Though the vast majority of roster spots are already won before spring training even begins, it is worth following every game in March down to the wire to see how teams handle those few remaining slots. Will the veteran trying to resuscitate his career beat out the up-and-coming rookie? Does the prospect with the fallen star have enough to beat out the hordes of veteran retreads known as non-roster invitees?
Now at the end of March, many of those roster questions have been answered, and some will surprise you. Here are a few that shocked me.
Rangers name Nick Tepesch as fifth starter
Nick Tepesch is 24 years old and has thrown exactly 90.1 innings above Single-A ball, yet he will be the Rangers' No. 5 starter when the regular season begins. It wasn't like the Rangers were bereft of options -- they auditioned Robbie Ross, Randy Wells, Derek Lowe and Justin Grimm, but ultimately landed on Tepesch, who posted a 6.50 ERA in 18 spring innings. The Rangers, arguably the favorite in the AL West anyway, might have given themselves some more certainty by going after Kyle Lohse.
Twins give the Opening Day nod to Vance Worley
If Vance Worley were still with the Phillies, he would likely start their home opener, the fourth game of the season. Now with the Twins, he is the ace of the rotation and will get the honor of pitching on Opening Day. With a rotation that includes Mike Pelfrey, Kevin Correia, Liam Hendriks and Cole De Vries (Scott Diamond starts the year on the DL), Worley pretty much wins by default. Still, it's shocking to see a guy who had never even been a No. 3 ascend all the way to No. 1 in a rotation, even if it is the Twins.
Scott Kazmir wins Indians' fifth starter job
As a can't-miss prospect with the Mets, then as part of the Rays' rotation from 2005-08, the sky was the limit for the left-handed Kazmir. A slow start with the Rays in 2009 and his pending free agency led to a trade with the Angels and Kazmir simply hasn’t been the same since. Since 2009, Kazmir has a 5.54 ERA in 299 innings. He spent all of 2012 with the Sugar Land Skeeters, an independent league team, hoping to mount a comeback, but he finished with a 5.34 ERA. The Indians, though, without much to write home about in the starting rotation, were enthused by his 3.46 spring ERA and named him the fifth starter ahead of Carlos Carrasco. Some guys in baseball you can't help but pull for, and Kazmir is one of them. Here's hoping all of his hard work has paid off.
Padres will platoon rookie Jedd Gyorko at second and third base
Over the past two seasons in the minors, Gyorko has hit 55 home runs and posted an OPS well above .900. There was a distinct possibility, as spring training began in late February, that Gyorko could have owned the everyday job at second base. Unfortunately for the Padres, they suffered injuries at both second base (Logan Forsythe, plantar fasciitis) and third base (Chase Headley, fractured left thumb). Their solution was, surprisingly, not to put Gyorko at second or third (he's played both positions). Instead, they will shift Gyorko between second and third depending on the pitching matchups. When a left-handed starter is on the hill, as there will be on Opening Day against the Mets, Cody Ransom will start at third base and Gyorko will start at second. When a right-handed starter is on the hill, Gyorko will move to third and the left-handed hitter Alexi Amarista will start at second. Though Gyorko should get regular at-bats, the back-and-forth nature of this platoon might only slow his development on defense. For example, the Phillies over the years shifted Domonic Brown back and forth between left and right field -- ostensibly, two easier positions to transition between -- and his defense has lagged behind his other skills. Maybe it works out in the end for the Padres, but it would make more sense to put their prize prospect at one position, then deal with the other position with what's left.
Rockies give third base job to Chris Nelson, send Nolan Arenado to Triple-A Nelson was impressive in a half-season's worth of plate appearances last year. He posted an .810 OPS, which included a .310 batting average, but his defensive metrics at third were terrible (-18 Defensive Runs Saved in 647 innings). Arenado is more of a power threat, but his defense still needs work, which is one reason the Rockies decided to have him start the season with Colorado Springs in Triple-A. The Rockies also don't want to start his arbitration clock earlier than is necessary. Though a left side of the infield that includes Troy Tulowitzki and Arenado is fun to think about, the Rockies likely aren't competing for a playoff spot this year, so there is no reason to rush Arenado.
Tigers option Bruce Rondon to Triple-A
A common claim from the numbers-savvy is that paying lots of money for an established closer is inefficient since the most important moments in the ballgame can and often do occur earlier, in the seventh and eighth innings. The Tigers were breaking from normative baseball philosophy in naming Rondon, a 22-year-old who has pitched eight innings above Double-A, their closer going into 2013. They said no to Jose Valverde and a host of other closers. However, early in spring, manager Jim Leyland wasn't impressed with Rondon’s erratic control, which led to his being sent down on Thursday. Now the Tigers will be using a closer-by-committee -- a combination of Phil Coke, Joaquin Benoit and Al Alburquerque. Despite Leyland's traditional approach to game strategy, the closer-by-committee is probably the best and most efficient way the Tigers could have wound up utilizing the bullpen.
Blue Jays name JA Happ their fifth starter
The squeaky wheel gets the grease. Happ, who has the fifth-worst ERA (5.08) among starters over the past two seasons, was not happy with the Blue Jays when he found out his job in the starting rotation wasn't guaranteed. GM Alex Anthopoulos responded by not only giving him the fifth spot (thanks to Ricky Romero's awful spring that led to a demotion to Class A), but a two-year, $8.9 million contract extension as well. While giving Happ the rotation spot isn't by itself outrageous, the combination of the two makes me wonder what the Jays see in the lefty.