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Wednesday, March 27, 2013
Twenty-five spring stories that do matter

By David Schoenfield

Spring training consists of a lot of bunting practice and manufactured stories, false alarms and overhyped weight losses (or increases). But some news events and stories are potentially important. Here are the 25 biggest ones -- from on the field -- as camps finally wind down.

25. Scott Kazmir makes Indians rotation
The last time we saw Kazmir in the majors was in the fourth game of the season for the Angels in 2011. He gave up a home run, walked two batters, hit two more batters and got knocked out in the second inning. He was just 27 years old, but on the heels of a terrible 2010, his career appeared over. Even last year, pitching for Sugar Land in the Atlantic League, he went 3-6 with a 5.34 ERA. The Indians invited him to camp and Kazmir impressed by throwing in the low 90s and, more importantly, throwing strikes (one walk in 13 innings). Who knows if Kazmir will work out in the long run, but it's a great spring training story.

24. Don't worry about Albert Pujols unless you want to
The knee is apparently OK, but now he's been bothered by plantar fasciitis. He says it comes and goes. "It's nothing that's going to keep me out of the lineup," Pujols said recently, "because I've played with it the whole season before."

23. Aaron Hicks wins Twins' center field job
Aaron Hicks
Aaron Hicks locked down the center-field job after a big spring.
The Twins traded Denard Span and Ben Revere in the offseason to acquire some pitching, but they could afford to do so because they have a promising crop of outfielders on the way. Hicks will be the first to arrive after winning the center-field job with a big spring (.379, four homers). And how refreshing for a team to promote a player because he's one of their best 25 guys and not worry about his service time. "The guy has earned it," GM Terry Ryan said. "I find it almost humorous that people are talking about service time, starting the clock. We didn't trade Span and Revere to stall the next guy."

22. Where there's fire there's Smoak
The Mariners haven't scored runs since George W. Bush was president. Well, they've scored runs, just precious few. Former top prospect Justin Smoak is on his last chance and after hitting well last September with a new swing has looked good again this spring, hitting .434 with four homers and eight doubles in 53 at-bats. Could it be that Smoak and newcomers Kendrys Morales and Mike Morse will actually give Mariners fans something to watch on days King Felix doesn't pitch?

21. Diamondbacks are banged up
Rookie of the Year candidate Adam Eaton is already out six to eight weeks with an elbow strain and Cody Ross will likely miss Opening Day with a calf sprain. Now comes word that Jason Kubel, Willie Bloomquist and Aaron Hill were all dinged up in Tuesday's game. The D-backs have depth and may need it.

20. Ricky Romero can't throw strikes
When the Blue Jays traded for three-fifths of a rotation this winter -- NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, plus Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle from the Marlins -- they were going to join holdovers Brandon Morrow and Romero to help deliver the Jays to their first playoff berth since 1993. After going 15-11 with a 2.92 ERA in 2011, Romero struggled last year with a 5.77 ERA and league-leading 105 walks. His control is still an issue -- 10 walks and eight K's in 13 innings -- leaving the possibility that J.A. Happ wins that fifth spot.

19. Brandon Belt bashes
The Giants first baseman is hitting .453 with seven home runs, tied for the spring high, leading to speculation this could be the year he finds his power stroke and has that breakout season everyone anticipated last year.

18. Looking for Moore
The Rays could afford to trade James Shields because of their starting pitch depth. Sophomore Matt Moore, coming off a strong second half, was expected by many to pass Jeremy Hellickson and become the team's No. 2 starter behind David Price. But he's had a rough March, with his velocity down and struggling with his command (13 walks in 17.1 innings). Maybe he'll turn it on when the season starts, or maybe there's a problem to pay attention to.

17. Angels bullpen looks like last year's bullpen, only worse
The Angels struggled in middle relief in 2012, so they brought in Ryan Madson to close (pushing Ernesto Frieri to a setup role) and signed Sean Burnett. Madson hasn't pitched yet as he still recovers from Tommy John surgery, Frieri has been terrible (12 hits, only three K's in eight innings), and Burnett has been terrible (eight hits in 3.2 innings). Small sample sizes, but something to watch when the real games begin.

16. Zack Greinke's elbow
He started his first major league spring game on Monday since March 1 and said he felt fine, although he did walk three straight batters in the fourth inning. For now, he's scheduled to start the Dodgers' fourth game. "I thought I felt good, but the results didn't imply that the last inning," Greinke said. "It tells me I've got some work to do and build up arm strength. I've got to fine-tune some off-speed stuff. If the arm strength is there, I can make it work. That's the No. 1 most important thing."

15. Jackie Bradley tears it up
A top prospect heading into his junior season at South Carolina in 2011, Bradley had a disappointing season and slipped to the Red Sox with the 40th pick in the draft. That looks like an absolute steal after Bradley had an impressive 2012 in the minors, earning the No. 40 spot on Keith Law's top 100 prospects list heading into spring training. He's played so well -- .444/.523/.667, excellent defense -- that he may crack Boston's Opening Day lineup even though he has just 61 games above Class A.

14. Tigers closer remains unsettled
Jim Leyland and GM Dave Dombrowski hoped rookie flamethrower Bruce Rondon -- he of the 100-mph fastball -- would make their decision easy, but Rondon has looked like the inexperienced reliever he is. In 11.2 innings, he has 18 punchouts, but he's also allowed 15 hits, two home runs and seven walks. For the Tigers, however, it doesn't matter who is closing in April, but who is closing in October.

13. Shelby Miller wins rotation spot
The Cardinals' pitching depth was on full display this spring. Even with Chris Carpenter going down for the season, they still had Miller and fellow youngsters Trevor Rosenthal and Joe Kelly fighting for the No. 5 spot. In the end, Mike Matheny went with the kid with the biggest upside in Miller, sending Rosenthal and Kelly to the bullpen. Miller had a 4.74 ERA at Triple-A but seemed to put everything together late in the season, as he had 53/4 SO/BB ratio in 37.1 innings in August, earning a September cameo in the majors.

12. Hanley Ramirez loves and hates World Baseball Classic
Hanley Ramirez
Hanley Ramirez is expected to miss eight weeks after injuring his thumb in the World Baseball Classic.
Ramirez is out about eight weeks after injuring his thumb, leaving the Dodgers scrambling at shortstop and third base. If you think more playing time for Juan Uribe and Nick Punto is a good idea, raise your thumb.

11. Julio Teheran dominates
Maybe the most impressive pitcher of the spring -- at least statically -- is Braves rookie right-hander Teheran, who has held opponents to an .082 average while whiffing 35 in 26 innings. He's earned the No. 5 slot in the rotation with an exclamation point. This is where we remind you that it is spring training and that Teheran had a 5.08 ERA in Triple-A last year, causing him to slip from No. 5 to No. 44 on Baseball America's top prospect list. But if he can keep that changeup down in the zone ... watch out.

10. Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz look good ... very good
Yes, yes, yes: Don't read too much into spring training. Did we say that already? But after lackluster performances in 2012, Boston's top two starters have both dominated this spring, with scouting reports to match the statistics. Both have ERAs under 1.00 and Lester has allowed just six hits in 20 innings, Buchholz 11 hits in 18.2 innings.

9. A's infield remains unsettled
That Oakland won 94 games last year was more than a minor miracle, in part because of the offense the A's received from three-quarters of their infield. Their second basemen hit .228/.303/.316 (27th in the majors in OPS), their third basemen hit .227/.280/.391 (27th in OPS) and their shortstops hit .203/.272/.313 (28th in OPS). Japanese free agent Hiroyuki Nakajima was signed to play shortstop, but he's looked so tentative in the field and so helpless at the plate that he's likely to start the year at Triple-A Sacramento. That probably means Jed Lowrie plays shortstop, Josh Donaldson returns to third and Scott Sizemore plays second. But Eric Sogard has hit .500 and Adam Rosales, who is out of options, had played well until landing on the DL with an intercostal strain. Jemile Weeks, last year's regular second baseman, has already been sent down. The infield may be unsettled, but the A's should still get more production across the board.

8. Brewers boost rotation
Slotting in Kyle Lohse behind Yovani Gallardo gives the Brewers what could be a sneaky good rotation along with Marco Estrada and some combo of Chris Narveson, Mike Fiers and hard-throwing rookie Wily Peralta. The Brewers led the NL in runs scored in 2012, so if the bullpen doesn't implode again, don't be surprised if the Brewers run with the Reds and Cardinals.

7. Yasiel Puig is Yoenis Cespedes, Bo Jackson and God wrapped into one
No player stirred up the masses this spring like Dodgers outfielder Puig, the Cuban signed to a controversial $42 million deal last year. The Dodgers optioned him to Double-A after he hit .526 with three home runs and four steals in 57 at-bats. But it was the smart move: Puig had 11 strikeouts and no walks, suggesting he could be exposed when the pitchers start trying harder.

6. Mike Trout is fat
And it doesn't matter. His spring training numbers (.373, more walks than strikeouts) suggest an encore performance is in order. And he still makes this look easy.

5. Bryce Harper will win an MVP Award some day ... maybe in 2013
IT'S SPRING TRAINING. IT DOESN'T MEAN ANYTHING. NOTHING. DON'T GET SO EXCITED, SCHOENFIELD. I know, I know. Still, Harper is hitting .476, with three home runs and five steals. Can you say 30/30 and MVP candidate at age 20?

4. Aroldis Chapman goes back to the pen
Maybe he was going to be Randy Johnson 2.0. Now we'll never know. Hey, if Chapman didn't want to start, what option did the Reds really have?

3. Tim Lincecum cuts hair, doesn't perform heroic feats
Lincecum went for the reverse Samson but it hasn't rejuvenated his fastball. He's allowed 17 hits and seven walks in 10.2 "A" game innings and the reports are that he looks like the Lincecum of last year, still fighting command of the fastball. The Giants survived his rocky 2012 (10-15, 5.18 ERA), but the NL West may be a lot tougher in 2013.

2. Roy Halladay is human
Of even bigger concern may be Halladay's struggles in Phillies camp. He can't crack 90 with his fastball and recently pitched in a minor league game and retired just seven of the 18 batters he faced. Even for great pitchers, the end can sometimes come suddenly.

1. Yankees willingly trade for Vernon Wells
That pretty much sums up the Yankees' spring.