Sometimes it’s the small moves during training camp that can have a profound effect on the upcoming season.
Case in point, I was literally frothing at the mouth over the prospect of Jason Phillips finally getting a starting catching job. Late last week I finally got my wish, as Phillips packed his bags for LosAngeles, while Kaz “Wild” Ishii took his 1:1 K/BB ratio to Shea Stadium. Its about time Phillips got a chance to get at least 500 at-bats at catcher, a prediction that becomes obvious when you see the two men standing in his way are David Ross and Paul Bako. Drop Ross and Dodger prospect Dioner Navarro from your NL-only lists, and put Phillips somewhere in your top ten. While last season may have been a disaster, it was largely because he thought he was going to replace Piazza as the Mets’ full-time catcher, only to find himself suiting up when Piazza went down. Unencumbered, Phillips can easily match his 2003 totals of .298/.373/.442, which could translate into better numbers than most NL catchers.
Of course, the spring is also a good time to fall prey to a moronic injury. White Sox ace, Mark Buerhle, a 16-game winner and sure-fire pick in mixed-leagues, injured his foot shagging fly balls. At first glance, the team doctors thought he might miss the first six weeks. It’s now looking far less serious, but we’ve seen Mark Buerhle struggle in the past, so these problems only complicate his potential value.
Last year’s NL rookie of the year, Jason Bay, hurt his wrist diving for a fly ball. While my first recommendation would be to not try too hard if your job is guaranteed, like Bay’s, I would also worry that he may not make the opening day roster. He slowed down the final month of the season, so missing the first few weeks may be a blessing in disguise.
And when we talk about injuries, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Barry Bonds. While he usually suffers from an assortment of minor aches and bruises any 40-year-old would have, his latest knee problems are extremely disconcerting. His opening day status is definitely in doubt, but then again, Bonds hits a homer every 8.28 at-bats, and put up his usual ungodly numbers with only 373 at-bats, so perhaps my worries are unwarranted. And sure Bonds may tell the media he’s tired and doesn’t want to come back, but it’s likely that the thought of passing Ruth and Aaron may just “wake him up” a tad.
What does worry me are some of the game’s top pitchers already being slowed down because of arm woes. Chicago Cub teammates Kerry Wood and Mark Prior are synonymous with arm trouble, and I don’t hold out hope with Dusty Baker at the helm. Knowing Dusty’s tendencies to run arms ragged, I would be cautious about putting too much stock in recent Tommy John-graduate Ryan Dempster, and unless Carlos Zambrano is the second-coming of Livan Hernandez, he may be the next Cub pitcher to go under the knife.
A team with an even worse track record for keeping young arms healthy is the Pittsburgh Pirates. They’ve already destroyed two of their best prospects, Sean Burnett and John Van Benschoten, so its hardly a surprise that last year’s revelation, Oliver Perez, has been feeling “tightness” in his shoulder. He was named opening day starter, but if they expect him to throw 120 pitches every time out, he’ll be another young star ruined. Kip Wells has had a stiff elbow this spring as well, so watch out.
The Ex-Expos, i.e. the Nationals, also figure to be busy the next few days. They still have too many mediocre outfielders, and have no depth in the infield. GM Jim Bowden likes his boys, and since he already acquired Alex Escobar, expect him to pick up Pokey Reese from the Mariners – if he’s available. If not, he should get someone anyway, and extra starters Jon Rauch and John Patterson, as well as the loser of the Terrmel Sledge/Endy Chavez battle, will be possible trade bait.
Finally, the spring is also the time when uncertain managers decide on who will be closing their games. Unfortunately for Dusty, his relief situation is as bad as his starting situation, since top closer candidate Joe Borowski will miss the first six weeks. That means the job goes to LaTroy Hawkins by default. Steve Bartman, you’ve done it again.
If you’re having a draft this weekend, take Yhency Brazoban. Eric Gagne might not last half the season.