Ten Opening Day Roster Surprises

Travis Buck, OF, Athletics

When talking to Oakland officials during the last couple of months and asking the usual question of who looks good in camp, no matter who you talked to, the answer was always the same: Travis Buck. The greatest benefactor of Oakland’s injury problems this spring, Buck is not only on the roster, he’s presently the everyday right fielder. Since being a 2005 first-round pick, Buck has hit
.328/.399/.511 in 125 minor league games, with a whopping 53 doubles–but just 10 home runs–and that kind of performance continued this spring with a
.339/.417/.516 line that included six more doubles in 62 at-bats. There’s little reason to believe he’ll have problems continuing his doubles-hitting ways against big league competition, so even once the Athletics outfield gets healthy again, Buck could nevertheless be up for good.

Matt Chico, LHP, Nationals

Sure, why not? The Nationals entered spring with only one legitimate starting pitcher, and they just might have ended it that way as well. They brought just about anyone they could find with a working arm (and some without) into camp, but in the end, they decided to go with the kids. It’s the right decision. This team is going to stink–that’s no secret–but the team is going to learn a whole lot about what it’s going to take to get better by throwing Chico out there every five days as opposed to some minor league veteran in his mid-30s.

Alejandro De Aza, OF, Marlins

Much like the Nationals and pitching, any criticism of the Marlins’ decision concerning the center field job ends with a key question: You got a better idea? It’s apparent to everyone that Reggie Abercrombie has proven that looking good in a uniform just isn’t enough, and Eric Reed has pretty much worn out his welcome as well. So the job goes to De Aza, a
2004 minor league Rule 5 pick. He’s not going to be any kind of star, but the
good news is he has no glaring weakness. He can hit a little (but not for
power), he draws a couple walks here and there, he has good wheels, and he plays a nice center field. He’s probably their best option for now, but certainly just holding the job until somebody much better comes along–and unfortunately, we don’t know who that is yet.

Elijah Dukes, OF, Devil Rays

He was on his best behavior all spring, and his play on the field was nothing short of outstanding, as he hit .367/.424/.450 in 60 at-bats. Those who just look at the surface of Dukes characterize him as some kind of monster, but those who look at the whole story root for him, though they certainly don’t hide their frustration for his inability to get beyond his past. With Rocco Baldelli‘s knee limiting him to DH duties, Dukes is the Opening Day center fielder, and as has always been the case, if he stays out of trouble, he’s going to be a good one.

Josh Hamilton, OF, Reds

The last four-plus years of Hamilton’s life have already been well-documented, and when the Reds made a trade with the Cubs to acquire Hamilton as a Rule 5 pick last December, he was suddenly back in the spotlight, with very few in the business giving him any shot of making the team–and most expecting a trade to allow him to stay in the Reds organization in their farm system. Instead, he was one of the top hitters in spring training, batting .403/.457/.556 while dealing with more media attention than any player in Reds camp. He’s not in the Opening Day lineup, but he’s on the roster with a fresh start, and believe it or not, he’s still only 25 years old.

Jay Marshall, LHP, Athletics

While the A’s paid good money to the Devil Rays for the first pick in the Rule 5 draft, that selection, Cleveland outfielder Ryan Goleski, turned out to be a complete bust by reason of both injury and performance. However, Marshall looks like a keeper; the side-arming lefty proved to be reliable enough against lefties to serve as an occasional LOOGY, and while his final season line will probably read something like 50 games and 29 innings, there will be some high-leverage at-bats mixed in. Marshall could be the key to getting out of some late-inning pressure situations.

Brandon Morrow, RHP, Mariners

Nobody rushes prospects through a system like the Mariners, and as the fifth overall pick last June, Morrow entered the year with just 16 innings of pro experience, with an expected assignment to Double-A already seeming a little fast. Instead, he’ll be setting up closer J.J. Putz while being groomed for Putz’s job. It makes sense on many levels, as many scouts saw Morrow as more of a reliever anyway. With an upper-90s fastball and very good splitter that generates plenty of groundballs (when contact is even made at all), Morrow doesn’t just have closer potential, he could be one of the better ones around within a few years.

Josh Phelps, 1B, Yankees

When the Yankees took Phelps in the Rule 5 draft last December in Orlando, it seemed like an emergency measure. It was expected that Phelps would only have a chance to stick if the mighty Yankees didn’t make a much-expected move to find a more noteworthy option. That option never arrived, and Phelps went on to hit .395 this spring with four home runs in 38 at-bats. He’s on the roster as part of a platoon situation at first base, and will start on Opening Day against Scott Kazmir. A career minor league slugger who will turn 29 next month and has played 835 minor league games, Phelps’ window for stardom is already closed, but he’s certainly a better player than Andy Phillips.

Joe Smith, RHP, Mets

By the time you read this, Smith has already made his big league debut, pitching a shaky 1/3 of an inning in last night’s win over the Cardinals. A third-round pick last June, Smith pitched just 32.2 innings in his pro debut, but he proved he could get big league hitters out by being the team’s top reliever in spring training, allowing nine hits in 14.1 innings while compiling an impressive 17-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio. A sidearmer who somehow sits at 88-92, Smith’s slider gives him a second plus pitch, and righthanders are often left looking just silly. If anything, he might just owe a thank you card to Twins‘ sidearmer Pat Neshek, who demonstrated last year that there is such a thing as a ROOGY, and that they can be of value.

Jason Wood, INF, Marlins

Wood was an 11th-round pick out of Fresno State… in 1991. He was once traded for Bip Roberts. In his first four full seasons, he had a sub-.300 on-base percentage in three of them. Wood has gotten Triple-A at-bats in every season since 1995. His 12 big league games last year were his first since 1999. He has 1,747 career minor league hits in 1,785 games. And, at 37, he’s on an Opening Day roster for the first time in his career. I don’t really care how good he is going to be, I’m just glad he’s here.

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