Even after six weeks of spring training, several teams began the season with significant question marks. Beyond holes created by injury—the Phillies are using Wilson Valdez (career OPS: .618) at second base in Chase Utley's absence; the Diamondbacks opened with journeyman OBP sink Willie Bloomquist (.317 in his career) leading off and playing shortstop with Stephen Drew out—there are a number of riddles teams are trying to solve. How these situations shake out in April will help determine some contenders' fates and shape the midseason trade market.
The Young Dilemma After a winter filled with trade speculation, Michael Young is still a Ranger—and seemingly a full-time player. He started at DH (twice) and second base in the team's first three games, taking playing time from two better hitters, Mitch Moreland and Mike Napoli. The problem with the 34-year-old Young is that his aging bat will not be productive enough to make him an asset: He has middling power, fading speed and a so-so walk rate. (You need more than that from a spot with the word hitter in the title.) The Rangers have to hope that Young—who started the year 3 for 14—heats up enough to make himself a trade target before May, when he becomes a 10--5 player and gains the right to veto any deal.
Second Thoughts in Second City The Cubs began March with two second basemen and ended it with three, as Blake DeWitt's poor spring and Darwin Barney's good one created a quandary for manager Mike Quade. The plan to platoon DeWitt and Jeff Baker has been undermined by Quade's preference for Barney's glove, a decision that may hurt an offense thirsty for OBP. Barney, 25, is a nonprospect with a .288/.324/.363 career line at Triple A. His defense is better than that of the other two players—but not good enough to carry his bat. Barney's limited skills will be exposed in short order; we'll see if Quade reinstates the platoon when it happens.
Order Disorder Settled, but wrongly so, is the Braves' lineup, which features Nate McLouth in the number 2 hole with Jason Heyward in the sixth slot. A year ago, when Heyward was breaking in, that might have made sense. But with Heyward established as someone who can get on base, hit for power and run, he has to be elevated in the lineup. Giving McLouth plate appearances that should be Heyward's will cost Atlanta runs.
Capitol Committee One unsettled situation that may work to a team's benefit is in D.C., where Jim Riggleman hasn't committed to Drew Storen as his closer. Riggleman seems content to play matchups, using nominal setup men Tyler Clippard and Sean Burnett as well as Storen depending on the situation. On Opening Day, Riggleman used Clippard and Burnett with the Nationals trailing by two, an appropriate move, then used all three—including Burnett for a four-out save—in a win over the Braves last Saturday. Resisting the temptation to create rigid relief roles will help Riggleman squeeze out wins for a team striving for .500.
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Walking the Walk
On Opening Day, Matt Kemp did something he'd never done in 626 career games: He walked three times. For a player whose plate discipline has been a sore spot—176 career walks against 581 strikeouts coming into '11—it was a momentous achievement. Kemp also stole a base and scored the decisive run in the Dodgers' 2--1 win, then had an RBI double the next night—and, more impressively, hustled from first to third on a groundout by Marcus Thames, a sign that he's taking the teachings of new first base coach and baserunning guru Davey Lopes to heart. As a Phillies coach, Lopes was instrumental in helping Jayson Werth, among others, translate physical tools into on-field performance. After a difficult 2010 Kemp, 26, has a combination of skills, experience and now coaching that could elevate him to stardom.
GREG NELSON (YOUNG)
YOUNG, RESTLESS? A trade would be beneficial for the Rangers and their infield vet.
ROBERT BECK (KEMP)