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March 17, 1998

Rotisserie Turns: Spring Training Decisions, Part 4

National League rotation and closer questions

by Keith Law

Starting Pitchers

Florida
Openings: #2-5
Candidates: Felix Heredia, Eric Ludwick, Rafael Medina, Kirt Ojala, Brian Meadows, assorted others

There are a number of other guys who could theoretically end up in this rotation - Andy Larkin, Antonio Alfonseca, Mark Gardiner, etc. - but I've only listed the ones that seem to be more than longshots, and they're in descending order of likelihood. Heredia has a dual advantage: Leyland knows him well, and thus is more likely to use him; and he has major-league time under his belt, which increases his chances for success. Ludwick has had a few starts in the bigs, and probably has the highest ceiling of this group. He has the full arsenal necessary to be a major-league starter, with control of all his pitchers, but was jerked around quite a bit in the past two years - starter to reliever to starter, then from St. Louis to Oakland in the McGwire deal. Medina came in the Brown trade, and while he's also got a high ceiling, his numbers were hideous at AAA last year (7.56 ERA, bad even in the PCL), and he was hurt early in the season. He had a great AFL campaign, so his arm is probably sound, but I foresee an adjustment period if he makes the rotation. Ojala is no prospect at 29 years old, but is one of the guys who should have been helped by expansion - and nearly was, as Arizona claimed him on waivers but lost him back to Florida in the same manner. There are perhaps two or three teams in the majors who couldn't use him right now: in the last four years at AAA, he has pitched 133-149 innings every year, with no ERA above 3.95 and none below 3.50 and K/BB ratios around 2:1. He's good for at least 150 innings of a 4.00 ERA if he makes the rotation. Meadows looks like little more than a tweener to me, with 204 hits allowed in 174 AA innings last year and a 4.63 ERA, but I included him because Peter Gammons listed him as a likely member of the rotation (omitting Ojala from the group above). In roto terms: Heredia's worth $3-5, Ludwick is worth up to $2, Medina and Ojala are reserve picks to $1 max, and Meadows is not worth your time.

Montreal
Openings: #4-5
Candidates: Marc Valdes, Shawn Boskie, Mike Johnson, Matt Wagner, Javier Vazquez

The Montreal Gazette seems to think that Boskie's out of this race, which is great news for Expo fans. The latest rumblings out of Montreal have Vazquez leading the pack, with Johnson likely ticketed for AAA and the last spot coming down to the health of Wagner's shoulder (coming off rotator cuff surgery) and Valdes' ability to throw strikes. Wagner is the best roto bet of the group; Vazquez has only 42 innings above A-ball in his career, and Valdes has never posted K/BB or K/IP ratios to give me any confidence.

Philadelphia
Openings: #5
Candidates: Garrett Stephenson, Matt Beech

This will go down to the wire, according to Mr. Francona. Stephenson should have earned it, based on his performance last year, but the club has to give Tyler Green his 85th shot. Beech means more to the team long-term, but you don't want to suffer through his growing pains, and this year is likely to include more.

Cincinnati
Openings: #4-5
Candidates: Mike Remlinger, Steve Cooke, Mark Hutton, Gabe White

Cooke threw 5 scoreless innings yesterday to advance his stock; I love him as a sleeper this year, as he was solid last year with the Bucs despite missing nearly two years after shoulder surgery. The Pirates only cut him for salary reasons; they had plenty of other 5th starters, and didn't want to pony up. Remlinger was excellent in the rotation last year, and will probably get the last spot, with Hutton going to the pen and White on the bubble. Both of the latter two are great $1 gambles; they will likely see some starts this year, as the Reds are desperate to trade Burba and Harnisch and Remlinger are not exactly locks to pitch well. Jim Crowell and Scott Winchester are longshots in this race, and Jose Rijo probably won't show up in the majors until June if he can still pitch.

Houston
Openings: #5, plus Chris Holt's slot and perhaps Ramon Garcia's slot
Candidates: John Halama, Pete Schourek, Sean Bergman, CJ Nitkowski (?), Jose Lima (?)

The 5th starter race between John Halama and Scott Elarton should have been over when Elarton was reassigned over the weekend, but the recent injuries to Holt and Garcia have created two new short-term openings in the rotation. Barring a trade, which is the Astros' preferred solution, the team has several not-so-palatable in-house options. Pete Schourek has yet to make a ST start, and may not be ready to start the season in the rotation, but is the best bet they have if and when he is ready. Bergman has been simply awful in the rotation but acceptable in the pen in the last two seasons, and is only worth $1 as a starter because of the 'dome. Nitkowski and Lima, both acquired in the Detroit trade of last winter, are interesting cases: both have excellent stuff, and both struggled badly last year, although Nitkowski's overall line wasn't hideous, just bad. You can't teach stuff, but you can teach the art of pitching, and you can fix mechanics, so both of these guys have upside if the team has a compelling reason to put some time in and get them up to readiness. Sean Bergman is one compelling reason.

Milwaukee
Openings: #4-5
Candidates: Steve Woodard, Paul Wagner, Jeff Juden

Hard to believe Woodard, who made such a great first impression when he came up last year, has to fight for a rotation slot. All the kid does is throw strikes and go after hitters - and put results on the board; his 3.17 ERA in the Texas League last year was phenomenal. Wagner is still recovering from June 1996 surgery, and doesn't seem to be a good roto bet--but neither does Juden, who has never thrown strikes consistently for more than a month at a time. Juden's a great guy to bid up in NL-only leagues, where owners will only be peripherally aware of his AL struggles last year.

Pittsburgh
Openings: #5
Candidates: Jose Silva, Chris Peters, Jimmy Andersen, Kris Benson

This race is apparently over, with Silva getting the nod for the rotation, Peters and Andersen battling Tabaka for the last bullpen spot, and Benson hanging around major-league camp until Lieber shows he's OK. Benson will start in Lieber's place if the latter can't go, and will go to AAA otherwise.

St. Louis
Openings: #5, plus Alan Benes' and Donovan Osborne's slots
Candidates: Manny Aybar, Kent Mercker, Cliff Politte, Mark Petkovsek

Aybar and Mercker are the best bets to take rotation slots and fight for them when the injured parties return, although the Cardinals said when they signed Mercker that he would be used in a swing role. Aybar is a candidate for blowout, as the former shortstop faced nearly 900 hitters last year at age 22 after facing only 630 the year before. Petkovsek is a soft-tosser who poses a clear and present danger to your ERA if he gets a starting job. Politte is a top prospect who has only 37.2 innings above A-ball, and while he's pitched well this spring, this organization really has no need to rush him.

Arizona
Openings: #5
Candidates: Omar Daal, Bob Wolcott, Joel Adamson

Adamson is probably the leading candidate at this point, but all three are likely to see rotation time this year, as the current rotation includes Andy Benes, who missed time with an injury last year, Jeff Suppan and Brian Anderson, both of whom have missed time in recent years, and Willie Blair, who has suffered through long bouts of sucking in previous years. Daal is a particularly interesting case, as his stuff has been praised by scouts and officials everywhere, but he couldn't get anyone out last year in either league.

Los Angeles
Openings: #5
Candidates: Darren Dreifort, Dennis Reyes

Reyes is a huge blowout candidate, as there's a ton of innings on that arm even if you don't count his winter ball time. He's also easy to send back to the minors, since he's not as established as Dreifort is. For roto purposes, Dreifort is all upside, and Reyes has a bit of downside.

San Diego
Openings: #4-5
Candidates: Sterling Hitchcock, Mark Langston, Pete Smith

Langston is reportedly in fantastic shape, and rumor has it that he's locked up the #5 spot, leaving an unusual battle for the fourth spot. Hitchcock has been maddenly inconsistent for his entire career, while Pete Smith really won over the Pads' front office with his stint in the majors last year. This probably won't be decided until next week, but my guess is that Hitchcock goes to the pen to work out whatever ailed him last year.

Closer and Key Setup jobs

Florida
Candidates: Oscar Henriquez, Jay Powell, Felix Heredia, Manuel Barrios

Powell gets first crack--but he's not necessarily the long-term closer. Henriquez is a tremendous prospect who posted an 80:27 K/BB ratio in 74 innings last year in AAA, with a 2.80 ERA to boot. He throws in the upper 90s, and would allow management to show that the Moises Alou trade wasn't just a salary dump, but a genuinely smart move. I don't think there's anything wrong with Powell, but he will get exactly one chance to fail before Leyland tries Henriquez. Heredia will be the LH setup man if he doesn't make the rotation, and Barrios should join the pen in RH short relief by midsummer.

Montreal
Candidates: Anthony Telford, Shayne Bennett, Trey Moore, Rick DeHart

Telford has been miserable this spring, posting an ERA of 15 through yesterday, although Felipe Alou offers no concern. Bennett is perhaps one of the more overrated pitchers around, as he throws very hard but has little indication of the strike zone, striking out 29 and walking 21 in 34.1 AAA innings last year, then following up with 8 K/9 BB in 22.2 major-league innings. At 26, he should have already figured some of that stuff out. Moore and DeHart have also been bad, with DeHart performing worse, leaving Moore as the likely LH setup man. I usually like to go after setup men in the hopes of finding cheap saves, but I've avoided this bullpen entirely this spring.

Philadelphia
Candidates: Wayne Gomes, Ryan Brannan

Bottalico is obviously locked in as the closer, but he was nearly traded to Seattle last year, and is one of the Phils' only remaining commodities (with Curt Schilling) that might fetch a grade-A prospect or two in trade. If he goes, his successor might just be Ryan Brannan, a '96 draft pick who has already reached and pitched well at AA. He's still raw, as his command isn't all there yet, and he really lived hard off of his mid-90s fastball last year, so AAA time is clearly in the cards for him. However, if he succeeds there, he should advance quickly and could hasten Bottalico's departure. As for Gomes, he has never had a season where he walked fewer than 5 batters per 9 innings, and while his strikeout rates have usually been very good, he still is nothing more than a thrower who, in 5 years as a pro, hasn't figured out how to pitch.

Arizona
Candidates: Russ Springer, Hector Carrasco, Felix Rodriguez, Gregg Olson

The closer job is apparently down to Carrasco, he of the fastball that goes wherever it wants to, and Rodriguez, he of the fastball that moves not a whit. Neither is a lock to keep the closer's job for more than two months, and any of these four guys could wind up taking it. The setup man is the real roto value here.

Los Angeles
Candidates: Antonio Osuna, Scott Radinsky

This competition might be over, as the Dodgers just signed Osuna to a two-year deal plus two club options. He's clearly the better choice, as Radinsky has historically been less effective against righties, and Osuna probably hasn't finished improving, since he's just 25. He's already one of the best relievers in baseball, and should soon join Trevor Hoffman and Troy Percival as one of the top closers in the game as well.

You can send email to Keith at roto@baseballprospectus.com.

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