Signs that spring is fast approaching:
- Flowers begin to blossom
- Children play happily outdoors without an overcoat
- Bob Finnigan writes about something other than Ken Griffey Jr.
Out here on the East Coast, we're still waiting for the first two signs, but the third one's in full swing. Today's Finnigan article talks about the condition of the team as the practice months approach - or, more specifically, about how the elation of spring is just one of Bill Bavasi's many magnificent creations, conceived of in between devising the innocent laughter of children and cherry popsicles. Finnigan's words may not be so glowing, but the message is clear: this team's a lot better than most could have imagined in November.
And yet, the team is not without its question marks entering ST. Who'll be competing for a spot on the roster this March? I present to you a quick rundown of the position battles, as best I can tell*:
*-some may not be entirely accurate. Not my fault. Shut up.
Fifth Outfielder: In theory, Jamal Strong has a shot at backing up the Ichiro/Winn/Reed/Ibanez foursome. His defense isn't real good at any of the three positions, but his offensive ability falls somewhere between Darren Lewis and Stan Javier, which makes him an ideal backup outfielder. That said, let's be honest - the team loves Wee Willie for his versatility, and he can cover an outfield slot in a pinch if need be. Strong's as low-risk as any minor leaguer in the organization, but everyone already knows what we'll get from Bloomquist, and the team's in no position to start adding more question marks to the roster. This one's almost assuredly going to Willie, which creates a heated battle at...
Utility Infielder: Because you can't have just one versatile no-hit ball of hustle on the bench. Given a choice between Benji Gil, Ramon Santiago, or Ricky Gutierrez, the wise choice might be passing over all of them and going into the season with a 24-man roster, but one of these guys will probably wind up breaking camp with the club, since Bloomquist will have some duties in the outfield. The pickings are slim, but each player has his positive attributes: Gil has a little pop in his bat and has won a World Series, Santiago's a switch-hitter with a glove the size of Steven Tyler's mouth, and Ricky Gutierrez has never killed a guy. With Reese getting the starting nod at short, defense won't be a problem, and Gil has the most offensive upside of the three; that said, he's a 32 year old carbon copy of Bloomquist. Going with Santiago would give Hargrove the flexibility to choose between a right-handed and a left-handed bat when one of the starting infielders needs a break, which is incrementally less terrible than flipping a coin to decide between two punchless righties. If I had to choose one of the three, it'd be Santiago (see, we knew that Guillen trade would pay off somehow), but this is the kind of race that's determined by ST performance.
Fifth Starter: Probably between Ryan Franklin, Aaron Sele, and Dan Reichert. If Franklin is bad, then Sele is atrocious - his strikeouts have come down each year since 1999, culminating in a 1:1 K/BB ratio last season in Anaheim. He's a familiar name, but if the team is afraid of trying to squeeze another 200 innings out of the incumbent, then they should be terrified by the prospect of Aaron Sele starting 30 games. Dan Reichert, as has been discussed at several stops around the blogosphere, has all kinds of crazy upside, but he's not going to get a second look if he doesn't come out throwing strikes in ST. As bad as Franklin can be at times, he consistently pounds the strike zone, which is something Reichert has struggled to do at the Major League level. You'll want to keep an eye on Cha Baek, who was a pretty good prospect in his own right as recently as two years ago, but he didn't pitch very well in Seattle or Tacoma last season, so he'd have to come out on top of his game to earn a spot on the roster out of camp. I'm guessing that Franklin keeps his spot, but if he doesn't, then he'll throw his name into the hat for the next battle...
Additional right-handed reliever: Hasegawa and Putz seem like locks to make the bullpen, leaving the final RRP spot up to one of Jeff Nelson, Julio Mateo, and Scott Atchison (and possibly Franklin, as noted above). Surprisingly, it's been Atchison who's had the most recent success, putting up a 3.52 ERA and striking out more than a batter per inning in 30.2 ML innings last year. Performance wise, there isn't a huge gap between him and Mateo - the difference is that Atchison keeps the ball on the ground pretty well, while Mateo suffers from a bit of a home run problem. With the revamped infield defense, that could be enough to put Atchison over the top. Of course, this Jeff Nelson guy doesn't come without his qualifications, having been one of the most dominant relievers against right-handed hitters for a decade. He could be the 2005 northpaw version of Mike Myers, summoned from the bullpen to get a single important out and accomplishing that task two-thirds of the time. Now 38 years old, Nelson's patented Frisbee slider misses its spot more often than it used to, but a few funny-looking swings in March could turn Nelson into the odds-on favorite. I'd prefer Atchison, but I don't always get what I want. You guys should know that.
Additional left-handed reliever: This battle comes down to George Sherrill vs. Matt Thornton, although Nate Bland thinks he has a shot, which is cute. In my mind, this shouldn't even be a contest; all Sherrill's done is put up a 109:30 K/BB since joining the organization, with a 2.14 ERA. The guy throws strikes, was phenomenal out of the Tacoma bullpen, and started to come around after being promoted to the Majors. The book on Thornton, on the other hand, is that he used to be pretty good, got hurt, and hasn't done much sense. He threw 11 pretty good winterball innings, which is nice (and the organization won't let you forget about it), and eyewitness accounts have him capable of hitting the broad side of a barn, but the guy allowed 88 walks in 116 professional innings in 2004. That's bad. As for Bland...well, bless his soul, he's nothing if not persistent. His seventh professional organization probably won't hang on to him much longer than his second, fourth, fifth, or sixth organizations did, but he's a lefty, so he'll probably be coming to a town near you before too long. Rhetorical question: has a guy's surname ever provided such an accurate, concise personal scouting report?
Finnigan's article hints at some horror story about Jacobsen missing out on the 25-man roster entirely, but I refuse to believe it, and so should you, for the sake of your own psychological well-being.