Just 11 more days remain until one of the best days of the year for baseball fans. No, we’re not talking about Valentine’s Day. That’s for greeting card companies and candy makers. This year February 14 is the day that pitchers and catchers begin working out in many spring training camps throughout Arizona and Florida. Among those who will celebrate Valentine’s Day with a little PFP–pitchers fielding practice, for the uninitiated–rather than TLC will be the Orioles, Cubs, Astros, Royals, A’s, Phillies, Giants, and Mariners.
So, with spring training almost on the door step, let’s take a look at the most interesting question for each American League club as they get set to go to camp. Next week, we’ll look at the National League.
Orioles: Who will be the closer? Chris Ray and Danys Baez are both likely out for the entire season after undergoing reconstructive elbow surgery. Left-hander Jamie Walker and right-hander Chad Bradford are the situational relievers, and the Orioles want them to remain in their set-up roles. So, barring an acquisition, that might mean that right-hander Greg Aquino, claimed off waivers from Milwaukee, has a shot. Aquino had 16 saves as a rookie for Arizona in 2004, he’s struggled ever since, and posted a minus-1.260 WXRL in 14 innings with the Brewers last season. Another possibility is right-hander Dennis Sarfate, one of five players acquired from Houston in the Miguel Tejada trade.
Red Sox: Will Clay Buchholz crack the starting rotation? As you probably know, Buchholz threw a no-hitter in his second major league start. However, the Red Sox rotation seems to be already fully stocked, with Josh Beckett (6.2 SNLVAR), Daisuke Matsuzaka (5.1), Curt Schilling (4.3), Tim Wakefield (3.9), and Jon Lester (1.1) on hand. Thus, Pawtucket is likely to be Buchholz destination, at least for the beginning of April.
White Sox: Who will play third base? Joe Crede is the incumbent, but he could also be used as trade bait for a starting pitcher since Josh Fields is ready to take over. Crede had a -10.8 VORP in 178 plate appearances last season before undergoing back surgery, while Fields stepped in as a rookie and posted a solid 8.2 VORP in 418 PA.
Indians: Can C.C. Sabathia be signed? The big left-hander won the AL Cy Young Award last year, and is the undisputed staff ace. However, he is also eligible for free agency at the end of this upcoming season, and GM Mark Shapiro wants to know by the end of spring training if the Indians have any chance of re-signing Sabathia. You can be assured Sabathia will use the six-year, $137.5 million deal Johan Santana got from the Mets on Friday as a guidepost in his negotiations.
Tigers: Is the starting rotation ready and rested? Left-handers Nate Robertson and Kenny Rogers spent time on the disabled list last season, as did right-hander Jeremy Bonderman. While lefty Dontrelle Willis stayed healthy with Florida and pitched 205 1/3 innings, his SNLVAR was pretty weak (2.0), and he is switching to the much tougher league.
Royals: Who will fill out the final two spots in the rotation?
Right-hander Brett Tomko generated just 0.7 SNLVAR in a combined 131 1/3 innings with the Dodgers and Padres last season, and is probably favored for one slot. He is followed by righty Luke Hochevar, the top pick in the 2006 draft. Also in the mix will be left-handers John Bale and Jorge De La Rosa and right-handers Kyle Davies, Luke Hudson, Hideo Nomo, and Leo Nuñez.
Angels: Who is the fifth starter? Left-hander Joe Saunders and right-hander Ervin Santana will compete for the job, with the loser likely to wind up in the bullpen. Saunders had 1.7 SNLVAR in 107 1/3 innings last season, while Santana had a 1.3 mark in 150 innings.
Twins: Is Francisco Liriano fully recovered? The left-hander missed last season because of reconstructive elbow surgery following an outstanding rookie season in 2006 in which he had 4.7 SNLVAR in 121 innings. With Johan Santana shipped off to the Mets, the Twins need Liriano to be ready to front a young starting rotation.
Yankees: Does Joba Chamberlain end up in the starting rotation or the bullpen? The Yankees say the rookie will work on a starter’s schedule at the beginning of spring training, and using him in the rotation would seem to be logical given that was the role he filled in the minor leagues. Still, there are those who feel Chamberlain’s 1.848 WXRL in his 24-inning debut as a reliever last season is proof positive that he should forever stay in the bullpen.
Athletics: Have their injured player healed over the winter? Right-handers Justin Duchscherer, Chad Gaudin, and Rich Harden are all coming off of hip surgeries. Third baseman Eric Chavez had three surgeries in the offseason, one on each shoulder and another on his back. Shortstop Bobby Crosby missed the final two months of last season with a broken hand. Outfielder Travis Buck is coming off arthroscopic elbow surgery. If they’re all back, that would make for a very different ballclub.
Mariners: Will Richie Sexson be able to rebound? Sexson had a miserable 2007 as he posted a -7.1 VORP in 491 plate appearances. He will make $14 million this upcoming season in the final year of a four-year, $50 million contract, and the Mariners could use a resurgence from the big first baseman.
Rays: Will Rocco Baldelli report healthy? The talented and injury-prone Baldelli will be shifted from center field to right this spring in an effort to reduce some stress on his fragile body. Baldelli managed only 150 plate appearances last year, and has had only a combined 537 PA in the last three seasons. What makes this spring especially important is the Rays must decide by Opening Day if they will exercise their club options for 2009-11 or allow him to walk as a free agent at the end of the season.
Rangers: Who will be the closer? Left-hander C.J. Wilson has the inside track after posting a 2.336 WXRL in 68 1/3 innings last season. However, lefty Eddie Guardado has experience with 183 career saves, though he worked only 13 2/3 innings for Cincinnati while coming off reconstructive elbow surgery, notching a 0.286 WXRL.
Blue Jays: Who will be the fifth starter? Left-hander Gustavo Chacin and right-hander Jesse Litsch are the leading candidates. Chacin has to undergo shoulder surgery last season, while Litsch had 3.0 SNLVAR in 111 innings as a rookie. The Jays might take another look at left-hander Scott Downs or right-hander Casey Janssen in a starting role, but both adjusted well to the bullpen last season–Downs had a 2.260 WXRL in 58 innings, while Janssen contributed a 2.629 mark in 72 2/3 innings.
While it might sound implausible, the Twins insist that their club isn’t giving up on the idea of being a competitive club after trading Santana to the Mets for a package of prospects that included center fielder Carlos Gomez and pitchers Deolis Guerra, Phil Humber and Kevin Mulvey.
“I think it was a move that we were all expecting and waiting to happen, but at the same time anytime you lose the best pitcher in baseball it still hurts,” Twins first baseman Justin Morneau told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “Now we must move on and get ready for the upcoming season without him. We now have our center fielder and leadoff hitter that we needed and added some good arms at the same time. I think it will be a few years before we can really see who got the better of the trade, but I do remember a trade of our starting catcher a few years ago for some players that not too many people knew, and they ended up being three very good major league players. Now the rest of the guys are just going to have to step up and there are plenty of opportunities in spring for everyone. I still believe we are young and talented and can make the playoffs.”
The trade Morneau is referring to is the one in which the Twins sent catcher A.J. Pierzynski to San Francisco between the 2003 and 2004 seasons for pitchers Boof Bonser, Liriano, and Joe Nathan. While the Twins seem to be in an obvious rebuilding phase, manager Ron Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson have lobbied general manager Bill Smith to keep Nathan, one of the game’s top closers. Nathan is eligible to become a free agent at the end of the season.
Anderson disagrees with the idea a top-flight closer is a luxury for a rebuilding team. “Everyone talks about how Johan’s value to the team is awesome,” Anderson said. “Shoot, Joe Nathan’s value is even greater. He’s out there every day, 70-80 games a year, finishing games. If we are rebuilding somewhat, with the rotation, that’s more demoralizing than anything–when a starter gives you eight great innings, and you’ve got no one who can close it, and you lose the game. Winning and developing go hand in hand.”
Gomez is the player most likely to help the Twins immediately. Catcher Joe Mauer is excited about what he can bring to the club, telling KSTP AM in Minneapolis, “I’ve seen Carlos Gomez play. He looks like he’s pretty raw, but he could be something special. I’m excited to meet him and see how he progresses as a player. It’s pretty scary when you talk about a guy that is faster than (Mets shortstop) Jose Reyes. I can see him running around in center field and tracking some fly balls down.”
Beyond the Twins, the team hurt most by the Santana trade is the Philadelphia Phillies. It was the Phillies who supplanted the Mets as NL East champions last season by making up seven games in the standings in the final 17 days. However, the balance of power has seemingly shifted back to the Mets in the division with the addition of an ace starting pitcher.
The Phillies, though, aren’t ready to concede anything. “Santana is definitely a great pitcher, but this is still a team game,” right-hander Brett Myers told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “One guy gives you nine innings a game, and absolutely he can win that game. What happens the other two or three days? Everybody on the team has to produce. One guy can’t win three or four games in a series. That’s just how I feel. It’s a team game, ultimately.”
Phillies manager Charlie Manuel is also remaining upbeat. “We definitely can play with them,” Manuel said. “Go back and look. When our offense is clicking, we can score runs off just about anybody. We also have a couple guys who are capable of throwing good games. Tell our fans not to worry. We can go get them.”
Roger Clemens once again showed this week that he is not going underground after being accused of using performance-enhancing drugs in the Mitchell Report. Furthermore, Houston owner Drayton McLane and the Astros are not distancing themselves from the 354-game winner. Under terms of the 10-year personal services contract he signed with the Astros in 2004, Clemens was a guest instructor at their minicamp for top pitching and hitting prospects at Minute Maid Park. Clemens threw batting practice and observed as pitchers threw from the bullpen mounds.
“I’m doing everything I love to do,” Clemens told the Houston Chronicle. “I mean, I’m not going anywhere. So I love to do these things. And the Astros and the other teams that I’ve worked with have always been real supportive.”
McLane was happy to see Clemens make an appearance. “Roger, I think, needed a break,” McLane said. “I read (that) when he talked to the Texas High School Baseball Coaches Association that he got a standing ovation. I think that was comforting for him. I think this makes him feel good to come out here and to see the young players and to pitch to them and to focus on something other than the current issues with him. I’ve talked to several of them around here. And they said, ‘Wow I never thought I’d face Roger Clemens.’ Baseball is made out of memories. These are memories. Everybody’s said nobody’s asked him anything. We need to move on.”
Despite the allegations, Clemens, who was mum on whether he would try to continue his career in 2008, vows to keep working for the Astros and in various endeavors in the Houston community. “It is my home,” Clemens said. “I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to be running around and helping people and doing things in the community. It’s good to get out and see the guys. Around town I see some of my ex-teammates here. I’ve been throwing. Like I said, moss is never going to grow underneath my feet. I’m going to keep moving.”
Rumors and rumblings: If the trade that would send Erik Bedard from the Orioles to the Mariners doesn’t get consummated, look for the Indians and the Angels to pursue the left-hander. … Toronto’s J.P. Ricciardi made a play for Bedard but was rebuffed and is now turning his attention to Pittsburgh left fielder Jason Bay, as the Blue Jays want to add a marquee Canadian-born player to their roster. … The Twins have interest in free agent right-handers Josh Fogg and John Thomson. … Outfielder Carl Everett, last seen playing for the Long Island Ducks in the independent Atlantic League last summer, has piqued the interest of the White Sox and Angels as a free agent. … The White Sox will likely have Cuban defector the positionally flexible Alexei Ramirez play shortstop at Triple-A Charlotte this year if he doesn’t win a bench job on the big-league roster in camp.
Atlanta is talking to first baseman Mark Teixeira about a long-term contract extension to pre-empt his eligibility for free agency at the end of this upcoming season, though a deal would like be in the $150 million range. … Free agent pitcher Livan Hernandez seems likely to wind up back in Washington now that the Mets have acquired Santana … Phillies GM Pat Gillick is looking to trade Wes Helms after signing free agent Pedro Feliz to play third base. … The Phillies would consider re-signing right-hander Kyle Lohse as a free agent, particularly if he would agree to a one-year contract. … Milwaukee is looking into the idea of locking up first baseman Prince Fielder, second baseman Rickie Weeks, and right fielder Corey Hart to long-term contracts before they become eligible for salary arbitration next winter. … The Brewers are considering trying to trade right-handers Dave Bush and Claudio Vargas for prospects. … Colorado is expected to sign free agent outfielder Scott Podsednik to a minor-league contract and have him compete with Cory Sullivan for the backup center fielder’s job in spring training. … The Marlins are considering moving their home series with the Mets on July 28-30 to Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Free agent pitcher Kris Benson will throw for a second time in front of scouts in Atlanta this week in another attempt to drum up interest in him. … Catcher Damian Miller and third baseman Jeff Cirillo are both expected to retire after getting minimal interest on the free-agent market. … Another veteran on the market, outfielder Trot Nixon, has been working out at first base in an effort to increase his marketability. … Free agent third baseman Corey Koskie is hopeful he’ll be able to play by midseason after missing all of last season because of post-concussion syndrome.