D.J. Short

Spring Training Daily

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Hope For Matusz?

Friday, March 16, 2012

It's no stretch to say that Brian Matusz was one of the biggest enigmas in the game last year. The 25-year-old southpaw entered spring training as a popular sleeper in fantasy leagues after posting a 2.11 ERA over his final starts of the 2010 season, but he was historically awful in 2011. And that's no hyperbole. His 10.69 ERA over 12 starts topped Roy Halladay (10.64 ERA in 2000) for the worst by a pitcher with at least 10 starts in a season.

We've heard plenty of theories about what went so horribly wrong. There were whispers that Matusz reported to camp out of shape last year. He then had a wart removed from the middle finger of his pitching hand in early-March and missed the first two months of the season with a strained intercostal muscle. Blame it on lack of arm strength if you want, but he just wasn't himself upon his return in June, averaging a very hittable 88.5 mph on his fastball.

Looking for answers, Matusz turned to O's special assistant Brady Anderson this offseason to put together his training regimen. He has only made three starts so far this spring, but the early indications are that his career is back on track.

Matusz struck out six over four scoreless innings Thursday against the Tigers and now has a 2.70 ERA and 13/0 K/BB ratio over his first 10 innings in the Grapefruit League. Even more encouraging, he has consistently been clocked north of 90 mph on his fastball. The assumption was that Matusz would begin the season in the minors, but he's now very much in the mix for a rotation spot.

There are still better bets to be found in standard mixed leagues -- remember, the Orioles aren't very good and Matusz is a fly ball pitcher who calls the American League East home -- but this could be the time to target him as a rebound candidate in deeper mixed, AL-only and keeper formats.

For the latest MLB rankings, projections, prospect analysis and more, get Rotoworld's Baseball Draft Guide.

Baker Dealing With Elbow Issues Again?

Scott Baker was limited to just 24 innings after the All-Star break last year due to a strained flexor muscle, but he said upon arriving to Twins' camp last month that his elbow was a "non-issue." Perhaps not.

Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune wrote Wednesday morning that Baker's inability to get loose during a B-game on Saturday "raised some red flags" about his health. He was clocked in the mid-80s during the outing while giving up six runs over 1 1/3 innings.

The Twins have downplayed concerns for now, with general manager Terry Ryan saying that Baker has dealt with elbow tenderness in previous springs. The 30-year-old right-hander is scheduled to throw a bullpen session Friday, after which we should know more about his status. If all goes well, it's possible he could start again next week.

Baker was dominant last year when healthy, posting a 3.01 ERA and 104/30 K/BB ratio over 110 2/3 innings before the All-Star break, so I still like him as a late-round gamble in mixed leagues if this turns out to be a minor bump in the road. However, let his current situation serve as a reminder that he can't be counted on to pitch 200 innings.

Royals Lock Up Escobar With Extension

The Royals gave Alcides Escobar the Salvador Perez treatment on Thursday. And no, I'm not talking about knee surgery. Yeah, yeah, bad joke.

Anyway, similar to how the Royals locked up Perez with a long-term extension last month, they announced Thursday that they signed Escobar to a four-year, $10.5 million extension. Per Bob Dutton of the Kansas City Star, the deal can max out at $21.75 million if club options for 2016 and 2017 are exercised. The new deal buys out his final pre-arbitration season and all three of his arbitration seasons while the options could cover his first two years of free agency.

Escobar hasn't been an asset with the bat in the majors, checking in with an underwhelming .252/.294/.339 batting line and a measly .633 OPS over 1,288 plate appearances, but the 25-year-old has quickly earned the reputation as one of the best defensive shortstops in the game.

Of course, the only reason he's relevant from a fantasy perspective is his ability to pile up stolen bases. Escobar didn't get a chance to show off his speed hitting eighth in Milwaukee, but he swiped a career-high 26 bags last year. He's not a threat in enough categories to be relevant in standard mixed leagues, but he's plenty useful in deeper mixed and AL-only formats.

Madson Close to Making Spring Debut

The Reds were extra cautious with their new closer Ryan Madson after he felt pain in his elbow during his first bullpen session of the spring, but he is finally close to making his Cactus League debut.

Madson threw 35 pitches in a bullpen session Thursday, mixing in fastballs and changeups, after which he told Tom Groeschen of the Cincinnati Enquirer that his elbow is "pretty close to 100 percent right now." The 31-year-old right-hander hopes to pitch in games by the end of next week, which he estimates should put him on track to be ready for Opening Day.

We previously heard doubts about whether Madson had a "closer's mentality," but he blew that silly little narrative out of the water last season by posting a 2.37 ERA to go along with a 62/16 K/BB ratio and 32 saves in 34 chances. While he had to settle for a one-year, $8.5 million contract in January after his reported mega-deal with the Phillies fell through, he's at least in a great situation to close games with a an improved Cincinnati squad. I like him as a top-10 closer in mixed leagues.

D.J. Short is a Rotoworld baseball editor and contributes to NBCSports.com's Hardball Talk blog. You can also find him on Twitter.
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