In every spring training camp, whether the team is coming off winning the World Series or losing 100 games, there is at least one interesting player to follow. He may be a highly regarded prospect only in camp to show the major-league staff what he can do before being reassigned to minor-league camp or a veteran non-roster invitee trying to squeeze one more season out of his career. He may be a player competing for a spot in the starting lineup or someone coming back from a serious injury. Regardless of the circumstance, every club has one. So with the start of spring training just days away, let’s take a look at one player from each American League club who is worth keeping tabs between now and opening day (an event that is special but does deserve capitalization):
Athletics: Joey Devine was the projected closer at this time last year but injured his elbow and missed the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Though reigning AL Rookie of the Year Andrew Bailey is now the closer, Devine will get a chance to show if he can be trusted in high-leverage situations.
Blue Jays: Dustin McGowan missed last season after undergoing shoulder surgery but has pronounced that he is ready to go for the start of spring training with no restrictions. If he proves healthy, he should give the rotation a … ahem … shot in the arm.
Indians: Jordan Brown won the International League batting championship last season at Triple-A Columbus, but did not get called up to the major leagues in September. While Michael Brantley is the favorite to be the starting left fielder, Brown is capable of hitting his way into the plans with a strong Cactus League showing.
Mariners: Nick Hill will have a chance to win a job as a left-handed reliever but what makes him such a good story is that he graduated from the United States Military Academy in 2007 and is serving in the Army Reserves. Hill reached a deal with the government in which he was able to forgo the five-year military commitment that all West Point graduates must meet by repaying the cost of his education and agreeing to be in the Reserves.
Orioles: Kam Mickolio is a gigantic 6-foot-9, 256-pound reliever who was one of five players acquired from the Mariners in the Erik Beadard trade. Mickolio has great stuff but has bounced back and forth between the majors and Triple-A during his two seasons with the Orioles. This could be the spring where he puts it all together.
Rays: Jeremy Hellickson is one of the organization’s top pitching prospects but how he performs this spring will give the decision-makers a better idea of if he is ready for the major leagues. If Hellickson is, then he is one injury away from joining the Rays’ rotation and might even break into big leagues as a reliever.
Red Sox: Boof Bonser spent half of 2006 and all of 2007 in the Twins‘ rotation then was a swingman in 2008 before sitting out last season because of shoulder surgery. After being traded, he is now trying to make the conversion to full-time reliever.
Tigers: Eddie Bonine does not open many eyes with pure stuff but he is a smart pitcher who has shown good poise in his previous major-league opportunities. That makes a dark-horse candidate to win the fifth starter’s job.
Twins: Glen Perkins filed a grievance against the Twins after they optioned him to the minor leagues last Aug. 30 while he was rehabilitating a shoulder injury, seemingly in order to prevent the left-hander from gaining the service time necessary for salary arbitration. The side reached a less-than-amicable settlement. After being the subject of trade rumors throughout the winter, he will try to pitch his way back into the fifth starter’s job.
White Sox: Sergio Santos was a shortstop when the Diamondbacks selected him in the first round of the 2002 draft. Now he is a reliever who throws 96 mph and has at least a chance to win a bullpen spot since he is out of minor-league options.
Yankees: Catcher Jesus Montrero finished last season at Double-A as a 19-year-old but will not make the major-league club this season. However, Montero will have a chance in the early portion of the Grapefruit League season to show off his prodigious power potential and give manager Joe Girardi the opportunity to see if his defense is going to good enough to enable him to stay behind the plate for the long haul.
Padres manager Bud Black and general manager Jed Hoyer had never met until Hoyer was hired to replace Kevin Towers in October. While having a GM and manager who are not acquainted can cause initial mistrust, the two say they have already built a strong relationship.
“We’ve gotten to know each other,” Black told the San Diego Union-Tribune‘s Nick Canepa. “We’ve done a lot of talking about the club, the players, philosophy, the makeup of the club. There has been open, honest communication, free-flowing information. It’s just like in any business. The manager is tied to the GM like the manager is tied to the coaches, and down the line. It’s really been great to get to know Jed.”
Hoyer also got a good scouting report on Black from Francona and Farrell, which helped break the ice, with Hoyer noting, “They couldn’t say enough good things about Bud. So, I came in expecting real good things from Bud, and he’s been everything I expected. He’s been a great resource for me. Obviously, I’ve had a ton of questions, and he’s been great. It’s been very natural. We’ve established a relationship; I’m looking forward to establishing a relationship with him when games are played.”
Hoyer has been charged with helping rebuild the Padres, who have lost 99 and 87 games the last two seasons since losing to the Rockies in a one-game playoff for the National League wild card in 2007, Black’s first season. Working under the restrictions of a $45-million payroll and already inheriting a roster that began to be retooled with young players last season, Hoyer hasn’t made any huge moves this winter. He has resisted overtures to trade first baseman Ardian Gonzalez while signing inning-eating starter Jon Garland to a one-year, $5-million contract and trading third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff to the Athletics for outfielders Scott Hairston and Aaron Cunningham.
“Jed’s No. 1 priority coming in was to get to know our players and do nothing rash,” Black said. “He had a plan. Certain things he saw from afar. Others he studied up close. Jed is trying to assemble a team that fits our ballpark. Speed plays in our park. I’m really happy with the club we have.”
The general perception when the offseason began was that the Red Sox planned to take a step back in 2010 and, though they would still be competitive, look more towards gearing up for a World Series run in 2011 when they had a chance to take advantage of what figures to be a better free agent next offseason and some of their top prospects having more time to mature.
However, the Red Sox appear capable of winning it all this year following an offseason in which they allowed left fielder Jason Bay to leave for the Mets as a free agent but countered by signing right-hander John Lackey to a five-year, $82-million contract as a free agent and also snaring third baseman Adrian Beltre, shortstop Marco Scutaro, and center fielder Mike Cameron on the open market.
“If we do our jobs well, then it’s a transition nobody notices, like the one from the ’04 to ’07 World Series teams,” GM Theo Epstein told the Boston Herald’s Michael Silverman. “There were some difficult decisions we had to make, some creativity that was necessary to put us in the position to continue to play at a high level in the next couple of years during this transition period from one good club to another.”
Epstein said it was never the Red Sox’s intention to punt 2010. They just wanted to find a way to retool the club and keep it competitive without having to sacrifice any of their top prospects like pitcher Casey Kelly or outfielders Ryan Kalish and Ryan Westmoreland in trades.
“There was no rhetoric from us about not being any good,” Espstein said. “I can’t control the narrative people tend to use to talk about the club in November. I think there were a lot of assumptions about what we were doing that weren’t necessarily accurate. (Internally), there was consistent talk about looking back at the last seven years and realizing we’d played at a really high level, and looking forward a couple of years and seeing a good young team. We recognized we were going to have to have a pretty creative offseason to figure out how to be good in the meantime without sacrificing that bright future.”
The Yankees have a strict policy of not negotiating with their players or coaching staff until after their contracts expire. They are sticking to this policy this year even though two franchise icons, shortstop Derek Jeter and closer Mariano Rivera, can become free agents at the end of the season and Girardi’s contract will also be up.
General manager Brian Cashman explained the rationale behind the policy this past week while giving a lecture at the University of New Haven, the Torrington Register Citizen‘s Joe Morelli reported.
“The industry the last two free agent markets seems to be going downward and the player’s ages are going upward,” Cashman said. “It makes more sense to be patient. My attitude is if this is the place you want to be, you will make it happen. Johnny Damon professed his love for the Yankees, wanted to be here and was given every chance to be here. He’s not here anymore and I don’t feel that is the Yankees’ fault. They have to reconcile why they are not here, not me. If people want to be here and be a part of something, then find a way to work it out. Of course we want (Jeter, Rivera, and Girardi) back, but we choose to delay that until the end of the year.”
Cashman confirmed reports that Damon wanted the same two-year, $18-million deal that right fielder Bobby Abreu got from the Angels in order to re-sign with the Yankees, who countered with two years and $14 million. Damon reportedly has a two-year, $14-million offer on the table from the Tigers.
“I hope he does not sign for something less than our offer,” Cashman said. “That means he should have been a Yankee and that’s not our fault.”
MLB Rumors and Rumblings: The White Sox, Braves, and Rays are also in on the Damon bidding, but none are expected to go to a second year and a decision may not come for a few days as the veteran outfielder is currently vacationing in Hawaii … John Smoltz has yet to find a free-agent deal to his liking, and is considering taking the Pedro Martinez route of 2009 and sitting out until the All-Star break, a point when many contenders will likely have the need for an extra pitcher … First baseman Carlos Delgado will likely retire if he is unable to land a major-league contract, but outfielder Gary Sheffield has shot down reports that his career is over at 41. … Free-agent pitcher Chien-Ming Wang seems certain to sign with the Nationals as they are the only team willing to offer him as much $2 million in guaranteed money.
Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik on why he re-signed Bedard as a free agent: “He’s been maligned here in Seattle to some degree but, in his defense, he’s pitched really well when he has been healthy and plugging him in behind Felix Hernandez and Cliff Lee makes a pretty formidable rotation.” … Twins GM Bill Smith on signing free agent second baseman Orlanod Hudson: “He’s won four Gold Gloves and gets on base, so I really like the way our lineup sets up with him in it.” … Giants president Larry Baer on the importance of signing two-time NL Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum to a two-year, $23-million contact that avoided arbitration: “To make sure the number ($8-million salary) is sustained in year one of his four years of arbitration-eligibility ensures that we will be able to keep him for at least what we hope are four more Cy Young seasons.”