It’s almost halfway through spring training, and it doesn’t appear that much has changed in terms of the American League East hierarchy. But topics and players are beginning to emerge.
For the first time in years, the Red Sox will enter the season as an underdog in the division. One of the biggest issues is Daniel Bard’s conversion from reliever to starter. A National League scout who watched Bard’s second start in a “B’’ game came away with this impression: “He’s more than a fourth starter. He had great stuff. An electric fastball and he threw his off-speed pitches for strikes.’’
The jury is still out, but Bard seems to be improving, especially in the tough transition to pitching from a windup.
Who’s at shortstop?
Mike Aviles has had a nice camp, but he has been overshadowed by the inevitable shortstop, Jose Iglesias. Aviles, according to an official from an AL team, “is moving much better than he has been.’’
Obviously, the Red Sox will see how the rest of camp goes before making a decision, but Iglesias has enhanced his position with athletic plays and signs that he is starting to hit. Clearly, he is the best shortstop on the team and is being paid $2.04 million this season.
The No. 5 spot in the rotation is still to be determined among Felix Doubront, Alfredo Aceves, Andrew Miller, Aaron Cook, and Vicente Padilla.
The Yankees have a problem if setup man Dave Robertson’s sprained right foot (suffered in a household accident) becomes a prolonged issue, but otherwise they are just trying to find the right combination in their rotation.
An encouraging sign is that Phil Hughes is throwing well, as is Freddy Garcia. They are competing for the fifth spot, but it sure seems like Hughes is best suited to head to the bullpen.
There was early concern about Michael Pineda’s weight, but evaluators say he has an excellent mound presence and exudes confidence because he knows he has plus stuff.
The Yankees are still getting to know Hiroki Kuroda, but the early signs are good. He looks like a dependable innings-eater.
The lineup should continue to be a force, and it will be even better with a healthy and productive Alex Rodriguez, who so far seems to be holding up. Derek Jeter still looks like Derek Jeter, with no signs of slowing up at age 37. And the Yankees expect Mark Teixeira’s eye at the plate to improve.
With the Yankees hell-bent on reducing payroll to get under the $189 million luxury tax threshold for 2014, look for this to be Nick Swisher’s last season (his contract is up). He could have a productive season if he’s playing for a paycheck elsewhere.
Heard this more than once: The key to the Yankees might be their bench. The reason? They have older starters who will need rest.
The Yankees will use Eric Chavez to spell A-Rod, and use Andruw Jones and Raul Ibanez as a right-left DH platoon, with both also used as backup outfielders.
For now, Francisco Cervelli appears to be the backup catcher, but with Austin Romine knocking on the door, Cervelli could become trade bait. The Yankees love Eduardo Nunez as their reserve infielder - he is Jeter’s likely heir apparent - which could leave the useful Ramiro Pena out in the cold.
The hunted rather than the hunters, the Rays are becoming the sexy pick to go to the World Series because of their deep pitching.
But so far, they have had to deal with a variety of small injuries - to Evan Longoria (bruised hand), DH Luke Scott (slow recovery from shoulder surgery last July), lefty phenom Matt Moore (lower ab strain), David Price (neck strain as a result of toweling off), and Sean Rodriguez (sprained finger).
Manager Joe Maddon has called this his most talented team yet, and he has tried to embrace the front-runner role.
The last spot in the rotation will come down to Wade Davis or Jeff Niemann. Davis is the better overall pitcher, but Niemann may have a tougher time adjusting to a relief role because of his height and his mechanical issues.
Another issue is shortstop, where Rodriguez and Reid Brignac will duke it out for playing time.
Veteran Jose Molina has the catching job sewn up, but who’s the backup? If the Rays trade Niemann or Davis, it would be for a catcher. Pudge Rodriguez is still out there, too.
When James Shields takes the mound on Opening Day, he will be the first Rays pitcher in 764 games to start at age 30.
It seems as if the Jays are always looking to the future, but the fact is, the future looks really strong. They have excellent pitching prospects coming along, and a year from now, things will look quite promising.
For now, the Jays are simply trying to get comfortable in their own skin.
Slugger Jose Bautista is the de facto leader, but younger stars such as catcher J.P. Arencibia, third baseman Brett Lawrie, and lefty ace Ricky Romero are beginning to emerge in that department.
One interesting player to watch is outfielder Travis Snider. This is a kid who probably was rushed to the big leagues at age 20 in 2008. Now he’s in competition with Eric Thames for the left field job and has had a strong start, showing power and some of the tools that made him a No. 1 pick in 2006.
It’s an interesting camp, because you can see the team’s future. Catcher Travis d’Arnaud is going to be a special player. He will give the Jays quite the catching tandem and likely some tough decisions to make.
There has been an alarming number of back ailments - to Mark Reynolds, Taylor Teagarden, Matt Lindstrom, Tommy Hunter, and Jim Johnson. Nolan Reimold was hit in the head with a pitch, and Brian Roberts hasn’t been able to get on the field because of post-concussion issues.
Much like last season, the Orioles need their young pitchers to show signs of developing; until that happens, there’s no reason to believe that they can get out of the basement despite adding free agent lefties Wei-Yin Chen and Tsuyoshi Wada.
There are still guys like Chris Tillman, Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, and Zach Britton, who should have been really good pitchers based on their promise but haven’t been able to take that step forward. They have been encouraged by righty Jason Hammel, who was acquired from the Rockies.
THE SHORT VIEW
Pena has been in this position
Tony Pena Jr., who is now a pitcher, knows all about the expectations on a major league shortstop who is offensively challenged. We asked him about Jose Iglesias - a Pawtucket teammate last season - who has that rap.
Pena was the Royals starting shortstop in 2007 and hit .267. But it went downhill from there - to .169 in 2008 and to .098 in 2009, when he went back to the minors in midseason to convert to pitching.
“Sure, I’ve been through it, but to say Jose is going to go through it, I don’t think that’s accurate,’’ Pena said. “I watched him all of last year in Pawtucket and he’s a good player.
“He’s a great shortstop, and I think he’s taken some time because of a wrist injury he had. So now that he’s healthy, we’ll see what he can do. He’s got a great career ahead of him.’’
Pena, the son of former Red Sox catcher Tony Pena, is familiar with the other side of Boston’s shortstop situation. Mike Aviles was his teammate in Kansas City and actually took his job.
“Mike is a great player, too,’’ said Pena. “There’s no doubt he could handle the job. He was a very good shortstop when we played together.’’
Pena went to the Giants organization for a year to continue learning his new craft. He decided to go with a sidearm delivery, feeling deception would help him.
He played winter ball and got better. He was signed as a free agent by the Red Sox in January 2011.
Pena, 30, had a 3.56 ERA last season at Pawtucket, splitting time between the bullpen and starting. He is scheduled to be a starter this season.
What would it mean to him to be a starting player at two positions in the majors?
“It would mean everything,’’ said Pena. “My goal has always been to get back to the big leagues. To do it at two different positions, two different types of things would be interesting.
“I just never wanted to give up my dream of being a major leaguer. I got to be one for a short period of time. I got a taste of it.
“I’ve been around baseball all my life because of my dad, and it’s in my blood. I’m giving this every chance.’’
Apropos of nothing
1. The PA announcer at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter made this introduction Thursday: “Now pitching for the Red Sox, ‘the other’ Chris Carpenter.’’ The “other’’ Carpenter proved he was no relation when he walked three batters in the inning, including one with the bases loaded.
2. Speaking of Carpenter, Thursday’s appearance against the Cardinals was a flashback to the command issues he has had. The Red Sox are impressed with his live fastball (96 m.p.h.), but privately they are not pleased with what they wound up having to settle for as compensation for Theo Epstein.
3. Considering that the Red Sox had a right field need, why didn’t they opt for Jayson Werth over Carl Crawford in the offseason of 2010? While there’s no way Werth is worth $126 million over seven years, at least the Red Sox would have saved about $16 million. So we ask the question: Would the Sox and Nationals consider swapping Werth for Crawford right now?
4. Carlos Guillen was a good player, and a good teammate, who helped every team he played for. He is retired now after a job well done.
5. Good seeing the Gator, Mike Greenwell, at JetBlue Park last week. He deserves to get that 1988 MVP award he lost to Jose Canseco.
6. Never hear a peep out of Roger Clemens anymore.
7. Looks like the Twins, Orioles, and Astros are really going to struggle.
8. Bobby Valentine said early in camp that when a kid is ready to make the major league team, you know by the way he walks and looks in the clubhouse. Know what he means. You can see it with Jose Iglesias.
9. Joe Castiglione is in the 30th season of his broadcasting career.
10. Love listening to Dwight Evans talk about the Red Sox’ young players. He loves 22-year-old outfielder Brandon Jacobs, a former football player who exhibits pure, raw power. Jacobs hit 17 homers and knocked in 80 runs at Greenville last year. And Evans is also a big fan of shortstop Sean Coyle, a Dustin Pedroia type who belted 14 homers at Greenville.
Updates on nine
1. Bryce Harper, OF, Nationals - There is a minority sentiment in the organization to make him the center fielder. There is no doubt he could play it. The Nationals are toying with moving Jayson Werth to center, but as Dwight Evans said, “I think Werth is an excellent right fielder. He’s one of the best, if not the best. I love watching him play out there.’’ Why move a guy to a position where he’d be inferior?
2. Joe Blanton, RHP, Phillies - The Phillies would love to trade Blanton and insert Kyle Kendrick into the No. 5 spot in the rotation. Major league sources tell me the Phillies are making it clear that they would take as much as $2 million of Blanton’s $8 million deal.
3. John Lannan, LHP, Nationals - Another available pitcher. The Nationals have spread the word, according to multiple baseball sources, that he is available in a deal, particularly one for a center fielder.
4. Jair Jurrjens, RHP, Braves - One thing is clear, according to scouts who have watched the Braves: They need a left field power bat. And Jurrjens could be the trade bait for one. Jayson Heyward looks terrific, and the entire team has come to camp with the right attitude after its September collapse. But this team probably isn’t going far until it obtains a run-producing left fielder and moves Martin Prado to the infield.
5. Yunel Escobar, SS, Blue Jays - What needs to happen - maybe not immediately, but perhaps by next season - is that Escobar must move to second base to make room for Cuban shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria. Escobar loves being a shortstop, so there is a bit of trepidation among some in the organization as to how he will accept this. Escobar is a very good shortstop who could start for many teams, but the Jays have their version of Jose Iglesias; they think Hechavarria is going to be pretty special.
6. Hanley Ramirez, 3B, Marlins - Everyone is putting on a good face about Ramirez moving to third, but is he really happy about it? Many feel this won’t go smoothly and that Ramirez will demand a trade.
7. Brian Roberts, 2B, Orioles - Postconcussion syndrome has really taken a toll on Roberts, to the point where the Orioles really aren’t counting on his return. The condition has ended many playing careers, including that of new Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, and baseball is definitely dealing with it now. Major stars such as Justin Morneau, Jason Bay, and now Roberts have had trouble coming back from it. It took Aaron Hill a long time to make it back, and he hasn’t been able to duplicate his monster year of 2009 (36 homers). The Orioles will likely use Red Sox killer Robert Andino at second base and hope Roberts makes it back at some point.
8. Brett Gardner, LF, Yankees - There are teams in need of a center fielder that have Gardner on their radar. Though he is the Yankees’ starting left fielder, he isn’t a traditional corner outfielder. He is probably best suited to play center. Would the Yankees entertain a deal? Right now, probably not. Said a National League scout: “Everyone looking for a center fielder is well aware that Gardner would be an excellent one with his ability and speed. The Yankees don’t have that traditional left fielder, and you wonder whether they’ll have to entertain that at some point.’’
9. Adam Dunn, DH, White Sox - The early evaluations of Dunn have been positive. The high-priced DH ($56 million), who hit .159 last season - the lowest average in history for a regular DH - hit a three-run homer off Rangers starter Neftali Feliz last week. He’s also taking his walks, which is a good sign because he was always a high OBP guy. “The best thing that’s happened to me was the last out in 2011,’’ Dunn said.
From the Bill Chuck files: “Who was the last first sacker not named Albert Pujols to start for the Cardinals on Opening Day? Tino Martinez is your guy, in 2003 (and 2002).’’ Also, “I find it interesting that the world champion Cardinals had the best average with runners in scoring position in 2011 at .290 and that the Rangers were second at .285. But I find it astounding that the Giants had an average of .219, including .173 with two outs.’’ . . . Happy birthday to Rich Hill (32), Gar Finnvold (44), and Dwayne Hosey (45).Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.