03/21/12 11:58 AM ET
Unresolved issues pervasive at spring camps
So much we still don't know as season gets closer and closer
By Peter Gammons / MLB.com
It was a game that was supposed to have significance in the restoration of Carlos Marmol's career as Cubs closer. Marmol was to unveil a two-seam fastball he'd been working on with pitching coach Chris Bosio and Rick Sutcliffe, a fastball he could throw in the strike zone -- something he sorely needs, especially after going 0-4, 5.91 with 26 walks in 32 innings in the second half of last season.
It doesn't take a whole lot of video for hitters to conclude that Marmol doesn't throw his fastball for strikes and his sweeping slider is a swing-and-miss pitch out of the strike zone.
Problem was, Marmol faced only three batters. The two-seamer was encouraging. He threw it for strikes, with sideways movement; in time, he hopes to get more tilt and sink, but it is the beginning of something with which he can get some early-count outs. Marmol got two outs, hit Rangers rookie Mike Olt, and while pitching to the fourth batter, he grabbed his hand.
It was a cramp -- nothing out of the ordinary, but manager Dale Sveum wouldn't allow him to continue. Marmol said later it was fine, but general manager Jed Hoyer wouldn't leave anything to chance and ordered him to have an MRI.
But at the end of the day, with the sunset reflecting off the snows of Central Arizona, the question about the end of the Cubs' bullpen -- during a spring in which both Jeff Samardzija and Chris Volstad are giving promise of being solid starters -- is still something that goes into the category of the unknown.
In that same game, Neftali Feliz's spring program to take him from closer to starter was halted after three innings because of shoulder stiffness. As Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux pointed out, Feliz threw all his pitches, threw them in all count situations, but when Maddux saw him rubbing his shoulder after the third inning, he left nothing to chance. No one knows.
It may be two weeks from Opening Day -- at least in the Western Hemisphere -- but heading into a season in which the extra Wild Card and seeming increased competitive balance give half the teams across the Major Leagues hope of some postseason appearance, there are myriad issues that come under the "unknown" heading.
Start with Chase Utley's knees. No position player is more important to the Phillies, and while there is hope that his search for outside treatment will get him back on the field, no one knows. This is a team in a golden era of five straight first-place finishes, a team with three great starters and a dominant closer. But it is also fighting off age and injuries to Utley and Ryan Howard and plays in a division in which every team except the Mets believes it can play in October.
Then move on to Josh Johnson's shoulder. The Marlins are fun. Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez have bonded, and Ramirez appears headed for a monster year, provided Giancarlo Stanton's knee issue doesn't linger. But Johnson is their one starter who can go up against one of the Phillies' big three. He is a 48-23, 2.98 ERA ace, but his over-the-top, downhill plane in throwing causes worry about his shoulder. The Marlins need close to 30 starts and 200 innings from Johnson, and he has made 30 starts and thrown 200 innings once in his 10 professional seasons.
Chipper Jones turns 40 on April 24. The future Hall of Famer is an important element in the Braves' lineup, but he has averaged only 121 games over the past seven years. Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman will produce if healthy, but the Braves need Chipper to score enough runs to give their bullpen enough opportunities to be what it was going into last September.
The Red Sox may have the second-highest payroll in the game, but they have "TBD" marked down next to several issues. The Nos. 4-5 spots in the rotation -- between Alfredo Aceves, Daniel Bard, Felix Doubront and others -- is very much up in the air, as is the makeup of the bullpen. The timeline on Carl Crawford's return, the lingering concern about his wrist and Ryan Sweeney's disappointing spring have some wondering about their outfield as they face the Tigers, Jays, Rays, Rangers and Yankees in the first five series of the season. But scouts watching the Red Sox have raised questions about Kevin Youkilis and his recovery from bursitis in his hip. Work and toughness is never an issue, and Youkilis has started to swing the bat better, but in addition, scouts have raised concerns about his range as well as Boston's defense on the left side of the infield.
Not that the Yankees don't have issues because of age. The return of Andy Pettitte will give them three players older than 40 by the end of the season, if Raul Ibanez is still with them, and the great players on the left side of the infield will be 37 and 38 by the end of July.
As much as many of us have grabbed hold of the Reds' train, the Cardinals still look to be dangerous, even after losing Albert Pujols, Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan. Carlos Beltran's knee is an ongoing concern. But even with Adam Wainwright back and a warehouse of big arms from Lance Lynn to Shelby Miller, they need Chris Carpenter, not to throw 237 innings at age 37, but to make more than 25 starts and give them his immense presence. But he had a setback on Monday, went to St. Louis to undergo a new series of tests on his shoulder and neck, and figures to begin the season on the disabled list.
The Indians know they won't get Grady Sizemore back until the end of May at the earliest, but with Carlos Santana and Shin-Soo Choo seemingly headed for big seasons and a starting rotation that should eat innings, the biggest key to being in the American League Central race might be Ubaldo Jimenez. We all remember that Jimenez was 15-1 with a 2.20 ERA when he started the 2010 All-Star Game, but he is 14-20 with a 4.39 ERA since. He had a 5.10 ERA in 11 starts after the Indians acquired him at the Trade Deadline last July.
Jimenez worked diligently on his lower half this winter, trying to get a more consistent delivery, but he has been inconsistent this spring. Jimenez touched 97 mph in one start but in others has shied from his fastball, throwing splitters on 2-1 and 3-2 counts. The Indians can be legitimate contenders -- if the Tigers are not a 95- to 100-win team -- but they need Jimenez to be a front-end guy. They don't know right now if he can be.
There is so much we don't know. Look at Joe Mather with the Cubs. He has had a huge spring, can play a number of positions and has been one of their shining lights. The Cardinals thought he was going to be something going into Spring Training in 2009, but then he spent three years battling a lingering wrist problem, the same kind that required Mark DeRosa to have three operations in two years.
Mather arrived in Mesa healthy and looks to be an important part of Sveum's positional rotation. Be he A-Rod or Carl Crawford, Grady Sizemore or Chase Utley, health remains the great "TBD" that changes pennant races.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.