Monday, March 21, 2011

Let It Snow, Baseball's Coming

When I got to my car this morning, the snow that enveloped it didn't exactly portend the momentous occasion that is just over a week away.

The event I'm referring to, of course, is Major League Baseball's Opening Day.

Far away from the Ottawa cold and subsequent rage that inevitably follows when you're forced to scrape snow off you're car in March, the Toronto Blue Jays' brass are beginning to finalize the roster that they'll be sporting come April 1st when the Twins head north to kick off the campaign.

However, there are still a number of issues that remain unresolved. Arguably the most pressing of which is who will take the fourth and fifth starter jobs in the Jays' rotation, alongside Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, and Brett Cecil.

Coming off a solid performance against the Twins in which he hurled 5.1 scoreless innings, surrendering only three hits while striking out seven, Jesse Litsch has certainly emerged as a favourite to win one of those jobs. While his career suffered a serious setback when he was forced to shut himself down for Tommy John surgery in 2009, Litsch's arm appears to have fully recovered, as has his hip, which was operated on last August. With a clean bill of health and solid numbers this spring -- 17.1 IP, 2-0, 3.12 ERA, 17 Ks -- Litsch will likely start the season in the rotation, looking to return to his 2007-2008 form where he posted an impressive 3.79 ERA over 48 starts and one relief appearance.

With the recent announcement that Mark Rzepczynski is no longer being considered for a starter's job, the two remaining candidates to round out the rotation are 26-year-old southpaw Jo-Jo Reyes and uber-prospect Kyle Drabek, 23.

While Drabek was generally considered to be a lock for a spot in the rotation coming into camp, Reyes has posted solid numbers this spring, and seeing as he's out of options -- meaning the Jays would be forced to put him on waivers and risk losing him to another team should he not make the 25-man roster -- the decision is anything but simple.

However, with a serious scarcity of southpaws in the bullpen, there is the possibility that Reyes is consigned to a relief role, joining David Purcey as the only lefties in the 'pen. This would allow Drabek, who's 2-0 with a 3.27 ERA and 9 Ks through 11 innings this spring, to slide into the rotation, as many believed he would, and begin developing into the future front-line starter many believe he can be.

The bullpen is another area that remains unsettled with just over a week remaining in Spring Training. With the putative closer Frank Francisco scheduled for a meeting with Dr. James Andrews later this week, it does not seem likely that he will break camp with the big-league squad. Even if he's still allowed to throw after his consultation with Andrews, which too often augurs an 18-month leave of absence, his arm will still need some stretching out before he's ready for regular season action. This along with Octavio Dotel's nagging hamstring injury means that Jon Rauch becomes the new favourite to assume closing duties, at least to start, leaving Jason Frasor, Shawn Camp, Carlos Villanueva, Casey Jansenn, Purcey, and Reyes to round out the rest of the relief corps.

As for the guys who swing the bat, there are still a few more decisions to be made, the most intriguing of which is whether or not Brett Lawrie, acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for Shaun Marcum this December, will start the season with the big boys after an impressive spring.

Lawrie, who's as notorious for his mouth as he is for his bat, has done everything in his power this spring to avoid getting sent to Las Vegas for some more fine-tuning. The Burnaby, B.C. native has posted an average of .289 with 2 homeruns, 6 RBIs, and 3 stolen bases through 38 at-bats this spring, and has wowed even the biggest skeptics with his hasty and largely seamless transition to third base. That being said, his most recent performance -- an 0/4 day, including 3 strikeouts -- and Juan Rivera's unwavering presence in right field this Spring likely spells AAA for the hard-nosed prospect.

With Lawrie likely getting shipped to the desert, and Scott Podsednik's lingering plantar fasciitis, the Jays' bench will probably feature Corey Patterson as the fourth outfielder, with Mike McCoy and fan-favourite John "Prime Minister of Defence" MacDonald serving as reserve infielders.

Though there's still nine games left on the Jays' Grapefruit League schedule, the speculation is already in mid-season form.

So get out your boots and break out the ice-scrapers. Baseball's nearly here.

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