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March 1, 2010

Camp Battles

NL West

by Christina Kahrl

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To complete my perhaps overly terse-for me, at any rate-series review job battles for starting jobs in the majors, we now turn to the NL West. Admittedly, part of the exercise here for me was to make sure that I turn over to positions and considerations that, too often, do not comprise core considerations for Transaction Analysis: the guys who get punted from Triple-A and back again, the damned and doomed who need to adapt to a shuttle-born existence between the dubious glory of third lefty-dom, spot starting in the rotation because some high-maintenance thirtysomething needs skipping, or the outfielder who plays because somebody's hammy's barking or the like. That's the stuff that, admittedly, is relatively minor stuff, the endless churn that I can't help but find fascinating on one level, but also have to admit impacts a season, a team, or your fantasy squad very little, if at all. Or, as another way to put it, if you're concerned about the whereabouts of Doug Slaten, you're with me in the ranks of the few, the proud, the players in the deepest of leagues, or the folks who don't play Wii in their spare time.

The NL West has a few of the usual issues. There are of course a few couple of fifth starter squabbles that, as Tommy Bennett sensibly pointed out, should not absorb your attentions as much as they should demand you take notice of the kind of work Will Carroll delivers as far as updates on player health. Perhaps because workloads and faith matter so much in equal measure, and because punitive assignments can perhaps serve more pointed purposes-witness Ricky Nolasco's banishment-the question of who wins at the back end of any rotation might matter less now than it conveys a sense of the relative prestige in play on certain teams. Occasionally, a guy falls out of favor and gets deleted (or deletes himself). What I infer from some of these job battles is that there's more at stake for the winners and losers, less than that it is a merely academic exercise. One of the things I know that I want to follow more closely in-season this year is documenting which managers skip starters, reshuffle their rotations, when, and why. It's more interesting as an adaptation to the perhaps inevitable variability of starting pitcher performance-fewer samples in terms of individual games creates a pretty fierce standard by which to evaluate success or failure-and why I may be a little more blasť about whether a manager decided that, for the next four days after a dose of late-night extra-inning mayhem, he'd rather have this guy as his 11th or 12th pitcher instead of the one who just pitched the 11th through 13th innings. Assessing roster management needs to be more supple than rote recitations of who's up and who's down; these are moves more dictated by the roster's needs of the moment than individual performance, as teams simply churn through the last three or four or five spots on the roster. Investigating who has that kind of flexibility and how well they exploit it is a lot more interesting than merely coming up with the odd throwaway line involving the Punic Wars and Randy Lerch. Which is not to say I'll give up on either, but that the time's come for a more adaptive response to assessing roster management than just who's up and who's down.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Playing time splits behind the plate, and determining who comprises the little two after the big three in the rotation.

The question of who gets how many starts behind the plate is one of those nice problems to have, where the distinction between whether or not Chris Snyder gets 60 or 70 starts and Miguel Montero gets 90 or a 100 is more of a status play than a real job fight. The Snakes are better off having both, because neither is a perfect player, but both have discrete strengths. Snyder's problems with making consistent contact against right-handers militates against his being an everyday player, but he does an effective enough job of deterring or cutting down the running game while walking some and popping lefties more to merit semi-regularity. The younger Montero isn't the same caliber of receiver or thrower, but he's not Box O'Rocks either, and his value as a switch-hitter with works-everywhere power has sensibly encouraged the Snakes to make him their more frequent starter. As camp fights go, this is more of a pantomime, where the team comes out ahead by the very fact of having them both. It's more interesting to speculate over whether the older Kelly Johnson winds up in a similarly co-operative situation with Tony Abreu at second base, but that's a combat that may have to wait for regular-season action to boil over.

In the meantime, there's the matter of who rounds out the rotation behind Dan Haren, Brandon Webb, and Edwin Jackson. Ian Kennedy should be locked in on one of the two slots, but A.J. Hinch is already trying to let the air out of the expectations bubble, a sensible precaution given how badly Kennedy melted down in the Bronx. Beyond Kennedy, the fifth slot alternatives aren't pretty: Billy Buckner, Bryan Augenstein, Kevin Mulvey, or non-roster invite Rodrigo Lopez are the notional options. This is a situation that only gets worse if Kennedy has another career hiccup, because picking two from that field is the stuff of which dreams involving "Aaron Heilman, starting pitcher" are made of. Maybe Matt Torra or Wes Roemer climb into the picture if things get bad; both throw strikes, albeit with modest assortments. In short, the odds of a surprise are very much present.

However, to give credit where due, Buckner was considerably better on the road and away from the Bob-less BOB, with a 1.17 WHIP and 32 strikeouts in 37 2/3 IP, with 18 runs allowed and three homers. At the indoor bandbox in Phoenix, he struggled, with a 1.82 WHIP, and 43 runs and nine bombs given up in 39 2/3 IP. Since he struck out 32 batters in each split, this really seems like an adaptive, park-related issue, and since he also managed seven quality starts through his first six innings pitched in his 13 turns in the rotation, he's a better back-end bet that you might think at first glance.

Colorado Rockies: Dividing up the playing time in the outfield.

Since Jeff Francis slots into the rotation rather neatly in the spot vacated by Jason Marquis, that's less a fight than a hope that Francis is healthy; if not, that's where a similarly recuperating Greg Smith or perhaps Tim Redding comes into the picture as a pasted-in fix of a temporary nature. Where the D'backs' "problem" behind the plate is nice, the Rockies' decision about who to start where and win in the outfield represents one of the nicest no-wrong-answer conundrums a skipper can confront. We'll see how Jim Tracy apportions playing time to Dexter Fowler, Carlos Gonzalez, and Seth Smith, but the only quibble I'd fidget over now would be the suggestion that the Rockies would be better off letting Brad Hawpe start at first base during Todd Helton's days off, all the better to add another 20-30 starts in the outfield to the spread that Fowler, CarGo, and Smith will have to split up. Sure, it means sparing Denver denizens from the rare pleasures of Jason Giambi's defensively indifferent stylings, but if the man was brought in to pinch-hit, best to leave him there and accrue the benefits of playing their better outfield gloves without costing themselves Hawpe's bat on Helton's rest days.

Los Angeles Dodgers: A real clash at the keystone, plus the usual fifth starter quandary.

The question about who starts at second base is all sorts of fun because it has the classic elements of an old-time position fight: the familiar farmhand who has his believers, against the established veteran who become the manager's favorite after last year's starting second baseman fell out of favor. Neither Blake DeWitt or Ronnie Belliard are Orlando Hudson, but under Joe Torre's direction, that's to their credit. As I've noted in the past Belliard bounced back from a terrible opening once he started to get more regular playing time, while DeWitt is only just entering his age-24 season, and is still adapting to life at second base. Unfortunately, he also has to live down a generally poor season at Albuquerque (.256/.349/.426), one that was admittedly hampered by his frequent yo-yo'ing to and from the Isotopes like another wayward neutron. Heading into his age-35 season, Belliard's future may be now, and may have to involve the indignity of a weight clause, but DeWitt's future may only go so far as the day after now, especially with Ivan DeJesus II and Chin-Lung Hu on the way up. By 2012-or Rafael Furcal's option year-the middle infield picture should have Dee Gordon somewhere in the frame, so DeWitt's in danger of being overrun if he doesn't deliver.

The fifth starter slot is even more complicated by possibilities and questions of time and timing. Eric Stults is out of options and has had his moments in a big-league rotation, spinning a pair of shutouts in 24 career big-league starts. Now 30, he may also never really be more than a fifth starter. Joining him in the potential placeholder category is non-roster invite Jeff Weaver, while joining him among the now-optionless is knuckleballer Charlie Haeger. It's easy to hope for Haeger, especially as we get down to a dangerously low level of entertainment on the flutterball-fancying front. There's also James McDonald, a harder thrower than Haeger, of course, but not so much of a flame-thrower that he'd easily outclass more elderly options like Stults and Weaver. Stults has the additional advantage of potentially becoming the rotation's second lefty (beyond Clayton Kershaw), a factor in his favor that might loom large within the division, with the Rockies particularly providing a few reasons to draw southpaws. However, for legitimate hard-throwing prospects, there's also the seemingly fragile Scott Elbert, already shrugging off a case of shoulder tendinitis, but also capable of pumping gas up into the mid-90s.

San Diego Padres: Sorting out the outfield and the back end of the rotation.

Here again, I guess I find the position-playing question more compelling. It should be just a matter of Li'l Gwynn fending off assorted Hairstons, with Scott Hairston or Aaron Cunningham potentially making for very nice platoon partners with Will Venable in right field. Left should be Kyle Blanks' altogether, which is fine, but it also suggests how the Padres may be willing to favor youth over experienced mediocrity.

Now, I'll admit, I'm more bullish on Venable than some, because his production against right-handed pitching was excellent in last year's short stint in "The Show" (.266/.332/.505), and his athleticism and later start as a pro prospect suggests an abnormal development curve that might make last year a starting point, not just a highlight. Complicating the proposition is that while Tony Gwynn Jr. might seem like a latter-day Tom Goodwin type in terms of playing center and managing a decent OBP last year (.350), he's not gifted with Goodwin's speed, and the jury's still out on his defense being an asset, let alone as good as Goodwin's. However, Scott Hairston's continuing problems with right-handed pitching tell me he's not a great bet to unseat the Kid: last year's .243/.275/.419 line fits quite nicely with Hairston's career clip of .234/.287/.415 versus righties, which in his age-30 season makes this a matter of WYSIWYG. Maybe Cunningham's ability to put well-hit balls in play gets him into the right-field mix, but my anticipation is that we'll see an outfield of Gwynn flanked by Venable and Blanks, with Scott Hairston starting against all lefties. Whether Cunningham sticks in a part-time role might be counter-productive to his development, and with veteran bench batsmen like Matt Stairs, Oscar Salazar, and utilityman Jerry Hairston Jr. all likely to get bench jobs, whether or not there's space for him makes for a difficult proposition.

For the Padres' rotation, I'm perhaps being unfairly precise in calling the two open slots the back end; Chris Young and Kevin Correia hardly have the kind of track records for reliability that make them front-end starters. Jon Garland's career has been the definition of adequacy in a second banana's role, but c'mon, what's Ed McMahon without Johnny Carson? Not someone who carries the entire show, certainly. So let's put Garland, Correia, and Young in three of five unnumbered slots, and mull the options for the other two. Clayton Richard seems the most likely candidate, having come over in the Jake Peavy trade; his walk rates annoy or frighten some by turns, but between moderate velocity and his big step forward into prospectdom in the last two seasons, he should be set.

Which really sort of leaves just one slot, the one that ought to go to Mat Latos if workload, service time, and health weren't the major considerations that they have to be. As a result, enter Tim Stauffer, Wade LeBlanc, Sean Gallagher, and Cesar Ramos as maybes. This might seem like a rough way to treat Stauffer after a nice bit of career resurrection last season, but he was far from overpowering; he is, however, out of options. Former Cubs farmhand Gallagher's similarly afflicted with love-me/leave-me optionlessness, but having been flipped to the southernmost end of the state after his becoming A's property as part of the whole lot of nothing the A's got for Rich Harden, he'll have to make a good impression in relatively short order to stand out from this crew of Pads farmhands. In the end, I'd expect all of them to pitch in a Padres uniform this year, but if you wanted to bet on which particular Pads pitcher finishes first, second, or fifth in starts, I'd suggest that it's a fool's errand. The Padres have interesting depth, but the outcome by the end of March will only potentially alter the careers or Stauffer or Gallagher if either one has to wind up on waivers.

San Francisco Giants: Right field, another pleading for a fifth.

So, Brian Sabean has wound up in the odd situation of initially having Mark DeRosa as his regular left fielder, and with Aaron Rowand still locked in for years in center, that's two outfield slots looking filled-up. Nate Schierholtz is out of options, and looks like he'll finally get his big chance to play regularly as the team's starting right fielder. That's swell, if not very exciting, but the man is out of options. However, Fred Lewis is also out of options. So is Andres Torres. And Eugenio Velez seems like a lock to make this team, whether he's playing in the outfield corners or spotting for an initially injured Freddy Sanchez or whatever. And what do you do with John Bowker, perhaps more of a bat-only ballplayer, but in an outfield corner, and with the Giants in need of offensive help, why not him? The problem's obvious enough: there are a ton of bodies for Bruce Bochy to pick from among, but none of them's an obvious, easy selection, and not favoring some could cost you their services. I won't be surprised at all if Lewis winds up getting dealt, but I'm still troubled by picking between Schierholtz and Bowker. Can you handicap something that might simply be a handicap?

As for the fifth starter slot, this should be Madison Bumgarner's job to win, but between his youth, concerns over his stamina that arose last season-exacerbated by how he was handled in the minors, throwing too much on his throw days between turns according to Kevin Goldstein-and the unavoidable question of whether or not the Giants want him to accrue all that much service time already, there are plenty of reasons to speculate that anything less than a decisive claim in camp might cost him the job for the time being. Could that propel Todd Wellemeyer to the forefront? Or would Kevin Pucetas come to the fore? These are the sorts of propositions that tell me that it might take a waiver claim to stock their fifth starter's slot if Bumgarner somehow comes up short.

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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