AL BEast Notebook – Feb 27
Spring is the time to evaluate talent, give new people a chance to show what they can do and try new things. While most starting spots and lineups are established already, there are a few position battles to keep an eye on this spring.
1. Blue Jays: Toronto acquired two second basemen this offseason, one via free agency and the other in a trade. At this point in the beginning of Spring Training it is basically a dead heat for the starting job. Maicer Izturis is a career utility infielder that has never played more than 122 games in a season. He’s a career .273 hitter with no power and moderate speed for a middle infielder, last year stealing a career-best 17 bases. He’s good-not-great with the glove. He does a lot of things pretty well; he’s fundamentally sound. Emilio Bonifacio is five years younger and has blazing speed. In 2011 as a full-time starter he hit .296 with 40 stolen bases, but did strikeout 129 times.
Bonifacio and Izturis are both switch-hitters that are moderate defensively, although Izturis is quite a bit better at second. They can play just about anywhere, but that’s pretty much a moot point as the only real opening is at second base. Izturis is a balanced player with a low ceiling. Bonifacio adds a big speed element but his batting average is unpredictable, although the last few years he is walking more and boosting his OBP.
As the Jays already have speed merchant Rajai Davis on the bench, I would start Bonifacio in the nine hole at second. Bonifacio has an on base percentage of .362 versus lefties over the last three seasons and is still on the upswing in his career. But performance in spring training could make things the other way around.
2. Orioles: The final starting rotation spot in Baltimore is wide open and there’s a whole bunch of pitchers in the running. Tommy Hunter was a long shot and had a poor first game so he’s behind the pack. But Steve Johnson, Jair Jurrjens, Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton, Brian Matusz and T.J. McFarland are all still possible candidates. Of that group Johnson pitched really well last year while making just a few starts (4-0, 2.11 ERA, .174 average against, 1.07 WHIP in 38 innings). Jurrjens was an All-Star in 2011 (also really good in 2009) but bombed last year. He tends to pitch lights-out every other year, so here’s hoping 2013 continues the trend. He hit 93 on the radar gun in Sunday’s game, so that’s a good sign. Arrieta, Britton, Matusz and McFarland are more likely to be fighting for a long-middle-relief role with the losers pitching in Triple-A. But anything can happen this spring and Buck Showalter is far from making a decision.
3. Yankees: Yes, Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart are fighting for the starting catcher job but let’s be real; neither is expected to do much more than catch breaking balls. The real question is in the outfield.
Curtis Granderson’s injury presents a real dilemma. Even if just for one month, it’s tough to replace a 42/115/110 guy. Brian Cashman is unwilling to use Eduardo Nunez in the outfield and does not want to bring in Johnny Damon for an audition. I sure as heck hope he doesn’t break open the piggy bank to acquire Vernon Wells’ or Alfonso Soriano’s terrible contract for a one month surrogate. That leaves Juan Rivera (34) and Matt Diaz (turning 35), two career bench players that got on base less than 29% of the time last year while providing no power or speed competing with minor leaguers that are unlikely to be ready for the Major Leagues. Perhaps Zoilo Almonte, Slade Heathcott or Melky Mesa will emerge (great trio of names, Zoilo, Slade and Melky) and we can see what they have to offer. Zoilo probably offers the most long-term potential, and has already made a little positive impact hitting a home run and throwing a runner out at third base. Thankfully and hopefully it is just for one month, but there are five guys to keep tabs on in Yankee camp.
4. Rays: It is unlikely that Wil Myers will come up to the team before May and Tampa’s roster is pretty settled. But after David Price and a trio of strong young arms (Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson and Alex Cobb) there is still one starting pitcher spot still available.
It is pretty much a three-legged race between Jeff Niemann, Roberto Hernandez, and youngster Chris Archer. Hernandez is new to town and while he has one great year on his resume (19-8, 3.06), that was a long time ago and there have been four poor seasons since. Unless he catches lightning in a bottle this spring I see little chance he gets the nod. Archer, 24, is another great young arm that showed he has great stuff in limited action last year for the Rays (29.1 innings, 36 strikeouts, just 23 hits). He’s got a great fastball and slider. Niemann is a low-risk, low-reward candidate for the final spot. His fourth season was injury-plagued but he was effective when he was out there (3.08 ERA, 1.11 WHIP). He is out of minor league options and I assume that helps his chances. I find it hard to believe that the Rays would start the season with four pitchers age 25 and under. Niemann gives them a little stability and Archer can grow some more in Triple-A, so I think they will go with Jeff. They are in conversations about possible trades, and that would thin out the competition.