Japan series aside, I didn't feel like baseball was truly back until I heard Orel Hershiser and company calling the Marlins/Cardinals game Wednesday night. Three big impressions from the game:
The Cardinals aren't going to miss Albert Pujols as much as some might think.
Jason Motte is filthy - 99 mph fastball, 92 mph slider
David Freese (three hits) is playing like it's still October
This week we'll look at one pitching-related question for all 30 teams:
Baltimore: Will Brian Matusz stick around once all Orioles starters are healthy?
If there's any justice he will. Matusz had a solid spring, showing improved velocity over last year (90-92 vs. 87-89) and posted an impressive 22:3 K:BB in 24.2 innings. I have to think he sticks, but when you have such elite competition as Jason Hammel and Tommy Hunter, it's no sure thing.
Boston: What about that 40 percent of the rotation?
If healthy, Boston boasts a solid front three of the rotation, but what about the four and five slots? For now it will be Felix Doubront and Dan Bard, but should Alfredo Aceves struggle as closer, perhaps the Red Sox will consider flip-flopping the two. I think Doubront is a bit underrated, but Bard I can see struggling a la Phil Coke. Either that or I'm completely wrong.
Chicago White Sox: And the closer is ?
Manager Robin Ventura has yet to name him, but by all accounts, Matt Thornton will get the first shot at closing games. Thornton had a 2.08 ERA this spring, and judging by recent usage patterns, he's the preferred option over Jesse Crain. Addison Reed had a solid spring as well (2.45 ERA, 11:4 K:BB in 11 innings), so expect him also to be in the mix, perhaps even as the closer over Crain.
Cleveland: How long until Chris Perez loses his job?
With Perez falling from an 8.7 K/9IP to 5.9 last year, it would seem to be a matter of time until the superior Vinnie Pestano takes over. Perez appears set to open as closer after fighting off an oblique injury, but Perez did convert 90 percent of his 40 save opportunities last year despite the decline in peripherals, so don't be surprised if he's able to hold off the competition. That said, don't be surprised either if he gets hurt again.
Detroit: Have we seen the best of Rick Porcello?
I'd like to say "no, considering he's still just 23 and was rushed to the big leagues in 2009, completely bypassing Double-A and Triple-A. But we've seen nothing to suggest that he is ready to take a big leap forward. Porcello changed up his throwing program this winter in an effort to come out of the gate quickly, but there isn't much evidence to suggest that you can teach a pitcher to suddenly go from striking out five guys every nine innings to striking out seven or eight. He is what he is, a solid No. 3 or 4.
Kansas City: And the closer job goes to ?
Ned Yost continues to confound fantasy owners, failing to name a closer as we head toward Opening Day. In competition are Greg Holland, Jonathan Broxton and dark horse Aaron Crow. It's likely to come down to Holland v. Broxton, so let's compare:
Spring ERA - Broxton: 1.13 (but five unearned runs), Holland: 3.86. Edge: Broxton
Spring K:BB - Broxton: 11:4 in eight innings, Holland: 14:1 in 11.2 innings. Edge: Holland
2011 performance - Edge to Holland. By far.
Experience - Edge to Broxton
Higher salary - Broxton ($4 million).
The last two categories lead me to believe Broxton will open the year as closer, but the leash won't be as long as most closers.
LA Angels: Can Jordan Walden hold up as closer?
Well, he has very little competition, as the Angels surprising chose not to bring in someone like Heath Bell or (wisely it turns out) Ryan Madson. Walden averaged a whopping 97.6 mph with his fastball last year, so he has the stuff to close, but the big question for me will be whether he can avoid running out of gas again. If he's in better shape, look for last year's 10 blown saves to be half that in 2012.
Minnesota: Is Francisco Liriano's spring for real?
After seemingly getting back near form in 2010 (9.4 K/9IP, 2.7 BB/9IP, 3.62 ERA), Liriano regressed significantly in 2011, posting a 5.09 ERA, 7.5 K/9IP and 5.0 BB/9IP. He showed this spring that his potential is still there, finishing with a 2.33 ERA and 33:5 K:BB in 27 innings. Whether that carries over to the regular season remains to be seen, but I'm hesitant to put too much stock into what he's done in March/April until I see it in a regular season box score.
NY Yankees: Nine starters, five spots. What to do?
In addition to the Opening Day five-man rotation, the Yankees will get Michael Pineda (shoulder) back in May, right around the time Andy Pettitte is expected to have the arm strength to go six or seven innings. You also have top prospects Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances in Triple-A, and both are likely to be ready to contribute this year. My guess:
Opening Day: CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes, Freddy Garcia
May: Sabathia, Kuroda, Nova, Pettitte, Hughes. Garcia to the bullpen.
July: Sabathia, Kuroda, Nova, Pettitte, Hughes. Garcia traded/released/hurt.
September: Sabathia, Kuroda, Nova, Pettitte, Hughes and cups of coffee for Betances/Banuelos.
Oakland: What will this rotation look on Aug. 1?
Billy Beane will be active, as the A's have perhaps a 0.1 percent chance at being competitive on July 31. Expect Bartolo Colon and Brandon McCarthy to be either hurt or traded by August, leaving a projected rotation of Brett Anderson (elbow), Dallas Braden (shoulder), Jarrod Parker, Brad Peacock and Tom Milone.
If you can stash Anderson in a DL spot until he's activated, by all means do. Parker had an ugly 9:13 K:BB in 11 innings this spring, so he clearly needs further seasoning, though the ceiling remains high.
Seattle: Is the Mariners' Double-A rotation better than the major league rotation?
According to our RotoWire Top 100 prospects list, the Mariners have three pitchers ranked among the league's top-30 overall: Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker. The big league club has Felix Hernandez, a hope and three prayers. Look for Hultzen to get the call by June, Paxton by August and Walker in September. The future is very bright.
Tampa Bay: Wade Davis, closer?
With Kyle Farnsworth nursing a strained forearm (often a Tommy John precursor), Joel Peralta is vaulting up cheatsheets as a potential future closer. Davis, though, has good stuff and showed increased velocity this spring in a relief role, so perhaps he becomes a late-inning option at some point this year.
Texas: What happens if Joe Nathan gets hurt?
If you think that scenario is probable, then I'd say you're probably right given his recent history. Nathan was given a two-year deal to close with Neftali Feliz moving to the rotation, but considering Nathan's 10.29 ERA in seven innings this spring, there's room for concern. Mike Adams is likely next in line, but the Rangers could also consider moving Feliz back to closer and Alexi Ogando to the rotation. I'd say it would be Adams, but we just don't know yet how effective Feliz will be in the rotation.
Toronto: Who the heck is Joel Carreno?
Well, he's the guy starting the third game of the season for the Blue Jays. With Brett Cecil optioned to Triple-A, Dustin McGowan (foot) hurt and Aaron Laffey being Aaron Laffey, Carreno gets the nod. So who is he? Looking at the numbers, he's fairly impressive:
2010 (High-A): 3.73 ERA, 11.4 K/9IP, 2.0 BB/9IP and a .394 BABIP that inflated the ERA
2011 (Double-A): 3.41 ERA, 10.6 K/9, 4.6 BB/9IP (uh oh)
Carreno clearly can miss bats despite not being a flamethrower, but he hasn't received much love from the scouting community. That said, he's probably a starter you stream in AL-only leagues, as I just don't see the upside.
Arizona: When will we see Trevor Bauer?
I'm setting the over/under at May 1. Thoughts? Josh Collmenter had a 9.95 ERA this spring with just six strikeouts in 19 innings, and we could see him make the Giants lineup look very good come Sunday. Bauer had a 3.60 ERA and 9:1 K:BB in 10 innings this spring and could find himself in Arizona in the next couple weeks.
Atlanta: Who gets booted when Tim Hudson (back) returns in May?
Unless we have another Jair Jurrjens injury, it will be Randall Delgado, the No. 5 starter by default. Delgado did have a decent 23:12 K:BB in 21.2 innings this spring, but the 7.89 ERA is ugly and that's too many walks. He's a future No. 3 or 4 starter, but don't expect much this year.
Chicago Cubs: Will Carlos Marmol last the season as closer?
He'll be good for another 90 strikeouts, but will new Cubs manager Dale Sveum put up with Marmol walking six batters every nine innings as did his predecessor? Don't think so. He may last until July and even be traded, but at some point, either Kerry Wood (if healthy) or Rafael Dolis will close games for the Cubbies. Remember Dolis' name in deeper formats.
Cincinnati: Wither Aroldis?
Despite a 2.12 ERA and 18:2 K:BB in 17 innings working as a starter this spring, Chapman has been shipped to the bullpen to help support the loss of Ryan Madson (Tommy John surgery). It's curious to see an organization give five years and $30 million to a setup guy, but that's the result of having "too much pitching. Personally, I'd rather the Reds think outside the box and try Homer Bailey as a closer and Chapman as a starter, but that's a moot point. I don't see Sean Marshall losing the closer job barring an injury, leaving Chapman as NL-only fodder for now.
Colorado: Is there anyone worth owning here outside of Rafael Betancourt?
Drew Pomeranz and then perhaps Juan Nicasio. Pomeranz, of course, was the prize in the Ubaldo Jimenez deal, and he had a solid spring, allowing just one run in 17 innings with an 11:4 K:BB. The strikeouts are a bit low and Pomeranz averaged just 89.6 mph with his fastball in the big leagues last year, but he has the stuff to break out as early as 2012. That's the type of talent you take a flier on.
Houston: How many Astros does it take to ruin a fantasy team?
Well, let's just say that if you have more than one or two, you're in trouble. Bud Norris offers strikeout potential and Wandy Rodriguez should be fine despite a 12:12 K:BB this spring. Brett Myers was roughed up a bit (5.14) in Florida this spring, but he should be a solid closer until traded in July. A couple guys to stash away on NL-only rosters: Wilton Lopez (one run on four hits over 10 innings this spring with an 11:0 K:BB) and, more long term, David Carpenter.
LA Dodgers: How long until Kenley Jansen pays a return on my draft-day investment?
How about right away? Jansen should rack up the strikeouts from day one while posting a solid ERA and WHIP, but when/if the saves will come is anybody's guess. Javy Guerra had a 2.35 ERA this spring, but his 6:5 K:BB in 7.2 innings is less than stellar. Don't be shocked to see Jansen closing by May, but I can easily see Guerra leading the team in saves this year.
Miami: Who replaces Carlos Zambrano once he gets hurt or flames out?
Zambrano walked seven in his final spring tune-up, leaving him with an ugly 21:21 K:BB. Ozzie Guillen might give Zambrano a long leash, but this is a situation that could potentially end poorly. Wade LeBlanc is set to open in Triple-A, but he'd be the first call should Zambrano implode.
Milwaukee: What sort of upside does Wily Peralta have?
Chris Narveson is slated to be the team's No. 5 starter, but Peralta is the team's top pitching prospect and should be ready when needed. Peralta posted a 157:59 K:BB in 150.2 minor league innings last year and seemed to get better and better as the year wore on. His ceiling is that of a No. 2 or No. 3 starter, and he could push Narveson to the bullpen later this year.
NY Mets: Bobby Parnell, round two?
With Frank Francisco, Ramon Ramirez and Jon Rauch posting spring ERAs of at least 5.25, the door could open for Parnell in 2012. Francisco appears ready to go as closer after a sore knee, but Parnell was easily the team's best reliever in camp, posting an 11:2 K:BB while not allowing a run in 12.1 innings. His fastball touches the upper-90s, and he generates a fair share of ground balls. Now as to that 4.1 BB/9IP, that's the key number.
Philadelphia: Roy Oswalt's ultimate destination?
Probably. The Phillies will look to part ways with free agent-to-be Joe Blanton, leaving them open to a reunion with Oswalt sometime this summer. I see Oswalt to the Phillies in June with Blanton traded and Trevor May worked into the rotation in 2013.
Pittsburgh: Joel Hanrahan, trade candidate?
Considering his $4.1 million salary could escalate into the $7 million range next year, then yes, the Pirates could certainly move him this summer. Evan Meek struggled with his velocity this spring, leaving Chris Resop as my No. 2-ranked Pittsburgh reliever. Resop had a solid 10:1 K:BB in 10 innings this spring and throws hard. Monitor him this year leading up to the trade deadline.
San Diego: Andrew Cashner, dominant closer?
Cashner appears to be a bit overlooked in my drafts this year, with fellow setup men such as Kenley Jansen and Jonny Venters getting most of the non-closer relief attention. Cashner, though, bears serious consideration. When healthy, he has the stuff to be a top-10 closer given the opportunity. Cashner this spring sat in the upper-90s while allowing one run with a 16:3 K:BB in 10 impressive innings. The Padres appear to view Cashner exclusively as a reliever and should Huston Street get hurt or traded (both are possible), Cashner appears next in line ahead of Luke Gregerson.
San Francisco: How worried are the Giants about the health of The Beard?
Not sure, but they should be concerned. Nursing a sore elbow, Brian Wilson topped out at 92 mph in his most recent outing, this after averaging between 94 and 97 in recent years. Wilson posted an 8:2 K:BB in 4.2 innings this spring, but a sharp drop in velocity suggests an injury. Perhaps he just needs a few more innings to round into form, but I'd certainly handcuff Wilson with Sergio Romo in deeper formats.
St. Louis: Should we temper our expectations for Adam Wainwright?
Many pitchers come back strong from Tommy John surgery, but given this is Wainwright's first season back, I'm not sure how much we should really expect. He was a mere mortal this spring with a solid 1.45 ERA, but the 9:6 K:BB in 18.2 innings is very un-Wainwright like. Given how good Kyle Lohse looked on Opening Night, Wainwright could be the team's fourth-best starter this year.
Washington: If the Nationals are in the race come August and Strasburg is approaching his innings limit, will he be shut down?
Are you kidding? Of course he will. It isn't about this year with Strasburg, but about the next 15. With an innings cap of 160, we still could be looking at 200 strikeouts and a 2.50 ERA from Strasburg. Next year? No. 1 fantasy starter? 25 wins? 300 strikeouts? The sky's the limit.
Regan, a five-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner, was named the 2010 Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year.
Follow @vtadave on Twitter.