Sunday, March 13, 2005

Injuries Shaping Lineup Decisions 

Injuries are never a good thing, especially when you are talking about some key players on your team. However, a couple of lingering injury issues could be a golden opportunity for several Mariner youngsters to impress manager Mike Hargrove.

First and foremost, there is the nagging aches that our hero, Mr. Bucky Jacobsen, is suffering. It looks unlikely that Bucky will get much meaningful time to play in Spring Training. Once the knee is healthy, Bucky will need time to work back into playing shape. In the meantime, Hargrove has stated that he will be starting the season with 12 pitchers and therefore only 4 players on the bench. I'm guessing that Bucky's return to health may coincide exactly with the M's going to a 5-man bench, but as for the timetable, only Bucky's knee knows.

Next, there is the nagging day-to-day problems that Pokey Reese is working (well, "working" may be a poor choice of words) through. With each day that Pokey misses due to "tweaked" ankles and "flu-like symptoms" (which my wife is also suffering from after an encounter with Mexican martinis last night), the M's supposed starter misses a chance to gel with the rest of the infield defense. Instead, Jose Lopez is taking advantage of the opportunity to play in front of Grover every day, hitting the ball with authority, and fielding with a fluidity that has to make the M's question their resolve to start him at 2B in Tacoma.

If Lopez continues to impress, he may win the starting shortstop job, and relegate Pokey to the backup infielder role that he seems to be born for. In this case, our bench would have Spiezio backing up the corners and maybe as a spot outfielder, Dan Wilson at catcher, and Pokey backing up the middle infielders. The fourth bench spot looks designated for Willie Bloomquist, who is putting together a solid Spring. But with a solid defender in Pokey on the bench, the M's may decide that a stronger outfielder is more important than a "versatile" defender like Willie. This might mean a chance for Jamal Strong, or even Shin-Soo Choo to stick with the club. And don't forget that GM Bill Bavasi is not averse to using a late Spring trade to shore up the bench, as he did last year by acquiring Jolbert Cabrera late in camp.

While injuries may play a role in deciding our starting shortstop and our bench, they could play an even larger role in picking our pitching staff. Right now, the M's are waiting with baited breath for the return of staff ace Joel Pineiro and closer Eddie Guardado.

Pineiro has been halted due to shoulder soreness, and has already missed one turn in the rotation and is likely to miss at least one or two more. With Opening Day just a few weeks off, it is likely that Joel will not have enough time to build his stamina towards starting, and may not be available until mid-April or even May. This is a golden opportunity for the loser in the #5 starter battle to get a few more chances to earn the job by starting for the M's in April.

Rumors have the M's talking trade for pitchers, but if that doesn't happen, then they will open the season with two of these pitchers in their rotation: Jorge Campillo, Ryan Franklin, Aaron Sele, or Felix Hernandez.

Franklin has solidified his hold on a rotation spot with a decent Spring. The reviews on Sele have been mixed, and Campillo looked solid in his first Spring innings, but is definitely playing catchup. The wild card could be King Felix, who has not had any command in his first two outings, but that is just a small sample after a four month layoff. If he knocks the rust off, he could force his way onto the staff.

If the M's think that Sele is going to contribute to a winning season, then that will be the easy call. Essentially, April will continue the battle between Franklin and Sele for the final rotation spot.

But if the M's want to take a chance and see what they have, then this might be an opportunity to see what Campillo can do in the big leagues, or if Felix is ready. That would certainly make April even more exciting! Personally, I'm hoping Campillo earns the job, and shows that he's ready to take MLB by storm, and cements his hold on the #4 spot when El Cartuela is called up on June 1.

Finally, the pitcher formerly known as "Everyday Eddie" looks to be anything but, as a strained hamstring will further limit his Spring Training innings, perhaps eliminating them altogether.

JJ Putz is the most likely candidate to jump in and take over the closer role, as he finished strong there last year with 9 saves in 9 chances to end 2004. Jeff Nelson looks like his nasty stuff is back, so he will be joining a bullpen that also will likely have Shiggy, Mateo, Sherrill, and Villone in it. There's room for one more in this bullpen while Guardado is out. Scott Atchison and Matt Thronton both could claim the final spot.

A thought? If Sele is going to get a spot, give the 12th pitcher spot to Campillo, and let him and Villone take the long relief role that is so needed in April, when pitchers are only going 4, 5, or 6 innings.

We'll see how the bullpen shakes out over the next few weeks, but it looks like injuries to Pineiro and Guardado could keep the battle for spots on the pitching staff going well into April.

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