The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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February 24, 2013

Thoma: Lineup jobs are there to be taken

ROCHESTER — The exhibition games began Saturday. As always with spring training games, what happens is generally less important than how it happened.

Here are two things —and eight players — to keep an eye on in these games that don’t count, because these things do, or at least should, count in player evaluations.

Taking pitches: For at least three players competing for jobs, their handling of their personal strike zones at the plate are key.

Joe Benson, a talented outfielder whose 2012 season ran off the rails early and never got back on track, has always had lopsided walk-to-strikeout ratios. In his brief major league trial in 2011, he walked three times, fanned 21 (74 plate appearances).

One-to-seven is overly extreme, but his minor league record is riddled with ratios approaching one-to-three. If Benson is to win the center field job, he needs to sharpen his selectiveness at the plate.

Aaron Hicks, another center field candidate, has consistently drawn walks in his minor league career — indeed, he has at times been suspected of being too passive at the plate.  His challenge is to maintain the proper focus — to wait for the right pitch, to hit it when it comes, to take the pitches that aren’t. Often for a youngster getting his chance, impatience sets in, and the personal strike zone gets lost in a desperate search for an immediate hit.

That may well have been the case last year with Brian Dozier. The infielder frequently in the minors was even in his walk/strikeout ratio, drawing a walk about once every 10 trips to the plate.

Those ratios fell apart in the majors last season. He walked half as often, struck out twice as often. Unlike Benson, Dozier has demonstrated this skill in the past; if he’s to take the second base job, he’d do well to demonstrate it this spring.

Rehabbing arms: I don’t like the Kevin Correia signing at all, but he does have this in his favor: He’s one of the very few serious starting rotation candidates who hasn’t had arm surgery in the past 18 months.

Scott Diamond, Vance Worley, Mike Pelfrey, Kyle Gibson, Nick Blackburn — all have had elbows and/or wrists cut on in recent months. Rich Harden, non-roster invitee, missed all of last season after significant shoulder repair work.

Pelfrey and Worley appear to be without restrictions. Diamond is working his way back to that status. Gibson will have his innings limited. Blackburn is weeks from being ready to throw, and nobody can be sure what Harden can provide.

So each case is different — but each deserves attention.

Edward Thoma (344-6377; maintains his Baseball Outsider blog at Follow him on Twitter @bboutsider.

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