A Major League Baseball team's ability to compete from April through September generally comes down to four things: pitching, hitting, fielding and coping.
Consider the Houston Astros, whose short-term survival skills were tested when first baseman Lance Berkman began the season on the disabled list with a knee injury. After two weeks and 12 games, the Astros were 3-9, the hitters had drawn a total of 12 walks, and it was a major relief to see Berkman back in the lineup Tuesday night against Florida.
Cubs starter Ted Lilly, Blue Jays second baseman Aaron Hill, Angels closer Brian Fuentes and Indians closer Kerry Wood and first baseman Russell Branyan are among the other mainstays who are either back or on the verge of returning from injuries. But with several other prominent names still on the DL, it means more at-bats and innings pitched than expected for supporting players on the roster. As Minnesota general manager Bill Smith observes, "One man's misfortune is another man's opportunity.''
This week's edition of Starting 9 takes a look at "The Replacements'' -- guys who've filled in for the big boys and tried to spin a cameo into a lasting impression. Some have fared well, while others are in danger of being exposed over time. How are they doing so far? We rank them from the most to least encouraging scenarios.
Jon Rauch for Joe Nathan
So far so flawless.
When Nathan went down for the year with an elbow injury, there was a run of speculation that Smith would try to trade for San Diego's Heath Bell or another proven closer. No deal materialized, and manager Ron Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson kicked around the closer-by-committee option before settling on Rauch as the man.
Two weeks into the season, what's not to like? Rauch is 6-for-6 in save conversions, and the other Minnesota relievers have slid in nicely behind him. The Twins rank second in the American League with a 2.45 bullpen ERA, and their relief corps has a 31-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 40 1/3 innings. Matt Guerrier, Pat Neshek, Ron Mahay and rookie Alex Burnett have yet to allow a run in a combined 19 innings.
"One thing our coaching staff tries to do is put players in roles they can understand and wrap their arms around, rather than change their roles all the time,'' Smith said. The Twins also pride themselves on their resilience, as evidenced by Michael Cuddyer's move to first base and the team's positive response to Justin Morneau's pennant-race back injury last September.
Granted, it's a small sample size, but Rauch's best attribute thus far has been fastball command. According to FanGraphs.com, he's thrown a first-pitch strike to 75 percent of opposing hitters. Rauch's 90 mph average fastball velocity is a bit underwhelming for a guy who's 6-foot-11, 290 pounds. But when he gets ahead in the count and keeps the ball at the knees or below, he markedly improves his odds.
"Hey, he throws harder than anybody else who's 6-11,'' Smith cracked.
Of course, handshakes and backslaps are nice in April, but Rauch will get a bigger test when the Twins are leading New York 4-3 and Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano are due up in the bottom of the ninth. The Twins travel to Yankee Stadium for three games in mid-May, so it just might happen then.
So far so good.
Sanchez continues to progress in his recovery from offseason shoulder surgery, and now it's a matter of regaining strength in the shoulder. He's been hitting and taking ground balls at San Francisco's extended spring camp in Arizona, and could begin a minor league rehab assignment soon. If all goes well, Sanchez will be playing second base and batting second for the Giants by early May.
San Francisco Giants
Uribe, who hit 16 homers and slugged .495 for San Francisco last season before signing a one-year, $3.25 million deal in January, gives the Giants a nice security blanket at second, short and third. He's slugging .500 and leads the Giants with 11 RBIs. The 11th came on a scintillating ninth-inning homer against the Padres on Monday.
"He's worth his weight in gold,'' a National League scout said. "He's got a hell of an arm, he gives you versatility, and he gets it done in the field -- even if he's a little unorthodox. He's great in the clubhouse, too. They love him there.''
The Giants are competitive almost every night because of their pitching, and the lineup has shown more patience under new hitting coach Hensley Meulens; even Bengie Molina has walked twice. But the team's roster depth continues to be tested. Aaron Rowand is out with three fractured bones in his face thanks to a misplaced Vicente Padilla fastball and Mark DeRosa is already touch-and-go with a strained hamstring. If the Giants are going to stick around in the NL West, they need Eugenio Velez and their other bench players to follow Uribe's lead and make a contribution.
So far so functional.
Castro is a nice, reliable, sure-handed middle infielder who's been kicking around a few years, right?
Actually, that's underselling his longevity. The Dodgers signed Castro out of Mexico in 1991, a year after they plucked Jose Offerman out of the Dominican Republic. Castro turns 38 in June, and is only 3½ years younger than Delino DeShields.
"I remember seeing him in 1994 when he was just breaking in with the Dodgers,'' said a National League scout. "I saw him in spring training, and he looks exactly the same.''
Castro has a .270 career on-base percentage. He's never logged 350 at-bats in a season, and he last played semi-regularly in 2005 with Minnesota. But he's fully capable of filling the defensive void for 15 to 30 games. And if any National League team has the depth to withstand the loss of a big cog, it's the Phillies. When Rollins went down for two to four weeks with a calf injury, manager Charlie Manuel plugged Shane Victorino into the leadoff spot, and he went 4-for-5 with a triple and a homer in his debut.
Castro entered the Phillies' current road trip with a .333 batting average (7-for-21) and six RBIs -- one more than Raul Ibanez.
"He's going to regress offensively,'' said an American League scout, "but he's done a nice job maintaining his athletic ability and playing a competent shortstop. It's hard to find a guy who can make the quick transfer and handle the double play pivot. If he can do that and play capable defense, anything else is a bonus.''
Doug Fister and Jason Vargas for Cliff Lee
So far so encouraging.
That Felix Hernandez-Cliff Lee dream pairing is finally coming into view. Lee will make a minor league rehab start, then slide into the Mariners' rotation May 2 against Texas. In addition, the Mariners say Erik Bedard is ahead of schedule in his recovery from shoulder surgery and could be back by the end of May.
Fister, a seventh-round pick out of Fresno State in 2006, is making a strong case to stay in the rotation regardless of what transpires. He's 2-1 with a 1.42 ERA in three starts, and carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning against Baltimore on Monday night.
Fister's fastball checks in around 88 mph, but he's thrown it 77 percent of the time, according to FanGraphs. At a reed-like 6-8, 195 pounds, he's less reliant on stuff than the manner in which he delivers it.
"He's not overpowering, but he throws on a downhill plane and he's got some deception, sort of like a Chris Young,'' an AL scout said. "Guys don't get great swings on his fastball.''
Vargas, who kicked around with the Marlins and Mets before coming to Seattle by trade in 2008, has thrown gems against Oakland and Baltimore in his last two starts.
So far so adequate.
Kinsler, 27, emerged as an All-Star while making 259 of 509 career starts in the leadoff spot. He's about to transition from catalyst to run producer in the No. 5 spot in the order, but first he must clear the final hurdles from an ankle sprain that he suffered in mid-March. The Rangers expect Kinsler to return in late April or early May, and they can hardly wait.
"He's a unique player because he contributes in so many ways, whether it's running the bases or driving in runs or playing great defense,'' said Rangers assistant GM Thad Levine. "He plays with such passion and energy, he has an impact on your team regardless of how well he's hitting.''
In Kinsler's absence, the vaunted Texas lineup ranks 11th in the American League with a .680 OPS. The numbers would be worse if not for outfielder Nelson Cruz, who has 11 of the Rangers' 31 extra-base hits.
Arias, the player to be named later in the 2004 Alex Rodriguez-Alfonso Soriano trade, has yet to draw a walk in 36 plate appearances, but he's hitting .389. At the very least, he's strengthened his case to outlast Andres Blanco and/or Ryan Garko and hold onto a roster spot once Kinsler returns from the DL.
So far so unpredictable.
Two doctors have determined there's no structural damage to Street's shoulder, and he's been throwing off flat ground from a distance of 90 feet. He'll gradually lengthen that out, throw batting practice and pitch a simulated game or two before going on a minor league rehab. He's targeting a return in mid-May.
Street saved 35 games last season, and his 0.91 WHIP was fourth among major league closers behind Andrew Bailey, Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman, so the Rockies miss his reliability. "Huston may get beat, but the one thing you know he's going to do is throw strikes,'' general manager Dan O'Dowd said.
Morales, 24, has the requisite high-octane closer's repertoire, but suffers from occasional losses of focus and composure. He's blown two saves, but was victimized by shoddy defense in one and some curious umpiring during a Sunday balk-fest in Atlanta.
"Franklin is young yet,'' O'Dowd said. "He has the ability to do it, but what separates any of these guys is the ability to focus and stay within their delivery every time out -- not just two out of every three times. Franklin isn't quite at that point yet. ''
In manager Jim Tracy's rose-colored world, the Rockies will be well-situated with Morales and Rafael Betancourt in setup roles once Street returns. Manny Corpas, Matt Belisle and Matt Daley are off to good starts, and Taylor Buchholz could return from Tommy John surgery sometime in June. Tracy isn't afraid to push his starters, and that could help the Rockies' bullpen stay fresh in August and September.
So far so puzzling.
Anything is going to be a comedown from Beltran, who made four All-Star teams, won three Gold Gloves and two Silver Slugger Awards in his first five seasons with the Mets.
If there's a question among scouts, it revolves around playing time for his two stand-ins. Pagan showed signs of a breakout last year when he posted an .837 OPS in 88 games. Through the Mets' first 14 games, manager Jerry Manuel started Pagan in center field eight times and Matthews six. No offense to Little Sarge, but some observers wonder why Manuel is doling out the playing time so equitably.
"Pagan runs better, and he's a better hitter and fielder than Matthews,'' an AL scout said. "I don't understand why Matthews has gotten so much playing time, but there doesn't seem to be much stability there in everyday decisions. Then again, this is a team that just released its cleanup hitter [Mike Jacobs] two weeks into the season.''
Another scout concurred with that assessment.
"I'm not a fan of Matthews Jr.,'' he said. "He's a dead low-ball hitter who can't catch up to hard stuff up in the zone, and that's how pitchers are pitching him. Pagan has some 'instinctive problems' when it comes to baserunning and throwing to the right base, but I'd still take my chances with him.''
So far so what?
The Diamondbacks needed another starter when it became clear that Webb wouldn't be over shoulder surgery by April. After checking out options, they determined that Pedro Martinez wanted a bigger stage, Jarrod Washburn wanted too much money, and Braden Looper wasn't appreciably better than what they had. They also explored a deal for Nate Robertson before the Tigers traded him to Florida.
Benson, coming off several years of shoulder trouble, tops out in the 88-90 mph range now and needs to have command of all four pitches to navigate big league lineups. "He's had to reinvent himself a little bit,'' general manager Josh Byrnes said.
Benson allowed two runs in six innings against San Diego in his 2010 debut Saturday. He induced eight swinging strikes in 101 pitches, struck out one Padres hitter and allowed 14 fly balls among 22 balls put in play. Benson has always been a fly-ball guy, so Petco Park was a nice, comfortable spot for him to work out the kinks. He'll face a more daunting challenge Friday against the Phillies at Chase Field in Phoenix.
In the meantime, the Diamondbacks have problems that dwarf their back-end-of-the-rotation issues. Catcher Miguel Montero and outfielder Conor Jackson are on the disabled list, and the bullpen already has six blown saves and a 6.33 ERA. The Diamondbacks expect Webb back sometime in June. But if they keep coughing up leads after the sixth inning, it won't matter when he returns.
So far so grim.
The Orioles haven't been averse to throwing money at their bullpen. Three years ago they spent $41 million on multiyear deals for Danys Baez, Jamie Walker and Chad Bradford. They will not go down as some of the franchise's more enlightened initiatives.
The O's took a more modest approach toward upgrading last winter, signing Gonzalez to a two-year, $12 million deal. But Gonzalez was a mess in spring training, then blew two saves in the first week before going on the disabled list with a strained shoulder.
"His velocity was down and his mechanics were awful,'' said an NL scout. "His arm was going one way and his body was going the other way. He had no command of anything. It was just a prayer.''
Johnson stepped in and immediately blew his first two save opportunities before throwing two scoreless innings in a win over Oakland on Sunday. He has "plus pitches across the board,'' said one scout, but must overcome the perception that he lacks the toughness to handle the ninth inning.
Then again, the Orioles have reached the point where the closer saga is dwarfed by a multitude of crises. Manager Dave Trembley is in trouble, and the O's drew 9,129 for a recent loss to Tampa Bay at Camden Yards. Julio Lugo and Ty Wigginton are playing second base while Brian Roberts works his way back from a strained abdominal muscle, Felix Pie is out for three months with a ruptured back muscle, and the schedule is a nightmare. Once the Orioles complete their West Coast trip, they'll play 16 straight games against the Yankees, Red Sox and Twins. If they never lead in the late innings, does it really matter who's closing?