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Seven days to go

by Matt Smith

Seven days to go. Seven days until the Mets and the Cardinals kick everything off for another season. Seven days too long really, but we’ve waited for over four months now so I guess one more week won’t hurt.

Seven days until we start means that the final roster decisions are taking place and the opening day rosters are taking shape. The main baseball roster news this week was the announcement that Jonathon Papelbon will not be in the Red Sox’s 2007 starting rotation and will instead return to his role as their closer. When you look at their roster, this appears to be the sensible decision to take. The Red Sox front office deserves credit for putting their pride and egos to one side and making the move now even though it has caused them some embarrassment. There were lots of reasons why it seemed a good idea to consider Papelbon for a starting role, not least the initial medical opinions they received suggesting that the regular pattern of work may be better for the health of his shoulder. There is a general debate about the relative importance of closers and in this case the Red Sox had to make a judgement on whether Papelbon’s 200 innings as a starter would be more valuable than eighty innings as a premium closer.

Still, it was strange that the Red Sox so publicly revealed their intentions at the end of last season for Papelbon to start when they didn’t have a replacement closer lined up. Papelbon hadn’t just done a reasonable job as a closer, he was outstanding in the role during 2006. Even if he would have given them more value as a starter, they would only be improving their pitching staff if they could find a quality closer as well. Their internal options looked limited so a trade or a free agent signing was essential. We all know how inflated the free agent market was this winter and various rumours have suggested that the Red Sox’s attempts to make a trade were scuppered by large demands. Maybe if they hadn’t already revealed their hand concerning Papelbon, they might have been in a stronger bargaining position?

 

While the Red Sox are moving people out of their rotation, Yankees fans are contemplating the thought of Carl Pavano being their Opening Day pitcher. The Yankees have been quick to stress that the opener is just one of 162 games to play and isn’t such a big deal, but it does make you wonder if their achilles heal of the last few seasons, starting pitching, is still going to hold them back. The recent injury to Chien-Ming Wang was extremely unfortunate and it looks like he will be missing for most of April. Andy Pettitte is also struggling somewhat with back spasms, while shifting Mussina to the opening day will involve messing about with his schedule which would be unwise. So Pavano it is then! Once again it looks like a destructive batting line-up is going to be accompanied by a patched-up rotation. Recently that formula has worked in the regular season but has resulted in play-off disappointment. The Yanks have two reasons to believe things will be different this time though. One is Philip Hughes, a highly talented young starter who will begin the season in Triple A but by all accounts will be in the big league rotation sooner rather than later. The other is the possible return of a certain Mr Clemens.

The Yankees undoubtedly will be looking for more pitching and have the drawing card of Andy Pettitte, Roger’s good friend, which could prove decisive. The Red Sox meanwhile will probably be looking to bring in another starter sometime during the season now that Papelbon is in the closer role. Either way, while I have misgivings over the special treatment Clemens is afforded by coming in part-way through the season, if and where Roger decides to pitch this season could be instrumental in deciding the fortunes of the two AL East powerhouses. Something tells me there will be plenty of column inches and air time devoted to the will he/won’t he saga in the next two months!

Elsewhere:

  • In Philadelphia most of the talk has concerned their embarrassment of starting pitcher riches and rumours have swirled about Jon Lieber being traded for additions to either the outfield or bullpen. The life of a General Manager is never easy though and the recent injury scares to Phillies pitchers shows how quickly a well-laid plan can unravel. While Freddy Garcia’s injury doesn’t appear to be serious (he might just need to be moved back to the fifth spot in the rotation), Lieber himself is now struggling with a “mild strain of his right oblique muscle”, according to MLB.com. (Incidentally, I think injuries to the oblique muscle are the baseball equivalent of breaking the metatarsal bone in your foot – both injuries have become quite fashionable in baseball and football respectively over the past few seasons, and most of us non-medical people didn’t know we had such things beforehand. Who said you learn nothing from sport?).
  • In Colorado, Byung-Hyun Kim is kicking up a fuss over being moved to the bullpen. When questioned whether he would be traded, Kim replied: “hopefully, I’ve talked to my agent, and I’ll see. They’re trying to and they’re going to find something. I don’t know. Hopefully”. Not exactly the most convincing job of selling yourself to potential new employers is it (and not much of a way to endear yourself to your current employers either)?
  • Finally, the Twins have the luxury of choosing between several different options for their starting rotation even without Francisco Liriano; however I fear that they may repeat their mistake from last year. The Twins began 2006 with Tony Batista and Juan Castro clogging up the line-up before the front office accepted their mistake and ditched them for Nick Punto and Jason Bartlett. Scroll forward twelve months and the Twins look likely to start the season with Ramon Ortiz and Sidney Ponson in their rotation instead of youngsters such as Matt Garza, Scot Baker and Glen Perkins. Ortiz and Ponson may have been decent in spring training, but few will be surprised if they turn back into pumpkins when the real action starts.

It’s easy to second guess roster moves as a fan though, which brings me on to fantasy baseball. The Fantasy Baseball UK competition is running again this year and you can start building your team from 18.00 today.

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