Tomorrow, the bullpens, live batting practice and fielding drills will become a little more serious, with the opening spring-training game at Salt River Fields for the Arizona Diamondbacks, as they take on the team they replaced as NL West champions, the San Francisco Giants. It marks the start of a month of Cactus League action, which will see the team solidify their squad, get a look at some farm system products and get themselves in shape to defend the division crown. Unlike previous years, there doesn't seem much, on the surface, to be decided for Arizona. But let's dig a little deeper: what should we be keeping an eye on in March?
1. Drew or Drew not. There is no 'try'...
The only real question-mark over the 25-man roster would seem to be the presence or absence of short-stop Stephen Drew, who is still recovering from the unfortunate injury he suffered at home-plate last season. On Monday, Seth Pollack reported that Drew took 40-50 ground balls, with Gibson saying he did well: "He put more movement, left to right, did a reverse pivot, planting in the hole, so I think he feels good. Tomorrow we may transition him in with his regular group and he'll get far fewer (reps) but it will be higher intensity."
While Stephen does seem to be making good progress, with the general consensus that he is ahead of schedule, it will likely still be some time before he is able to take part in a game. Gibson added Drew is "not even close" to running the bases, for example. That delay will put him behind his team-mates, who start their contests on Saturday and if base-running is the last thing to be tested, it would limit the possibility of him getting his ABs through a DH spot, unless some agreement can be reached with the opposite team about having a designated runner for him. At this point, I'd say he'll probably still start the season on the DL.
That would, at least, push back the resulting problem, of the DIamondbacks currently appearing to have 14 position players for 13 position spots. Something - or, more likely, someone - will have to give either by Opening Day or when Drew is ready to come back, and with John McDonald and Willie Bloomquist signed to two-year contracts, it would seem the men with most to worry about are Lyle Overbay and Geoff Blum, unless something startling happens, e.g. Paul Goldschmidt being sent down, an outfielder traded. Spring training performances could well factor into the decision.
2. Four into three does go.
Speaking of the Diamondbacks outfield, we'll see how the quartet of Jason Kubel, Gerardo Parra, Chris Young and Justin Upton work out. Much as I like the radical idea of playing four outfielders - given Arizona's fly-ball skewing pitchers, it's not necessarily a dumb idea... okay, it probably still is - I think we'll see Parra spelling mostly Young in center-field. This is based on Kirk Gibson's previous statements that he wants Parra to become more comfortable playing that position - it's not as if he really needs the time in the corner outfield spots. This could even mean Gerardo getting most of the starts, and doesn't necessarily mean anything as far as CY is concerned.
Of course, Chris is still going to need to get his time at the plate, so he might be a good candidate to DH for the team, when the chance arises. One suggestion has been to get the left-handed Kubel some time at first-base: if he could become the platoon partner for Goldschmidt, then against right-handers both he and Parra could play, without sacrificing as much defense (Lyle Overbay would then largely become superfluous to needs, addressing the issue mentioned above). It seems pretty unlikely - Kubel hasn't a single inning at 1B since turning pro in 2000 - but maybe Kirk Gibson watched Moneyball. If it is going to happen, expect lots of playing time there for Jason next month.
Keep an eye out for the heirs to the outfield spots as well, Adam Eaton and A.J. Pollock. Both were named by GM Kevin Towers as ones to watch this spring, and will be staking their claim for a call-up, in the event of injury or trade involving a current incumbent. Eaton is a lot of fun to follow, with a general agreement he never gives less than 100% on the field, and both players have impressive speed - they were the top two men in the organization for stolen-bases last year, Pollock leading the way with 36.
3. Know your (bullpen) role.
At the end of last season, it seemed like the Arizona relief corps had got themselves pretty solidly sorted, in terms of in-game roles. Fans could generally tell who was going to be used, leading up to J.J. Putz closing the door in the ninth inning. But then, the team went out and added Craig Breslow and veteran Takashi Saito over the winter, which lobs a couple of interesting, potentially useful spanners into the works. How will these newcomers be integrated into an Arizona bullpen which was a huge part of the reason why the team lost only 9.1% of games where we were leading after five innings - less than half league average (18.3%)?
It'll probably be hard to tell in Cactus League games, especially early on, where starters have their outings cut short, and reliever usage tends to be dictated by other factors, rather than purely winning the contest. Also factoring in is the team's stated desire to minimize Saito's spring workload, which is understandable given he just turned 42 earlier this month, and a history spotted with DL trips. Gibson has hinted that Saito will be primarily used in the 7th inning, though it may be subject to change, and given the Japanese pitcher's likely unavailability on back-to-back days, Bryan Shaw will still see his share of high-leverage work there.
Breslow is a left-hander, and it will be interesting to see how the suitable situations shake down between him and Joe Paterson. Breslow does have a lot more experience - 281 major-league games to Joe's 61 - but you'd be hard pushed to complain about Paterson, who held opposing lefties to a .574 OPS in 2011. Breslow's career splits don't show much of a platoon split (.648 OPS vs. RHB, .640 vs. LHB), so we may see him used in more of an extended role, with Paterson the scalpel brought in to remove a particularly-troublesome opposing left-hander, when the need arises.
4. How soon is now?
The Diamondbacks' rotation appears, at this point, solidly-set. Barring injury, we're looking at Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson, Trevor Cahill, Joe Saunders and Josh Collmenter going in to Opening Day. But, as has been mentioned before, five starters almost certainly won't be enough. Arizona hasn't used less than eight in a year since 2002, and spring training can be used to establish a pecking order among the pitchers that are next in line. Wade Miley and Barry Enright each made seven starts for the team in 2011, with Zach Kroenke and Kevin Mulvey both also having major-league experience.
However, it's the prospects that will be under the closest observation during spring, as fans get their first chance for an extended look at the trio of Trevor Bauer, Archie Bradley and Tyler Skaggs. Bradley is probably still too raw to get serious consideration, being aged nineteen and with a grand total of two professional innings to his name - it'll still be fun to see him. Skaggs is only a year older, but has already made 47 minor-league starts and reached Double-A, so can't be ruled out entirely; Bauer, despite limited minor-league experience, may be closest of that trio. And certainly, don't forget our other up-and-comers, such as Charlie Brewer, Andrew Chafin and Patrick Corbin.
For many of them, this will be their first opportunity to go up and measure themselves against major-league hitters, so it will be a good test of their development, even if they are found to be wanting in the final analysis. While it's a truism that there's no such thing as a pitching prospect, it's a pleasure as a fan to look at a team star and remember seeing him play, before he made his major-league debut. The problem with the Diamondbacks in 2012 is, there are quite a few potential stars. You might want to take a notebook to Salt River Fields...