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A little stiffness on the Johnson front

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Sorry, there is absolutely no way I was able to resist using that headline today. Blame Steve Gilbert, who offers an, er, blow-by-blow report of his second bullpen session on Monday. Said RJ, "This time I felt...not hesitant, but the residual effects from the first time out. Back was a little stiff, legs were a little stiff. I thought the second 17 pitches were much better, so I ended on a good note." Bob Melvin agreed, as Johnson threw 37 fastballs in total. The next sessions are scheduled for Thursday and Sunday, and if all goes well, he could face hitters next week.

Another difference of opinion, this one regarding Stephen Drew. 3rd-base coach and former Tucson manager Chip Hale says, "Nothing really bothers him. He's not in awe of anything. I think at times people might think there's some cockiness there, but I don't think so, just a quiet confidence." Confidence? Who does Drew think he is? Thankfully, Bob Melvin isn't going to stand for that kind of nonsense in the Arizona clubhouse:

Melvin does not want outfielder Carlos Quentin and infielder Stephen Drew to think their roster spots are sealed for this season, even if they essentially are. Melvin says there's always a risk young players could get "big-league attitudes," and won't push hard. "Sometimes they read their press clippings and start digging it," said the manager. "They do have spots, but they still have to bust it every day and think that nothing is given them. They know they have to fight for a job."

In contrast, Melvin positively drools over Chris Young, saying, "His publicity is well-deserved, but Chris isn't that type of kid. He wouldn't get out of control," adding, "He's probably one of the higher-ceiling guys. This is a guy that can run, tracks down balls, defends, runs on the bases. He's got power. He should hit for average. He should steal bases. Out of all the guys, he and Upton are the guys who have the most tools." Exit Quentin and Drew, muttering darkly about "teacher's pet" - Young may find himself the target of some wet towels during gym if he's not careful. :-)

Young also talked about the change in approach which helped him cut back markedly on strikeouts this year: "Last year I kind of stayed aggressive, but aggressive and in control. I started understanding that when I have two strikes, (the pitcher) still has to get another one on me. I'm not going to just give it away to him like I have in the past. Just settle down at the plate and focus harder. I just focus on commanding the strike zone, no matter what type of pitch it is... I don't feel like I have any problems with (off-speed stuff). I have in the far past, but nothing lately."

That's definitely a prime factor for their success this year: I saw some monumentally-bad at-bats last year by all our rookies, when pitchers broke out the breaking balls. Now, Young many not have had "any problems" lately, but I think the difference between a Triple-A breaking ball and the same pitch in the bigs, is much more significant than that between a Triple-A and big fastball - which is maybe only a couple of mph, and probably better location. If you have major-league quality off-speed stuff, you won't be sitting on buses for very long. Young may find himself in for a nasty surprise or two when he faces that kind of pitcher on a regular basis.

Before the official start of the Cactus League on Thursday, there'll be an intrasquad game tomorrow. Starting for the two sides will be Micah Owings and Dana Eveland, though that one isn't expected to go past six innings. Still, it'll be another milestone as we head towards Opening Day, albeit a minor one. Starters have also been announced for the first five Cactus League games, though it's probably unlikely they'll be going much more than two or three innings each. Webb will start the opener on Thursday, facing Javier Vazquez; I'll get to see Hernandez 2.0 on Friday down in Tucson, and Doug Davis gets the start Saturday. Sunday's split-squad games will be pitched by EdGon in the afternoon, and Nippert in the evening.

Does that maybe hint at Nippert having the inside track on the fifth spot in the rotation, until the Big Unit is ready? Though this report says he needs to work on his change-up as a third pitch, to go with his fastball and curve, if he wants to stick in the big-leagues as a starter. Usually, two-weapon pitchers end up in the bullpen, to avoid hitters getting too comfortable against them. Nippert reckons, "being able to throw that third pitch will really help because right now the hitters are just looking for two pitches because they know my changeup is not that good." So look for him to be working on that this spring.

Seems Chad Tracy will, at least initially, be slotted in the three-spot once again this year. Melvin says, "Sometimes you puff your chest out a little bit in that fourhole and try to do some things differently. The fact that he's trying to go to using the whole field may prohibit me from hitting him in the four-hole." Though, as noted a couple of days ago, Tracy actually had a higher average (and lower home-run rate) when hitting cleanup, than at #3. The piece also reports Byrnes, Young, Hudson and Drew are all candidates to bat lead-off, among the everyday starters.