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February 26, 2010

Camp Battles

NL Central

by Christina Kahrl

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Chicago Cubs: Rotation issues again, an ephemeral victory to be won at the keystone, and distributing outfield playing time.

As Will Carroll reported earlier this week, Ted Lilly's slow recovery is pushing him back towards late April or early May, and while the season doesn't kick off until April 5 and the scheduled days off might let the Cubs avoid using a fifth starter until almost two weeks into the season, the injury converts what might have been a simple exercise in Tom Gorzelanny's winning the fifth job in the rotation into a scramble to sort through a variety of alternatives for two slots. Will Sean Marshall be brought back out of the pen? Is this Carlos Silva's opportunity to prove he still has value? Will Jeff Samardzija ever reliably challenge batters, and not just spell-checkers? Or is this the opportunity for a top prospect, say an Andrew Cashner or a Jay Jackson to slip into the picture?

Call me a skeptic about anything surprising come out of this. I have no expectation that Samardzija's going to make it as a starter, I don't see Cashner or Jackson making it onto the 40-man ahead of schedule for a brief spin, so this is really a four-way fight for two jobs, one of them temporary and lasting only as long as Lilly's absence. I'm a bit dubious about Marshall getting taken out of the pen; John Gaub could step into his slot in the pen, certainly, and that wouldn't be the worst thing, but I expect a certain conservatism fostered by the expectation of contention to inform the choices. If it's Gorzo and Silva, color me unsurprised. If there's an interesting wrinkle, it's that Silva has an option left-he'd have to give his permission to be optioned to Iowa as a result of his service time, but if he looks terrible in March, stranger things have happened.

Instead, if there's a job battle in camp, it might be the race against time-and Starlin Castro's eventual arrival-for Jeff Baker and Mike Fontenot at second base. Since both Baker and Fontenot have shown value in part-time roles and can handle multiple positions, even if the veterans wind up in a predictable platoon (perhaps with Andres Blanco sticking as their defensive replacement), they'll also have value later in the season as high-use bench players for the stretch run should Castro show up, claim short, and push Ryan Theriot across the bag to start at second.

The last question as far as regular roles is the more open-ended question about how Lou Piniella divides up the outfield playing time, but it's first up to Xavier Nady to prove that his elbow's sound before he can mount a bid for more than a fourth outfielder's playing time. If, however, his progress against right-handed pitching means he's shed a platoon player label, things should definitely be interesting. As noted, my expectations for Marlon Byrd are a matter of record, and PECOTA's similarly pragmatic about what his post-Texas career will look like, this should be interesting to watch in March and April.

Cincinnati Reds: Crowding to the left, plus picking a fifth.

Yesterday, I already went into some detail as far as the left-field job fight, with only the additional note that Jonny Gomes is also, like Wladimir Balentien, out of options, while Chris Dickerson remains optionable. Dickerson's uses are such that I'm hopeful that he sticks in a role that gets him 400 plate appearances, but we'll see how Dusty Baker handles it. Beyond that, there's sorting through options for the fifth slot in the rotation, with Aroldis Chapman the wild card who could shunt aside usual-suspect fifth-starter options like Justin Lehr, Kip Wells, Micah Owings, or Matt Maloney. If the Reds decide that Chapman isn't cut out for the opening-day roster or starting, expect plenty of churn in the slot until Edinson Volquez re-enters the picture.

Houston Astros: Last chances behind home plate, Scuffy's last stand, and a closing pickle.

While you'd hope for a few more opportunities to change things up on a club that seems destined to disappoint any expectations of adding relevance to the tail end of the careers of Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman, let's face it, when you're picking between Pedro Feliz, Kaz Matsui, Jeff Keppinger, and Geoff Blum at third and second base, what's the best possible outcome? Platooning Matsui with Keppinger? Hoping Chris Johnson can unseat Feliz? These aren't really job battles, they're squalid compromises with the present that you're left with when you get this far out on the weak branch of Ed Wade's decision tree, the upshot of a course taken back when the new GM elected to go for it in 2008.

It was the stance that got him the job, but now the banzai run's done. In the lower expectations for 2010, the Astros can try to insinuate what few prospects they have where and when they can. At shortstop, that's going to be Tommy Manzella now; the question is whether or not Jason Castro breaks through at catcher in camp to give them another up-the-middle rookie with defensive chops and a playable bat. It's more likely that we'll be forced to witness one last spin with Humberto Quintero and J.R. Towles, an undercard that might require chickenwire to protect the contestants from an understandably frustrated fan base. If the choice remains between Quintero and Towles, there's not much in the way of a right answer, just the hope that Towles doesn't pancake at the plate yet again, because Quintero's not going to hit. If Towles loses to Castro, there's at least the consolation that Towles is optionable.

It's the fights on the pitching staff that promise more interesting and more immediate results. Will Felipe Paulino harness his high-velocity stuff and stick as the fifth starter, or will Brian Moehler get one last spin? If Paulino doesn't charm new skipper Brad Mills at the outset, he can also be optioned back to Round Rock, but if Moehler wins, you can see that as a setback, however temporary, for the organization. Less significant for its long-term implications but no doubt more interesting to fantasy skippers is the fight between Matt Lindstrom and Brandon Lyon for who gets saves. While Lyon's seen as the more experienced alternative, both men are 30. Wade has already suggested he's cool with a committee if that's where Mills decides to wind up, and perhaps that would be for the best, given that their performance records have tended to skip around a lot.

Milwaukee Brewers: Finishing a rotation with two least-bad options, making or avoiding a commitment in center, and a Gamel'ing problem at third?

Having signed Randy Wolf and Doug Davis, the worst rotation in baseball is down to just two slots left for the three major holdovers from last year's sorry lot. Whether or not the organization can swallow the expense of paying Jeff Suppan to sit on a beach remains to be seen, but the reigning champ for free-agent debacledom has at least one more year and $14.5 million left to go on the Brewers' time and dime. There's also the reliably frustrating Manny Parra, the violently plunk-prone Dave Bush, and minor-league veteran Chris Narveson. Suffice to say the situation's a massive Clutterbuck of unappealing alternatives, where the responsibility for passing judgment when there are no happy outcomes is perhaps the most desperately sad thing about the whole situation. Should Chris Capuano come back from almost two years away from the majors and pitch his way into the picture, is that redemption, or just another variation of sameness from a monotone palette of desperation? Is it at all reassuring that while Suppan and Parra would have to be cut, Bush could be optioned to the bushes (with his permission)?

So, given that horror show, we might understandably turn to more fanciful questions. Can Mat Gamel push his way into a job at third base? As wonderful as Casey McGehee's breakthrough was last season, he is in fact Casey McGehee, a player whose extensive track record suggests last year could be a happy introduction will be hard to match. If McGehee loses as much as a 100 points of slugging-as PECOTA suggests-he may still have value as a part-time player, but he'd be vulnerable to a challenge from the essentially position-less Gamel. If Gamel sticks with a great camp, it'll be to play regularly, but it seems unlikely that they'll shunt him out to right field to cadge at-bats from Corey Hart, at least not initially. But will the Brewers have the decisiveness to thank McGehee for his good works and then push him back into a part-time role? Crowding in on the question of whether they can make space for Gamel is the commitment to Craig Counsell as a primary infield reserve, because as is both Hernan Iribarren and Joe Inglett are out of options, so some of these calls will involve actual cuts, not just newly-minted Nashville Sounds.

There is perhaps the opposite problem in center field, where youth is being served with the expectation that Carlos Gomez should be the regular. But Gomez's past performance hardly merits much in the way of abject commitment, and if he continues to struggle as much as a Brewer as he did as a Twin, there's an opportunity for Jim Edmonds to make something of his non-roster invite or perhaps for Jody Gerut to remind Ken Macha he's been on the roster since the end of last May.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Another fifth man issue, and Jeff Clement vs. Himself.

At the back end of the rotation, there's the debate over whether the Bucs are better off with Kevin Hart or Daniel McCutchen, but I don't think it's quite that straightforward-I'd add Brad Lincoln to the initial list of possibilities, with Donnie Veal among others coming into the picture later in the year. For myself, I'm a believer in the proposition that Hart's stuff is better suited to quality relief work; McCutchen's a decent starting pitcher, but he may also just be the latest name to tack to the end of the Jeff Karstens list of temporary solutions. So, it's the odd situation where I think the higher expectations for what Hart could achieve in a different role should open up the slot to McCutchen. If McCutchen has a bad spring, Lincoln's going to be worth a look, but they may be happier to leave Lincoln in Triple-A until they're sure about how well his new changeup works in game action.

As for Clement, it's really a question of whether or not he's going to win the job at first base by simply living up to past expectations. He has to deliver enough good stuff to prevent a job battle from developing. Heading into his age-26 season, PECOTA's expectations aren't exactly a ringing endorsement-a .270 TAv isn't very remarkable for a first baseman. If he falters-or, if you're really a skeptic, when-then the Pirates have Ryan Church lined up to take over for him in right field, with Garrett Jones moving back to first base. You might make the same claim about Church's value if Lastings Milledge doesn't earn his keep in left field, but Milledge has more big-league experience to his credit, and it seems as if the Bucs have more confidence in him than they do (or should) in Clement.

St. Louis Cardinals: Picking a third baseman and a fifth starter.

The job at third base seems as it should be David Freese's to win outright, but that's a name written into the lineup card in pencil, not yet stamped in ink, and the chance is there for Allen Craig or perhaps even Julio Lugo to get some consideration. Still, this could wind up being a non-battle in short order. The real contest is for the fifth starter's slot, where the Cardinals' options are varied. Will Rich Hill be Dave Duncan's latest resurrection as he tries to come back from labrum surgery and questions about his capacity to bounce back? Or will Kyle McClellan deliver as the latest iteration of a bullpen-to-rotation jump, a la Braden Looper? If both falter, will a fully recovered Jaime Garcia exploit the situation and put his TJS-related interruption behind him, living up to his renewed prospect status? Or will the Cardinals be stuck with a less appetizing solution, like falling back on Mitch Boggs and hoping the other team's short on human beings who bat left-handed? It's hardly an epic combat, but the upside potential if Hill has something left or if Garcia proves ready to arrive now makes this more interesting than most fifth-man fights, and it's cast against the backdrop of the Cardinals' status as a favorite to repeat as the division's champs.

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

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