April 2005

Baseball picksApril 1, 2005

2005 MLB Baseball AL EAST Preview
American League East

Baltimore Orioles
Perhaps the most intriguing competition in spring training will be for the four or five slots on the Orioles’ bench. The club signed several quality veterans who could fill roster spots. In addition to Chris Gomez, who is signed to a major league contract, Enrique Wilson and Chris Stynes also are in camp and have extensive big league experience.

Executive vice president Jim Beattie said the backup catcher job is Geronimo Gil’s to lose. Gil has been in the organization since 2001 but had fallen out of favor after a rough 2003 season. He spent most of last season in Class AAA Ottawa but had a good showing in September. The backup catcher position is crucial because Javy Lopez will catch about five days per week.

The club agreed to terms on a contract with reliever Jorge Julio, but the righthander still does not have a defined role. He will compete for his old closer role in spring training The Orioles badly need quality starting pitching. And although they have no shortage of candidates, very few are proven. The club returns Sidney Ponson, who lost 15 games last season, and Rodrigo Lopez, who won 14 games but bounced around from the bullpen to the rotation. Club officials will take a long look at pitchers such as Matt Riley, Erik Bedard, Daniel Cabrera and Kurt Ainsworth to fill important roles. Riley, who is out of minor league options, could be the key because of his immense talent. Cabrera, who won 12 games as a rookie, worked on a changeup this offseason and should be primed to claim a rotation spot.

Boston Red Sox

Although 3B Bill Mueller underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in early February, the Red Sox are still hopeful he will be ready for opening day. Mueller underwent surgery on the same knee last May and was back to his normal self after a month of rehab. The switch hitter, who has had multiple procedures on both knees, will likely deal with maintaining his legs for the rest of his career, but he is confident he can manage it.

One of the intriguing battles in camp figures to be for the backup first base job. Kevin Youkilis, who will fill in at third until Mueller returns, will spend camp learning first base as well. The Sox know what David McCarty can do, and the slick-fielding veteran is in camp with a minor league deal. The dark horse is Roberto Petagine, who put up big numbers in Japan the last six years.

The one thing the Red Sox lack, at least on paper, is a true No. 2 starter. David Wells is more of a middle-of-the-rotation guy at this point of his career. Matt Clement is probably the favorite to emerge as Curt Schilling’s top wingman. At this point, it doesn’t look as if RHP Wade Miller, who is coming off rotator cuff woes, will start the season on time. If he can get healthy, he’s one of the top starters in the league. If nobody emerges in the No. 2 spot, look for G.M. Theo Epstein to make a significant trade by July, or sooner. The Sox feel good about the lower portion of the rotation, which will be filled by the steadily improving Bronson Arroyo and trusty veteran Tim Wakefield.

New York Yankees

Kevin Brown’s chronic bad back is in good shape after he worked out some of the structural problems this winter with a physical therapist. Brown plans to ease into his workouts this spring and work on a different schedule than the rest of the Yankees’ pitchers in order to be at full strength for opening day.

For the first time in his 10 seasons as Yankees’ manager, Joe Torre plans to take 12 pitchers on his opening day roster. There are 12 pitchers signed to big league contracts, including seven relievers. …

Young pitchers Alex Graman and Bret Prinz are out of options, so they will likely be moved before the end of spring training.

The Yankees are strong in almost every area, but the backup depth in the outfield is certainly a question mark. Gary Sheffield, Bernie Williams and Hideki Matsui are all in their 30s (the first two in their late-30s), and the Yankees would be in rough shape should any of the three suffer a major injury. Ruben Sierra can play the corner positions, but he is much better suited as a pinch hitter or DH. That leaves Bubba Crosby and non-roster invite Doug Glanville to fight it out for the other spot, as the Yankees look for a back up center fielder who can also serve as a pinch runner.

Tampa Bay Rays

Once again, the Rays avoided arbitration with all seven of their eligible players. The only time in their history the Rays have gone to a hearing with a player was in 2002, when they beat reliever Esteban Yan. The Rays generally settle at the midpoint between what the players asked for and what the team offered. Or they settle just below the midpoint while including incentives in the contract to allow the player to make more. The Rays were most concerned about going to a hearing with reliever Jorge Sosa, whom they offered $550,000 but who asked for $925,000. The sides settled on $650,000, with up to $50,000 in incentives.

Manager Lou Piniella said he would wait until seeing new outfielder Danny Bautista in a few spring training games to decide if he would start in left field or right field, with Aubrey Huff moving to the other spot. Bautista is considered a good outfielder with a strong, accurate arm. Huff played a very credible right field in 2003 but did not look quite as comfortable in his seven games in left in 2004.

With Jose Cruz Jr. gone, Piniella also will have to decide who will bat behind and try to provide protection for Huff in the lineup. Based on Piniella’s fondness for lefty-righty-matchups, it should be DH Josh Phelps, but he might strike out too much. It could end up being shortstop Julio Lugo or first baseman Travis Lee.

Because of injuries and ineffectiveness, the Rays used 14 different starters in 2004. They did not add any healthy, well-established veterans to the mix for 2005. They are hoping they get lucky with non-roster invitees Hideo Nomo and Denny Neagle. But Nomo’s fastball was measured in the mid-80s (at best) at the end of last season and Neagle hasn’t pitched in the majors since July 2003, because of two arm surgeries. Casey Fossum, obtained in the Cruz trade, might help, but he might be best suited for the role John Halama had in 2004 as a swingman. The Rays’ best scenario would be that veteran starters Mark Hendrickson and Rob Bell continue to improve while young starters Dewon Brazelton, Scott Kazmir, Doug Waechter and Seth McClung stay healthy and continue to learn opposing hitters. And if 2004 No. 1-pick Jeff Niemann can speed up his timetable for reaching the majors, that would be even better.

Toronto Blue Jays

The Blue Jays are taking it slow with RHP Dustin McGowan, who had his 2004 season shortened by Tommy John surgery. The righthander is one of Toronto’s best prospects, and the front office believes he should be back to his top velocity by August. That may or may not mean he’ll be ready to make his big league debut by then. The Jays will monitor him closely and err on the side of caution.

RHP Josh Towers has a preliminary hold on the fifth starting slot, but Toronto will weigh some alternatives during the exhibition season. LHP Gustavo Chacin and RHP Francisco Rosario will likely be his main competition, but RHP Ryan Glynn is another dark horse.
Late relief is this team’s chief trouble spot — and it’s not close. Toronto’s bullpen had a league-high loss total in 2004, and its 5.08 ERA was the third-worst in all of baseball. The Blue Jays brought in RHP Billy Koch and LHP Scott Schoeneweis, but the vast majority of last year’s relief staff returns intact. Improvement could come in the form of defined roles for each reliever and added maturity for Toronto’s young arms. Jason Frasor successfully worked his way into a relief job last year. This time, Brandon League will try the same feat. Justin Speier will likely get most of the save opportunities, but he has just 17 career saves. Nothing will come easy for this collection of relievers.

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Baseball picksApril 1, 2005

American League Central

Chicago White Sox

Mark Buehrle already has been declared the team’s opening day starter, although he doesn’t have classic ace-hurler stuff. Buehrle can locate four pitches — the cutter, sinker, curve and change-up — and is absolutely fearless on the mound in terms of throwing any pitch at any time. Buehrle has the confidence to give up a few hits and still pitch out of tough situations. But he plans on working with pitching coach Don Cooper during the spring to focus on staying out of the strike zone as much, decreasing his hits allowed but not increasing his walk total.

Jose Contreras could be the X-Factor in the White Sox starting rotation. The big righthander has the talent to win 15-to-18 games, but he must focus on his wide array of pitches instead of relying too heavily on his devastating split-finger and plus-fastball.

Catcher Chris Widger, who played for Camden in the independent Atlantic League during 2004, was given a non-roster invite to spring training. Widger only has a chance to make the team if Ben Davis and his $1 million contract were moved and he could beat out Jamie Burke for the back-up spot behind A.J. Pierzynski.

Although the White Sox drastically changed their overall offensive approach, the team still has to prove it can execute all phases of small ball with the game on the line. Manager Ozzie Guillen announced on the first day of spring training that his team will be working on drills for bunting, hit-and-running and defensive situations to avoid the same mistakes made last season. Having talented hitters such as Scott Podsednik and Japanese import Tadahito Iguchi at the top of the order should provide great help, not to mention the speed they bring as table setters for the solid middle of this lineup.

Cleveland Indians

The Indians started camp with a logjam of arms. The addition of RHP Paul Shuey complicated the bullpen situation for RHPs Matt Miller and Rafael Betancourt, and the readiness of LHPs Brian Tallet and Billy Traber, both coming off Tommy John surgery, might put pressure on LHP Cliff Lee to hold down his spot in the starting rotation. But the pitchers who might be the real threat to grab spots on the staff are RHPs Kaz Tadano and Fernando Cabrera, whose hard stuff can dominate.

LHP Jason Stanford (arm) and OF Jody Gerut (knee) will remain in Winter Haven, Fla., for extended spring training. Both are coming off surgery.

Veteran RHP Jason Bere, sidelined the past two seasons with arm problems, will try again to prove he’s sturdy enough to hold up as a major league pitcher. Bere will have a hard fight to break into the Indians’ rotation, but if he’s healthy, he gives the Tribe an insurance policy in case one of its starters falter The loss of Omar Vizquel to free agency looms over the Tribe’s middle infield like a thundercloud. The problem is not that 2B Ronnie Belliard can’t hold up his side of things; he can. But he’ll be partnered with either Jhonny Peralta or Brandon Phillips, two prospects with no major league credentials to speak of. Peralta and Phillips will fight for the starting job in a winner-take-all affair. Both have talent aplenty; neither is the next Vizquel, which raised concerns within the organization. Team officials tried to lessen those concerns with the offseason signings of veterans Jose Hernandez and Alex Cora. They are not Vizquel clones either, nor are they long-term solutions. So shortstop belongs to either Peralta or Phillips. The winner, however, will face pressure from Cora and Hernandez to keep it.

Detroit Tigers

Though Kyle Farnsworth and his scorching fastball earned closing and setup opportunities for several years with the Cubs, his presence is expected to shore up the seventh and eighth innings in Detroit behind Ugueth Urbina and Troy Percival.

On the surface, Farnsworth’s arrival doesn’t help ex-closer Fernando Rodney’s chances of making the club because Farnsworth seemingly would fill whatever void was left for short work. However, of the pitchers fighting for the only opening in the bullpen, Rodney and Chris Spurling best fit into middle and long work because of their ability to change speeds.

Carlos Guillen reported to Lakeland early and has been fielding ground balls and taking batting practice for several days without pain in his surgically repaired left knee. Although the Tigers will still hold him out of early spring games, his progress reinforces the belief that he’ll be ready for opening day.

SOFT SPOT: The Tigers have ranked last in the league in errors and fielding percentage in each of the last three seasons. As much as that bothers manager Alan Trammell, it’s just as bad for pitching coach Bob Cluck as he tries to build staff confidence. Though the Tigers will have plenty of drills in the early days of camp to address it, Trammell admits much of the problem comes down to making the right decisions in game situations. Though a set lineup should help teammates work together, missing key defensive players Carlos Guillen and Magglio Ordonez from many spring games could cost them in continuity.

Kansas City Royals

The biggest battle of the bench will be for an infield spot. If the Royals keep 12 pitchers, which is likely because LHP Andy Sisco is a raw Rule 5 draft pick, two catchers and five outfielders, there’s just room for one backup infielder. That assumes 3B Chris Truby, SS Angel Berroa, 2B Tony Graffanino and 1B/DH Mike Sweeney and Ken Harvey (or Calvin Pickering) fill five spots. Chris Clapinski, who hit .312 for Class AAA Buffalo, is the front-runner. But he’ll be chased by Denny Hocking, who was a long-time Twins utilityman, and Luis Ugueto, once a hot shortstop prospect for the Mariners.

One of pitching coach Guy Hansen’s projects will be to whittle down the assortment of seven or so pitches thrown by RHP Ryan Jensen. A former rotation regular for the Giants, Jensen even throws a pretty good knuckleball. But Hansen believes Jensen has “too many keys in the piano” and needs to rework his sheet music. A non-roster starting aspirant, Jensen might end up in the bullpen.

SOFT SPOT: Pitching was the most glaring weakness of 2004, and there are no real horses to lead the rotation now. RHP Zack Greinke had fine moments as a rookie but must show he can survive the second time around. RHP Runelvys Hernandez was brilliant in early 2003, but he missed last season after elbow surgery. Hernandez, though, could be the driving force. Back is RHP Jose Lima, who is coming off two good seasons. Behind them come LHPs Brian Anderson and Jimmy Gobble, who both took their lumps last year. There are some backup choices including RHPs Kevin Appier and Mike Wood, but the rotation, however it turns out, will have an awful lot to prove.

Minnesota Twins

By signing LHP and A.L. Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana to a four-year, $40 million contract, G.M. Terry Ryan has capped a productive offseason. Ryan also signed RHPs Brad Radke and Carlos Silva to two-year deals earlier in the winter, which means the top three of the rotation will remain intact through at least 2006. Signing a pitcher for four years can be risky, but the club thinks Santana is a lesser risk because of his age (25) and makeup. With the exception of minor elbow surgery after the 2003 season, he’s been healthy.

After his arbitration win, RHP Kyle Lohse said there were no hard feelings from the difficult process, and he will be looking to move forward. Lohse is looking to rebound after a poor 9-13 record and 5.34 ERA in 2004.

SOFT SPOT: Shortstop could be considered a soft area because it isn’t yet clear who will win the job among IFs Nick Punto, Juan Castro, Augie Ojeda and rookie Jason Bartlett. The biggest criteria for shoring up this position will be a steady glove, which the three veterans already have a reputation for having. Castro is known for making all the plays defensively. Punto’s hustle and work ethic has drawn admirers on the coaching staff, and Ojeda has shown ability to make spectacular grabs. Bartlett has the best hitting skills among the four players and has been working to improve defensively. However, he has limited big league experience.

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