Posted: Tuesday February 14, 2012 10:19AM ; Updated: Thursday February 16, 2012 2:59PM
Cliff Corcoran
Cliff Corcoran>INSIDE BASEBALL

AL East spring training preview: Starting pitching concerns abound

Story Highlights

The Yankees and Rays have to sort out the back ends of their rotations

The Red Sox are hoping Daniel Bard can seamlessly go from set-up man to starter

The Orioles must get one-time top prospect Brian Matusz fixed in camp

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Matt Moore
Matt Moore was fantastic in last year's ALDS opener against the Rangers but may not open the season with Tampa Bay.
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This week, Cliff Corcoran will break down what to expect from each team's camp as part of SI.com's spring training preview. Teams are listed by their order of finish from 2011. Note: The Big Prospect is a player who will be in camp and has not yet debuted in the major leagues.

New York Yankees

The Big Question: How will things play out at the back of the rotation?

The Yankees' rotation was a glaring weakness until they traded for Michael Pineda and signed Hiroki Kuroda almost simultaneously on January 13. Now, they have CC Sabathia, Pineda and Kuroda locked into the top three spots and sophomore Ivan Nova a near lock for the fourth spot after a surprisingly strong rookie campaign that ended with his being the team's No. 2 starter in the playoffs.

That leaves 2010 rotation components A.J. Burnett, Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia vying for the final spot. Rumor has the Yankees close to swapping Burnett to the Pirates, but if that deal falls through, New York will have just one rotation spot for those three pitchers, one of whom they owe $33 million over the next two years (Burnett), another whom they re-signed for $4 million this winter (Garcia) and the last of whom was once their top prospect, won 18 games two years ago, and is still just 25. Hughes had great success as a set-up man in 2009, which makes a return to the bullpen a temptation, but he's also the pitcher in that trio most worth trying to re-establish in the rotation given his youth and two remaining years of team contractual control.

The Big Battle: DH

Ultimately, the rotation battle will be more about what the organization wants to do with those three pitchers than who pitches best in the spring. That makes the big battle in camp the fight over designated hitter duties, a position vacated when slugging prospect Jesus Montero was flipped to the Seattle Mariners for Pineda. Andruw Jones would seem to have the righthanded at-bats locked up, but he has hit just .208/.308/.467 against righties over the last three years. Swift-footed Chris Dickerson (.270/.355/.415 in 490 career plate appearances vs. RHP) has an inside track thanks to being on the 40-man roster and being able to simultaneously platoon with Jones as the team's fourth-outfielder when not DHing. Still, non-roster invitee Russell Branyan has a higher up-side as a lefty masher in the Yankees' new ballpark, where he has homered eight times in 52 career plate appearances.

The Big Prospect: Gary Sanchez

Lefty starter Manny Ba˝uelos was the talk of last year's camp and remains the team's top prospect and a potential member of the 2013 starting rotation, but with Montero now a Mariner, Yankee fans might be even more interested to get their first proper look at teenage catching prospect Gary Sanchez, who will make his first appearance in major league camp this spring. The 19-year-old Sanchez has a lot of work to do on both sides of the ball, but he already has a ton of power and the most optimistic projections see him as being as good as Montero at the plate while being able to remain behind it at the major league level.

Tampa Bay Rays

The Big Question: Will Matt Moore open the season in the majors?

The 22-year-old lefty is the top pitching prospect in the game and turned in a gem as the team's Game 1 starter in the Division Series last year -- seven innings of two-hit shutout ball against the Rangers -- but the Rays won't guarantee him a rotation spot heading into camp. There's little reason to farm him back out in April, however, as the five-year contract the Rays signed him to in December eliminates any concerns about starting his arbitration clock. And, although he has just 19 1/3 major league innings to his name (including the postseason), there are no doubts about his ability to get big-league hitters out and to do so in pressure situations.

The Big Battle: No. 5 starter

The only real obstacle to Moore making the roster is the Rays already jam-packed rotation. Moore should be an upgrade on either Jeff Niemann or Wade Davis, but the Rays failed to trade either righty this winter, and it seems awful early to toss out either's future as a starter without getting something in return for that potential. Both were well-regarded prospects in their own right, though not nearly as well-regarded as Moore. Davis is 26 and has just two years as a major league starter under his belt. The 6-foot-9 Niemann will be 29 at the end of the month, has had three years in the rotation, and has struggled due to shoulder and back injuries the last two years, but also had better peripherals than Davis in both seasons. One will have to move to the bullpen to make room for Moore at some point this season. It might as well be now.

The Big Prospect: Hak-Ju Lee

Shortstop was a black hole for the Rays last year, so it should be encouraging for Rays fans to see Hak-Ju Lee in camp. Acquired from the Cubs in the Matt Garza trade (along with righty Chris Archer, another player worth checking out in camp, and catcher Robinson Chirinos, who will battle for a share of the catching duties behind veteran backup Jose Molina), the Korean Lee is a slick fielder who can hit for a bit of average, get on base at a respectable rate, and steal bags. He lacks real power, but he'll leg out his share of triples. As such he's a prototypical top-of-the-order middle infielder. The 21-year-old will start the season in Double-A and could crack the major league roster some time next year.

Boston Red Sox

The Big Question: Can Daniel Bard be a legitimate major league starting pitcher?

The Red Sox' implosion last September was largely the result of the collapse of their starting rotation, and before the World Series was over, the news broke that John Lackey needed Tommy John surgery and would miss the entire 2012 season. So this offseason, the Red Sox reinforced their rotation by . . . trading for a pair of closers.

Believe it or not, Boston didn't add a single major league starting pitcher to its 40-man roster this winter and instead will roll the dice on converting the 26-year-old Bard. He hasn't started a game since 2007, his first professional season (he posted a 7.08 ERA in 22 A-ball starts that season) and was part of the problem in September, walking nine men in 11 innings, posting a 10.64 ERA, blowing three saves and taking two other losses in 11 appearances.

Bard does have an impressive three-pitch repertoire (high-90s fastball, put-away slider, and 90 mph changeup) and he was a stud as a starter in college at North Carolina, but making him the primary solution to a rotation in desperate need of reinforcement is a major gamble that seems unlikely to pay off.

The Big Battle: Rightfield

In trading for those two closers, Oakland's Andrew Bailey and Houston's Mark Melancon, the Red Sox downgraded rightfield, swapping sophomore Josh Reddick to the A's for underpowered veteran Ryan Sweeney, and sent their backup shortstop Jed Lowrie to the Astros. Then, in an effort to clear salary space, they gifted their starting shortstop, Marco Scutaro, on the Rockies.

Rather than use the savings to sign a starter like Roy Oswalt (which, to be fair, they still could) or Edwin Jackson, they used half of it on a potential platoon partner for the lefthanded Sweeney in the righthanded Cody Ross. The thing is, Ross isn't a clear upgrade on the righthanded platoon outfielder who was already on the roster, Darnell McDonald, and all three rightfielders could just be keeping the spot warm for prospect Ryan Kalish, who likely would have been in position to claim the job had his 2011 season not been ruined by a torn labrum in his left shoulder.

All four will jockey for playing time in camp, with the battle likely spilling over into the regular season as the Red Sox wait for leftfielder Carl Crawford to return from offseason wrist surgery, while free agent addition Nick Punto and late-2011 pick-up Mike Aviles will vie for the vacated shortstop job.

The Big Prospect: Will Middlebrooks

The Sox' top prospect is 19-year-old power-hitting shortstop Xander Bogaerts, but the most compelling prospect they'll have in major league camp this spring is 23-year-old third baseman Will Middlebrooks. Middlebrooks experienced a big jump in power in Double-A last year, hitting .302/.345/.520 with 18 home runs in 397 plate appearances at the level, while adding three more dingers on injury rehab in the New York-Penn League and two more in a small taste of Triple-A for a total of 23, nearly double his output from 2010, when he hit 12, all at high-A ball. That power surge was expected from the 6-foot-4 Middlebrooks and, in combination with his excellent play at the hot corner, makes him a player worth watching, though he still needs work on his plate discipline.

 
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