Tag: 2012 MLB Spring Training

MLB 2012: Time to Take a Second Look at Player Suspensions

Major League Baseball needs to reconsider its policy on suspensions. Indians starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez was suspended five games for plunking Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki in an April 2nd spring training matchup.

After the game, disgruntled Colorado manager Jim Tracy dubbed Jimenez’s actions “the most gutless act I have seen in 35 years of professional baseball.”

Major League Baseball’s rules regarding player suspensions for bean-balls were laid out long before Tracy poured out his emotional tirade to a sympathetic commissioner’s office. According to MLB.com, these are official rules regarding the pitcher and intentionally hit batsmen:

“If, in the umpire’s judgment, such a violation occurs, the umpire may elect either to:
1. Expel the pitcher, or the manager and the pitcher, from the game, or
2. may warn the pitcher and the manager of both teams that another such pitch will result in the immediate expulsion of that pitcher (or a replacement) and the manager.
If, in the umpire’s judgment, circumstances warrant, both teams may be officially warned prior to the game or at any time during the game.
(League Presidents may take additional action under authority provided in Rule 9.05.)
Rule 8.02(d) Comment: To pitch at a batter’s head is unsportsmanlike and highly dangerous. It should be and is condemned by everybody. Umpires should act without hesitation in enforcement of this rule.

Before we jump into heated debate, let’s examine the events leading up to the Indians-Rockies game on April 2nd.

Jimenez felt snubbed in Colorado after teammates Tulowitzki and outfielder Carlos Gonzalez both received lengthy contract extensions at the onset of the 2011 season.

After being traded to the Indians in July last season, he later relented that playing in Cleveland was like “being in heaven.” Even the proudest and most diehard Cleveland fans may have scoffed at Ubaldo’s admonition.

In response to Jimenez’s remarks, Tulowitzki lamented, “If someone doesn’t want to be here, we always say, ‘Please, go up to the manager and tell him you want to leave or that you don’t think this is the best place for you.’ That was kind of the case with him.”

After their media-fueled beef, Jimenez opted to settle things the old-fashioned way and threw a first-pitch fastball at Tulowitzki, striking him in the left elbow.

In response, Tulowitzki began shouting at Jimenez, calling him—among other things—a synonym for “chicken” not even a hot-head like Ubaldo would mention to the media. Both players tossed their gear and looked poised for a fight before teammates stepped in their way.

Now, any fan that was familiar with the Jimenez-Tulowitzki back-story and saw the pitch would know better than to lend credence to Ubaldo’s postgame excuse that he didn’t have control over his pitches.

Did Ubaldo throw at Tulowitzki intentionally? Yes. Had there been a prior warning issued to both teams regarding the media altercation between Jimenez and Tulowitzki? No. More importantly, did Jimenez throw at Tulowitzki’s head? No.

Most of the time in Major League Baseball, the umpire will opt to warn both benches if he suspects any intent to intentionally hit another player. More often than not, it isn’t the team whose pitcher hits the opposing batter first that gets punished, but the team that retaliates.

In the spring training game between Cleveland and Colorado, there was no prior incident of a hit Tribe batsman. If the umpire truly believed that Jimenez had the intent to hit Tulowitzki with the pitch, he would’ve issued a warning prior to the game.

Granted, it is still the umpire’s call as to whether the pitch was intentional and whether or not the warning was issued. However, this is where one has to question the ‘star treatment’ factor.

Would Jimenez be given the same prompt suspension had it been any other Colorado player apart from Carlos Gonzalez? Would Marco Scutaro getting drilled merit the same response from the commissioner’s office? I don’t think so.

Some might say Jimenez instigated the incident because he threw his glove and started toward Tulowitzki. Watch the video closely. You’ll see Tulo tosses his bat down before Ubaldo throws his glove. Both players were jawing at one another, and each was equally culpable of leading to the benches clearing.

Let’s rewind to June 24th of last season. The Indians were in San Francisco for a series with the Giants.

Tribe right fielder Shin-Soo Choo was in the midst of a season-long slump after two consecutive 20-20, .300 seasons. Any attempt at salvaging his 2011 campaign was put on a six-week hold when Giants lefty Jonathan Sanchez hit him in the hand with a pitch, breaking his left thumb.

No ejections, fines or suspensions were warranted, as it was understood that the pitch simply got away from Sanchez.

Fast-forward back to the present. As Choo has been attempting to regain his old form in 2012, he’s already been plunked three times this season, tied for tops in the majors. Choo doesn’t crowd the plate, isn’t overly vocal or provocative and—other than a shameful DUI in May of last season—has a clean slate as far as his PR image goes.

Despite a poor showing in 2011, he is still one of the league’s most talented young players, and one of the top all-around outfielders in the AL.

On Saturday’s game against Kansas City, now-Royals starter Jonathan Sanchez drilled Choo again. In retaliation, Tribe starter Jeanmar Gomez hit the Royals’ Mike Moustakas in the backside and was promptly ejected along with Tribe third baseman Jack Hannahan and manager Manny Acta.

While Choo started shouting at Sanchez, he didn’t throw the bat or make a move toward the mound, yet Sanchez began advancing toward the disgruntled Tribe outfielder.

Why wasn’t Sanchez ejected, fined or suspended? What proof didn’t exist in this case that supposedly did in Jimenez’s that the pitch was intentional? If the Ubaldo suspension was a case of protecting a star player, why wasn’t Choo’s plunking met with the same outrage by the commissioner’s office?

The issue here is the league’s lack of consistency regarding suspensions. In the Jimenez-Tulowitzki saga, there are two things to take away from the incident. The home plate umpire should’ve either:

1) Issued a pre-game warning if he believed there existed the potential for purposefully targeting batters, or:

2) Let grown men play a grown men’s game. Jimenez may have been wrong, selfish and immature to take out his frustration on the field, but if you’re Troy Tulowitzki, what do you expect? If you run your mouth about a former teammate, you’re asking for trouble the next time you step in the box to face him.

I’m not at all in agreement with professional sports’ position on punishing those who retaliate. Good sportsmanship and respect for opponents is important, but that shouldn’t negate a team’s ability to defend its players.

Ubaldo may not have salvaged much integrity for throwing at Tulowitzki, but I’m not sold that his situation is any different than that of Sanchez.

Hit batters are a part of the game. As the Ray Liotta-played Shoeless Joe Jackson tells Archie Graham in Field of Dreams, “he’s not gonna wanna load the bases, so look for low and away…but watch out for in your ear!” Let the players play the game out and retaliate as long as it’s done professionally and there’s no head-hunting involved.

If Ubaldo Jimenez’s plunking of Tulowitzki was intentional, then it was a personal vendetta between two players who, barring an unlikely World Series matchup, won’t meet again this season on the ball field.

Jonathan Sanchez’s beaning of Shin-Soo Choo, whether intentional or not, escalated tensions between two teams that will meet 15 more times this season in a race to climb the standings in the AL Central. At this time, MLB has no credible criteria to follow regarding player suspensions.

If Jim Tracy wants to harp on about “the integrity of the game,” we should have a league whose commissioner’s office protects that integrity by showing some consistency in its decision-making regarding player suspensions.

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Washington Nationals Make Bold Decision to Send John Lannan to Minors

The Washington Nationals made a surprising decision with their final roster cuts on Tuesday. As reported by the Washington Post’s Adam Kilgore, the team optioned starting pitcher John Lannan to Class AAA Syracuse and kept Ross Detwiler on the big league roster. 

Perhaps it shouldn’t be a shock that the Nats sent Lannan to the minors, considering general manager Mike Rizzo was trying to trade him throughout spring training.

With the additions of Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson to their rotation, the Nationals appeared to have a surplus of starting pitching. Several rumors had the Detroit Tigers inquiring about Lannan, with the Boston Red Sox and Houston Astros also showing interest.

The general opinion seemed to be that the Nats would hold on to Lannan after Chien-Ming Wang suffered a hamstring injury. But Lannan did himself no favors by pitching badly this spring. In six appearances, he allowed 14 runs (12 earned) and 24 hits in 21 innings.

By comparison, Detwiler compiled a 3.06 ERA and 18 strikeouts in 17 2/3 innings.

According to CSNWashington.com’s Mark Zuckerman, choosing Detwiler over Lannan wasn’t simply a matter of spring performance. The Nationals believe Detwiler has more upside and can get even better.

With Lannan, what you see is what you get. He’s a good, not great pitcher and isn’t really going to improve. 

MLB.com’s Bill Ladson reported that the Nats indeed tried to trade Lannan, but were asking for too much in return. No potential trade partner wanted to give up a starting major league position player in exchange for a pitcher that would probably fill the back end of a rotation. 

Above all else, Lannan being squeezed off the roster speaks to how the talent level and depth of the Nationals’ starting five has improved.

Last year, the Nats pitched Livan Hernandez and Lannan in their first two games of the season. But the pitching staff has come a long way.

Stephen Strasburg is back after Tommy John surgery. Jordan Zimmermann made 26 starts after undergoing the same procedure a year earlier. Gonzalez is the rare left-handed strikeout pitcher, almost racking up 200 of them last season.

Edwin Jackson could be a No. 2 starter on many teams. In D.C., he’ll probably be fourth in the Nats’ rotation. 

That is a deep top four which measures up against any other team in the majors, let alone in the NL East. Add Detwiler and you have a fifth starter who could do a lot more than just eat innings and give the bullpen a break. 

This isn’t just an encouraging decision by the Nationals, it’s a bold one. According to Kilgore, Lannan is the highest paid player to be optioned to the minors before spring training ends. He’s on the books for $5 million this year.

Lannan will probably be back in D.C. at some point this year. No team makes it through a full major league season using just five starting pitchers. But the Nats didn’t want to settle as they begin what could be a playoff season for them. 

Many teams would have opted to keep the guy with the larger salary, especially when he posted a 3.70 ERA last season. But the Nationals believe they have a better team with Detwiler in the rotation. That’s the kind of aggressive thinking Nats fans should celebrate. 

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Toronto Blue Jays: Joel Carreno Is a Low-Risk Addition to Starting Rotation

Following a tumultuous spring in which he posted a 6.48 ERA and a 10/9 K/BB rate in 16.2 innings, the Toronto Blue Jays sent left-hander Brett Cecil to the minors on Tuesday morning.

Cecil was expected to begin the 2012 season as part of the team’s starting rotation alongside Brandon Morrow, Ricky Romero, Henderson Alvarez and Kyle Drabek. However, after allowing nine runs (seven earned) on 11 hits over four innings against the Tigers on Monday, it became clear that Cecil wasn’t ready to be rushed out there as part of the rotation.

To fill the southpaw’s spot in the rotation, Manager John Farrell announced that right-hander Joel Carreno would serve as Cecil’s replacement.

Now, you won’t find Carreno on many Blue Jays’ top-prospect lists. But that doesn’t mean that the 25-year-old lacks either potential or value.

Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2004, Carreno is a 6’0″ 190-pound starting pitcher who has steadily progressed through the Blue Jays’ system.

Carreno made a strong impression in his first professional season in 2007, making 12 starts for the Jays’ minor league affiliate and working 65.1 innings. The right-hander recorded a 2.62 ERA and a 3.05 FIP to along with a 8.82 K/9 and a 1.79 BB/9.

He showed improvement at Low-A in 2008, posting a 3.42 ERA and a 2.94 FIP in 76.1 innings. While he improved his strikeout rate (10.02 K/9), Carreno’s walk rate also increased to 2.24 per nine innings.

After logging 11 additional innings at Low-A to begin the 2009 season, Carreno was promoted to Single-A, where he struggled for the first time in his career. Making 14 starts, he registered a 3.62 ERA and a 3.59 FIP in 79.2 innings. What was more concerning, though, was the fact that his K/9 dipped to 7.00 while his BB/9 jumped to 3.28.

However, Carreno made significant strides the following season at High-A. He posted a 9-6 record while setting career highs in starts (25), innings pitched (137.2), FIP (2.36), K/9 (11.31) and HR/9 (0.52).  He also posted a 1.96 BB/9, his lowest since debuting in 2007.

Carreno’s impressive 2010 campaign merited a promotion to Double-A to begin the 2011 season, where he at times struggled despite having a solid overall year. Once again, he made 20-plus starts (23) while tossing more than 130 innings (134 2/3) and maintaining a double-digit K/9 rate (10.16). 

Yet, the right-hander recorded the highest BB/9 rate of his career (4.54), which was as much a product of more advanced competition as it was his tendency to overthrow. He still posted a 3.41 ERA and a 3.88 FIP, which indicated that the increase in walks wasn’t as detrimental towards his success as it may have seemed.

Carreno’s consistency throughout his minor league career was ultimately rewarded in late August, when the Blue Jays called him up for the final month of the regular season.

Working strictly out of the bullpen, Carreno registered a 1.15 ERA and a 3.13 xFIP over 15.2 innings.  His overall command was impressive, too, as he posted a 14/4 K/BB rate while holding opposing hitters to a .200 batting average.

Despite his potential to be a strikeout machine as a reliever, Carreno’s three above-average pitches—fastball, slider, and changeup—make him valuable as a starter. His plus slider has always been an effective pitch against right-handed hitters, but it’s uncertain whether his changeup will suffice in neutralizing lefties. In order to work deep into games, Carreno will also have to show better fastball command and an ability to consistently get ahead of hitters.

His stint in the Blue Jays’ bullpen at the end of the 2011 season was an exposure. Therefore, it’s obvious that his inclusion in the starting rotation will serve as a test for the 25-year-old. He’s a low-risk, in-house option whose success is dependent upon his command. And if he can’t stick as a member of the Blue Jays’ rotation, then his heavy fastball and wipeout slider will always be a nice fit in the back end of their bullpen.

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Toronto Blue Jays: How Will Kelly Johnson Fare in 2012?

Kelly Johnson had a mixed bag of a 2011 season. He hit 21 home runs and 58 RBI for the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Toronto Blue Jays, but his batting average was a paltry .222. He also struck out a career-high 163 times.

But now that Johnson has some experience playing for Toronto and is getting used to having Rogers Centre as his home, how will he fare in 2012?

I personally think he’ll improve considerably in 2012; his numbers should stay the same or improve in several categories.

When Johnson was playing for Arizona in 2010 and 2011, he was playing in a hitter-friendly park. Toronto’s stadium is a hitter-friendly park as well, so his home run totals should stay roughly the same.

He’s also been slotted into the second spot into the lineup, which means he should be able to drive in runs, as well as make it to home himself, with guys like Bautista and Lawrie behind him.

However, there are two big questions for 2012; can he rebound from his awful average in 2011 and how will he perform defensively?

For his batting average, I think he can do so, though it won’t be an impressive number.

Johnson’s batting average has fluctuated over the course of his career. In 2008, when he played for the Atlanta Braves he hit .287. However, in 2009, he hit just .224.

Then, when he played for the Diamondbacks in 2010, he hit .284.

However, it should be noted that even though his batting average was .222, he improved significantly once he was traded to the Blue Jays.

Before the trade, he was just hitting .209 in Arizona. In 33 game for Toronto, it was .270.

Now defensively, is still something I am concerned about.

He committed 10 errors in 2011, but four of those were in the 33 games in Toronto. Ouch.

It seems odd, because it was something that he had improved on each year. He went from 14 errors in 2007 and 2008, to 10 in 2009, to eight in 2010, and just six, when he was in Arizona.

In Spring Training this year, he made two errors in 18 games.

Fortunately, for the Blue Jays organization, they have several options to use, if they want to replace him in late-game situations, including the soon-to-be 45-year old Omar Vizquel.


2012 Projections: .256 BA, 19 HR, 60 RBI, 15 SB, .348 OBP, 82 R, 153 SO, 11 E, .983 Fielding Percentage

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Spring Training 2012: Chicago Cubs Latest Roster Moves

The Chicago Cubs made another set of cuts to their spring training roster this week, and surprised a few fans with the demotion of Welington Castillo and Randy Wells.

It was also announced that Steve Clevenger and Joe Mather will be on the Opening Day roster when the Cubs start the season April 4.

Welington Castillo was slated to be the backup catcher behind Geovany Soto, but his season will instead start in Iowa. The 24-year-old is one of the Cubs’ top prospects and will benefit from playing every day in the minors. 

Taking his place will be Steve Clevenger, a 25-year-old with just four career at bats in the majors. He will provide the Cubs with a solid left-handed bat when Soto needs a rest. 

Randy Wells was another surprising cut from the 25-man roster. Though he didn’t make the starting rotation, he was expected to be the long reliever in the Cubs bullpen. With the cut, he will start the year in AAA and will likely be the insurance policy if a member of the Cubs starting five gets hurt. 

The story of the spring, however, is Joe Mather. The utility man is a former member of the Cardinals and Braves, and has had 294 at bats in his career. He is hitting over .400 this spring, and will be a valuable member of the bench as he can play first, third or outfield. 

The Cubs still need to make another set of cuts before Opening Day, which will likely include Tony Campana and a handful of relievers. 

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Spring Training 2012: Who Should Be Named Atlanta Braves’ 5th Starter?

As teams begin preparing for the regular season, rosters get filled out. Who stays on the roster or gets dropped is a key issue around this time of the year.

For the Atlanta Braves, they have one situation that will be decided soon. Does Randall Delgado or Julio Teheran get the fifth starter’s spot?

As of yet, neither one has established themselves as the frontrunner for this job. Through this spring, Delgado has a horrible 7.89 ERA with a WHIP of 1.85. He has won only one game and lost four, which is expected with those numbers.

His competition, Julio Teheran, has done worse. His ERA through spring training is at 9.00. His WHIP is at 1.92 and he has an 0-1 win-loss record. However, he has played less than Delgado.

He has pitched 13.0 innings, while Randall has pitched 21.2 innings. Teheran has had fewer opportunities due to soreness to improve his numbers.

Right now, the two options for the fifth spot are not looking as good as they were at the beginning of spring. Thankfully, we are still only in spring training, not in the middle of the regular season. Both pitchers started last year in the regular season, so we can also take into account those numbers.

In three starts and five total appearances, Julio Teheran had a 5.03 ERA, a 1.475 WHIP, and a 1-1 record. He had a very poor strikeout rate of 4.6 K/9. Thankfully, he was able to maintain a 1.25 K/BB rate. For a 20-year-old, his numbers were somewhat respectable, but he did not live up to expectations that year.

On the other hand, Randall Delgado thrived in the majors. In seven starts and 35.0 innings, Delgado had a 2.83 ERA and a 1.229 WHIP. However, his strikeout rate was exactly the same as Teheran’s. His K/BB rate was only slightly better, at 1.29. This shows that he got batters out primarily through contact.

However, this was not a bad thing for him, as shown by the fact that he was able to keep his ERA under 3.00. Like Teheran, his record was 1-1, even though he pitched in four more starts.

Through both the regular season and this year’s preseason, Randall Delgado has the statistical edge over Julio Teheran. He has shown that he can perform at the top level and even though he has done poorly this spring, he has been able to stay healthy and still out pitch Teheran.

While Teheran has a higher ceiling than Delgado, he has yet to fully mature as a major league pitcher. Delgado is closer to being a full-time starter in the big leagues, and has proven that he can be an effective starter for the Braves. For this reason, I believe Delgado should be chosen as the fifth starter in the very good Braves starting rotation.

The argument could be made that Teheran has better stuff, but at the moment, he still has yet to learn how to properly use his talents.

Delgado is more prepared and weathered, and now Fredi Gonzalez should allow him to use his more developed talents once again for the Atlanta Braves.  

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Daniel Bard’s Lack of Changeup Spells Doom for Possible Boston Red Sox Starter

Daniel Bard‘s success as a starter could very well prove to be the key to a 2012 playoff run for the Boston Red Sox.

Then again, he’s just as likely to be relegated back to bullpen duty.

But with two rotation spots up for grabs, all indications point towards the 26-year-old at least beginning the season in Bobby Valentine’s starting-five. As of this writing, Bard and fellow system-product Felix Doubront figure to fill the fourth and fifth spots, with 2011’s jack-of-all-trades Alfredo Aceves returning to the ‘pen.

Nothing’s official yet, but can they really send Bard back at this point? Assuming he has nailed down a starting role, what, if anything, has his performance in camp told us? 

Clearly, a lot of what happens in spring has to be chalked up to pitchers trying out new pitches, tinkering with arm slots, working out the kinks in their mechanics, etc. So the spirit of this exercise is certainly not to over-analyze stat after stat.

But a few things come to mind as we stare down the barrels of Opening Day.

First, the knock on Bard coming out of his role as a (generally) lights-out reliever was that he relied on just two pitches (a four-seam fastball and his bread-and-butter slider). He would have to redevelop and mix in an effective change to avoid tiring himself out while keeping hitters off-balance in order to be successful.

He’s now mixed in a two-seam fastball, a pitch he used frequently while at the University of North Carolina. Earlier this March, he told WEEI.com’s Alex Speier:

It’s a pitch I’m very comfortable with, going back to when I was in college. I probably threw more two-seamers than four-seamers this spring so far. I’ve been real consistent with the movement.


Okay, check. He’s got a second fastball down. But what about that changeup?

It seems as if he’s still struggling with it. In an interview earlier this month, broadcast on WEEI, the team’s flagship radio station, he stated (via The Boston Globe‘s Peter Abraham):

Fastball, slider – that’s where I’ve made my money the last three years…If I’m not 100 percent confident in those two pitches going into the season, then something is not right.

It doesn’t matter what my changeup is if my two best pitches aren’t fully ready. So I really went into this last [start] wanting to establish my fastball in the zone and use the slider as my put-away pitch.

In other words, it’s mission-not-accomplished at this point. Developing the changeup will be critical, as he can’t rely on his above-average velocity an entire two or three revolutions through an opposing lineup, like he did in his role as a setup ace.

But it’s not all bad news. He seems to be getting craftier with his slider. Sox shortstop Mike Aviles told Abraham:

He’s throwing his fastball 96 and he has two sliders from what I can see. He has one with a little bend in it and one that’s really tight.

With the second one, when he throws it a little harder, you have zero chance on that. It’s kind of like having an extra pitch. That’s some really good stuff.

While the news about Bard’s slider is definitely encouraging, I’m not sure it balances out his lack of changeup. Time will tell.

So, how has all of this pitch-selection juggling translated into his spring stats?

A 6.57 ERA over 24.2 innings pitched (the most on the team). Apparently those who claim “he can’t be worse than John Lackey was in 2011″ are wrong.

Okay, so that isn’t entirely fair. Earned run average is a skewed stat which means even less in spring training. According to FanGraphs‘ Mike Podhorzer and Matt Swartz’s evaluation of spring training numbers:

-Spring K% and BB% actually do mean something and may help identify breakout and bust performers for the upcoming season
-Good and bad springs carry the same level of significance and they should therefore be treated equally
-Spring ERA is completely useless

So, good news on the ERA. But we knew that already.

The bad news is, his peripherals are hurting as well. His strikeouts-per-nine are down to 6.57 from 9.1 last year, while his walks-per-nine are up to 5.84 (from 3.0). The drop in strikeouts can probably be explained as due to his dialing back his effort in order to last longer. Fine.

But his strikeout and walk percentages? The stats that may actually be a legitimate predictor of regular season performances? God-awful. His walk percentage has jumped from 8.3 percent in 2011 to 14.5 this spring, while his strikeouts have gone from 25.7 to 16.4 percent.

Will any of this mean anything in the end? Maybe not. But the numbers aren’t very impressive this spring, and the lack of an effective changeup is daunting.

Here’s hoping he can put it together.

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San Francisco Giants: Wise to Keep Barry Zito as Fifth Starter

Breaking news: San Francisco Giants Barry Zito struggled in his most recent spring outing, causing concern from the fan base about whether the veteran lefty deserves a spot in the team’s starting rotation as Opening Day approaches.

What is this, 2008? Wait, 2010? No, it’s 2012! Talk about déjà vu all over again.

Talk about déjà vu all over again.

Since signing one of the most infamous contracts in the history of pro sports in 2006, Zito has been under tremendous scrutiny and immense pressure to live up to the bazillion dollar billing. Each year, it’s the same old story—for both Zito and for the organization. Well, actually, somehow every season it seemingly gets worse for the 33-year-old veteran.

In 2007, his first season in San Francisco, Zito toughed out an 11-13 record with a 4.53 ERA. The next year, he posted career-worst marks in losses (17), losing percentage (.370), bases on balls (102) and WHIP (1.60), earning himself a demotion to the bullpen as the most expensive reliever in baseball history. Since then, it has amazingly not gotten better.

In 2010, during San Francisco’s magical World Series run, Zito found himself off the playoff roster, earning himself a job as the most expensive dugout cheerleader in baseball history. Last year, he started only nine games, finding himself on the disabled list for the first time in his 12-year career. Certainly, his five-year stint with the Giants has created a tenuous strife among fans.

When will he get better? Can he get better? What can San Francisco exactly do with him?

The answers to these questions are pretty obvious: no, no and nothing. Which is terrible for the Giants. And worse news for Giants fans.

It’s amazing how a short six seasons ago, Zito was brought to San Francisco to be the headliner of the pitching staff. Now, in 2012, Zito is slated as the fifth man in the rotation—behind Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong—fighting to remain a starter…again.

Unfortunately, his spring performances have not demonstrated that he deserves a second (or 10th) chance to be a starter. Last weekend, Zito was roughed up by the Chicago White Sox—a lot. His spring ERA rose to an obese 6.61 in five appearances (four starts), with 25 hits allowed in 16.1 innings.

How he won two games this March is a mystery.

And yet through it all, San Francisco has affirmed that Zito will indeed hold onto a spot in the starting rotation, this according to CSNBayArea.com. What the Giants are exactly thinking is anyone’s guess. Other than the simple fact that they have to—keeping him in the rotation is the right move.

Obviously, the lissome spirit of a man who has slowly morphed into an underhand softball park league pitcher is extremely high. And with Zito’s egregious contract, there’s little else the team can do but send him out there every fifth day and have the offense—the worst offense in the National League—somehow score a touchdown every game that he starts.

Heck, Alex Smith can barely engineer touchdown-scoring drives—what makes fans believe the Giants can do the same?

Amazingly, San Francisco nearly did score seven runs in each of Zito’s starts last season, providing him run support of 6.54 per game. Can they be asked to do that with seriousness this season? How can a lineup be pressured to score that many runs, especially in barren AT&T Park?

Hopefully, a rebooted lineup with the return of Buster Posey will do wonders for the offense—especially whenever Zito is pitching. Can’t San Francisco simply start Zito during home games, where he posted a 3.14 ERA in 2011 and a 3.35 ERA in 2010?

Though not the team’s desire, having Zito as the caboose in the pitching rotation is a necessity. The Giants are trudging into the 2012 season opener with penciled question marks about the team’s overall health.

Last season’s hidden gem, Vogelsong, is expected to miss the first half of April while recovering from a back injury. Meanwhile, earlier this week, prospect Eric Surkamp, was also shut down indefinitely with elbow soreness in his pitching arm. The young lefty had produced a generally impressive spring, despite a 4.41 ERA in three starts.

Though Surkamp had an outside shot at making the big league roster, he had been demonstrating tremendous progress and poise in spring training, enough to warrant consideration as a long reliever or spot starter, especially with Vogelsong temporarily sidelined.

With all of the minor dings to the starting staff, Zito is left, alone, as the de facto safety net to fill any vacancy in the rotation. Cringe. This is a clear example of how shallow the talent pool of starting pitchers is in the Giants’ farm system.

Despite the downward trend, Zito is the optimal choice as the No. 5 starter. He comes into 2012 healthy and focused, but the truth is, it’s hard to anticipate exactly how he’ll perform this season. Could he be tolerantly bad, part-time bad, worrisome bad or strangle-Dave-Righetti-with-the-bullpen-phone-cord bad?

Whatever the prognostication may be, if San Francisco wants to return to the playoffs this year, they have to figure out long-term plans B and C through Z for Zito. After all, Lincecum and Cain cannot carry the load by themselves—not as two-fifths of the starting rotation.

But for right now, banishing Zito to the bullpen is a pricey move; and it doesn’t make any sense given his recent history. Lefties batted .294 against him last season, and he was extremely terrible early in the count. In his first 15 pitches of any appearance, batters posted a robust .965 OPS. Yikes.

Crazily, Zito’s statistics actually prove that he’s more capable as a starting pitcher. How did that happen?

Given the dearth of pitching depth and numbers that support his inadequacy as a reliever, Zito has to be a starter. Plain and simple.

At present, it’s wise to keep Zito in the fifth spot on the starting staff. The Giants just need to make sure the bullpen is deep, loose and ready to go somewhere by the third inning.

Follow me on Twitter: @nathanieljue

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New York Yankees: Andy Pettitte’s First Spring Training Start Revealed

Andy Pettitte‘s much-anticipated comeback for the New York Yankees won’t officially kick-off until he gets his first start of the spring, but according to the New York Post, the Yankees legend is set to do so sometime next week.

Pettitte made his comeback announcement on March 16th, and given the normal month and a half or so it takes most pitchers to get ready for the season, the 39 year old won’t be able to take the mound until May 1st at the earliest.

According to the same report, Pettitte threw 20 pitches in batting practice on Tuesday (3/27) and then went on to throw 13 more in a simulated game. He faced four batters during the simulation.

He is expected to have another session similar to Tuesday’s on either Friday or Saturday of this week.

Look for Pettitte to take the mound for his first start of the spring on either Tuesday (4/3) or Wednesday (4/4) of next week.

In that start, Pettitte will likely throw two innings—depending upon how many pitches he throws to the first three batters he’ll face. 

However, the Bombers could be taking a slower approach with Pettitte. After all, unlike his fellow starters in the Yankees’ rotation, Pettitte didn’t pitch at all in 2011 and that might force the Yankees to bring him along a little slower.

Pettitte should get four starts in the minors during the month of April and one or two during the first week of May.

If all goes well, he should be ready to go by the second week of May, give or take a few days.

It isn’t clear, however, what the Yanks intend to do with him if their starting five should happen to be solid at that time during the season.

But that’s another story for another day, and at this moment, the only concern the Bombers should have is getting Pettitte ready for the season.

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Boston Red Sox: Doubront and Bard Win Rotation Battle, Aceves to the ‘Pen

At last the waiting is over. Even though it hasn’t officially been announced, we now know who the two lucky winners of the spring battle for the No. 4 and 5 spots in the Boston Red Sox starting rotation are; Felix Doubront and Daniel Bard.

Boston Globe’s Peter Abraham reported the upcoming pitching plans for the next couple of days that virtually leaked the starting rotation for the season.

According to Abraham, Clay Buchholz will start in a minor league game tomorrow. On Thursday, Alfredo Aceves will start against the Toronto Blue Jays and Felix Doubront will start in a minor league game. On Friday, Daniel Bard will start against the Minnesota Twins.

If all goes according to Abraham’s plan, the rotation would be set up as Lester, Beckett, Buccholz, Doubront and Bard.

Abraham notes that it probably isn’t a coincidence that Doubront will pitch in a minor league game instead of starting against the Blue Jays because the No. 4 spot in the rotation will face off against those same Blue Jays on April 9th.

If this serves to be true, Alfredo Aceves would start the season in the Boston bullpen and take the role of spot starter, if necessary. 

Doubront has had an excellent spring and truly won the spot in the rotation. In four starts he went 1-0 with a 2.70 ERA, striking out 10 and walking six in 16.2 innings pitched.

The plan going into the spring was to transition Bard into a starting pitcher and even though he hasn’t done as well as many have hoped, he’s starting to get a feel for starting. In five appearances this spring, he’s 1-2 with a 7.23 ERA in 18.2 innings.

Although Alfredo Aceves had three great games to start the spring, he got hit hard against the Phillies, allowing nine earned runs on 10 hits in just three innings to eliminate him from contention.

It was a great race to watch this spring, seeing who was capable of what and who would start the 2012 season in the Red Sox rotation.

In the end, the best decision was made, with Doubront and Bard taking the No. 4 and No. 5 spots.

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