3/8/2013 10:00 A.M. ET
Questions beginning to arise for expected contenders
Injuries, unknown commodities causes for concern for teams like Tigers, Yanks, Cards
By Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com
It's starting to get a little more serious out there. The games still don't count (sorry, Royals fans) and the stats are still insignificant (sorry, anybody who thinks Ryan Raburn will vie for the home run crown), but any roster concerns sprouting up at this stage of spring camp do have the possibility of impacting the outlook in the season proper.
With that in mind, here are some pressing questions affecting a few contenders as we venture closer to Opening Day:
Can the Tigers get by with a closer-by-committee?
Bruce Rondon has always seemed a worthy experiment. The ninth inning is a prime place to throw good money at bad in the free-agent market, and Rondon has the stuff and the confidence to potentially shine as a closer.
But the Tigers have to be careful not to let the experiment run too long if the rookie simply isn't ready for the role. You don't want to read too much into the command issues and the sheer sound of bat on ball that has been the hallmark of Rondon's Grapefruit League outings to date, but you don't want to totally gloss over those elements, either. Rondon did, after all, walk more than seven batters per nine innings at the low-A level just two years ago (and seven in eight innings at the Triple-A level last season). So it's not as if the control woes have completely come out of nowhere.
In Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, Phil Coke and possibly Al Alburquerque and Brayan Villarreal, the Tigers do have the bodies to put together what could be a capable committee. We saw how the San Francisco Giants survived with a ninth largely by committee last season. But the Jim Leylands of the world are always going to feel more comfortable with a dedicated closing commodity, especially on a club in win-now mode.
We knew going into Spring Training that the Tigers might find themselves searching for a ninth-inning arm in the trade market, especially given their starting surplus and the perceived availability of Rick Porcello. We seem to have reached that point. But that won't stop pitching coach Jeff Jones from trying to work his magic on Rondon.
Will the Cardinals come up short at short?
Rafael Furcal needing season-ending Tommy John surgery is, well, not terribly surprising, given that he opted against the procedure last August and tried to go the rest-and-rehab route. And now a Cardinals club built to win has a sizable question mark at a pivotal spot.
Pete Kozma's Minor League numbers were consistently underwhelming, which made his late-season sizzle such a pleasant surprise last year. You won't find many sabermetric prognostications that Kozma is going to repeat his late-season stat line (.333/.383/.569) in a larger sample, but, at this point, he's the best the Cards have. He certainly would seem to have more potential than Ronny Cedeno.
It's easy to criticize the Cardinals for not doing more to protect themselves against the obvious possibility of losing Furcal for a significant stretch. But with Furcal making $7 million, the free-agent shortstop market woefully -- and I do mean woefully -- thin and the trade market demanding the likes of Trevor Rosenthal in exchange for even the slightest hint of an upside option, you can understand John Mozeliak's hesitancy.
Now, though, the Cardinals are in an awfully tough spot right from the get-go. If it's hard to acquire a top-flight shortstop in the winter, it's doubly difficult this close to Opening Day. It could be midseason before the likes of Troy Tulowitzki or Asdrubal Cabrera or Elvis Andrus come available, if even then. The Cards desperately need their in-house options to shine.
And just for the record, Jaime Garcia opted for the rest-and-rehab route in lieu of surgery, too. We'll see how his shoulder holds up.
Can the Yankees overcome their injuries?
One way or another, the men responsible for 76 percent of the Yankees' homer output last season will not be on hand for Opening Day. I know the absences of Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira, both of whom were injured in camp, are not long-term, and I know there is potential for the likes of Kevin Youkilis and Travis Hafner to make positive contributions. But still ... yikes.
Clearly, the Yanks will have to succeed in a different way, at least initially. They'll be more reliant than ever on their pitching and they'll need to pay proper mind to their defense and fundamentals. Because the crooked numbers won't come quite as consistently.
But this was always the worry with this Yankees team, that injuries to an aging roster would alter the outlook. No one could foresee those injuries to Granderson and Teixeira, and who knows what else is lurking around the corner? All we know for now is that general manager Brian Cashman's external options in the immediate (Carlos Lee? Scott Rolen?) are slim to none. The Yanks do have a highly regarded farm system in the lower levels, so they have the goods to swing a significant swap at some point. But it's hard to imagine anything of that nature taking place this early.
Oh, and now David Robertson slept on his arm funny and has a stiff shoulder. In the immortal words of Roseanne Roseannadanna, "It's always something."
Is the Rangers' rotation in trouble?
Already without Colby Lewis until May and Neftali Feliz until August at the earliest, the Rangers suffered another blow when Martin Perez got struck by a comebacker Sunday, fracturing his forearm and ensuring he'll also be out until at least May.
That leaves Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison and Derek Holland as the only established starters in the Opening Day outlook -- and Holland is coming off a rough season. Alexi Ogando is also in the starting mix, but there are concerns about his lack of sharpness this spring and questions about what is the best role -- starting or relieving -- for him long-term.
No wonder there is so much speculation that Texas might sign Kyle Lohse.
"We are not going to sign Kyle Lohse," a Rangers source told MLB.com's T.R. Sullivan. "I can't be clearer than that."
Oh. That sounds pretty clear.
Giving up a Draft pick to bring Lohse back to the American League and to that hitter-friendly ballpark in Texas does have its potential downsides. But the Rangers are certainly in a jam here. They'll have to trust that right-hander Justin Grimm or left-hander Robbie Ross are ready to step in and stabilize things for the first month or so of the season. This is not a team prone to panic moves, but it is a team with significant question marks in a significant area.
Can the Dodgers' outfield stay healthy?
The Carl Crawford-Matt Kemp-Andre Ethier alignment is potentially one of the best in the big leagues, but only to the extent that those three stay on the field together.
Crawford has missed the past week of camp because of nerve irritation in his left arm -- the same arm on which he's had both wrist and elbow surgery in the past 14 months. The Dodgers aren't characterizing the issue as serious, and there is still hope that Crawford might be ready for the start of the season. Clearly, though, the guy has struggled to get and stay on the field the last two years.
Kemp was eased back onto the field following offseason shoulder surgery, making his Cactus League debut earlier this week. All seems well with the shoulder, but, coming off a season in which the shoulder and also a hamstring injury derailed a scorching start, there will be questions about whether Kemp can remain at peak form.
Ethier's injury issue is far less dramatic. He's dealt with a blister on his right hand in recent days. It's probably not a big deal, but remember: A similar blister on the same hand prompted some particularly painful at-bats in the second half last season.