10 Must-Follow Spring Training Storylines as February Kicks off

Rick Weiner@RickWeinerNYFeatured ColumnistFebruary 2, 2014

10 Must-Follow Spring Training Storylines as February Kicks off

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    Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

    While the weather outside might indicate otherwise, spring training is just around the corner. With it comes a multitude of intriguing storylines that sometimes will extend into the regular season.

    Baseball has had its share of interesting stories so far this winter, including the Alex Rodriguez arbitration case and the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes. While part of those tales has already been told, there's more to come on both fronts this spring.

    Intriguing storylines aren't exclusive to the New York Yankees' spring training complex, however, as there's a story to be told in camp for each of MLB's 30 franchises.

    Here's a look at 10 of the must-follow storylines as baseball prepares to get back on the field for the 2014 season.

    *Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference or FanGraphs.

Which Team Will Make the Biggest Splash Before Opening Day?

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    For as many moves as have already been made this winter, there's still a handful of impact players left on the free-agent market—and no shortage of teams that could use an additional piece.

    Seven teams—the Arizona Diamondbacks, Baltimore Orioles, Cleveland Indians, Kansas City Royals, Philadelphia Phillies, Seattle Mariners and the Texas Rangers—could all use another starting pitcher, while the Mariners, Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates would benefit from adding another impact bat to the lineup.

    Adding another reliever to the mix would make sense for the New York Mets and New York Yankees, with the Bronx Bombers potentially in need of another quality infield option as well.

    Whether it's a free-agent signing or a trade, multiple teams still have needs—and that means plenty of moves are still on tap between now and Opening Day.

How Will the Rule Changes Be Received?

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Old habits die hard, so don't be surprised when you see a runner heading home lower his shoulder to prepare for a collision with the catcher—only to find that he is standing off to the side of the plate, chatting with the home-plate umpire.

    Welcome to the "new and improved" MLB, where home-plate collisions are a thing of the past, and managers now have an NFL-inspired challenge system with which they can dispute calls.

    To be sure, these changes are far from perfect, and it won't take long for managers to figure out how to expose the loopholes and flaws that are inherent with any new system. For example, will a manager challenge a ruling on the field just to get a pitcher warming up in the bullpen more time?

    It will be interesting—and in some cases, quite entertaining—to see how managers test the system during the spring, as they try to find out what they can—and can't—get away with.

How Big Will A.J. Burnett's Impact Be on the Free-Agent Pitching Market?

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    A.J. Burnett has already made a major impact on the free-agent pitching market, moving past Bronson Arroyo, Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana to become the most sought-after pitcher still available.

    Not only will a team need to make a smaller commitment to Burnett than the other top available starters, both in terms of money and years, but it won't lose a draft pick for signing him. That his numbers over the past two years are superior to his free-agent counterparts has become secondary.

    PitcherW-L (GS)ERAWHIPIPH/9BB/9K/9
    Arroyo26-22 (64)3.761.18404.
    Burnett26-21 (61)3.411.23393.
    Jimenez22-26 (63)4.331.47359.
    Santana18-23 (62)4.121.20389.

    Unfortunately for the rest of the free-agent field, Burnett is likely to be the first among that group to find a new home—and teams aren't going to go over the annual salary that he commands for any of the other arms still available.

    While the numbers were trending downward in regards to the potential deals available for Arroyo, Jimenez and Santana, Burnett will be the one who dictates just how much earning power they have left after he signs.

    Like Masahiro Tanaka before him, expect the pitching market to slow to a crawl until Burnett finds a new home.

Which Free-Agent Position Player Will Sign First?

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    As with the free-agent pitching market, there is a small group of impact players left atop the wish lists of multiple teams still looking to add a bat: outfielder Nelson Cruz, shortstop Stephen Drew and first baseman Kendrys Morales.

    All three have seen their markets slowly develop due to both their asking prices and the draft-pick compensation attached to their price tags, but it seems that one of them is more in demand. 

    Multiple sources, including ESPN's Jim Bowden, are reporting that the Seattle Mariners are in hot pursuit of veteran slugger Cruz and could extend an offer to him soon.

    Once he signs, Drew and Morales may find themselves more open to taking a short-term, team-friendly deal to avoid becoming this winter's Kyle Lohse, who didn't sign with the Milwaukee Brewers until a week before Opening Day last year.

Will Jeff Samardzija Finally Sign an Extension with the Cubs?

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    Norm Hall/Getty Images

    In a word: No.

    Jeff Samardzija and the Chicago Cubs remain nearly $2 million apart on arbitration numbers for 2014 and more than $10 million apart on a long-term extension, according to ESPN Chicago's Jesse Rogers. At this point, both sides seem destined to meet in what is sure to be a contentious arbitration hearing.

    As Rogers aptly points out: "It has become evident the Cubs simply don’t value Samardzija the same way the right-hander thinks they should."

    Chicago has tried to sign Samardzija to an extension on multiple occasions, and the right-hander's recent remarks to the Chicago Sun-Times' Gordon Wittenmyer, where he expressed his frustration with the team's constant rebuilding process, don't make an extension any more likely.

    In fact, with the Cubs missing out on Masahiro Tanaka—a signing that Samardzija admitted would make him more inclined to stay in Chicago—the chances of working out a long-term deal probably disappeared with the Japanese phenom.

    While he might be the team's Opening Day starter, Samardzija won't finish 2014 wearing a Cubs uniform.

Derek Jeter's Return to Action

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    If the New York Yankees are going to return to the playoffs in 2014, a healthy, productive Derek Jeter is a necessity.

    It's not about Jeter's production on the field as much as the swagger that the Yankees carry themselves with when the captain is in the thick of it all. They expect to win because he does. Not just enough to make the playoffs, but to win the World Series.

    "Always. Bottom line," Jeter explained to ESPN New York's Ian O'Connor last September. "That's the goal. That will always be the message as long as I'm here."

    As for those who question just how productive a player entering his age-40 season can possibly be, especially one who was limited to only 17 forgettable games in 2013, Jeter isn't paying attention, telling O'Connor that he expects to have a typical Jeteresque season:

    "Why would you set expectations low? I don't understand that. I don't understand how people do that. I've never done it."

    It was only two years ago that Jeter hit .316 and lead baseball with 216 hits, so there's reason for optimism. Asking for a repeat performance may be too much, but if he begins to look like himself this spring—and stays healthy—the Yankees become a more dangerous team.

    Should the injury bug strike again or Jeter look, well, like a 40-year-old shortstop with two decades of wear and tear on his body, general manager Brian Cashman may have no choice but to seriously consider signing free-agent shortstop Stephen Drew—if he's still available.

Will Alex Rodriguez's Lawsuit Get Thrown out of Court?

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    Scott Halleran/Getty Images

    Outside of Alex Rodriguez's inner circle, there isn't anyone roaming the planet who believes his lawsuit against MLB and the MLBPA has any chance of success.

    As originally reported by the Associated Press (via ESPN), MLB's lawyers have already asked U.S. District Judge Edgardo Ramos to dismiss A-Rod's case, and a conference will take place on Valentine's Day, Feb. 14.

    If Ramos agrees with MLB, Rodriguez will miss the entire 2014 season and baseball fans will rejoice that all is right with the world. Really, Ramos has little choice but to rule against the third baseman, based on the precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1960 case that pitted the United Steelworkers of America against Enterprise Corp:

    Via Halc.org:

    Federal courts should decline to review the merits of arbitration awards under collective bargaining agreements...The question of interpretation of the collective bargaining agreement is a question for the arbitrator, and the courts have no business overruling his construction of the contract merely because their interpretation of it is different from his.

    Even if Ramos somehow believes that A-Rod's case has merit, he's likely only delaying the inevitable—that the 162-game suspension handed down by arbitrator Fredric Horowitz will stand. Dragging this case out, whether it be deep into the spring or into the regular season, won't benefit anybody. 

How Will Masahiro Tanaka Adapt?

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    The New York Yankees won the battle to sign 25-year-old Japanese phenom Masahiro Tanaka, but there's plenty of work to be done before the team can rest easy, knowing that it has found the future ace of its rotation.

    They have to make Tanaka's move from Japan to the United States as painless and easy as possible. Without question, having his fellow countrymen Hiroki Kuroda and Ichiro Suzuki in the clubhouse will go a long way towards putting Tanaka at ease.

    But at 38 and 40 years old, respectively, both veterans are much older than Tanaka, and it's fair to wonder just how much of a connection they'll have with their new teammate.

    Chances are that Tanaka will have little trouble acclimating himself to the MLB game, and while he's sure to have a few hiccups along the way, he'll be good to go by the time Opening Day rolls around.

Will David Price Be Traded?

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    Last month, David Price told Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times that he believed the closer spring training got, the better his chances of sticking with the Tampa Bay Rays for the 2014 season, specifically pointing to Feb. 1 as a major indicator of his immediate future:

    I think if I'm in camp, I would be on the team, because that would stink if I would be a part of the team in spring training and everybody thinks I'd be there along with them and then I get traded a couple days into spring or something like that...Probably Feb. 1 would be a time period that I think would kind of let me know that I would be here.

    Well, Feb. 1 has come and Price remains the ace of Tampa Bay's rotation. The trade winds that were swirling around him have died down, and the rumor mill has essentially come to a grinding halt when it comes to banter and speculation about the 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner.

    While you can never say never, especially since a Price trade is inevitable due to Tampa Bay's financial constraints, it would be shocking if he wound up getting dealt before Opening Day.

Will We Learn the Identity of Bud Selig's Successor?

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    Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press

    Love him or hate him, Bud Selig's reign as commissioner of baseball comes to an end in December, and while there has been plenty of speculation, the identity of his successor remains a mystery.

    Many believe that Rob Manfred (pictured above with Selig), MLB's chief operating officer and Selig's right-hand man for more than a decade, is the prohibitive favorite to take over once Selig is gone. As one official told ESPN's Buster Olney (subscription required): “There’s no way [Selig] is leaving that job without anointing the next guy, and that’s Rob.” 

    But what if it's not Manfred? Who steps in to become one of the most powerful people in all of sports? Will it be someone else from the MLB offices, or will the owners look outside the game for its next leader?

    Would it surprise anyone if the owners looked to their television partners, who are paying ludicrous fees to carry MLB games both nationally and locally? NBC's Dick Ebersol and ESPN's George Bodenheimer can't be discounted as possibilities by any means.

    What about a team president, like Arizona's Derrick Hall or Los Angeles' Stan Kasten? What about a former owner and United States President George W. Bush?

    There are countless possibilities as to who Selig's successor may be, and the speculation will only increase as the regular season draws near.