Sunday, March 9, 2008

spring thoughts...

pirate city
Pirate City from Escape to Sarasota

Today, I'm taking one of my infrequent excursions into 2008 Bucco baseball. Not that anyone asked, but here's my take on the first coupla weeks of camp:

What were the Bucs thinking of, bringing 38 pitchers to Pirate City? And so far, 33 of them have gotten into games.

Phil Dumatrait is the only new arm to impress me so far. He's starting today, and we'll see if he can keep breathing down Zach Duke's neck. He seems like the frontrunner as of this moment to take Shawn Chacon's starter/long man spot if his Tommy John'ed elbow is finally 100%.

But Dumatrait's main claim to fame is giving up three straight home runs in the first inning (and that was just last September for the Reds), and you have to be more than a little wary of what's down the road. But he was a first round draft pick, and the Reds thought enough of him to send Scott Williamson to the Bosox to get him, soooo....

Sean Burnett's done a decent job so far this spring, too, and the next three weeks will tell his tale. His control has been fine, and that was a huge question mark in his past. He's also eying Chacon's old role. Franquelis Osoria has been sharp although he had a streaky few weeks with the Bucs last year. Brian Bullington and John Van Benschoten look like they're on the fast track to Indy unless they turn it around, and in a hurry.

The battle for the bullpen may go to the final cutdown. There's still a half dozen or more interesting arms around, a mix of power, finesse and questions, and we'll see what they've got when the roster becomes a little more manageable, hopefully in the very near future. It's time to thin out the herd.

(Praise the Lord, they cut the roster down to 50: Pitchers Dave Davidson, Luis Munoz and Romulo Sanchez went to AAA Indy. Pitchers Yoslan Herrera, Jim Barthmaier and Ron Bellisario were sent to AA Altoona. Pitcher Olivo Astacio was optioned to A Lynchburg. Six other players, pitchers Adam Bernero, Mike Thompson, Dan Moskos and Jesse Chavez, outfielder Jose Macias and catcher Miguel Perez, were sent to minor league camp to be reassigned.)

I don't foresee much of a drop off from the pitching this year. It's not like Chacon and Solly Torres lit the baseball world afire in 2007. Of course, the bar to equal last year's performance isn't set all that high, either. The team's ERA was 4.93, ranking 14th in the National League in 2007. That's a 1/2 run worse than the NL norm and a huge gap to close.

This year's record depends on Gorzo, Ian Snell, and Paul Maholm going deep into games and the back end of the rotation, whomever they may be, holding up their end of the deal. I'm not so certain that Matt Morris' spot is etched in stone.

If Tony LaRusso still wants him, well... It's all about the starting pitching getting to the eighth inning anyway, when Damasco Marte and Matt Capps take over. It's still a battle royale to see who gets the ball before then.

And I like Marte going against all comers instead of being a one batter specialist. His stuff was filthy last year. It's time the righties got a sniff of it, too. Besides, we need him to claim that setup role.

The position battles? I don't see any except in center, and to me that's an audition for next year's fourth man between Nyjer Morgan and Nate McClouth.

I can very easily see Steve Pearce, Chris Duffy and McCutch patrolling the PNC lawn in 2009, and maybe sooner. Kevin Thompson has been playing well, and if Morgan loses out to McClouth and gets sent down, he could stick. It's a numbers game for him.

Jason Bay and Xavier Nady are deals waiting to happen. They're both nice players, but now the dynamic duo are just blocking the next class of young lions. Nothing is as Darwinian as MLB. Do I hear Toronto and San Diego knocking on the door...?

Adam LaRoche is raking, a great sign for a slow starter. We don't have anyone on the horizon to take on Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez, and they give us a pretty sweet middle with the bat and the leather. I'm glad they're signed and in Pittsburgh.

Jose Bautista is set at the hot corner, at least until Neil Walker gets a full season or two under his belt or we make a deal. I like him better off the bench, where I think his versatility and occasional pop are better used. But what you see is what you get, and I don't see anyone else even taking grounders at third.

And no, my crystal ball is pretty misty on the cage match for our bench. How does a team end up with so many first base - outfield hybrids?

Do they keep a real catcher behind Ronny Paulino? Michel Hernadez and Raul Chavez have looked good in limited action behind the dish, and at very least give us some organizational depth while Candy Maldonado is serving his time at the fat farm. And hey, they can throw out guys that try to steal on them. What a novel concept. Not every stolen base is the pitcher's fault.

If Pearce goes back to Indy, does Ryan Doumit catch or become another outfielder? Is it Chris Gomez or Doug Mientkiewicz as your Bucco utility infielder, or does Josh Wilson's or Luis Rivas' glovework earn a spot? Brian Bixler will go to AAA and play every day, hopefully.

My jury's still out on the Double-B who has always impressed me as a utility type infielder. Brent Lillibridge, who we sent to Atlanta as part of the LaRoche deal, was the heir apparent in my eyes. But there's no doubt we need some help up the middle, although I've heard good things about 2B Shelby Ford who played in A Lynchburg last year.

And while all of this is kinda interesting, I'd much rather see a last place club have competition for its' starting jobs rather than for the 5 men who sit and serve. Still, it should keep the pot stirred for the last three weeks of camp, especially if we move some guys sooner rather than later.

One last thought: Why did they do Maldonado and Josh Sharpless like they did? When I was in the army, it didn't discharge you for being out of shape. The sarge got your butt up early and put it to bed late while you did a little more PT and a little less mess hall. That might have been a better example to the team. Maybe the Player's Association doesn't allow its' members to run extra laps.

Stay tuned. There should be a lot of twists and turns before the smoke clears on the road to Turner Field and the 2008 season.

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