NL West spring training preview (cont.)
The Big Question: Who's on third?
Ty Wigginton, Ian Stewart, Jose Lopez and Kevin Kouzmanoff combined to make 140 of the Rockies' 162 starts at third base last year. All four are gone, and 38-year-old new addition Casey Blake is only expected to be able to replace about half of those starts coming off an injury-riddled season that ended in neck surgery.
Among the candidates to share time with Blake are DJ LeMahieu, who came over from the Cubs in the Stewart trade, Jordan Pacheco, who is being squeezed out of the catching picture by the addition of veteran Ramon Hernandez and the approach of slugging prospect Wilin Rosario, infielders Chris Nelson and Jonathan Herrera, who shouldn't be needed at second base now that Marco Scutaro is manning the keystone. Another possibility is new rightfielder Michael Cuddyer, who has 150 career starts at the hot corner including 13 in 2010. Cuddyer was the only one of that bunch that didn't see time at third base in 2011, but none are primarily third basemen.
The Big Battle: No. 4 and 5 starting pitchers
Most teams have a battle for the last couple of spots in their starting rotation in spring training, but the Rockies' is particularly compelling because of two players looking to make comebacks this spring, 25-year-old righty Juan Nicasio and 49-year-old lefty Jamie Moyer. The Rockies are expected to break camp with Jhoulys Chacin, new addition Jeremy Guthrie and lefthanded prospect Drew Pomeranz, which leaves two spots open for the likes of lesser offseason additions like Tyler Chatwood, Guillermo Moscoco or Josh Outman. Alex White, who came over from Cleveland with Pomeranz in the Ubaldo Jimenez trade, or righty Esmil Rogers, are also in the mix.
It's hard not to root for Nicasio and Moyer against that bunch. Moyer, the 49-year-old veteran who missed the 2011 season due to Tommy John surgery, would become just the fourth man to throw a major league pitch at that age if he makes the team. Nicasio, meanwhile, is attempting to come back from a broken neck suffered after he was hit by a comebacker on August 5 of last year. Nicasio was lucky to avoid paralysis or worse, and he's already facing live hitting and is expected to be in the thick of the rotation competition this spring. That's great news for both Nicasio and the Rockies as the young righty posted an above-average ERA and strong peripherals (3.22 K/BB) in 13 starts as a rookie last year and would likely have been a lock for this year's rotation if that ball had missed him.
The Big Prospect: Nolan Arenado
Given the third base picture above, the temptation to rush top prospect Nolan Arenado must be considerable. But while Arenado looks like a lock to eventually solve the Rockies' problems at that position, right now he's still a kid who won't reach legal drinking age until mid-April and has yet to make the leap to Double-A. Arenado's power and defense have both improved considerably in his three professional seasons, and his ability to hit for average is well established both by his .302 career mark and his low strikeout totals (just 123 in 280 games against 82 walks and 126 extra-base hits).
The Big Question: What can the Padres expect from Edinson Volquez?
Volquez's lone season as a front-line major league starting pitcher seems like ancient history now. In 2008, his first year with Cincinnati, the right-hander went 17-6 with a 3.21 ERA and 206 strikeouts and made the NL All-Star team. Tommy John surgery dashed his 2009 and 2010 seasons, and what was supposed to be his return to full strength last year after a dozen major league starts in late '10, was frustrating and disappointing. Volquez has struck out roughly a man per inning since his return, but those strikeouts have been accompanied by more than five walks per nine innings and an excess of home runs.
There's still reason to think that Volquez, who was acquired from the Reds in December, can lead the Padres' rotation. His control was better in 13 Triple-A starts last year (3.0 BB/9 to go with a 2.37 ERA), and getting out of the Great American Ball Park and into spacious Petco Park should help with the home runs (Volquez allowed three home runs in a game thrice last year, twice at home), which could, in turn, make him more willing to throw strikes. He still throws in the mid-90s with a devastating changeup and won't turn 30 until the middle of the 2013 season. Still, 2011 Padres fans would be wise to temper their expectations considerably.
The Big Battle: Kyle Blanks
For a team that lost 91 games last year and made several big trades this offseason, including the blockbuster that sent Mat Latos to the Reds in the Volquez deal, the Padres have surprisingly few questions heading into camp in terms of who will play where or fill what role. They nipped a potential first-base-prospect battle in the bud by flipping Anthony Rizzo to the Cubs, effectively handing the job to ex-Red Yonder Alonso, who came over with Volquez. They've already announced a plan to use Andrew Cashner, the key piece received for Rizzo, as a reliever, which eliminates any real rotation overflow. They acquired Huston Street to close, eliminating a battle over who will succeed departed free agent Heath Bell in the role, and the acquisition of Carlos Quentin would seem to signal a disinterest in finding out what slugger Kyle Blanks has to offer now that he's completely recovered from mid-2010 Tommy John surgery.
The most compelling fight might prove to be Blanks' lonely battle to win back his team's affections. The massive 25-year-old has hit 20 home runs in 482 major league plate appearances over three injury-riddled seasons, and is a .305/.392/.513 career hitter in the minors, including .308/.404/.568 in 436 Triple-A late appearances. Alonso and Quentin have filled his primary positions (first base and leftfield) and added considerable pop to the Padres lineup, but this team could still use Blanks' bat or whatever he could bring in a trade if he can prove that he can stay healthy and productive at the major league level.
The Big Prospect: Yasmani Grandal
Arguably the top player received in the Latos trade, 23-year-old catcher Yasmani Grandal immediately became the Padres' top prospect. The 12th overall pick in the 2010 draft out of the University of Miami, the switch-hitting Grandal hit .305/.401/.500 across the top three levels of the minor leagues last year in what was his first full professional season while throwing out 34 percent of attempting basestealers. Those numbers included just four games at Triple-A, but he should return there in April and could be pushing Nick Hundley for the starting job as early as mid-season.
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