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March 8, 2011

Divide and Conquer, NL West

If a Cliche Falls in the Desert...

by Geoff Young

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Ah, spring is in the air. Pitchers work on new pitches, fight for jobs, get hurt... Good times.

We'll start in Colorado and make our way clockwise around the southwest to San Francisco. (For the sake of this metaphor, kindly forget that everyone is in Arizona right now.)

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Aaron Cook's right shoulder is bothering him. The winningest pitcher in Rockies history was scratched from a scheduled start against the Royals on Saturday and "no longer has a lock on a rotation spot". Right-hander Esmil Rogers, who split time between the rotation and bullpen as a rookie, got the call instead and was touched up for four runs in three innings.

I'm not one to place a lot of meaning on spring training numbers, but Rogers walked Jeff Francouer on four pitches in the first inning. Who knew such a thing was even possible? Maybe Francoeur isn't in his typical mid-season form just yet. Rogers and Felipe Paulino, acquired from Houston in November for Clint Barmes, are leading candidates to take Cook's place if the veteran is not ready to go come Opening Day.

Meanwhile, ace Ubaldo Jimenez missed a start last week due to an infected thumb. The injury isn't considered serious, which—assuming that remains true—is good news for the Rockies and their fans.

As an organization, the club is emphasizing greater efficiency from its starting pitchers. The Rockies weren't terribly inefficient in 2010 (their staff 16.3 P/IP ranked fifth in the NL, while their starters' 3.8 P/PA fell around the middle of the pack), but given the injury histories of key relievers Huston Street and Rafael Betancourt—our new injury projection system, CHIPPER, considers both moderate injury risks—the Rockies would like to see their starters work deeper into games. One way to do that is to resolve at-bats in as few pitches as possible, a worthy goal for almost every pitcher.

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The Diamondbacks have pitching concerns of their own. The rotation is inexperienced (only one way to fix that), and while the bullpen –which was a complete disaster in 2010—should be improved, questions remain. Can closer J.J. Putz avoid the injuries that dogged him with the Mets in 2009 and come anywhere near to duplicating last year's success in Chicago? Can Juan Gutierrez string two good halves together (6.96 ERA in the first half last year, 2.59 in the second), keep the ball in the park (among pitchers who worked at least 50 innings in 2010, only Brian Tallet and Chad Gaudin exceeded Gutierrez's 2.06 HR/9), and be effective away from Chase Field (3.15 ERA at home, 8.06 on the road last year)?

The pitching staff isn't all that's on manager Kirk Gibson's mind. Keeping a team that's coming off a 97-loss season focused is a priority, and one way Gibson plans to do that is by imposing rules designed to minimize clubhouse distractions (beware of Bob Brenly's trusty trash can).

Gibson is an intense cat. People remember his World Series home runs off Hall of Fame closers (Goose Gossage in 1984 and, most famously, Dennis Eckersley in 1988). What they may forget is that before the '88 season, teammate Jesse Orosco put eyeblack in Gibson's cap and Gibson went nuclear, thus establishing the tone for a Dodgers team that went on to beat the heavily favored Oakland A’s in the World Series.

Gibson's insistence on a no-nonsense tone that year and his team's success make for a nifty narrative about the value of hard work, but whether the two events are related (and if so, to what degree) remains anyone's guess. With minimal expectations for a far less talented 2011 Diamondbacks squad, one wonders how much effort of will it might take to propel them into the first division. Still, as last year's Padres demonstrated, even teams with minimal expectations can do damage once the games start. Besides, there is something to be said for professionalism.

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Speaking of the Padres, one of the few ongoing battles in Peoria is for the last spot in the rotation. Right-hander Dustin Moseley and left-hander Wade LeBlanc appear to be the front runners, with fellow left-hander Cory Luebke likely beginning the year at Triple-A Tucson. Moseley, who worked under Bud Black when Black was pitching coach for the Angels, signed as a free agent this past winter and could be used in long relief if he doesn't win the rotation bid.

LeBlanc, who performed well while filling in for the injured Chris Young early last year, faded down the stretch and eventually lost his starting job. LeBlanc's future is less certain if he fails to reclaim his old spot, as he's made just 12 relief appearances (two at the big-league level) in five professional seasons. Getting battered around by the Cubs (2.2 IP, 8 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 1 BB, 3 SO) on Saturday couldn't have helped his cause.

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The usual pitching cliches abound in Dodgers camp. Right-hander Hiroki Kuroda is working on his curveball. Right-hander Kenley Jansen is drawing comparisons to Mariano Rivera (less the saves, of course). Left-hander Ted Lilly has a lot of desire. Right-hander Jon Garland missed a start but everyone says it's no big deal. Then he worked three innings in a game against San Francisco on Friday, lending support to that theory.

Exciting, huh? If you haven't read Emma Span's piece on spring training and the echo chamber, go do so now. Yes, I realize I'm contributing to the problem. No, there's not much I can do about it. This isn't fiction; I can't just make stuff up as I please.

Working on a pitch... drawing comparisons to a great pitcher... desire... missed a start, no big deal. Yep, that about covers it outside of a "best shape in his life" reference.

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Speaking of Pablo Sandoval, the Giants, for their part, may or may not be displeased with fifth starter Doug Davis, er, Barry Zito. Various reports on the subject resulted in many words being written but little being said. Zito remains expensive, durable, and reasonably effective. Never mind that he'll be making more than Tim Lincecum and Jonathan Sanchez combined this year (you're not signing the checks, so what do you care anyway?), the guy (along with Garland) is as close to a mortal lock for 30-plus starts and 190-plus innings as you'll find.

But seriously, thank goodness you're not signing the checks. Right?

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