AL East spring training preview (cont.)
The Big Question: Is Colby Rasmus a stud or a dud?
The Blue Jays appeared to pull off a coup at the 2011 trading deadline when they landed a 24-year-old centerfielder with superstar tools who had hit .276/.361/.498 as a sophomore the previous season in exchange for a weak starting pitching prospect, two veteran relievers approaching free agency (one of whom they've since reacquired), a lefty specialist and a fifth outfielder.
It will only be a coup, however, if they can get that centerfielder back on track. Rasmus hit just .225/.298/.391 last season, including .173/.201/.316 in 35 games with the Jays after being acquired from the Cardinals in a three-way trade. He also displayed an uncharacteristically awful plate approach over that span, drawing just five walks against 39 strikeouts. That will be the first area for Toronto hitting coach Dwayne Murphy to target, but Murphy is the man who helped create Jose Bautista, so there's reason for optimism. The biggest question is whether or not Rasmus will be as willing and dedicated a student.
The Big Battle: Set-up man
Two prospects who disappointed last year, outfielder Travis Snider and starter Kyle Drabek, will try to convince the Jays that this year will be different, but the biggest battle in camp could be in the bullpen, where three off-season additions with solid resumes -- ex-closer Francisco Cordero, veteran lefty set-up man Darren Oliver, and long-time Blue Jay Jason Frasor -- will vie with incumbent Casey Janssen to be the primary set-up man for new closer Sergio Santos.
The Big Prospect: Travis D'Arnaud
Blue Jays fans shouldn't get too attached to sophomore backstop J.P. Arencibia, because D'Arnaud, who came to the organization with Drabek in the Roy Halladay trade in Dec. 2009, is likely to unseat him as soon as the latter half of this year. D'Arnaud hit .311/.371/.542 in Double-A last year and is considered a good defender behind the plate with a strong arm. Arencibia has big-time power, but offers little else. D'Arnaud is the total package and a potential star.
The Big Question: What's the deal with Brian Matusz?
Matusz was the fourth overall pick in the 2008 draft and rated the No. 5 prospect in all of baseball prior to the 2010 season and was the pre-season favorite for the Rookie of the Year. He had a slightly disappointing, but fairly typical series of rookie ups and downs that season, but finished strong, going 7-1 with a 2.18 ERA and 3.25 strikeout-to-walk ratio over the season's final two months.
Then, last year, he hit the disabled list with an intercostal strain before his first start of the regular season, didn't return until June, and after two solid but short starts, was awful the rest of the way, going 0-9 with a 13.03 ERA and 17 home runs allowed in 38 2/3 innings (nearly four homers per nine innings) over 10 starts interrupted by a July demotion. Matusz wasn't awful in Triple-A in July and August -- he posted a 3.62 ERA in eight starts, allowing just four home runs, and if you take out one disaster outing his ERA drops to 2.54 in seven starts -- but that only made his major league struggles all the more confusing. Was it a fluke, a side-effect of his seemingly minor injury, or the beginning of the end of a promising career?
The Big Battle: Starting rotation
At last count, the Orioles had 11 candidates for the starting rotation on the 40-man roster, and non-roster invitee Armando Gallaraga makes it an even dozen. In reality, sophomore lefty Zach Britton and offseason imports Tsuyoshi Wada and Wei-Yin Chen, both veterans of Nippon Professional Baseball, likely have spots sewn up. However, Wada and Chen are unproven as major leaguers and either could just as easily be the next Kei Igawa as the next Hiroki Kuroda in terms of stateside success.
Indeed, the list of candidates extends so far in part because of the limited resumes of the contestants. When Dana Eveland, Brad Bergesen and Alfredo Simon aren't obviously out of the running, you know the competition is weak. That former prospects Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta haven't separated themselves from this pack is bad news for the organization, to make no further mention of Matusz. That Jason Hammel, newly arrived from the Jeremy Guthrie trade after going 7-13 with a 4.76 ERA and 5.0 K/9 for Colorado in 2011, is one of the frontrunners suggests that the more things change in Baltimore, the more they stay the same.
The Big Prospect: Dylan Bundy
Bundy, the No. 4 overall pick in last year's draft, has yet to throw a pitch as a professional, but the 19-year-old righty is among the handful of top pitching prospects in all of baseball. Thanks to the major league deal he signed last August (which includes a $4 million signing bonus and another $2.25 million guaranteed over five years), he's on the 40-man roster and will be in major league camp this spring. Bundy can hit triple-digits on the radar gun, has an excellent curve and cutter, a developing changeup, good control of all four, and is mature beyond his years. Look for him to make his professional debut in a full-season league in April and to move quickly through the Orioles' system.
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