The 10 most intriguing questions for spring training
Had just about enough of ice dancing and curling to last you another four years? Great. Baseball is back -- and just in time after what for virtually all of the country has been a winter of mostly miserable weather. Pitchers and catchers of the Dodgers and Diamondbacks, who open the season March 22 in Sydney, Australia, are already on the field, and by Monday all 30 teams will have opened camp.
After a year in which the Red Sox won the World Series the season after losing 93 games -- officially, the greatest worst-to-first turnaround in history -- we begin with the understanding that baseball is much more unpredictable than basketball or football, where such transformations are virtually unheard of. There is something about this time of year and the possibilities of the unexpected narratives that make spring training so appealing. At no other time do we so dearly need games that don't count.
Spring training is about the lengthening daylight, rookies and last-chance veterans, "best shape of his life" stories, sunblock, new pitches, old-timers and spring breakers, grass berms and pitchers' fielding practice, but most of all it is about questions. Here are the 10 most intriguing questions about spring training 2014:
1. How will the international signings fare against MLB competition?
MLB teams committed a combined $263 million on the speculative market of international imports: pitcher Masahiro Tanaka ($155 million from the Yankees), first baseman Jose Dariel Abreu ($68 million from the White Sox), infielder Alexander Guerrero ($28 million from the Dodgers) and pitcher Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez ($12 million from the Phillies). Every one of their games will be closely watched this spring. The hit rate on such high-profile international signings has improved over the years -- so much so that the contracts signed in 2012 by Hisashi Iwakuma ($1.5 million plus incentives for one year), Yoenis Cespedes ($36 million over four years) and Yasiel Puig ($42 million over seven years) already look like bargains.
The last time the Yankees signed a pitcher out of Japan came in 2007, when they added Kei Igawa for $46 million over four years (including the posting fee). That deal will forever stand as the worst-case scenario, but Tanaka should fare far better. For one thing, scouting on international players is much more extensive now, and for another, Tanaka has a fastball and splitter that are too good for him not to be successful. He may, in fact, look dominating in spring training because hitters have not seen him before. (Igawa, for instance, went 2-0 with a 3.13 ERA in his first spring training with the Yankees while holding hitters to a .226 average. What did that mean? Nothing. He promptly coughed up seven runs in his first regular season start.)
So forget forming a decision on Tanaka in the Grapefruit League. It won't take long after that, however, to know how he measures up. If he slots as New York's number three starter, Tanaka would make his first five starts against Houston, Baltimore, Boston, Tampa Bay and Boston again.
2. How much do the aging MVPs have left?
There are 10 active players older than 31 who won a regular season or World Series MVP award before last year. All of them are coming off down seasons in which none of them were All-Stars: Josh Hamilton, 32, Justin Morneau, 32, Josh Beckett, 33, Albert Pujols, 34, Ryan Howard, 34, Jimmy Rollins, 35, Alex Rodriguez, 38, Derek Jeter, 39, Ichiro Suzuki, 40, and Jason Giambi, 43.
The seasons of the Angels (Hamilton and Pujols) and Phillies (Howard and Rollins) come down to their former MVPs returning to something closer to impact player status. While that's not true for the Yankees (Jeter and Suzuki; Rodriguez is banned for the year), Jeter will get the most spring training attention because of what he means to the franchise and because recovering from ankle and leg injuries as a 39-year-old shortstop is a daunting task.
But if you're expecting any of these guys to play like MVPs again, forget it. Thanks to drug testing, those days of old players winning that award are over. Since testing began in 2003, only two players 31-or-older have won a league MVP: the chemically enhanced duo of Barry Bonds and Rodriguez.
3. Which fallen star writes the best script for "turning the page"?
Braun is trying to put the Biogenesis scandal and his 62-game suspension behind him without explaining himself. In December when he spoke to the media the Brewers outfielder said he wasn't "getting into specifics" but then in January he said he already addressed the issue in "specifics." His credibility gap remains.
Kemp, recovering from shoulder and ankle surgeries, is not expected to be ready by Opening Day, but could well return to being among the best players in the game for the Dodgers. Fielder (Rangers), Upton (Braves) and Pujols (Angels) all are playing for different teams than they did in 2011.
4. What hot prospect can play his way onto an Opening Day roster?
Remember Jason Heyward in 2010? Jose Fernandez last year? Both were 20 years old when they played so well in the spring they defeated the preferred MLB protocol of keeping prospects down until after Memorial Day (to avoid creating an extra year of arbitration eligibility).
5. Which manager does the most to "change the culture"?
The phrase gets overused (remember when Don Wakamatsu "changed the culture" in Seattle?), but sometimes it really is true (see John Farrell, 2013 Red Sox). Six managers will hold their first spring training with their new teams: Ryne Sandberg with the Phillies, Lloyd McClendon with the Mariners, and four managers who never managed in the big leagues before: Bryan Price with the Reds, Matt Williams with the Nationals, Brad Ausmus with the Tigers and Rick Renteria with the Cubs.
Look for the most managerial buzz to come out of Cubs camp, where Renteria is charged with an assignment similar to the one that greeted Clint Hurdle in Pittsburgh: defeat a losing culture with tremendous optimism and energy. But keep an eye on Williams, a quiet but strong-willed force who promises to run a more regimented camp than his predecessor, Davey Johnson, did.
6. Who will best figure out how to use the expanded instant replay system?
As Williams said, every manager is a rookie when it comes to instant replay. Knowing when to challenge will become as much a part of running a game as when to change pitchers. Managers get one challenge to start with and can "earn" a second if the first one is successful -- and that's it. Burning an unsuccessful challenge early would be as bad as missing a double switch. But managers should use instant replay challenges often in spring training to gain experience with it.
7. Who will be this year's Kyle Lohse?
Twice Lohse did not sign with a club until weeks after spring training camps had opened: in 2008 with St. Louis and 2013 with Milwaukee. The candidates this year include pitchers Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana and A.J. Burnett, shortstop Stephen Drew, outfielder Nelson Cruz and first baseman Kendrys Morales, who looks like the best bet to be the last one standing. Morales is a limited player defensively who has draft-pick compensation associated with the cost of signing him.
8. Can Carlos Santana play third base?
Santana hasn't played third base since his limited experience there in the low minors from ages 19-22 (58 games total). But with the emergence of Yan Gomes behind the plate, the Indians are a better team and Santana has a chance to be even more productive if he can play the position at least some of the time -- while still getting time at DH, first base and catcher. It's also a sign that Lonnie Chisenhall, at 25, is running out of time to establish himself as a full-time option.
Cleveland will have a difficult time duplicating its 92 wins from last year. The Indians were extremely fortunate in one-run games (30-17) and they need to replace the 340 innings and 61 starts of Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir.
9. Will David Price be traded?
Maybe the better question is, "Will anybody be traded?" In spring training last year only one major leaguer was dealt: Vernon Wells, whom the Angels dumped on the Yankees for two minor leaguers. The elbow injury to Jeremy Hellickson makes it likely the Rays will keep Price not just for spring training, but also for the entire season. Price is Rays' property through the 2015 season (he earns $14 million this year, then has another arbitration-eligible season), so they have three more windows to put him on the trade market: midseason this year, the 2014-15 offseason and midseason 2015.
10. Who will get a multi-year extension?
The next six weeks happen to be the prime time for clubs to lock up players to buy out free agent years. Players don't like to be distracted by negotiations once the season begins, so Opening Day tends to be a "soft deadline" to work out new deals. Felix Hernandez and Aaron Hill signed extensions in February last year, followed by Justin Verlander, Buster Posey, Adam Wainwright and Paul Goldschmidt all doing so within a three-day period just days before Opening Day.
Who will be locked up this year? The most likely candidates include pitchers John Lester of the Red Sox, Jordan Zimmermann of the Nationals and Homer Bailey of the Reds. Among the next group of potential extension candidates are the Tigers' Max Scherzer and Miguel Cabrera, the Orioles' Chris Davis, the Dodgers' Hanley Ramirez, the Indians' Jason Kipnis and the Rays' Wil Myers. Looking for a couple of real longshot candidates? Try Mike Trout of the Angels and Bryce Harper of the Nationals. Good luck trying to put a value on their potential free agent years -- when they would still be in their mid-20s.