Biggest Question Each MLB Team Must Answer in Final Week of Spring Training
We've reached that critical juncture in every MLB spring training where the press-baiting bromides of late February will no longer suffice. Everyone isn't in the best shape of their life, and even if they were, only 25 can head north.
It's time to make the hard choices.
The Kansas City Royals for example, just settled their highest profile position battle by sending second base prospect Johnny Giovatella down to the minors.
Expect similar decisions in the coming weeks and answers to most of the questions forthcoming.
Philadelphia Phillies: Who Plays Second Base?
The Phils have some minor roster moves still pending—including who they'll keep between veterans Juan Pierre and Scott Podsednik—but the vacancy created by Chase Utley's injury is their most pressing concern.
The most likely contingency puts prospect Freddy Galvis in the Opening Day lineup, but GM Ruben Amaro Jr. has yet to put his full, public support behind that plan. There's still a possibility the Phillies trade for an everyday middle infielder using fifth starter Joe Blanton as bait.
Even if Galvis starts, expect the Phillies to obtain a utility-style backup player. Incumbent utility man Michael Martinez is out at least a month with a broken bone in his right foot.
Atlanta Braves: Does Julio Teheran Make the Team?
With Tim Hudson still recovering from back surgery, the Braves entered March expecting to name either Julio Teheran or Randall Delgado as their fifth starter.
That's still the plan, but it hasn't gone as smoothly as anticipated.
Delgado, Baseball America's 46th-rated prospect, has a 7.94 ERA in 17 innings in spring training. Teheran, baseball's best pitching prospect not named Matt Moore, allowed nine home runs in his first four appearances before being sidelined with what the Braves termed "upper arm stiffness."
Atlanta won't need a fifth starter until April 11th, which means they still have time to make this decision. Braves fans expect big things from Teheran, and it will register as a mild disappointment if he can't break camp with the team.
Washington Nationals: Will Michael Morse Be Ready for Opening Day?
The Nationals answered their highest profile spring training question when they named John Lannan the fifth starter. It appears Chien-Ming Wang's leg injury will keep him out the season's first month, and the vacancy created therein will prevent Washington from trading Lannan in the short term.
With that situation resolved, attention turns to breakout slugger Michael Morse. The left fielder—coming off a .303/.360/.550 season—has been limited to just seven spring at-bats by a lat strain.
His slow recovery has Nats fans worried he won't make it back for Opening Day, in which case rookie utility man and second-baseman-of-the-future Steve Lombardozzi could fill in as a corner outfielder.
There are, of course, other possibilities besides putting a career infielder in the outfield, but the Lombardozzi scenario is the most telling. Clearly the Nats aren't thrilled with their existing outfield depth.
New York Mets: Can They Trade Mike Pelfrey?
The macabre details of 2012—roster spots, bullpen roles, etc.—mean nothing to these Mets.
This team won't win much and the front office knows it.
The most critical questions facing the Amazin's relate to the future and what remaining pieces they can leverage to aid the rebuilding effort.
Mike Pelfrey has been mentioned on and off as one of those pieces, and CBS Sports' Jon Heyman restated the Mets' interest in moving the veteran righty late last week.
Question is, can they?
As his 11.49 ERA and 1.00 SO:BB ratio will attest, Pelfrey has had a rough spring. Even in a trade market starved for starting pitching, Pelfrey might not draw much interest. It'll be interesting to see how the Mets handle him and other big league assets as they gear up for a plunge to the bottom of the NL East.
Miami Marlins: Will Giancarlo Stanton Be Ready for Opening Day?
For a team stocked with strong personalities, the lack of big news out of Marlins camp is an encouraging sign.
The only real concerns have been on field. Logan Morrison, Giancarlo (né Mike) Stanton and Greg Dobbs have been battling injuries. All three are hopeful they'll be ready for Opening Day, but the situation bears monitoring.
Stanton is the most important cog. The 22-year-old outfielder is one of baseball's few 40-HR threats and a key to Miami's postseason aspirations.
Milwaukee Brewers: Can They Add Infield Depth?
The Milwaukee Brewers will start Alex Gonzalez (35) and Aramis Ramirez (33) on the left side of their infield.
The right side is younger, but not without question marks. Rickie Weeks missed substantial portions of the 2009 and 2011 seasons with injury and new first baseman Mat Gamel has just 171 major league at-bats.
Not surprisingly, the Brewers are searching for infield depth. Current backups Cesar Izturis and Brooks Conrad inspire little confidence, and Milwaukee will take a full appraisal of its free-agent and trade options, especially once other teams make their roster cuts.
St. Louis Cardinals: Is Lance Lynn Ready to Step into the Rotation?
The good folks at Viva El Birdos raised this very question on Monday, and indeed it seems critical.
Cards stalwart Chris Carpenter has missed the entire spring with a nerve issue in his neck. There is no time frame for his return, and the mere invocation of a nerve problem bodes ill.
Carpenter's in-house replacement is Lance Lynn, a 24-year-old second-year player with just two major league starts to his name.
And unlike last year when a dominant offense covered for the loss of ace Adam Wainwright, St. Louis won't have the lumber to overcome a below-average rotation. The Red Birds need Lynn to at least hold his own until Carpenter can return.
Cincinnati Reds: Will Aroldis Chapman Start?
The Reds surely hoped that by now both Aroldis Chapman and Homer Bailey would be firmly ensconced in the starting rotation.
But neither the Cuban import nor the homegrown prospect have lived up to those expectations, and this year they're battling for the final spot in Cincy's rotation.
Chapman has the spring lead, buoyed by a strikeout per inning and a 1.50 ERA. Even more impressive, the notoriously wild lefty has issued just two walks.
Bailey, on the other hand, has floundered. His saving grace could be Cincinnati's crumbling bullpen. With relievers Bill Bray and Ryan Madson sidelined by injury, the Reds might figure they need Chapman on the back end.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Does Pedro Alvarez Get the Everyday Job?
Since being selected with the second pick of the 2008 draft, it's been mostly downhill for third baseman Pedro Alvarez.
He has the power to give plus value at a premium position, but it's been mitigated by his persistent contact woes.
Things haven't gotten better this spring. Alvarez has four hits in 30 at bats (.133 average) and 13 strikeouts to just one walk.
Like last year, the Pirates will turn to Alvarez as their starting third baseman, praying they can siphon some value out of what was supposed to be a franchise-changing player. But it's unclear how much rope Alvarez gets with Casey McGahee waiting in the wings.
Chicago Cubs: What Happens with Travis Wood?
The Cubs had high hopes for lefty Travis Wood when they acquired him in the Sean Marshall trade.
Wood has spent most of the time since deflating those expectations to the point that they no longer seem valid. In other words, it's been a bad month.
Wood put together his first half-decent outing on Saturday and as camp winds down, he leaves Cubs fans with the following questions:
Will Wood start at Triple-A Iowa?
Can he make a late push for the fifth rotation spot?
Would Chicago consider moving him to the bullpen where he made four appearances for the Reds last year?
Wood is only 25 and a candidate to survive the Theo Epstein makeover. How the club handles him this year will go a long way toward dictating his future with the organization.
Houston Astros: Can Chris Johnson Reestablish Himself as the Starter?
Houston's third base logjam got a little less jammy last Friday with the demotion of Jimmy Paredes.
That leaves Chris Johnson (last year's Opening Day starter) and former first base prospect Brett Wallace as the last men standing.
Johnson fell from graces last year after an inspiring 2010. Wallace, once Baseball America's 27th-rated prospect, is moving across the diamond in order to give his low-power bat some value.
To date, Johnson has shown more promise. He's hit .324 with three home runs and has emerged as the favorite (although his poor plate discipline remains an issue). If he can sustain his hot play, Houston will have found a nice piece for the future.
Wallace, on the other hand, appears ticketed for Triple-A.
Arizona Diamondbacks: How to Use Gerardo Parra?
Left fielder Gerardo Parra had a breakout 2011, posting a .292/.357/.427 slash and winning his first Gold Glove—a rare case where award voters and stat folks agreed.
The Diamondbacks, it would appear, were less enthused. They signed former Twin Jason Kubel to a two-year deal that figures to limit Parra's playing time. The D-Backs say they aren't interested in trading Parra—the Nationals showed strong interest—but that creates more questions than it answers.
Right now the plan is to use Parra as a flex outfielder, rotating him between left and center when Kubel or Chris Young need a rest.
But that doesn't feel conclusive, especially with Parra leading the team in hits this spring. I'll be curious to see what language Arizona uses around the 25-year-old outfielder as the team gets ready for Opening Day.
San Francisco Giants: Will They Demote Brandon Belt?
I don't get it.
Brandon Belt had a .975 OPS at Triple-A Fresno last year. For his minor league career that number is 1.052.
And yet here we are again, with the offense-starved Giants talking about sending the supremely talented outfielder/first baseman—who, oh by the way, ranks second among all NL players in hits this spring training—back to Triple-A.
That demotion would be in deference to an aged Aubrey Huff at first and the replacement-level Nate Schierholtz in right field.
Like I said, I don't get it.
San Francisco is one of the teams that can least afford to keep a good bat down, and yet they have toed this line for over a year now. Their decision on Belt will have ripple effects on the rest of the roster as well as their chances to reclaim the NL West.
Los Angeles Dodgers: How to Treat Jerry Sands?
Dodgers outfield prospect Jerry Sands struggled after his call-up last year and has experienced more of the same this spring.
Winning an everyday spot in left field is out of the question and it would seem in the best interest of both parties to see Sands work on his plate discipline in Triple-A.
But the Dodgers haven't demoted him yet, which leaves open the possibility that he could serve as the fifth outfielder. How L.A. uses him depends on whether they see him as a key cog or a bit piece to be used wherever necessary.
Colorado Rockies: Is Jamie Moyer about to Do This?
There may be more meaningful story lines in this year's Cactus League, but none more compelling than 49-year-old Jamie Moyer's quest for a spot in Colorado's rotation.
And yes, you can expect that compound adjective to front every mention of Moyer this season.
After a successful recovery from Tommy John surgery, the lefty has allowed just one run in his nine Cactus League innings (he's been much worse in minor league action, but you know what they say about facts and a good story).
If he can keep this pace, Colorado would be doing both itself and the baseball world a favor by giving him a shot.
San Diego Padres: Do They Pull a Trade?
So far they've seemed reluctant to part with anyone, but as Opening Day draws close and teams grow desperate, the calculus could change.
The Padres are in a comfortable position with a fairly settled starting lineup and a great farm system. There's no pressure to act, but they should get some tempting offers.
New York Yankees: Who Makes the Rotation?
CC Sabathia will head the Yankees starting rotation. Slots two-through-five, however, are anyone's guess.
Hiroki Kuroda has a spot sewn up and Michael Pineda is a near lock. That leaves Freddy Garcia, Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova to battle for three spots. When Andy Pettitte gets into playing shape, the math only gets harder.
Recent news that the Yankees tried to offer Freddy Garcia to the Marlins doesn't necessarily mean he's the odd man out. Perhaps they thought the market for Garcia was better or that Nova and Hughes were too young to cast out.
There's only one thing known: Tough decisions await.
Tampa Bay Rays: Jeff Niemann or Wade Davis?
It's been the story in Rays camp since pitchers reported, and it will be continue as such until Tampa makes a decision: Is Jeff Niemann or Wade Davis the Rays' fifth starter?
Both are fairly young, but Davis is younger. Both were decent last year, but Niemann was a smidge better. Neither have pitched in relief before, but that's exactly where the loser is headed.
Based on spring stats alone, Niemann has the edge. But don't expect a decision until time forces the Rays' hand.
Boston Red Sox: Who Is the Starting Shortstop?
There is no shortage of position battles in Red Sox camp, but the most interesting one is taking place at shortstop.
1.) Shortstop is a super, super important position. Can I add "super" one more time?
2.) It's a classic battle between hyped prospect (Jose Iglesias) and capable veteran (Mike Aviles).
3.) It's reputed that the field manager and the general manager have taken different sides, with Bobby Valentine favoring Iglesias and new GM Ben Cherington leaning toward Aviles.
Whatever the outcome, media and fans are sure to interpret it as a reflection on the new dynamic in Boston. That alone makes this position battle worth watching.
Toronto Blue Jays: Do They Deal for an Arm?
The Jays' big roster battle ended Sunday when the team assigned Travis Snider to Triple-A.
Snider, a former first-round pick, had been battling Eric Thames for the starting job in left field.
The only bit of intrigue still surrounding the Jays is their seemingly endless quest for another starting pitcher. They went hard after Yu Darvish this offseason and have spent the spring popping up in various trade rumors.
None of that has resulted in any action, but one would think Toronto still has an eye out.
Baltimore Orioles: Trade or No Trade?
The Orioles have been active shoppers this spring, striking an aggressive pose at a time when most teams look to make only a few minor moves.
Whether or not they can is another story, but Baltimore should circulate heavily in trade rumors.
On an inward-facing note, the Orioles and their fans continue to keep a close eye on young pitchers Zach Britton and Brian Matusz. Both looked like future stars a year ago before injury and poor performance derailed them.
Matusz has looked decent so far this spring while Britton continues rehabbing a troublesome shoulder. Their future fate as Orioles lies in the season ahead.
Detroit Tigers: Who's the 5th Starter?
It's a three-way race for Detroit's fifth rotation spot, and the winner gets to spend most of the season looking over their shoulder.
All three—Duane Below, Drew Smyly and Andy Oliver—are left-handed and all three have limited (or no) big league experience. Expect a quick change if the victor fails to pass muster at the big league level.
And as one would expect in a heated battle like this, each pitcher fits into a crude, pre-fab prototype.
Below is the experienced, low-ceiling guy with the most minor league experience.
Oliver has good stuff but miserable control, a classic case where volatility breeds intrigue.
Smyly is the enigma, a former second-round pick with just one-year's professional experience but the kind of results that get fans drooling.
Notably absent in this conversation is top-prospect Jacob Turner, who couldn't overcome injury and poor early results in his pursuit of the fifth spot.
Cleveland Indians: Does Chisenhall Stand a Chance?
Recent reports indicate that Lonnie Chisenhall's quest to make the Cleveland Indians their starting third baseman will fall short.
The Indians, however, have not sent the 23-year-old to Triple-A just yet. Until they do, the position battle between he and journeyman Jack Hannahan continues.
Neither has impressed this spring, but Cleveland is understandably worried about rushing Chisenhall and spoiling his potential.
Hannahan presents no such dilemma, and it makes him the heavy favorite.
Chicago White Sox: Who's the Closer?
The Chicago White Sox won't breed much excitement this year, but they have given us spring's most spirited battle for saves.
This Monday, Hector Santiago and Will Ohman joined Matt Thornton, Jesse Crain and Addison Reed in what has mushroomed into a five-way battle for ninth inning duties.
The White Sox kept most of their starting staff in tact and figure to play plenty of close, low-scoring games. So don't dismiss this battle as mere sideshow.
How Chicago sets their 'pen will have a noticeable impact on their win total.
Kansas City Royals: Who's the Closer? (Redux)
Count Kansas City among the teams that already made their most consequential move, electing to start Chris Getz at second base over up-and-comer Johnny Giavotella.
Now the Royals turn their attention to the closer's role, where management is choosing between three candidates to replace surgery-bound incumbent Joakim Soria.
Jonathan Broxton, the one-time Dodger closer hoping to put injury and a steep performance drop in his rear view.
Aaron Crow, a top prospect who now finds himself trapped perilously between the bullpen and the rotation.
Greg Holland, a young, career-relief type with a whiff-rate that suggests back-end potential.
There isn't a wrong choice—unless it's Aaron Crow. Free Aaron Crow!
Minnesota Twins: Where Does Chris Parmelee Fit?
Three years ago, Chris Parmelee's prospects looked dim.
The former first-round pick was coming off his second straight year at Low-A, both of which saw him hit a miserable .239.
But there were signs that his plate discipline was improving, and as the Twins promoted Parmelee he responded with better and better numbers. That trajectory reached an unlikely high last year when the Long Beach native hit .355 in a 21-game big league cameo.
Parmelee has carried that hot play into spring, and now has the Twins brass wondering if they should put the youngster at first base and transition Justin Morneau into a regular DH role.
There's also the possibility Parmelee finds a home in right field. Either way, it's a nice story and a potential boon for the offense-starved Twinkies.
Texas Rangers: Does Neftali Feliz Make It Back for Opening Day?
Neftali Feliz's long road to the rotation didn't need another bump, but it's got one.
The talented starter-turned-closer-turned-starter has battled shoulder stiffness this spring, and it's possible said stiffness will delay his long-awaited debut as a major-league starter.
(Side note: 154 appearances into Feliz's career and he has yet to start a game. Amazing.)
The latest indications are that Feliz has a good shot to make it back for April. Considering Feliz's history, however, Rangers fans should wait to exhale.
Los Angeles Angels: Where Does Mark Trumbo Land?
I was skeptical when the Angels announced they'd try Rookie of the Year runner-up Mark Trumbo at third base, a position he had never played as a professional.
Trumbo's 6'4", 220-lb frame seemed an odd fit for the hot corner and it wasn't as if his big-bop, big-whiff bat was so valuable that it could overcome a glaring defensive weakness.
But Trumbo has impressed the Angels with his glove work and there's a budding sense that he could see significant time there this year.
For his sake, Trumbo better hope he can stick. Kendrys Morales has been swinging a hot bat since his return and it's unclear where Trumbo would fit if Morales locks down the DH spot.
Oakland A's: Who's Got1st Base?
In the first phase of yet another rebuilding project, Oakland gets to choose from three youngish first basemen toeing the line between building block and bust.
The least disappointing—at least by scout's expectations—and the least young is Kila Ka'aihue, a marginal prospect who hit his way through the Royals' system. He's a classic high-power, high-patience Billy Beane player, but those traits have yet to translate to the big leagues. At 27, he's running short on time.
Daric Barton is the most seasoned of the three, a veteran of five major league seasons before he turned 26. Barton has a fantastic batting eye, but has yet to develop the power needed to man first base. One wonders if it will ever come.
Brandon Allen arrived via trade from Arizona last year, cast out by Paul Goldschmidt's development. Allen has had some impressive minor league seasons, again highlighted by good power and a good eye, but he swings and misses far too often.
Barton isn't with the team in Japan, but he's still a candidate to play when the club returns for stateside. At some point this season Oakland will cast their lot with one of the above three.
Seattle Mariners: What Happens to Chone Figgins?
The Mariners owe Chone Figgins $17 million over the next two years. Nothing short of a nuclear holocaust/Ned Colletti is going to change that.
The question now becomes what the Mariners do with Figgins, a man who has gone from good to blah to damn-near-unplayable over the course of two short years.
The Mariners could start Figgins at third, the position where he spent most of his time last year. That, however, would block Alex Liddi and Kyle Seager from significant playing time.
Neither is a top-tier prospect, but both deserve a hard look after strong spring performances and both are decidedly not Chone Figgins. That last part is important.
Stationed in center field, Figgins would present a similar dilemma, stealing precious at-bats from youngster Michael Saunders.
Given all that, maybe the M's use Figgins in a garden variety backup role, moving him from station to station as starters require rest.
The possibilities are endless, maybe too endless.
What was once Figgins' strength, his versatility, has become a sort of curse. You can use Chone Figgins anywhere, but you'd really rather not.