DIVISIONAL OUTLOOK: AL EAST—Rocky road for Ricky Romero

Toronto Blue Jays

The Toronto Blue Jays have one pitcher struggling this spring, tinkering with his mechanics and eligible to be sent to the minor leagues. They have another who is pitching well, loathe to accept a relief role or a demotion to the minors but who also has options available.

The first pitcher is Ricky Romero (LHP, TOR), who has given up 7 ER in 8.2 IP with a 6/7 K/BB. Opponents are hitting .333 against him. The second is J.A. Happ (LHP, TOR), who has given up 4 ER in 19 IP with a 14/3 K/BB and .264 BAA. 

Coming into the spring, Romero had two things going for him: three years and $22.5 million remaining on his contract and a commitment that he would be one of the Jays' five starters this season, despite a dreadful 2012 (4.91 xERA, 5.2 Ctl, 1.2 Cmd, BPV 1). The contract, of course, is not going away. The commitment, however, may be wavering a bit, with GM Alex Anthopoulos saying that team officials are evaluating the situation "start by start."

Given the results thus far this spring, it would be hardly surprising if the Jays exercised the "out" provided by the flaw detected in Romero's delivery to give Happ the opportunity he is clamoring for. The Baseball Forecaster noted Happ's hidden upside, as seen in his sub-4.00 xERA and improving Ctl and Dom. Happ would have already been an intriguing reserve-round pick whose value would have hinged on trading places with Romero or filling in for another starter during the season. Soon, however, Happ may be a sought-after end-gamer with the potential to provide immediate dividends.

 

Boston Red Sox

With the status of left-handed relievers Franklin Morales (LHP, BOS) and Craig Breslow (LHP, BOS) looking uncertain to start the season, Andrew Miller (LHP, BOS) is likely to have an enhanced role in the Boston bullpen, at least in the early going.

After struggling for several years, Miller pitched well as a reliever for Boston last season, posting a 105 BPV and 3.32 xERA, though some second half control struggles cast doubt on whether he had truly turned a corner. So far this spring, the signs are positive, as Miller has posted 12/2 K/BB over 7.1 IP.

Update: Since we wrote about Jackie Bradley (OF, BOS) three weeks ago, the drumbeat for his inclusion on the Opening Day roster has only picked up pace. Bradley is now 21-for-49 with 1 HR and 4 2B and 8 BB against only 6 K, showcasing the type of plate skills that he has displayed throughout his minor league career.

Before breaking the bank for Bradley, however, consider that, while BaseballHQ.com's minor-league analysts have suggested that Bradley possesses SB upside not seen in his minor-league numbers, he has only attempted two steals this spring (and was caught once). Given his youth, that the team has a strong financial incentive to delay his free agency and wants him to play everyday, it's still a long-shot. Even if Bradley starts well with the big club, the return of David Ortiz (DH, BOS), very tentatively slated for anywhere from mid-April to early May, could put the squeeze on Bradley's ABs and also provide the excuse to hit the snooze bar on Bradley's service time. Bid accordingly.

 

New York Yankees

Another week, another veteran injury issue for the New York. The ankle inflammation of Derek Jeter (SS, NYY), however, is not anywhere near as serious as the maladies that have befallen Mark Teixeira (1B, NYY) and Curtis Granderson (OF, NYY). The team is having him participate only in minor-league games for the rest of the spring so it can back-date a stint on the disabled list, if one is needed, meaning any DL stint is envisioned to be a short one.

Eduardo Nunez (SS, NYY) would be the primary beneficiary of any time Jeter has to miss, and we have previously noted his strong SB potential if enough AB come his way. There may also be a handful of ABs against LHP freed up at DH, as Jeter had been slated to DH against southpaws.

While normally we might suggest playing up such a soon-to-be-resolved injury issue and attempting to buy a player at a discount, Jeter, with his age and recent injury history, provides a special case. The Baseball Forecaster noted Jeter's "flickering green light" on the base paths (6% SBO in 2012), and this may extinguish it altogether. The Forecaster writer also suggested Jeter's downside as a .260 BA, 5 HR, 5 SB. One road toward realizing such downside might begin with spring injury woes that linger into the season.

 

Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles' fifth-starter battle reportedly has a leader: Jake Arrieta (RHP, BAL), who pitched six scoreless innings against the Pirates March 21. On the spring, Arrieta has yielded only 3 ER over 17.1 IP with a 16/8 K/BB. Several BHQ analysts chose Arrieta for publisher Ron Shandler's annual Longshot Caucus based on skills that in 2012 were completely buried under bad luck. Will he "win 15 games with a 3.75 ERA"? Not necessarily, but you won't have to pay for anything near that to acquire him.

Even if Arrieta gets the nod, owners should not forget about another contender, Brian Matusz (LHP, BAL), who seems only a slight step behind Arrieta this spring, with 4 ER in 15 IP and a 13/3 K/BB. Matusz pitched very well in relief last September (13 IP, 2 ER, 3 BB, 19K), a role he may again be ticketed for... initially.

Even in relief, Matusz has the tools to succeed and provide ERA and WHIP help, along with a healthy number of Ks, at a minimum. But if he can show some mastery over RHBs, the No. 4 overall pick in the 2008 draft could still emerge as a starter or at least move into a role of increasing responsibility. 

 

Tampa Bay Rays

Closer Fernando Rodney (RHP, TAM) is wrapping up a period of extended rest after helping to lead the Dominican Republic to the World Baseball Classic championship. Rodney appeared to be in mid-season form in the WBC, racking up 7.1 scoreless IP (8 Ks) and widening the gap with his pre-2012 self. 

Is Brandon Gomes (RHP, TAM) the next Rodney? Gomes has made a strong bid to break camp with the Rays by giving up only 2 ER over 9 IP. He has struck out nine without giving up a walk, perhaps a key statistic after struggling with his control while riding the express between Tampa and AAA-Durham throughout 2012. While Gomes' work at the major-league level was mediocre, he led the International League with an 11.9 K/9 in 2012.

According to local press reports, Gomes' roster spot may be tied to the decision of whether Jeff Niemann (RHP, TAM) pitches out of the bullpen or not. If Niemann ends up in the pen, Gomes may end up in Durham again. Still, if he could turn the corner on his control, a la Rodney, he could develop into a fantasy asset. The Rays bullpen could use a bit of an infusion of youth beyond Jake McGee (LHP, TAM). Add him to your watch list.


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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.