Top spring position questions - NBC Sports

Top spring position questions
Spotlight will be on Ramirez, Chapman and Madson, among others, when camps open
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The Dodgers' 2013 success may hinge on Hanley Ramirez's ability to stick at shortstop.
January 31, 2013, 9:01 pm

Take your pick: Revenue sharing; excellent management by front offices not blessed with high payrolls; traditional big-spenders caught in relative down phases; all of the above. Whatever the combination of factors, there appears to be that much balance at the top these days.

All of which makes these spring position questions -- among many others -- that much more important:

1. Can Hanley Ramirez still play shortstop? Yes, the health of Matt Kemp -- and to a lesser degree, Carl Crawford -- will directly impact the Dodgers' chances of translating their $200 million plus payroll into a post-season appearance.

But Ramirez's dual role at the most-important defensive position and projected No. 5 hitter behind Kemp and Adrian Gonzalez makes his success critical.

Ramirez isn't the offensive force he was as recently as his 2008-09 Silver Slugger seasons, as his yearly OPS numbers are in decline. Still, among shortstops, only Troy Tulowitzki should have better power numbers.

But those two aren't at all confused defensively, with Tulowitzki always near the top while Ramirez's metrics have been below league average throughout his career. And Ramirez, listed at 6-2, 230 pounds, will play this season at age 29.

Ramirez's ability to handle shortstop also affects the Dodgers' third-base situation, and possibly Dee Gordon's future in the organization. The current plan is Luis Cruz at third base, but the fact that there's interest in Scott Rolen tells you the Dodgers aren't sold on Cruz's short-term viability as a regular. If Ramirez ends up at third, Gordon could resurface, assuming he makes enough contact at the plate to take advantage of his speed.

Not helping matters is the fact that Ramirez could miss a chunk of the Dodgers' camp due to World Baseball Classic participation for the Dominican Republic. And he probably won't be playing much shortstop for that squad, as Jose Reyes also is on the roster.

2. Is Bruce Rondon ready to be the Tigers' closer? GM Dave Dombrowski has assembled a better overall roster than last year's AL pennant winners. Victor Martinez's return and Torii Hunter's addition should make a very good offense even better. The rotation is deep enough that trading Rick Porcello is a serious possibility. There's no salvaging that infield defense, but Hunter will make the outfield defense better.

But Jim Leyland says that championship teams almost always have dominant closers, and admits he doesn't know at this point just what he'll do with that role. The job likely is Rondon's to lose, but there isn't a clear, proven alternative if he does.

There are many examples of hard throwers quickly emerging as closers early in their careers, and Rondon -- whose fastball regularly exceeds 100 mph -- throws as hard or harder than any of them.

But there's no way of knowing at this point whether Rondon -- a 6-3, 265-pound 22-year-old with six years in the Tigers' system -- can be this season's Aroldis Chapman, or will be just another hard-throwing rookie with a history of some command issues.

Rondon's 2012 numbers at the top three levels of the Tigers' system speak to his potential: 53 IP, 32 hits, 66 strikeouts, 2.54 K/W ratio, 1.094 WHIP. But he's pitched only eight innings above the Double-A level, so perhaps his emergence won't occur until later in 2013.

3. Can the Braves' projected third-base time share of Chris Johnson and Juan Francisco succeed? The Uptonification of the Braves arguably has created the NL's most dynamic outfield. But what's being underplayed in all the anticipation of watching Justin Upton, B.J. Upton and Jason Heyward, left-to-right, is this sobering fact:

The Braves lost Michael Bourn, Chipper Jones and Martin Prado from their 2012 regular lineup. So if there is going to be a net gain in the Braves' offense in 2013, this third-base time share needs to be productive.

Specifically, the Bourn-Jones-Prado trio in 2012 produced 33 HR, 189 RBIs, 235 R, 60 SB, .287 BA, .361 on-base. There will be more power from the Uptons and Johnson/Francisco, but a loss in on-base percentage, batting average and probably steals.

Johnson projects as the regular third baseman. He put together his best big-league season in 2012 at age 27, and at least one projection of his 2013 season is very similar: .273, 14 HR, 70 RBIs, 57 runs, 4 steals, .306 on-base percentage.

Francisco, entering his 25/26 season, remains potential unfulfilled, but appears to be nothing more than a low-average, 20-25-homer type with regular playing time -- which he isn't likely to get in this situation, barring injury.

4. Who plays shortstop for the Cardinals? Look up and down their projected 25-man roster, and you just don't see many potentially troubling issues. And few, if any, organizations have more quality prospects on the verge than the Cardinals do with Trevor Rosenthal, Shelby Miller, Oscar Taveras and Carlos Martinez.

But right in the middle of the diamond -- and at the top of the lineup -- the question remains: What impact will Rafael Furcal have coming off an elbow injury at 35? The elbow isn't expected to be an issue, but even so, Furcal's 121 games played last season marked his highest total since 2008.

Pete Kozma filled in nicely down the 2012 stretch, but is a .236 career minor-league hitter. Ronny Cedeno has been signed for insurance, but can be overexposed rather quickly. Will the Cardinals be forced to deal from their surplus of prospects if Furcal can't go 100-plus games?

left5. Can Aroldis Chapman convert to the rotation? Some think the Reds should just leave well enough alone and keep Chapman as one of the game's top two overpowering closers along with Craig Kimbrel.

But dominant No. 1 starters being as rare as they are, this is worth a shot. However, it won't come without ramifications -- and it very well could have an overall adverse affect on the Reds' 2013 season while being a huge positive for Chapman's long-term development.

The Reds were very fortunate to have their five-man rotation make 161 starts in 2012. It's highly unlikely they approach that number again, so that's an argument on the side of Chapman's conversion. That said, Chapman's innings total will be limited to 160 or so, creating that ongoing drama.

The projected bullpen does appear very deep without Chapman -- Jonathan Broxton, Sean Marshall, Sam LeCure, Logan Ondrusek, Jose Arredondo, Alfredo Simon, Mike Leake, J.J. Hoover, Tony Cingrani. But Broxton's strikeout rate fell in 2012, and his health remains a concern.

Dusty Baker and Bryan Price will have plenty to deal with, don't you think?

6. Is Ryan Madson healthy enough to close for the Angels? An underperforming back end of the bullpen damaged the Angels' early 2012 results almost as much as Albert Pujols' slow start and Mike Trout being stuck in Salt Lake City until late April. They got the bullpen straightened out with Ernesto Frieri's acquisition and emergence, but still fell short of the postseason.

GM/former big-league reliever Jerry Dipoto knows bullpens as well as anybody, and improved his with the signings of Madson and Sean Burnett to replace Jordan Walden (traded for Tommy Hanson) and LaTroy Hawkins. But ultimately, Madson's comeback after missing all of 2012 due to Tommy John surgery last March will be how Dipoto's dealings will be judged. Madson, who took a one-year guaranteed deal for only $3.25 million (plus up to another $3.5 million in roster and games-finished incentives) could be ready by Opening Day. And if he regains his 2011 form -- 2.37 ERA, 32 of 34 save opportunities, 60.2 innings, 62 strikeouts, 1.15 WHIP -- the Madson-Frieri-Burnett-Kevin Jepsen-Scott Downs quintet looks post-season-worthy.



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