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February 8, 2009

On the Beat

More Questions and Even Less Time

by John Perrotto

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You may have noticed that today's column is titled "On The Beat." That change will keep the name consistent with the columns that I write on Wednesdays, as well as on other days when I end up covering the postseason and the Winter Meetings. And so, "Every Given Sunday" goes into retirement...

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Last week we took a look at the biggest questions facing each American League team heading into spring training. This week, with pitchers and catchers just five days away from reporting, let's take a look at the biggest questions facing each of the 16 National League clubs:

  • Astros: Is Mike Hampton going to be the consistent veteran needed to stabilize the starting rotation? He had his greatest success with Houston, but that was before the turn of the century, and he's only made a total of 25 starts over the past four seasons with the Braves because of arm problems.

  • Braves: Can right fielder Jeff Francouer finally live up to the expectations he raised with his first two major league seasons? He looked like a superstar in the making when he reported to spring training last year, but then he went off the cliff with a .228 EqA and -16.9 VORP.

  • Brewers: Will the starting rotation remain intact? Few teams can afford an injury to a starting pitcher less than the Brewers, who traded for middling Yankees left-handed prospect Chase Wright this past week to serve as their sixth starter in case of an emergency. Wright, of course, is famous for giving up home runs to four consecutive Red Sox batters during an ESPN Sunday night game in 2007.

  • Cardinals: Will right-hander Chris Carpenter prove to be healthy after pitching in a combined five games the past two seasons because of arm injuries? Manager Tony La Russa is toying with the idea of shifting Carpenter to the closer's role if he is not completely healthy, though that will probably be more of a last resort.

  • Cubs: Can the expected ownership transfer from Sam Zell to Tom Ricketts give general manager Jim Hendry the financial freedom required to trade for Padres right-hander Jake Peavy? The Cubs already have a solid rotation, but Peavy, who had 6.2 SNLVAR last season, would make them the prohibitive favorite to win the NL this season.

  • Diamondbacks: Is Justin Upton prepared to be the everyday right fielder? Upton got off to a hot start last season, but struggled late and finished with a .270 EqA.

  • Dodgers: Is Chad Billinsgley ready to assume the role of staff ace? Billinsgley had 6.0 SNLVAR last season, but he's returning from an injury after suffering a broken leg while slipping on ice outside his home in November.

  • Giants: How can they find enough offense to at least be competitive? The Giants have the makings of a great starting rotation with Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, Randy Johnson, and Barry Zito, but they averaged just 3.9 runs per game last season, second-worst in the major leagues ahead of only the Padres.

  • Marlins: Are catcher John Baker, first baseman Gaby Sanchez, and center fielder Cameron Maybin ready to be major league regulars? The Marlins are banking on it; they released catcher Matt Treanor, traded first baseman Mike Jacobs, and did not acquire anyone to fill what has been a black hole in center.

  • Mets: Do they have enough offense, or will they regret not signing Manny Ramirez as a free agent to play left field? As it stands now, the Mets plan to go with a platoon of Daniel Murphy and Fernando Tatis in left.

  • Nationals: Can first baseman Nick Johnson stay healthy? He missed all of 2007 recovering from a broken leg, then had a .300 EqA in '08 while being limited to 147 plate appearances because of a torn tendon sheath in his wrist.

  • Padres: Will Peavy be traded? The Padres have spent the winter in budget-slashing mode while owner John Moores braces for a costly divorce settlement, and Peavy is the one player they have who could fetch a large package of prospects in a deal.

  • Phillies: Could there be a letdown after winning their first World Series in 28 years in 2008? The Phillies return their post-season roster pretty much intact, with left fielder Raul Ibaņez, right-hander Chan Ho Park, and catcher Ronny Paulino as the only significant newcomers.

  • Pirates: Who will fill out the rotation behind left-hander Paul Maholm? The other four spots are open, with left-handers Zach Duke and Tom Gorzelanny competing with right-handers Jimmy Barthmaier, Jeff Karstens, Ross Ohlendorf, Daniel McCutchen, and Ian Snell.

  • Reds: Will they stick with rookie Chris Dickerson as their left fielder? The Reds say they are done with their free-agent shopping, but it's hard to imagine they wouldn't take a flier on someone like Bobby Abreu at a reduced price, make a last-minute surprise bid for Manny Ramirez, or maybe even bring back Adam Dunn.

  • Rockies: Can Jeff Francis stay healthy? The left-hander, who started Game One of the 2007 World Series, has been bothered by an aching pitching shoulder throughout the offseason, leading to talk that he may require surgery that would cause him to miss the entire season.

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Shortstop Jimmy Rollins predicted a National League East title for his Phillies back in 2007 when the Mets were the odds-on favorites to win the division. Rollins proved to be right, as the Phillies rallied to capture the NL East by one game on the final day of the season, and it looks like he's back in the prediction business again. This past week, during a conference call with reporters to promote the World Baseball Classic, he said that the US will win the second edition of the event this year after failing to make it out of pool play in 2006.

Rollins failed to make the cut on the '06 team, but he is expected to back up the Yankees' Derek Jeter at shortstop this time. The first game for the US is against Canada on March 7, at the Rogers Centre in Toronto. "We definitely expect to do better this time," Rollins said. "We're looking at bringing the title home. If things go as planned, we'll definitely do that."

Braves third baseman Chipper Jones was on the '06 team, and he'll again play for the US this year. He believes that the Americans need to take a different approach this time around under Davey Johnson, who replaces Buck Martinez as manager. "You ever hear that saying, too many chiefs and not enough Indians?" Jones said. "I think that was kind of what was happening with the ['06] team. We had so many stud athletes and egos flying out the door, it was crazy. It was a tremendous amount of fun, don't get me wrong, but I think this team is better put together because it is well-rounded."

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The Angels would seem to be a team looking to sign a power hitter like Ramirez, Dunn, or Abreu; they have both the need for a big bat and the money to go get one after having failed to re-sign first baseman Mark Teixeira.

Though the prices should theoretically be falling on those sluggers, Angels GM Tony Reagins says he has not been tempted to have owner Arte Moreno open the checkbook. Instead, they plan to go with unproven Kendry Morales at first base, and a combination of Juan Rivera, Gary Matthews Jr., and Reggie Willits in left field and at designated hitter. "There are clubs that want to go with young players and give them a chance," Reagins told Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register. "The result is that a significant level of players is still available. [Young players] are cheaper. That's a fact. But in our situation, you get to the point where you have young players with talent who have been given some chances at the major league level, but have not had the opportunity to play every day. We feel it's time to allow those players that opportunity."

Reagins also said that Moreno has not ordered him to keep the payroll down after being shunned by Teixeira. "We haven't had a floating budget," Reagins said. "We had a dollar figure where we thought we'd be. [The money for Teixeira] was out there to be spent, but that doesn't mean that when the player goes elsewhere, just because of that, you spend it in ways that don't necessarily improve the ballclub. If we felt it was the appropriate player and made our club better, we would pursue it."

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It's hard to believe that the Rockies made their first-ever World Series appearance just two years ago. They slipped to 74-88 last season, and there's no reason to believe that they'll be a serious contender in the NL West in 2009. Manager Clint Hurde, in the final year of his contract, certainly understands why his team is no longer the flavor of the month in baseball circles. "We have earned the lack of notoriety," Hurdle told Troy E. Renck and Patrick Saunders of the Denver Post. "We didn't play well in '08. We had a chance to take a step forward, and took a couple back."

Hurdle believes the Rockies can be contenders this season, however, and he also says he is not worried that his job might be in jeopardy or that he's not signed beyond 2009. "Looking at the talent we have, the division is still wide open to me," Hurdle said. "Our goal should be to win the division and win the World Series, plain and simple. I have never been more excited. My personal situation is what it is. I haven't given it an extra thought."

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ML Rumors and Rumblings: The Blue Jays plan to sign free agent Kevin Millar to start at first base or designated hitter against left-handers. ... The Mariners have interest in free-agent outfielder Garret Anderson to play left field, but that interest is mild. ... The Mets are trying to trade reserve catcher Ramon Castro; they feel Robinson Cancel would be a more cost-effective backup for Brian Schneider. ... While Carpenter could wind up being a factor, the Cardinals plan to have a spring training closer competition among left-hander Trever Miller and right-handers Ryan Franklin, Jason Motte, and Chris Perez, while also giving right-handed reliever Kyle McClellan a chance to crack the starting rotation. ... Rockies left-hander Jorge de la Rosa was so impressive late last year that he is assured of a spot in the rotation at the start of the upcoming season.

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

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