folks presume Mendoza's a lock for the 5th slot in the Bronx, and as a Yankee fan, I hope they're right. If nothing else, it gives him a chance to establish himself so Steinbrenner is less inclined to trade him for the next piece of overaged DH chattel to come down the pike. However, the Yanks were quite coy about Holmes probable use when they made the blockbuster signing, and Holmes has started in the past without totally embarrassing himself. Banks pitched well in short time with the Yanks last September. Jerzembeck is more likely to come up midseason if someone (Irabu) is struggling. I still see Mendoza getting the job; just remember to value Mendoza accordingly.

Tampa Bay
Slots: #5
Candidates: Rick Gorecki, Esteban Yan, John LeRoy

Probably a function of Gorecki's health and Yan's readiness, not to mention whoever Rothschild takes a shine to first. Gorecki's a huge sleeper if he gets the #5 spot.

Toronto
Slots: #5
Candidates: Erik Hanson, Kelvim Escobar, Chris Carpenter, Roy Halladay

I expect Hanson to get a legitimate shot this spring, since the alternative is for the Jays to make him a really overpaid reliever or to just eat the last year on this dumb contract. Carpenter is the organization's golden-boy starter, but may have to wait for Hanson to fail one last time. A few readers have asked me about Halladay, and my response to them is still the same: He's not ready.

Chicago White Sox
Slots: #4-5
Candidates: Scott Eyre, Tom Fordham, Mike Sirotka, Carlos Castillo, Keith Foulke, Jim Parque, Jim Bullinger

With all the hue and cry over the Chicago White Flags trade last July, you'd think that the Sox would be in a big rush to put Keith Foulke in the rotation to show everyone that they got real value in return. No such luck: rumor has it they want him to be the primary setup guy for Matt Karchner, not that he's any kind of lock in the 9th inning anyway. Parque's an intriguing candidate with less than a year as a pro under his belt, but most scouting reports say he's not ready yet, and pitchers who successfully make the jump this quickly are few and far between. That leaves us with Eyre, who's probably got the best stuff of the group and is the current favorite for the #4 spot; Fordham, a longtime prospect who was actually ready last year but never got a shot; Sirotka, a lesser pitcher than Fordham but a man who's out of options; Bullinger, who's barely good enough for mop-up work; and Castillo, whose arsenal is limited and better suited to relief anyway. Eyre and Sirotka are probably the best bets now, but Fordham's a great bet to see 15 starts later in the season, especially if Navarro is pawned off in July to someone dumber than Schueler, like Pat Gillick.

Cleveland
Slots: #5
Candidates: Bartolo Colon, Steve Karsay, Melido Perez

The job should be Colon's, but the Indians remain firmly planted in "win now" mode, and have clearly positioned themselves to make a midseason starting pitcher acquisition if necessary. They're not going to be able to use all of Giles, Aven, Casey, Branyan, and Sexson, so I'd expect some of those guys to go midseason for a Randy Johnson or Kevin Appier.

Detroit
Slots: #3-5
Candidates: Bryce Florie, Greg Keagle, Frank Castillo, Tim Worrell

Except for Castillo, I think these are all ex-Padres. What a shock. Anyway, Florie's an interesting case in that he was much more effective as a starter last year, but still posted weak overall numbers. Castillo, of course, is now in the Jim Bullinger career stage, where he bounces around for a few years, hoping to turn into Jaime Navarro and get one more big contract to buy himself the next pair of his-and-hers Mercedes. Worrell suffered from serious inconsistency and immaturity last year (broke his hand punching a wall in disgust), and was less effective in relief, but he could be the odd man out here. Best bet is that Florie takes a setup role next to Brocail.

Kansas City
Slots: #4-5
Candidates: Pat Rapp, Glendon Rusch, Jim Pittsley, Chris Haney

If you followed the Royals this winter, you won't be surprised if Pat (C)Rapp winds up in the starting rotation in Kansas City. While plenty of baseball people talk about his stuff, the fact is that he can't throw it for strikes, and at this rate, I wouldn't bet a silver dollar that he will. Haney's season was lost to myriad injuries, but he was an acceptable low-numbered starter before last year. This race seems completely up for grabs, but KC history tells us that the vets (Rapp/Haney) usually beat out the kids.

Minnesota
Slots: #4-5
Candidates: Dan Serafini, Ricky Bones, Frank Rodriguez, Travis Miller, LaTroy Hawkins

Not the most awe-inspiring group you've seen this spring, eh? Even though Rodriguez is basically the devil the Twins know, I think they've tired enough of his act to try anyone else in the slot instead. Hawkins has made more than his share of enemies in Minnesota with his horrible performances and temper tantrums. Bones has been getting pounded all spring, but the Twins really have nothing better to put out there and little left to trade in search for more talent. I'd avoid them all for this year, and only consider Serafini a factor beyond '98.

Closer and Key Setup jobs

Oakland
Candidates: Mike Fetters, Billy Taylor, TJ Mathews

And the answer is: Yes. All three will likely close a bit this season, with Mathews holding the edge of being the future closer beyond '98. So far, it appears that Fetters will start the year with the job, but I'd bet on all three getting 10-15 saves.

Tampa Bay
Candidates: Rick Gorecki, Esteban Yan, John LeRoy, Mike Duvall, Ramon Tatis

No one here is likely to get more than 3-4 saves with Roberto Hernandez manning the closer's spot. Tatis may return to the minors, as he was a Rule Ver who hadn't pitched above A-ball before last year. Yan, Gorecki, and LeRoy are all contenders for the 5th spot in the rotation. Really not much roto value in this group.

Chicago White Sox
Candidates: Bill Simas, Keith Foulke, Tony Castillo, Carlos Castillo, perhaps Tom Fordham

Karchner will start the year with the job, but he also wins the dubious honor of being the AL closer most likely to lose his job before any other AL closer does - thus making the setup men particularly interesting. Simas has the best credentials if you're looking for a guy who might start getting saves in June: he's a reliever by trade, he throws hard, and he's already relieved for the big club, so he'll play better with the "long-time listener, first-time caller" crowd. Foulke pitched well in short relief late last year, and the Sox seem intent on giving him the job. Tony C is just a short reliever trying to find a second career as a lefty specialist, and is not likely to get more than 3-4 saves.

Kansas City
Candidates: Lee Smith, Jamie Bluma, Hipolito Pichardo, the losers of the 5th starter battle

Montgomery's rock solid, but he's also a free agent after '98 and likely to be dealt in July, especially if Bluma is healthy and looks like he might be ready to close in '99. That said, they may choose to put Smith in the closer's role first if he's pitching well, and let Bluma wait until next April to assume the closer job himself. Pichardo could always get another chance to close next year, but I doubt it.

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