This Week in the National League – March 21

As positional races heat up across the National League, Pete Khazen takes you there.

There's less than two weeks before Opening Day. The pressure is mounting for veterans to get back into a groove and ditch any funk they've found themselves in this spring. At the same time, some of those veterans are in danger of losing starting spots to up and coming youngsters. And well, some folks are just in a good old-fashioned dogfight for a spot in the starting lineup or on the Opening Day roster.

Whether it's competition for one of those final starting rotation spots, the dubious honor to close out games, or the simple, yet challenging, role of making the roster and being an impact bench player, the races are heating up. Time's a ticking, and the opportunities to make an impact this spring are dwindling. For some, it's a matter of getting healthy enough to make that impact. For others, it's a matter of stay healthy.

Here's the latest and greatest from around the Senior Circuit throughout the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues.

East Division

New York Mets - Moises Alou hasn't quite gotten into a groove this spring. The 40-year old veteran outfielder has a career .301 batting average, but is hitting a dismal .171 in 35 spring at-bats. Alou is a gamer, though. He'll be back to his normal self once the season picks up. Mike Pelfrey, who is currently slotted to take that fifth spot in the rotation, has given up 17 hits in just 14.0 innings, but has limited the damage, keeping his ERA at 1.29.

Philadelphia Phillies - Ryan Howard is batting .282 with two home runs and nine RBIs through 15 spring training games, but last season's NL MVP has admitted that he's just not that comfortable at the plate yet. Tom Gordon returned this week after an eight-day hiatus and is getting back on track, despite giving up a run in his return and taking the loss. The Phils don't really have a backup for Gordon, and the word on the street is that Jon Lieber could be potential trade bait to bring in a setup man and potential insurance policy.

Florida Marlins - Big surprise, Dontrelle Willis will be the Marlins Opening Day starter. But the high-kicking pitcher hasn't looked all that sharp so far this spring, surrendering 10 runs in just four starts and 13.0 innings of work. Jeremy Hermida, who many folks are hoping has that breakout season, continues to struggle at the plate this spring and has managed just two hits in 35 at-bats.

Atlanta Braves - Chipper Jones has been dealing with a strained right side and has missed his last four games. The veteran third baseman has struggled with one quirky injury after another the past few years and appears likely to continue that trend into the 2007 season. Lance Cormier has looked solid this spring and could earn a spot in the starting rotation. Cormier has started two games and made four total appearances earning a stiff 1.29 ERA in 14.0 innings pitched.

Washington Nationals - It's not good when every website you go to doesn't have anyone in the team depth chart at first base other than the injured Nick Johnson. Travis Lee has been unimpressive this spring, and though Robert Fick could see some action at first, Dmitri Young could be the sleeper to steal the job away from them all. Young got the call-up to the Nats camp and cranked a single and long ball off Jason Schmidt in his first game.

Central Division

St. Louis Cardinals - Anthony Reyes tossed six scoreless innings and has a proud 0.56 ERA this spring. Reyes has been the sharpest of a sharp starting five in March, but there are still concerns in Cardinal Nation of his ability to consistently go deep into games and earn those "quality starts". Time will tell. Fellow youngster Chris Duncan has knocked five home runs in 53 at-bats, but he's also struck out 13 times. He's a bit of a free swinger, but if he can maintain a batting average around .300, how much can one complain?

Cincinnati Reds - If Ken Griffey Jr. is ready come Opening Day, he'll be playing right field instead of center, where speedster Ryan Freel will be starting. Dustin Hermanson, who was reborn as the Chicago White Sox closer during that championship run in 2005 prior to the emergence of Bobby Jenks, might just take over the closer position in Cincy. Hermanson has made three perfect one-inning appearances this spring.

Houston Astros - Jason Lane batted a dismal .201 last year with just 15 home runs. His lack of production limited his opportunities to get out of that funk and kept his at-bats to 288. He's back into a groove this spring, and with two deep home runs on Monday, his preseason total is already at five and his batting average is up to .301. Roy Oswalt is also gearing up for the regular season. On Sunday, Oswalt pitched 5.2 innings and limited the Toronto Blue Jays to just one hit.

Milwaukee Brewers - Year in and year out, everyone says the key to the Brewers chances of getting over the .500 hump rests with the health and success of Ben Sheets. Well, Sheets has made four starts this spring good for 13.1 innings and a hefty 6.08 ERA. Bill Hall, who cracked a team-high 35 home runs last season, knocked his fourth of the spring and has 10 RBI through 14 games.

Pittsburgh Pirates - Ian Snell is one of those budding young starting pitchers. He demonstrated moments of greatness last year and could be in line for a breakout season, even while pitching in a Pirates uniform. Snell blanked the Phillies through five innings Monday, has struck out 18 in 16.0 innings of work, and has dropped his spring ERA to a shiny 1.69.

Chicago Cubs - Kerry Wood strained his right triceps against Milwaukee a week ago, and Mark Prior just can't seem to get things together this spring. What does that mean? Wood and Prior might start the Cubs 2007 season on the DL. Is anyone surprised by this? Cubs closer Ryan Dempster has also been dealing with an injury, a strain in his shoulder. After taking some time off, Dempster made a sharp one-inning return Tuesday and believes he's good to go. Two more weeks of spring action should verify that.

West Division

Los Angeles Dodgers - Chad Billingsley will move to the bullpen and provide the Dodgers with a long relief and spot-start option. Brett Tomko, who is fighting for that last spot in the rotation, has put the pressure on the field with a 1.80 ERA in 10.0 innings of work.

San Diego Padres - Khalil Greene is hitting .389 this spring with four home runs and 14 RBIs. He appears to have recovered from that finger injury that hampered his production throughout the 2006 season. But don't get too hyped on his potential. Greene has a career .255 batting average and has neither hit more than 15 home runs in a season nor driven in more than 70 runs. Forty-three year old starting pitcher David Wells was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes this week. Reports are that the disease is controllable. If anything, Wells will be on a stricter diet and regimen now, which might just help his production.

San Francisco Giants - Russ Ortiz has made three starts and five appearances, good for 18.0 innings and a 3.00 ERA. The veteran is looking for an opportunity for rebirth in San Francisco this season and is looking good so far. Barry Bonds looks good too. He'll turn 43 years young this July, and there's a chance he might just break Hank Aaron's record before his birthday. Bonds has 26 official at-bats this spring, and five homers to his name.

Arizona Diamondbacks - Scheduled Opening Day starter Brandon Webb has been bothered by a strained neck and missed his last start this spring. The condition doesn't appear serious, but whenever there is a nagging injury involving a past Cy Young Award winner, it's worth keeping an eye on. Dave Krynzel, who has played in just 21 big league games, figures to make the 2007 Opening Day roster as a reserve. The outfielder is batting .333 this spring, has shown some power, and is definitely a candidate to cause trouble on the basepaths with his speed.

Colorado Rockies - Clint Barmes had that stellar start to his rookie season, and then fell victim to a freak off-field accident. He hasn't been the same since, particularly at the plate. And while he's still in contention to earn that starting spot at shortstop, Troy Tulowitzki could be the man to beat, especially if he maintains that .361 spring batting average. The battle at second base is a bit more dismal. Kaz Matsui is looking to take over but has managed just a .250 batting average. Still, that's better than incumbent Jamey Carroll, who is hitting for a bleak .114 average in 35 at-bats.

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