National League West
To test his surgically repaired right elbow during batting practice, the Diamondbacks threw Luis Gonzalez pitches on the outside corner, and the veteran had no trouble hitting them. Last season as his elbow worsened, Gonzalez had trouble getting his lead arm out to reach balls away from him.
RHP Javier Vazquez believes his drop in velocity during the second half of last season was because he dropped his arm angle and was pushing the ball as he tired. That also affected his command.
The D-backs are still working with RHP Jose Valverde on his mechanics. The club would like him to stride a little further and finish off his pitches better. Right now, he doesn’t use his back leg to drive the ball and that puts more strain on his arm.
SOFT SPOT: The Diamondbacks still lack a true leadoff hitter. By default the club will try 2B Craig Counsell in that spot. Counsell isn’t a speedster and he hit just .241 last year, which is not ideal for a leadoff guy. However, Counsell is a heady player, who will work counts deep, which should help other hitters. On the bases, he knows when to take the extra base and can pick his spots for steals. The D-backs could also try Jose Cruz Jr. in that role as he has hit there during his career.
Second-year 2B Aaron Miles and rookie SS Clint Barmes will go into camp as the expected middle infield combo, and they will be given a chance to develop cohesion. But neither can get too comfortable. IFs Desi Relaford and Luis Gonzalez are considered capable of starting.
Rookie C J.D. Closser will have intense work in camp with bench coach Jamie Quirk, a former catcher. Closser had six passed balls and watched 15 wild pitches go by in 32 games last season.
SOFT SPOT: The lack of a closer is well documented, but there’s the matter of the young lineup getting leads worth protecting. 1B Todd Helton is a force at No. 3, but the team faces many offensive questions: Will Miles, who hits for average but had a low on-base percentage for a leadoff guy, and Barmes give Helton RBI opportunities? Can CF Preston Wilson rebound from last year’s knee injury, regain his N.L. RBI champion form of 2003 and avoid strikeouts enough to protect Helton from the cleanup spot? Can new RF Dustan Mohr realize his potential? Will the young bottom of the order produce?
Los Angeles Dodgers
Among the questions the Dodgers face entering spring training is one not so obvious and tricky to predict — who will be the clubhouse leader? Last year it was the respected Robin Ventura, but he’s retired. Adrian Beltre, the best offensive player, left as a free agent. So did the most vocal, Jose Lima, and the highest-paid, Shawn Green. Paul Lo Duca, the one-time player representative and hard-nosed field general, was traded in July. One possibility is Eric Gagne.
When J.D. Drew signed, he said he wanted to play center field, even though the Dodgers already have a centerfielder in Milton Bradley. When Steve Finley was acquired last summer, Bradley made room for him by switching to right. Bradley said last week he’s more comfortable in center, but he’ll play wherever manager Jim Tracy tells him to play. Tracy said he will move a lot of outfielders around in the spring.
SOFT SPOT: From the organization that has squatted Roy Campanella, John Roseboro, Mike Scioscia, Mike Piazza, Charles Johnson and Paul Lo Duca behind the plate, the Dodgers enter this spring training with David Ross and Paul Bako contending for the starting catching job, with all eyes on former Yankee prospect Dioner Navarro, who can steal the job if he’s ready. Navarro was the player that the Shawn Green trade was keyed to, so general manager Paul DePodesta is convinced Navarro has the tools. The only question is when. Ross seeks to regain the power he had in his rookie season and somehow lost last year. Bako is a defensive specialist.
San Diego Padres
Ryan Klesko hit nine homers last season, his fewest in 12 years and 19 off his career average. The outfielder had surgery on his right shoulder in September 2003 and entered last season still rehabbing. A full offseason of weight training should help Klesko’s power numbers return to more normal levels.
Brian Lawrence will fly under the radar this season with fellow righthanders Woody Williams and Jake Peavy holding down the top of the rotation. That’s good for Lawrence, who won a career-high 15 games last season. A slow starter, Lawrence struggled in spring training a year ago but rebounded in the regular season with good command of both his sinker and slider, two pitches he must have to pitch effectively.
SOFT SPOT: The Padres looked to improve the bench and added Eric Young, Geoff Blum and Mark Sweeney. Xavier Nady is the fourth outfielder and Miguel Ojeda is the backup catcher. Although Young can back up second in the event that Mark Loretta suffers an injury, there is no pure reserve shortstop. Nady replaces veteran Terrence Long in the outfield but must show he can hit consistently beyond Class AAA. Sweeney is a big league pinch hitter, but he provides minimal depth as an extra fielder. The key is to rest the starters, none of whom is fighting for a job, and get to opening day healthy.
San Francisco Giants
RHP Jesse Foppert had expected up-and-down performances during winter ball after returning from Tommy John surgery that he underwent in 2003. Foppert needed to get command of his breaking ball while developing arm strength for 2005. Whether he begins the season in the Giants’ bullpen or as a minor league starter hinges on whether 11 or 12 pitchers are retained and how incumbents fare.
How RHP Brad Hennessey fits on the staff also remains unclear. He jumped from Class A to the Giants for emergency duty but in 2005 needs to improve location and reduce opponents’ batting average amidst fierce staff competition. A full year at Class AAA Fresno for more seasoning seems likely.
SOFT SPOT: With the starting lineup’s average age at 36 years, chronic injuries — especially Barry Bonds’ back and knees, Marquis Grissom’s leg, Ray Durham’s overall health — could be problematic this spring and beyond and severely impact the club. Durham has lost considerable time the past two seasons but reportedly increased his offseason workouts to forestall injuries. Bonds’ winter surgeries on both knees will limit spring duties until about mid-March. Although the bench is strong, any position players going on the disabled list will force minor league players such as Todd Linden, Tony Torcato and Jason Ellison to contribute on a daily basis, which is something they haven’t done.