I'm a fan of spring training. I really am. It may not seem like it based on how infrequently I've turned up for my weekend blogging duties since the annual pre-season ritual has gotten underway (sorry 'bout that), but I've been enjoying the fact that there's even the most meaningless of baseball games being played in Florida and Arizona. You can't get to the real games until you play the fake ones.
Before spring training got underway, I wrote hereabouts that there really was surprisingly little left to settle with respect to the roster that would head north for the Toronto Blue Jays. There was the backup catcher situation to sort out, and the question of choosing between Emilio Bonifacio and Maicer Izturis as the predominant second base option. These position battles, such as they are, have actually unfolded pretty quietly: looks like Henry Blanco will get the nod to try and track R.A. Dickey's knuckleball every fifth day, while John Gibbons may have chosen not to answer the second base question definitively one way or the other. Which is well within his rights, and might be the wisest course of action anyway.
There's a pertinent question to ask, though, about to what extent these position battles were ever a real thing at all. It's entirely possible the team knew exactly what the answers to these questions would be long before the beat writers and broadcasters gathered in Dunedin started to pose them in the media.
I was listening to the second edition of "Behind the Dish", Keith Law's excellent new podcast from ESPN.com, in which he interviewed former Washington Nationals and Cleveland Indians manager Manny Acta. Acta had some very interesting things to say about the number of roster decisions most organizations have basically predetermined prior to spring, if not carved in stone, then at least written out in permanent Magic Marker.
The truth is there are very few real competitions in spring training, to hear Acta tell it. He wasn't revealing some earth-shattering behind-the-scenes truth, but his discussion of organizational expectations of players coming into camp went beyond the standard "spring stats don't mean shit" that we all understand intuitively already.
Acta also talked a bit about the difference between coaches making mechanical changes with a player who is more certain to be on the Opening Day roster, as opposed to one who is legitimately fighting for a spot on the team. In short, if teams want a clear picture of what a player can do against various qualities of competition in camp -- from major league talent to A-ball fodder -- they tend to leave his mechanics alone. This gives the organizations a sense of where he truly is in his development, and it's fairer to the player, since he's not struggling with consistency due to tweaks to his batting stance or pitching stride.
Bearing all of this in mind, even if most players in major league camp can't really do anything to play themselves into the opening day roster, can they do enough to play their way off of it? Or, to make it more applicable to the media narrative du jour, what's it all mean for Ricky Romero vs. J.A. Happ for that fifth rotation spot?
Romero has struggled badly in spring, after a horrible 2012 season. Yet if you follow the Acta logic -- which actually makes some sense to me -- if Romero were really in a battle for his big-league spot, most organizations wouldn't start monkeying around with his delivery. In fact, the logic would say the exact opposite: it's because Romero's spot is relatively safe that the organization isn't worried about the results he's putting up while he works through his mechanical adjustments against minor leaguers on the back fields.
Now, granted, the mechanical intervention with Romero is coming awfully late in camp. And while the question of whether there's a fifth starter battle might not have generated an actual fire yet, there's a helluva lot of smoke. In any case, I found Acta's insights interesting if you're really looking for another way to analyze this from a distance (or over-analyze, if you like).
Even as an anonymous blogger literally writing this in his basement, I don't have the guts to make a solid prediction one way or the other, but gun to my head, I still think Ricky Romero is going to get some rope at the back end of the rotation. While it may look to the outside world like he's put his rotation spot in jeopardy and he's got a week to put a stranglehold back on it, it's just as likely that the decision to bring him north has already been made.