2012 MLB Spring Training: Every Team's Player on the Hot Seat This Season
New York Yankees fans will probably concern themselves more with Michael Pineda than with Freddy Garcia during spring training. Chicago Cubs fans will have closer eyes on Starlin Castro than on Alfonso Soriano or Randy Wells. Arizona Diamondbacks rooters will worry more about the health of Stephen Drew than about John McDonald.
That's all fine. Fans who know the game, know it's a game for young men and teams who aren't able to move on when a veteran begins to be a drag on the roster are doomed to fail. It's a cutthroat game, and a large percentage of its fans view wins and losses as the sole acceptable barometer for success.
It's not that way for the players, though, nor for all fans. Some remain who enjoy baseball for what it has to teach us, about aging, about maturity and about the nobility of struggling for the sake of a dream every day, even if that dream has to die someday.
The lessons we really learn from baseball should not be sought in the ninth inning of a playoff game or in the tabloid photos of some star out on the town. They are out there, on dusty secondary fields in Arizona complexes on trainers' tables an even operating tables and on buses bound for the other side of Florida, trudging through air so thick it seems to sap the life from aging muscles, and yet, infuses young ones with fresh pliability.
When the Greeks wanted to communicate something universal to one another, they didn't try to do so on a level with the common man. In all their mythology and their tragedies and comedies, Sophocles and Euripides and Homer and the rest gave their audiences kings and gods as protagonists.
They understood that nothing in the human experience, nothing common or populist, is so universal as the dream of being rich and famous, powerful and gifted. We learn best when we are able to see ourselves in those we admire or envy. With that in mind, here is the player on each MLB team whose career is on the line this spring.
Don't focus on the millions these guys may have already made; think about what it must be like to know you're playing for the right to keep chasing your dream. Think about how it feels when you're playing for everything, and the world calls it an exhibition.
John McDonald, Shortstop
Who he is: McDonald, 37, is maybe the least-heralded 13-year veteran in baseball today. He has played an average of just 68 games per year since 1999, but his glove and his personality have kept him in the game far longer than many expected he could. In 2005, the Toronto Blue Jays traded McDonald to Detroit, then got him back as the player to be named later in the deal.
On Father's Day 2006, in his first at-bat since taking significant time off to be with his dying father, McDonald homered. The outpouring of emotion that hit drew from his teammates signified what he meant to them.
What he does: Fielding ability peaks substantially earlier than any other skill, so much of McDonald's value as a glove-only infielder has eroded a bit. Still, he's the kind of guy teams want in their clubhouse if they can find room.
What he faces: Willie Bloomquist can do everything McDonald can do but has more positional flexibility. If Henry Blanco, Lyle Overbay and Gerardo Parra are each also each guaranteed bench spots—they are—then McDonald will be left facing Geoff Blum for the 25th and final roster position. That's an unenviable spot to be in, especially because Arizona could decide Blum is needed as insurance against regression by third baseman Ryan Roberts.
Matt Diaz, Left Fielder
Who he is: Undrafted out of high school, Diaz became a star at Florida State but still fell to the 17th round and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. That was in 1999. It was 2003 before Diaz reached the big leagues and 2006 before he established himself as a full-time member of the Braves and a solid platoon bat. He's been labeled a Quadruple-A guy, then given chances to play every day, then re-painted as a marginal talent. Now, he's back with the Braves after most of a year in Pittsburgh, during which it became clear he's nearing the end of the line.
What he does: Diaz is big, but not a bad athlete, and was once a viable defensive right fielder. These days, he's more of a left field-only player, and even there, he's not a special defensive talent. He also has a career .689 OPS against right-handed pitching.
Against lefties, though, Diaz sports a .329/.368/.506 career line. He never developed quite as much power as the Braves hoped he would, but he still could be a solid fill-in for left-hitting Jason Heyward or Freddie Freeman when opponents trot out southpaw starters.
What he faces: The Braves' outfield and first-base picture is crowded with left-handed batters, so Diaz has a good chance to make the team. He will have to prove he still has the ability to mash left-handed pitching in order to do so, though, because Jose Constanza and Eric Hinske are better overall players.
Brian Matusz, Left-handed Pitcher
Who he is: Matusz is no enigma or fading semi-regular; he's a man in transition. He was one of baseball's most well-regarded prospects a mere two years ago, but that phase of his career is over. Matusz will become either a solid contributor or an unmitigated bust before the season ends.
What he does: He's not a hard thrower, but Matusz has a curve and a changeup that can be plus pitches at times. He pounds the strike zone, though he tends to make mistakes over the plate and pitches to contact too often. That's part of the reason he gave up 18 home runs in fewer than 50 innings in 2011. He still has impact upside, but the risks are now very clear. He could flame out entirely.
What he faces: Matusz can bang around for the year in the minors if he needs to, and that's likely to happen given that Zach Britton, Wei-Yin Chen, Jason Hammel, Tsuyoshi Wada, Jake Arrieta, Brad Bergeson, Chris Tillman and Dana Eveland are all vying for spots on Baltimore's staff, too.
Assuming he does, though, he's still likely to become arbitration-eligible in 2013, and if he has a poor 2012 first, the Orioles might non-tender him.
Boston Red Sox
Darnell McDonald, Outfielder
Who he is: McDonald went to the Orioles in the first round of the 1997 draft. Since then, he has been part of seven organizations. He didn't reach the big leagues until 2004, and then made only 34 plate appearances. He didn't come close to establishing himself until five years after that, with the Reds in 2009.
McDonald is a terrific athlete, not especially big or tall but plenty fast, strong and coordinated. he never really translated his tools into baseball skills or hitting prowess, though.
What he does: He's a center and right-field profile defensively. He can hit a bit, run a bit and showed mild pop the last two years. His value is probably overstated by the fact that he has called Fenway Park home during that span, though.
What he faces: With the addition of Ryan Sweeney and Cody Ross, the only role McDonald could possibly find with Boston is fifth outfielder. He'll have to beat out rostered youngster Che-Hsuan Lin for even that, though, and Lin plays a better center field.
The odds that McDonald ever matches his recent playing-time totals for the Sox again are quite low.
Randy Wells, Right-handed Pitcher
Who he is: Thirty-eighth round picks rarely make it to the show, let alone succeed there. That goes double for those drafted as catchers, but who changes gears and takes the mound. Wells has already achieved by attaining the middle of the Chicago Cubs' rotation after they took him late in the 2002 draft. Yet, there he made it, albeit some seven years after being chosen.
He got off to a great start, too, finishing with a 3.05 ERA and getting Rookie of the Year votes in 2009. The next season was less thrilling, but certainly not discouraging. In 2011, though, he pitched 59 fewer innings, struck out 62 fewer batters, walked only 16 fewer and allowed four more home runs.
What he does: Wells throws a sinker and a slider that are perfectly serviceable. His changeup isn't good enough to make those pitches play up, but it keeps him afloat most of the time. What Wells needs to focus on is working the bottom of the zone and not overthrowing that sinker.
What he faces: With Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster, Travis Wood, Chris Volstad and Paul Maholm in line ahead of him, Wells needs a great spring or a big break to crack the big-league staff. Failing that, he might find a place in a big-league bullpen, but his career as a guaranteed-contract guy and potential starter seem to be ending.
Chicago White Sox
Kosuke Fukudome, Outfielder
Who he is: Once a star in Japan, Fukudome was already past his prime and dealing with an injury more costly than anyone knew when he agreed to come stateside. He is a dedicated, intelligent person and player, a patient hitter and a fluid athlete. He's also aging fast, though, and rather more fragile than he once was.
What he does: As it turns out, Fukudome does not have much power, and he's a good (not great) outfielder. He draws walks and gets on base, but if he ever ceases to do so, he will utterly lack value.
What he faces: Fukudome will make just $500,000 in 2012, but the Sox have a $3.5-million option for 2013. If he can't earn it, Fukudome is unlikely to find a substantive MLB opportunity ever again. In order to do that, he needs to perform well while pinned behind Alejandro De Aza in left field and Dayan Viciedo in right.
Homer Bailey, Right-handed Pitcher
Who he is: A four-time alumnus of Baseball America's top 100 prospects list, Bailey was in the majors at 21. Since then, though, he has 78 starts and a 4.89 ERA. He's also made 54 starts back in Triple-A, as the Reds' frustration with him has grown. He's ratcheted up his command ratio the past to years, but to only modest effect.
What he does: Bailey throws a standard four-pitch mix, with his fastball and slider leading the way. He has the stuff to be a solid mid-rotation starter, though he's had that stuff all along and is yet to figure things out.
What he faces: Bailey is out of options, so he has to make the team in order to avoid release waivers. With Mat Latos, Mike Leake, Johnny Cueto, Bronson Arroyo and Aroldis Chapman also in the mix for the rotation, Bailey might be below the cut line.
He's a fine candidate for bullpen work as a rule, but with Ryan Madson, Nick Masset, Jose Arredondo, Sam LeCure and Logan Ondrusek already locked in out there, right-handed pickings are slim.
David Huff, Left-handed Pitcher
Who he is: Cleveland landed Huff in the sandwich round of the 2006 draft, out of UCLA. He was then as he is now, a left-hander with good feel and command but not electric stuff. The Indians liked his athleticism, and took a chance.
After some aggressive promotion, Huff had a nearly full-time gig with the parent club by early 2009. In 23 starts, though, he rang up a 5.61 ERA. In shorter looks the last two years, he has combined for a 5.39 ERA in 25 starts. He's unlikely to get a long look in 2012, either, given the depth the team has striven to assemble this winter.
What he does: Huff has good command, but needs to refine it. He works almost exclusively off the fastball and changeup, which accounts for his slight reverse platoon split. A breaking pitch of real substance would change Huff's world, but at 28, he's unlikely to simply learn such a thing.
What he faces: Ubaldo Jimenez, Derek Lowe, Justin Masterson, Josh Tomlin, Kevin Slowey, Jon Garland and even Roberto Hernandez Heredia all will get their shots before Huff. He might have a chance to make it in the bullpen, but he's likely as not had his last chance to start in the big leagues on a regular basis.
Eric Young, Jr., 2B/OF
Who he is: First and foremost, Young is the son of Eric Young. His father played for some well-remembered Rockies teams and was very popular. This Young is an athlete but not the baseball player his dad was. The most pertinent question about his development beyond this point is probably: How far do good genes carry a player in baseball?
What he does: Young can run. He can really run. He stole 27 bases in 31 tries in 2011, plus 17 more (in 18 attempts) at Triple-A. He's a fair fielder at second base but better in the outfield, where his raw speed plays better. The question now is whether he will ever hit enough to succeed. His speed and plate discipline suggest he has a chance.
What he faces: Young is out of options, so he will be given every chance to win a permanent bench role. On the other hand, D.J. LeMahieu, Chris Nelson, Jonathan Herrera, Hector Gomez and Thomas Field all could soon threaten him. Young has to come to play in Arizona.
Clete Thomas, Outfielder
Who he is: Thomas got hurt at the worst imaginable time in his career. He was a perfectly adequate fourth outfielder for parts of 2008 and 2009 and would probably have gotten substantial opportunity to play in 2010. Instead, he suffered microfractures in his knee in May, had surgery in June and missed the rest of the season. He's a very different player from Don Kelly but could be just as good off the Tigers' bench.
What he does: Speed is a big part of Thomas's game, and it has bounced back nicely post-injury. He stole 20 bases in 23 tries in Triple-A in 2011. He has good defensive instincts, too, which make him a viable center-field option. He's displayed some power, too, though it was absent until he reached the upper levels of pro ball. In a strange way, he's a poor man's Drew Stubbs, though it's important to note that that man is quite poor.
What he faces: Out of options, Thomas has to make the team or face waivers. He's up against Kelly and Andy Dirks for a role, and though he's definitely behind the 8-ball in that match, he has a chance.
Livan Hernandez, Right-handed Pitcher
Who he is: If you still don't know who Livan Hernandez is, you haven't been paying attention. He may not be a superstar, but he has been around forever, and he's one of those players for whom life after baseball must seem almost unimaginable.
No one in baseball has been steadier for the last 15 years, though "steady" and "great" are not to be confused with one another.
What he does: Hernandez simply pitches to contact, moving his pitches laterally in the zone and striving to jam hitters or get the ball out on the ends of their bats. He throws the kitchen sink at opponents, but it's still working as well as it has for the last five years. For a rebuilding team, Hernandez's most important skill is his durability.
What he faces: If this doesn't work out, that's it for Hernandez. He comes into camp as a non-roster invitee, which creates an immediate obstacle: He has to actively beat out a rostered pitcher. On the other hand, he's really a better pitcher than a handful of the team's current hurlers.
Kansas City Royals
Jonathan Broxton, Right-handed Pitcher
Who he is: Broxton was a star closer barely more than a year ago. He's a power pitcher from head to toe, and the theory once was that his powerful frame would make him immune to some of the usual variance and rapid decline that usually befall relievers.
Not so. Broxton fell apart in 2011, with injuries stealing most of his season and control problems making the rest a miserable experience. He has a new one-year deal in Kansas City, but the stakes for it are now very high.
What he does: A 97-mile-an-hour fastball and a power slider make everything simple. Broxton comes out of the bullpen, throws very hard and hopes it gets past opponents. He's surprisingly adroit as a fielder.
What he faces: Another season like 2011 would spell the end. Broxton needs to come into camp with less weight on his frame. He needs to stay healthy, and he needs to hold off several rookies and prospects who would love to take his spot near the back of the Royals' bullpen.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Kendrys Morales, DH
Who he is: Morales has missed the last season-and-a-half after the disastrous leap onto home plate that wrecked his left knee. Prior to that, though, he was establishing himself as a star slugger. He's a rare combination of power and pure hitting ability, assuming he can recover eventually from the injury that so derailed him.
What he does: Hitting is pretty much it. Morales runs just a tick faster than Billy Butler, and isn't a fielding whiz even at first base. His best position is DH.
What he faces: Signing Albert Pujols created a logjam for the Angels. They now have just left field and DH available to divvy up among Vernon Wells, Mark Trumbo and Morales.
Since Morales is out of options, though, he's not likely to be dropped from the roster. He needs a good 2012 to prove he can stay healthy and get his career back on track, though.
Los Angeles Dodgers
James Loney, First Baseman
Who he is: Loney was considered a very serious prospect a few years ago, when his pure hitting talent looked like it could translate into power and make him an elite producer. As he approaches free agency, though, Loney looks unlikely to hit enough to be a valuable first baseman. He actually bounced back in 2011 after a poor 2010, but he still doesn't look like a star on the rise.
What he does: He can still hit. He has only 48 home runs since the start of 2008, but his pure hitting ability has not evaporated. A man his size can always add some pop to the profile, so his raw contact and line-drive skills are useful.
What he faces: Loney will be the Dodgers' first baseman in 2012. It's 2013 that remains up in the air and will be determined by Loney's performance.
Donnie Murphy, INF
Who he is: Murphy reached MLB at age 21 but has never proved able to make enough adjustments to settle in as an everyday player. He's a utility man in every sense of the word, but he certainly caught the eyes of some Marlins fans with timely hits the past two years. Those clutch hits didn't matter much to the 72-90 Marlins of 2011, but these 2012 Fish might be better able to leverage those extra wins into serious contention.
What he does: While he does nothing poorly, Murphy also doesn't do anything especially well. He's an OK defender, but the window during which he could play a tenable shortstop is closed. He occasionally displays good power but is more of a gap hitter most of the time. Speed and contact are the major holes in his game.
What he faces: With Hanley Ramirez moving to third base and prospect Matt Dominguez struggling badly, Murphy has a very good chance to make the team. It's Dominguez who poses the greatest threat to that. Murphy is out of options, so missing the roster would mean a dive into the abyss.
Mat Gamel, First Baseman
Who he is: Gamel was a well-touted prospect at the outset of his pro career, but the Brewers pushed him a bit too quickly at times, and early success made him too reticent to make necessary adjustments. He reached Triple-A in 2008, established himself there early in 2009 and was called up very prematurely that same year, despite a 27.8 percent strikeout rate in the International League.
The National League fanned him 36.5 percent of the time in 161 plate appearances, and his career since has been a cautionary tale about overaggressive player development. He played at four levels in 2010 but got just 17 big-league plate appearances.
What he does: It's just possible that starting over has helped Gamel get past his problems making consistent contact. His strikeout rate in 545 Triple-A plate appearances in 2011 was 15.4 percent. He's unlikely to be a superstar, especially now that he has moved across the diamond from third base to first, but he should be a capable hitter with 25-homer upside.
What he faces: Another bust of a spring would set Gamel back almost too far for recovery to be possible. He should be the Brewers' Opening Day first baseman, but if he struggles badly enough or if Ryan Braun's suspension is overturned, Milwaukee might well move Corey Hart in to first base and waive goodbye to their out-of-options slugger.
Joel Zumaya, Right-handed Pitcher
Who he is: If Zumaya never pitches in the big leagues again, he will always have the fall of 2006. He hit 104 miles per hour on the Comerica Park radar gun that autumn, in a playoff game, no less. He electrified the crowd, dominated out of the bullpen and helped the Detroit Tigers reach the World Series.
Since then, though, injuries have destroyed his career. He's now just another in the long line of pitchers playing on six-figure contracts and hoping to put their injury histories behind them.
What he does: Fastball. He does fastball. Zumaya sets himself apart a bit, though, because he also has a usable slider and fair command.
What he faces: If Zumaya can't stay on the mound this time, he's unlikely to get another chance. He can afford to struggle a bit but has to stay healthy to realistically keep his MLB career alive.
New York Mets
Val Pascucci, First Baseman/Outfielder
Who he is: Whether or not the Quadruple-A player exists in reality, it certainly lives and thrives in the minds of MLB executives. Pascucci, 33, stands as perhaps the best extant evidence. He reached Triple-A at age 24, in 2003, and since then, he's hit .275/.393/.509 there. Between struggles to stay healthy, a brief sojourn to Japan and a missed opportunity to establish himself with the Montreal Expos in 2004, Pascucci has amassed only 85 total MLB plate appearances. He did manage three homers in those tries, including one in 2011 in 11 times taking the plate.
What he does: He neither runs, fields nor hits much for average or contact. Pascucci is a prospect for as far as his power will carry him. That has not been far to this point, though, because he truly is without a position. Criminally, given his name and his frame, he has never caught an inning of pro ball behind the plate. He essentially aspires, or once did, to the career arc described by Matt Stairs.
What he faces: Pascucci got a sliver of an opening in 2011, when the absence of Ike Davis and a general lack of pressure convinced the Mets to accommodate him with a September call-up. He's unlikely to get another long look, unless he demonstrates massive clout in camp. If nothing else, he should have a spot waiting for him in Triple-A. He can always tell his grandchildren about the day he hit a game-tying, pinch-hit, two-out home run off the great Cole Hamels and helped beat the 102-win 2011 Philadelphia Phillies.
New York Yankees
Freddy Garcia, Right-Handed Pitcher
Who he is: Once, Freddy Garcia was the centerpiece of a trade for Randy Johnson. Another time, he commanded both Gavin Floyd and Gio Gonzalez in a straight-up trade. His closest career comparable on Baseball-Reference is to Cy Young winner and two-time World Series champion Chris Carpenter.
Yet, Garcia has also had stretches of his career as ugly as those parts are glamorous. From 2006-10, he posted an unsightly 4.69 ERA and averaged barely 100 innings pitched per year. His career hung by a thread for four consecutive winters. After finding success with the Yankees in 2011, he got a guaranteed deal for 2012 and looks to have revived his career at age 35. Given his past, though, nothing is for certain.
What he does: As close as any pitcher to a true five-pitch mix, Garcia throws a fastball, slider, changeup, split-fingered fastball and curve, all between eight and 35 percent of the time. He's not a hard thrower, but his slider induces some bad swings anyway, and he has never been afraid to put a splitter in the dirt. His forte is to throw strikes and create uncertainty for opposing hitters.
What he faces: Trading A.J. Burnett to Pittsburgh was a vote of confidence in Garcia from Yankees management. Trading for Michael Pineda and signing Hiroki Kuroda, though, mean Garcia will have to compete openly with Phil Hughes for the final starting rotation spot this spring.
Garcia's guaranteed 2012 money and his offer of depth in case of injury make a cut utterly unfathomable out of the gates, but a relegation to relief might really inhibit him. Garcia's repertoire doesn't profile well out of the bullpen. If he doesn't make the rotation initially, he might not even get the first call thereafter, as prospects Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos approach readiness.
Kila Ka'aihue, DH
Who he is: Buzz gathered around Ka'aihue during the 2008 season, when he was 24 years old. It wasn't all about his name or Hawaiian heritage. It was just mostly about that.
He hit 37 home runs and had a 1.085 OPS that season, splitting time between the Double-A Texas League and the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. He even got a few at-bats during a September debut for the Kansas City Royals.
No one took much heed, it seemed, of the fact that it took him to age 24 to get to Triple-A in the first place, or that his success all came while playing in very hitter-friendly environs. Ka'aihue finally got the call to play regularly in 2011 but flopped so badly as to be replaced barely a month into his audition as starting first baseman. Now, his career depends on winning a spot with Oakland.
What he does: Thoroughly one-dimensional, Ka'aihue is capable of hitting for both average and power but has no secondary skills. That can be OK; it can work. In this case, though, it needs to work fast, and it needs to work perfectly.
What he faces: As part of their rebuilding effort, the A's are bringing a huge glut of players to spring training, and the competition for any bat-first bench spots will be fierce. Ka'aihue is out of options and needs to best Brandon Allen (also out of options, but with a higher pedigree) to keep his dream alive. He has a shot, but it's a long one.
Dontrelle Willis, Left-handed Relief Pitcher
Who he is: Of the 205 MLB games in which Dontrelle Willis has appeared, he has started 202. He will not start in Philadelphia. The stringy kid with the whirling delivery, the crooked hat and the vulpine grin is gone. Willis is thicker now, strong and sturdy. He's more economical in his delivery.
He no longer wears his socks high, and he will no longer get chances to show off his surprising hitting prowess. The Phillies hope to turn Willis into a no-nonsense left-handed power reliever. It may be Willis's last chance.
What he does: At his Rookie of the Year-winning best, Willis threw a fastball that (while not that fast in a strict sense) he seemed to release mere inches from batters' noses; a changeup to keep right-handed hitters teetering from one foot to the other in the box; and a slider that had left-handed opponents lurching as wildly toward first base as Willis did toward them.
Over the years, the deception has eroded as opposing teams have studied Willis. The stuff has faded, too, so Willis has taken to mixing three different kinds of fastballs into his repertoire. He has even tinkered with a slow curve, instead of the slider. In Philadelphia, though, he will find the staff impatient with his developing two-seamer and loopy breaker. He will throw mostly cutters, sliders and changeups, for better or worse.
What he faces: Getting a guaranteed, big-league deal was a terrific win for Willis on a personal level. The Phillies clearly believe he can fit comfortably as a left-handed specialist in middle innings and serve in long relief if necessary. He'll get a chance to prove or disprove himself in this role, but without a modicum of success, he will not find much interest beyond this season.
Brad Lincoln, Right-handed Pitcher
Who he is: After going relatively unnoticed out of high school and being picked only in the 28th round, Brad Lincoln found his rhythm in college. He so dazzled, in fact, that three years after turning down the Texas Rangers' minimal offer to come to camp as just another guy, he made $2.75 million as the fourth overall pick of the 2006 draft.
The Pirates pressed him into immediate action, though he had already pitched 127 innings for the University of Houston that year—in 17 starts. He pitched another 23.2 innings in six starts before the minor-league season ended, and the club sent him on to the fall instructional league for more work.
He felt the first twinge there. Still, his elbow pain would not come to a head until the next spring, when Lincoln blew out his arm and needed Tommy John surgery. He missed the entire season, and in a sense, never recovered.
On the other hand, many players who have the same procedure at such a young age, and who get it before climbing much up the ladder of professional baseball, never reach the Major Leagues. Lincoln already has.
What he does: Lincoln works in a simple and straightforward way. He throws a fastball that hovers between 91 and 94 miles per hour; a curve that flashes well above-average; and a changeup of not much more consequence than to change batters' eye levels. Even that has value, though, because Lincoln otherwise gets in trouble by throwing that fastball too hard and too straight. He throws strikes but is very hittable after the first time through the order in most starts.
What he faces: Time is on Lincoln's side, and yet, it isn't. He's not out of options, and the injury that has Charlie Morton questionable for April leaves a possible void in the Pirates' rotation. If that opportunity arises, and if Lincoln can beat out Kevin Correia for it, he has a future yet.
If, on the other hand, Correia wins the battle, the Pirates must choose whether to send Lincoln back to Indianapolis to continue working on moving his fastball or to simply ship him to the end of the bullpen bench. From there, the developmental path of a 27-year-old Tommy John survivor with a string-straight fastball and a 5.74 career ERA gets very murky.
San Diego Padres
Mark Kotsay, Outfielder
Who he is: While pitchers routinely find a few extra miles per hour of velocity in their late teens and 20s and explode as prospects, the huge majority of elite position-player prospects announce themselves by the end of their high-school careers and are aggressively drafted at that time.
En route to Cal State-Fullerton, though, Mark Kotsay never found the limelight. He went undrafted as a high schooler and became one of the best collegiate baseball players ever. He won both the Golden Spikes Award and the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA World Series in 1995, starring both as an outfielder and as the team's lights-out closer.
The Florida Marlins chose Kotsay with the ninth overall pick of the MLB draft that year, and he was in the big leagues before the end of the 1997 season. An unheralded player of whom no one took notice at 18, Kotsay was nearly a household name by the time he was 21. Since, he has carved out a solid career as a league-average center and right fielder. His brightest days were with San Diego from 2001-03, and he's now back to try to wind things up not far from his Southern California roots.
What he does: At his best, Kotsay was an above-average fielder in center field; a smart baserunner with double-digit steals annually; a modest power bat; and a consistent contact hitter. The years made off with his knees, and with them, his range and his speed on base. He doesn't hit much for power anymore, either, but even as his early 30s became his mid-30s, he has retained the ability to put bat to baseball.
What he faces: Kyle Blanks and Jesus Guzman are each in the same hat as Kotsay right now, and if the season began tomorrow, the Padres would probably just pick one at random and hand that player the first base/corner outfielder backup role. Since they have six weeks, though, the performances of each in camp will determine the winner. Kotsay is the only left-handed bat in the bunch, but the trio are vying to back up left-hitting Yonder Alonso (first base) and Will Venable (right field), so that may not be the advantage it appears to be.
San Francisco Giants
Guillermo Mota, Right-handed Pitcher
Who he is: A pro since 1990, Mota has seen all the ups and downs. He signed at 16 as a shortstop/third baseman, with the Mets. He never found his gear as a positional prospect. After he posted a .607 OPS in High-A at age 22 in 1996, the Montreal Expos drafted him from the Mets and moved him to the mound,
It worked. Mota had some success in 23 starts in the South Atlantic League in 1997, but the Expos correctly saw a big-armed closer type and shifted him to the bullpen the next year. By 1999, he was in the big leagues, although he wouldn't fully establish himself until age 29, in 2003.
He was a high-volume reliever, an everyday guy, and that took a toll on his arm sometimes. Mota earned a 50-game steroid-related suspension to open 2007, as he (like many others of his era) cast about for ways to pitch through pain and soreness and to recover faster. Mota has since settled in as a reliable but thoroughly unspectacular reliever, though he played on three different playoff teams from 2008-10, including the World Series champion Giants.
What he does: A fastball that can still reach 95 miles per hour drives Mota's value. He generates good sink when that is his intent but remains primarily a strikeout pitcher. His slider and changeup are usable big-league pitches, but neither is close to being above average.
What he faces: If the season began tomorrow, the 38-year-old Mota would have the final spot in the Giants' bullpen. Trades of Jonathan Sanchez and Ramon Ramirez this winter certainly help his cause. In general, though, things are dicey for the aged veteran.
Carlos Guillen, Infielder
Who he is: If John Halama shows up, we can crowd the entire Mariners' half of the Randy Johnson trade into this article. Unlikely.
Guillen signed with the Houston Astros out of Venezuela in 1992, though he would not even play stateside until 1995. Once he got that far, things took off, and he made four top-100 Baseball America prospect lists in five years from 1996-2000. He was a Venezuelan shortstop, but in a wholly non-traditional sense. He was big, strong and as much about the bat as the glove.
Injuries and an inability to find precisely the right position kept him from ever reaching his immense potential. Guillen has put in a little over a decade of solid, balanced work in MLB, spending at least 71 games at each infield spot and starting 48 times in left field. He's played only for the Tigers and Mariners but gives the peculiar vibe of a journeyman.
What he does: Shortstop is not really something he can handle anymore. Guillen has the greatest value as a second or third baseman and is a good bench bat because he switch-hits and is serviceable from either side of the dish.
What he faces: Guillen is back in Seattle, but on a minor-league deal. He will need to earn his spot, and the youth of the Mariners' other options works against him. Even if Guillen makes the roster, he will be looking over his shoulder at Luis Rodriguez, Munenori Kawasaki and Alex Liddi all season.
St. Louis Cardinals
Scott Linebrink, Right-handed Pitcher
Who he is: You might say that, apart from his career being on the line, Scott is on the brink of having to hang them up for good. (Go ahead. Take a moment to catch your breath.)
St. Louis would be Linebrink's seventh MLB home, in 13 seasons. He was a second-round pick in 1997, pitched from the starting rotation for two years in the minors, then flipped to the bullpen and scrambled quickly up the ladder to the show.
From 2003—when the Astros traded him to San Diego and he became a full-time reliever—through 2008, Linebrink put together a 2.99 ERA, 2.69 strikeout-to-walk ratio and an average of 65 appearances per year.
What he does: He's the rare right-handed reliever with a reverse platoon split, and that has value. His sinker bores in on lefties so well that, though the loss of the platoon advantage neutralizes his slider and steal his strikeout potential, he's able to induce lots of weak ground balls.
What he faces: At 35, Linebrink is fading fast. He has a 4.24 ERA over the past three seasons, and the zip on his slider is entirely gone. The Cardinals got him to camp with a minor-league deal, but he does have some chance of besting fellow lifer J.C. Romero for the last spot in the bullpen. Mitchell Boggs is also caught in that battle.
Tampa Bay Rays
Josh Lueke, Right-handed Pitcher
Who he is: Drafted out of college in the 16th round, Lueke was a non-prospect until the Texas Rangers got their hands on him. He signed within four days of the 2007 draft and went immediately to work. He struck out 37 and allowed only 45 baserunners in 37.2 innings that summer, though, and was off and running as a relief-only prospect whom the Rangers saw as a potential closer.
As good as his stuff is, though, his makeup is as bad. He missed the lion's share of the 2009 season after being arrested and charged with rape and sodomy while playing for Texas's Bakersfield affiliate in the California League. Those charges were eventually dropped as part of a plea deal, and Lueke got 40 days in jail for false imprisonment with violence, but not before it came out that semen found on the alleged victim was a DNA match.
Since then, all reports are that Lueke has been "a model citizen," and two organizations have now had the confidence in his character (or at least his baseball makeup) to trade for him. Still, the specter of the incident—and the lost development time—have set Lueke back in their own way.
What he does: Lueke's stuff is filthy. If his minor-league career is over, he finished with 107.strikeouts per nine innings, and 4.66 times as many whiffs as walks. He throws a fastball that can reach the upper 90s; a splitter with change-up velocity and arm action, that is unhittable when it's on; and a good power curve.
What he faces: At 27, Lueke will get more chances to make a big-league roster but never a better one than this. He has to prove he can fit into a clubhouse culture the Rays prize, and that the 6.06 ERA he posted in Seattle last season was more fluke than forewarning. If he can't, plenty of hard-throwing, right-handed prospects are waiting to pass him by in the Tampa organization.
Engel Beltre, Outfielder
Who he is: At 22, Engel Beltre has already taken the plate in Double-A 695 times. He has tools in places he hasn't even found yet. He's fast, strong, quick to the baseball and smooth afield. If only he were not a dope, he might be in the big leagues by now.
Beltre threw a trashcan into the stands during a shouting match between his teammates and fans at a Texas League game last season, prompting a suspension. It was his second in two years. He also got five games after inciting a brawl in the California League in 2010. The amazing part? He started and finished the fight while circling the bases after a walk-off home run. The Dallas News neatly chronicled the problematic pattern after the 2011 incident.
This level of immaturity and arrogance can't be dismissed as a personal, off-field problem. It interferes with the drive to get better and makes a player unlikely to handle failure the way a professional ball player must. That said, Beltre's physical package and swing make him a viable prospect for the moment.
What he does: Awful plate discipline has kept Beltre from tapping into his natural power, but it's there. His speed has been on display already. His quick wrists and smooth swing make it possible he could develop into a .300 hitter on a regular basis. He still profiles as a center fielder defensively.
What he faces: It isn't as though Beltre is soon to be a free agent or is on the brink of losing all potential utility. It hardly matters what he does on the field at all. He will be in big-league camp, and he needs to prove he can comport himself like a big-league player. If he does, he takes a massive step forward. If he doesn't, the last shred of patience Texas has for his shenanigans will evaporate.
Toronto Blue Jays
Jeff Mathis, Catcher
Who he is: If Mike Scioscia had his druthers, the Angels probably would have held onto Mathis this winter. Though the arrival via trade of Chris Iannetta eliminated any hope of Mathis starting, Scioscia has long loved him as a defense-first backstop.
Iannetta came to town on the impetus of new GM Jerry Dipoto, though, and Dipoto had a different idea of how to build the Angels into a winner. He signed Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, and shipped Mathis to Toronto. The Blue Jays will use Mathis as backup to J.P. Arencibia, but for how long, no one knows.
What he does: Mathis doesn't hit, doesn't hit for power, can't run and has a below-average arm for a catcher. All he really offers is the ability to handle a pitching staff, call a game on a deeper level and frame pitches well. He's a defense-only catcher, but baseball history is littered with men who made decade-long careers out of that skill set.
What he faces: For now, Mathis is safe. He's the only real option as the backup catcher. He's a free agent after the season, though, and his ability to find work beyond this year likely depends on his ability or inability to do something (anything) in Toronto.
Chien-Ming Wang, Right-handed Pitcher
Who he is: In a way, Chien-Ming Wang is Steve Blass for a new generation.
Blass dominated the National League in the early 1970s. He was on the mound when the Pittsburgh Pirates of 1971 completed their upset of the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. He was a star, and then he wasn't. Blass lost his control in a devastating, enigmatic and immediate way. One day, he simply forgot how to throw a strike. He never recovered.
Wang's high was not as high, and his low has not been so low. He won 19 games in back-to-back seasons for the Yankees half a decade (half a lifetime?) ago but was never to be confused with the elite hurlers of the game. He never missed many bats.
An injury cut his 2008 season short, though he was off to another sturdy start at 8-2. When he came back in 2009, it was as though something vital was gone from his game. He caught the hittability version of "Steve Blass Disease," one whereby he surrendered 66 hits (including seven home runs) and 45 earned runs in 42 innings before disappearing from baseball for 21 months.
To say he is cured would be an overstate; to say he's in remission would be premature. Wang made 11 starts in 2011, compiling a 4.04 ERA and pitching acceptably, with good control. Everything else remains to be seen.
What he does: The old Wang could hit 95 on the radar gun and worked comfortably off his fastball. This iteration is much more a finesse pitcher, with s sinker-slider mix. He's never going to miss many bats but is capable of missing the worst parts thereof when he's on. His control has always been good, and looked superb during his 2011 stint.
What he faces: Washington voted its confidence in Wang by signing him to a one-year deal in November—but in December and now in February, they have heavily hedged their bet by adding Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson to the starting rotation.
Wang now has to beat out John Lannan for the fifth and final spot or face relegation to the bullpen. Given the strength of Washington's relief corps, that's a small step from being waived or released. Wang has recovered admirably from a major career derailment, but now, the success of that endeavor is at stake in a six-week crap shoot.
Matt Trueblood is a Bleacher Report Featured Columnist on MLB. Check out his profile page.