Jerry Crasnick wrote:1. Can Guillermo Mota close in Florida?
The Marlins refused to overpay to keep Armando Benitez because they thought Mota could handle the closer's job, but there's some skepticism in the baseball world. Mota has to debunk the notion that he's lights-out in the eighth inning and unreliable in the ninth – a la LaTroy Hawkins.
"He's suspect,'' a National League scout said. "He has makeup issues, and he can have getting-the-ball-over-the-plate issues. He has enough stuff to close, but some guys are made to set up. I think they'll be doing it by committee before it's over.''
Mota converted only 3-of-7 save opportunities last year in Florida (he's 5-for-16 in his career) and was terrible in September. But in fairness to him, manager Jim Tracy used him a lot in Los Angeles for the first four months last season. Mota led all National League relievers with 201-2/3 innings pitched in 2003 and 2004. With the move to closer, he won't have nearly as taxing a workload.
"I know this role is more pressure-packed,'' said Paul Lo Duca, Mota's catcher in Los Angeles and Florida. "But Mo got some big outs as the seventh-and-eighth-inning guy with the Dodgers, and I think he definitely has the mentality for this. He just needs a situation where the bases are loaded with one or two outs and he gets out of it. And boom – he'll be over the top.''
The Marlins signed Antonio Alfonseca and Todd Jones as Plan B and C over the winter. If Mota blows a couple of saves and manager Jack McKeon starts wavering, as he is prone to do, there's the potential for some hard feelings and spicy headlines in south Florida.
2. Can Hee Seop Choi produce in Los Angeles?
Choi hit 15 homers for Florida last year but flopped with the Dodgers after coming over by trade in July. He hit .161 with 18 strikeouts in 62 at-bats and was primarily a spectator down the stretch when Los Angeles was fighting for a playoff spot.
Los Angeles general manager Paul DePodesta likes Choi's ability to work a count and was impressed by his .883 OPS in 95 games with the Marlins last year. Choi's detractors say he has holes in his swing and doesn't make adjustments. He also has a .123 career big-league average in limited exposure to left-handers.
"He looks good in a uniform,'' a National League executive said of Choi, who stands 6-5, 235 pounds. "I just don't think he can hit.''
The Dodgers want Choi to be more aggressive in the batter's box. He's so choosy about getting a good pitch to hit, he takes too many strikes early in the count and gives the pitcher an advantage. Hitting instructor Tim Wallach wants Choi to stop fretting so much about mechanics and let it rip more often. But Choi is passive and low-key by nature, and there's only so much a coach can do.
"We're trying to get a little more fire and aggressiveness from him,'' Wallach said. "He's been letting it fly a little bit lately, and I like to see that.''
Some Dodger-watchers wouldn't be surprised to see Jeff Kent eventually wind up at first base and Antonio Perez take over at second. Perez came over from Tampa Bay last year in a steal of a trade for Jason Romano. It'll be interesting to see whether manager Jim Tracy can sell Kent on that scenario.
3. Can the Blue Jays score runs post-Carlos Delgado?
Toronto ranked 12th in the American League in runs scored and homers with Delgado in the cleanup spot last year. The Jays also struck out 1,083 times, fourth highest total in the league.
If things work out according to plan, general manager J.P. Ricciardi envisions a lineup that will produce a lot of doubles and do a better job of situational hitting. "I think we'll be a club that puts the ball in play a lot,'' Ricciardi said. "Hopefully it's not in play to make outs.''
Manager John Gibbons plans to use Frank Catalanotto and Reed Johnson at leadoff and Orlando Hudson in the No. 2 hole, where he adapted nicely last season. The Jays envision rookie shortstop Russ Adams as a potential leadoff man, but they plan to ease him into the big leagues at the bottom of the order.
Toronto will need a rebound season from Vernon Wells in center and consistent production from Corey Koskie, Shea Hillenbrand and Eric Hinske in the 4-5-6 spots. But Hillenbrand has a .322 career on-base percentage, and Hinske's slugging percentage has declined from .481 to .437 to .375 over the past three seasons. While Hinske has worked with hitting coach Mike Barnett to revamp his stance, his meager power numbers don't translate well to a move across the diamond to first base.
The big talk of camp is Gabe Gross, who hit .412 in his first 17 spring games and outplayed Alex Rios. The Jays have to decide whether to carry both young outfielders or break camp with one in right and let the other get at-bats with Triple-A Syracuse.
4. Can pitching coach Rick Peterson break through to the Mets' 4-5 starters?
Leo Mazzone coaxed 15 wins out of Jaret Wright last season, and Orel Hershiser helped make a 14-game winner out of Ryan Drese in Texas. Now it's Peterson's turn to transform a project into a contributor.
Actually, two projects. With Steve Trachsel out at least three months after back surgery, the Mets have to straighten out human walk machines Victor Zambrano and Kaz Ishii in the 4-5 spots. A day after the Mets acquired Ishii from Los Angeles, Peterson was working with him on the side trying to get him to use his hands more in his windup.
"If you have a pitching coach who's very hands-on and mechanically oriented, which Rick is, they have a lot to offer,'' said Mets starter Tom Glavine. "You certainly see it with Leo in Atlanta. He's taken a lot of guys and turned their careers around.''
Ishii wore out Jim Tracy and the Dodgers' brass with his 99-to-98 strikeout-to-walk ratio last season. And the Devil Rays, despite a lack of veteran starting pitching, couldn't wait to move Zambrano. He's capable of pitching lights-out at times, but made manager Lou Piniella squirm with his incessant nibbling.
If Zambrano and Ishii run up huge pitch counts early, they'll put pressure on a thin Mets bullpen and negate the team's defensive upgrades. The Mets should be much stronger in the field this year, with Doug Mientkiewicz at first base, Kaz Matsui and Jose Reyes turning double plays and Carlos Beltran chasing down everything in center. But it won't matter much if 40 percent of their rotation can't throw strikes.
5. Who's on second (and in right, left and center) for the Astros?
With Carlos Beltran and Jeff Kent gone, the Astros have spent the entire spring trying to resolve their second base and outfield situations. With a week to go, manager Phil Garner still is mulling over combinations in his head.
The most likely scenario to begin the season: Craig Biggio at second base, with Jason Lane in right field, rookie burner Willy Taveras in center and Mike Lamb in left field. But Luke Scott, formerly of the Indians, has burned it up in left with an .868 slugging percentage in 38 Grapefruit League at-bats. That has complicated matters.
If Biggio stays at second, Chris Burke will either return to Triple-A to start the season or settle for a utility role. The Astros will reshuffle their lineup again when Lance Berkman comes back from his knee injury in May.
While a trade remains a possibility, general manager Tim Purpura isn't likely to acquire a front-line outfield veteran by dangling Tim Redding. The Astros will be awfully inexperienced if Lane, Taveras and possibly Burke make the club.
"Our minor-league people say those kids figure out a way to get it done, even though they may not look the best,'' Garner said. "I've noticed that with Lane. He can have one of the ugliest swings you've ever seen, then hit the next pitch 450 feet.
"I'm seeing what these kids can do down here now. The question is, is it enough? We want to get back to the playoffs and play in a World Series, and it's hard with three kids. Everybody has to play great. It's not impossible, but it's awful hard.''
Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider.