Looking At NL Roster Surprises


Lefty Wesley Wright, a major league Rule 5 pick, throws an 89-91 mph fastball with armside life and a late-breaking slider. He's competitive and shows no fear. He's also the sole lefty in Houston's bullpen, and the Astros are built to win now. Wright was tested early, coming in to face Brian Giles on Opening Night. And while it's certainly no sin to resist carrying a cadre of lefty specialists, it might not be putting the 23-year-old Wright in the best position to succeed if he's called upon only to face the top lefty hitters in the league.


While left-field prospect Brandon Jones may be the most notable omission from Atlanta's Opening Day roster, center fielder Gregor Blanco may be the most pleasant inclusion. But it's not that the 24-year-old Venezuelan hasn't earned it. The Braves seemed ready to go with offseason acquisition Josh Anderson as an outfield reserve, but Blanco's .345/.445/.485 performance in the Venezuelan League may have changed their mind. He's genetically engineered to be the perfect reserve—he runs well, bats lefty, gets on base and covers ground in the outfield—and he's batted .286/.384/.356 in two Triple-A seasons.

• It cost the Braves two young players (Willy Aybar, Chase Fontaine) to acquire lefty reliever Jeff Ridgway from the Rays, but he didn't make the Opening Day cut, those spots going instead to lefty specialists Royce Ring and Will Ohman.


Outfielder Gabe Kapler defends well and runs out everything—plus he's a good story, having returned to active duty after managing low Class A Greenville in 2007—but for a righty-heavy team like Milwaukee, he's a less than ideal fit. Gabe Gross and Tony Gwynn offer much of the same hustle and flow but from the left side. The 32-year-old Kapler's inclusion is more redundant still because Joe Dillon fits well as a righthanded pinch-hitter, and Mike Cameron will return after game No. 25.


While Rick Ankiel overcame a lot to reach the big leagues again in 2007, his perseverance is matched by 29-year-old third baseman Rico Washington, who until this season had spent every day of his 11-year professional career in the minors, mostly at the Double-A level. A 10th-round pick of the Pirates out of a Gray, Ga., high school in 1997, Washington peaked as that organization's No. 3 prospect in 2000 while spending time at the hot corner and behind the plate. The lefty batter made the team this year partially because of Brendan Ryan's injury, but also because plays with energy and has a short, quick swing.


Say hello, Reed Johnson. Say goodbye, Matt Murton. Granted, Johnson, whom the Cubs signed after Toronto released him in March, is a solid reserve outfielder type, but he's 31 and coming off a year in which he hit .236 with no power—and missed time with a back injury that required surgery. Look, 26-year-old Murton's no star (and the author is no Peter Gammons), but general manager Jim Hendry did trade for Murton, and Murton did perform when given steady at-bats in 2006. It's unfortunate that he's in Des Moines and not on another team's big league roster.


Righthander Yusmeiro Petit nailed down Arizona's final bullpen spot, but he has an option remaining and likely is headed to Tucson when Randy Johnson returns. Considering he had no prior big league experience, 24-year-old outfielder Alex Romero was a somewhat surprising choice over veteran Trot Nixon as a lefty-hitting reserve. He joins fellow waiver claim Jeff Salazar as a backup outfielder. Romero has a classic reserve profile, with a steady glove on a corner, a line-drive swing, good contact skills and sound batting eye.


While Blake DeWitt was last third baseman standing after injuries befell Nomar Garciaparra, Andy LaRoche and Tony Abreu, the inclusion of righthander 25-year-old Ramon Troncoso on the roster may have been more surprising, especially as it came at the expense of Jonathan Meloan, who struggled this spring. Troncoso has just 52 innings above A-ball under his belt, but at 6-foot-7 he gets incredible plane on his low- to mid-90s heater. Though he's not afraid to pitch inside, he loses feel for the strike zone at times and his slider tends to break early.


So many surprises made the Giants roster that it's hard to know where to begin. The natural place is shortstop, where 23-year-old, third-year pro Brian Bocock—he of the .220/.293/.328 averages in 345 Cal League at-bats last year—is filling in for Omar Vizquel. At catcher, 28-year-old Steve Holm, retained as a minor league free agent after last season, beat out Giants' backup catchers of summers past, Eliezar Alfonzo and Guillermo Rodriguez. "This is the best day of my life," Holm said. "I was in Spring Training last year for two weeks, so this year when the first two weeks passed, I started feeling a little better about my chances. I was starting to hide so they couldn't cut me."
On the pitching staff, surprise names include righthanders Keiichi Yabu (who did not play last year) and Merkin Valdez (who missed 2007 while recovering from Tommy John surgery) as well as lefty Erick Threets, who has a 126-110 minor league strikeout-walk ratio over the past three seasons. This is the sort of team, though, where live-armed projects like Valdez and Threets can gain experience.

• Right fielder Nate Schierholtz may be wondering what he did wrong. It's nothing really—he simply has minor league options remaining that Fred Lewis and Rajai Davis do not.


Given how quickly Florida turned over the keys to shortstop Hanley Ramirez in 2006, one may wonder why 21-year-old center fielder Cameron Maybin wasn't presented with the same opportunity. After all, Maybin already is on the 40-man roster and he possesses similar tools to Ramirez—including plus-plus speed and terrific power. What's more, Maybin has shown more thump (.178 to .121 isolated power), better baserunning instincts (80 to 71 stolen-base percentage) and more patience than Ramirez did in the full-season minor leagues. He's a year younger than Ramirez was when he won Rookie of the Year honors, though, and that coupled with his low contact rate (71 percent compared with Ramirez's 84) appears to be all that's keeping Maybin in Double-A . . . for now.


The spring results were ugly for Mike Pelfrey (8.14 ERA with eight strikeouts, 10 walks and two homers in 21 innings), but rather than go with a veteran mediocrity like Jorge Sosa, Jason Vargas, Nelson Figueroa or Tony Armas (who arrived late to camp after visa issues), the Mets are going with the 24-year-old righthander in the fifth spot. And why not? Pelfrey, the ninth overall pick in 2005, blazed through 2007 spring training only to bomb in the regular season. When right, he fills the zone with quality sinking fastballs, but too often he works from behind and appears to pitch tentatively.


The Nationals traded Jonathan Albaladejo to the Yankees last December to get righthander Tyler Clippard, which figured to increase the latter's rotation chances. But while Albaladejo made New York's bullpen, Clippard was removed from rotation consideration early in spring training, despite doing what he's always done: spot his 86-88 mph fastball to both sides and command a changeup and rainbow curve. Clippard, 23, is not big on stuff, but he knows how to limit mistakes and pitch out of trouble.


Third baseman-turned-left fielder Chase Headley, 23, has a plan at the plate and is ready to hit in the big leagues now, so that's not why the Padres sent him to Triple-A Portland. They sent him there to brush up on his defense (he's listed as an outfielder on the Beavers' roster), while the big club sorts through comeback kid Jody Gerut, organizational soldier Paul McAnulty and first baseman/occasional outfielder Justin Huber. One of them will go when Jim Edmonds comes off the DL; the second may be close behind if Headley gets off to a fast start.


Righthanded reliever Tim Lahey, 26, ended the 2007 season as a Twin, but he'll begin this season in Philadelphia's bullpen after a series of offseason transactions. The Rays took the converted catcher first overall in December's major league Rule 5 draft and flipped him the Cubs for cold, hard cash. Chicago couldn't quite make room on their active roster, so they placed Lahey on waivers with the intention of returning him to the Twins. He slipped past most NL teams before the Phillies intervened. Lahey has a short arm action, but he hides the ball well and gets good finish on his splitter and sinker.


Mr. DeMille, Steve Pearce is ready for his close-up. The 24-year-old right fielder has the kind of bat the Pirates ought to work into their lineup even if it requires a bit of creativity. He's in a tough spot, though, because he won't take time away from Adam LaRoche at first base—his natural position—and both of Pittsburgh's corner outfielders (Jason Bay, Xavier Nady) bat righthanded. Pearce is in his physical prime right now and would be best served with big league experience, though, meaning Nady's days in Pittsburgh may be numbered.

• For a team steeped in lefthanded pitching—with Tom Gorzelanny, Paul Maholm and Zach Duke in the rotation and John Grabow and Damaso Marte in the pen—the Pirates' decision to carry Phil Dumatrait (15.00 ERA in six starts for the Reds in 2007) is a bit puzzling. Scouts noted, however, that the 26-year-old lefty did hit his spots with his sinker in spring training, and that his changeup consistently sinks and fades and his slider consistently bites . . . in a good way.


The show put on by young righthanders Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez—and the inconsistency of Homer Bailey—was undoubtedly the story of Reds camp. But look a little closer: The Reds opted to take two veteran relievers who did not play professionally in 2007 over the two key pieces of the 2006 deal that shipped Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez to Washington. Cincinnati opened the season with righthander Mike Lincoln, 32, and lefty Kent Mercker, 40, in the bullpen instead of their younger counterparts, Gary Majewski and Bill Bray.


Despite a few off-the-board selections to round out the pitching staff, such as Micah Bowie, Kip Wells and Mark Redman, the most surprising development may be well-traveled outfielder Scott Podsednik beating out a couple of homegrown Rockies for a bench spot. Seth Smith, 25, and Cory Sullivan, 28, start the year in Colorado Springs in deference to Podsednik, but it's Smith with his raw strength and uppercut swing who could provide a lefty power option for the Rockies off the bench. As it stands, only Todd Helton, Brad Hawpe and Podsednik bat lefthanded.