Spring training is finally upon us, with coaches and players saying goodbye to their families and heading south for the rest of the winter. They are all set to start gearing up for MLB's 2014 regular season, which is quickly approaching.
From position battles to player moves to stars returning from injury, there's no shortage of intriguing storylines to follow and heated debates to engage in this spring as America's pastime finally gets back on the field.
Here's a look at how we see 10 of those storylines playing out.
Derek Jeter has heard—and silenced—his doubters before, as he explained to USA Today's Paul White recently: "I remember when I was 35, everyone said that was it, he can't play anymore, end of my career. So, it's really nothing different."
Entering the final season of his legendary career, Jeter heads into his final spring training healthy, something that he couldn't say last spring. "This offseason is like a normal offseason. I'm four months ahead of where I was last year. Last year, quite honestly, I want to forget about it. Everything is good so far, knock on wood," said Jeter.
New York pitcher David Phelps is convinced that Jeter is going to go out with a bang, as he told the New York Daily News' Anthony McCarron before the New York Yankees captain announced that 2014 would be his last season:
Derek (Jeter) looks amazing. That’s awesome.
You can tell he’s determined to go out there and do well. If you had to place a bet on it, you know he’s going to go out there and have a good year. I’m really looking forward to seeing him play again. He’s having a lot of fun right now.
Is Jeter going to lead baseball in hits, as he did in 2012, or win the MVP award that has eluded him throughout his career? Probably not.
But as he's done throughout his Hall of Fame career, Jeter will silence his critics in 2014—and the seeds for a stellar final season will begin to blossom this spring.
SS Stephen Drew: Signs with the New York Mets
Despite New York Mets GM Sandy Alderson's efforts to talk up incumbent shortstop Ruben Tejada this winter, as he did last month in a conversation with Kevin Kernan of the New York Post, the Mets continue to talk with agent Scott Boras about free agent Stephen Drew.
According to Ken Davidoff of the New York Post, contract length continues to be the major obstacle. Drew and Boras are said to be seeking a one-year deal with an option for 2015, the Boston Herald's John Tomase tweets, but neither the Mets nor Drew's former club, the Boston Red Sox, are willing to add the option.
For all of the improvements that the team made this winter, heading into the regular season with Tejada as the starting shortstop would be a letdown. Ultimately, the Mets will realize that they simply can't afford to not bring Drew on board.
OF Nelson Cruz: Signs with the Seattle Mariners
It may not be until the beginning of March that a deal is struck, but Nelson Cruz will eventually find his way to the Seattle Mariners this spring.
The Mariners are hot on his trail, according to Bob Nightengale of USA Today, and while he's not a perfect fit in Seattle, he is the best available bat to fill the void in the Mariners lineup after Robinson Cano.
Cruz is going to have to settle for a shorter deal than he'd like, but he'll come to his senses and realize that a two-year deal is better than no deal at all.
It's clear that nearly every team in baseball considers Kendrys Morales a designated hitter, not a first baseman, and that perception, coupled with the draft-pick compensation that's attached to his price tag, will continue to keep the switch-hitter on the open market after the regular season begins.
While he'd certainly be an upgrade as a designated hitter for a number of teams, Morales simply isn't worth the kind of money that it's going to take to sign him. A quick look at Fangraphs' player valuations shows that Morales hasn't produced at a level commensurate with a salary over $7.4 million since 2009.
Unlike the remaining free agents that are tied to draft-pick compensation—Nelson Cruz, Stephen Drew, Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana—Morales doesn't play a premium position or have big-time power, something that's always in demand.
Simply put, Morales is a good player, not a great one—and that will continue to work against him.
Grady Sizemore may not be an All-Star anymore, but the 31-year-old outfielder is healthy for the first time in four years, and he's going to factor into Boston's plans going forward.
“I’m happy to be healthy,” Sizemore recently told the Boston Globe's Nick Cafardo. “I’m good to go. There’ll be some things that I’ll be working on this spring trying to get back to 100 percent. I’m in good shape but not necessarily baseball shape, but I’m moving around good.”
Admittedly rusty, Sizemore says that of his many tools, his speed has less rust on it than the others:
I feel like I have the speed. It’s more durability; can you put it together every day? Maybe out of the chute I’m not going to say my speed is exactly the way it used to be, but it’s going to get better. It’s just a matter of staying healthy and putting a good program together.
While Jackie Bradley Jr. remains Boston's long-term answer in center field, the 23-year-old struggled mightily against major-league pitching in 2013, hitting .189 over 95 at-bats while striking out nearly 30 percent of the time.
Sizemore will shock the world this spring, staying healthy enough—and productive enough—to beat out his younger competition for the starting nod in center field.
RHP Ubaldo Jimenez: Signs with the Toronto Blue Jays
It's been a quiet offseason in Toronto where, aside from signing catcher Dioner Navarro, the Blue Jays haven't done much to improve a roster that won only 74 games a year ago.
They need to add another starter alongside R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle at the top of the rotation, something that GM Alex Anthopoulos told Sportsnet's Ben Nicholson-Smith recently at the team's "State of the Franchise" event.
While either Jimenez or Ervin Santana would fit the description, the Blue Jays will opt for Jimenez, who will wind up signing for less money than his free-agent counterpart.
RHP Ervin Santana: Signs with the Baltimore Orioles
Even after signing Korean free agent Suk-Min Yoon, the Baltimore Orioles still need an innings-eating, established starter to pair with Chris Tillman atop the rotation, and they have set their sights on Ervin Santana, according to Dan Connolly of the Baltimore Sun.
Why Santana over Jimenez? Over the past six years, Santana has pitched to a 3.51 ERA and 1.20 WHIP in the four seasons that he's eclipsed the 200-inning plateau. He's simply more consistent than Jimenez.
While GM Sandy Alderson insists that the New York Mets are no longer shopping first baseman Ike Davis, as he told MLB.com's Anthony DiComo, the fact remains that the 26-year-old slugger needs a change of scenery to get his career back on track.
It's something that team sources told Andy Martino of the New York Daily News earlier this winter, with those same sources indicating that Lucas Duda, and not Davis, was the team's preferred choice to start the regular season at first base.
During a recent appearance on the team's SNY Network, manager Terry Collins outlined his plans for Davis this winter (h/t Anthony Rieber of Newsday):
One of the things we’re going to do obviously in spring training is we’re going to give him (Davis) some more at-bats. I think it’s very, very important to try to get him in mid-season form when the season starts. A lot of guys leave spring training and have 50, 60 at-bats. I might get him 80 to 100 this spring just to make sure he’s ready to go when we start.
In other words, the team is going to showcase Davis for the rest of the league.
Keeping Davis and Duda (along with Josh Satin) on the active roster makes little sense for the club, with only one spot to play the three players. Of the teams that Davis had been linked to this winter, the Pittsburgh Pirates remain in need of an upgrade at first base.
While the Mets aren't going to pry a "big arm" like Nick Kingham away from the Bucs—the team's asking price earlier this winter, according to USA Today's John Perrotto—a lesser arm, like 24-year-old right-hander Stolmy Pimentel, will be enough of a return to get a deal done.
It's not what Milwaukee fans want to hear, but, barring injury, Rickie Weeks will reclaim his spot as the team's starting second baseman this spring.
There's little doubt that Scooter Gennett is the team's long-term answer at the position, and he was impressive down the stretch for the Brewers in 2013, posting an .834 OPS and 131 wRC+ over 69 games. Compared to Weeks' .663 OPS and 89 wRC+ over 104 games, Gennett clearly deserves to start.
But Weeks is on Milwaukee's books for $11 million, and it's hard to see the club paying him that salary to sit on the bench. Ideally, the team would trade Weeks, but his value is all but non-existent at this point. The only way to fix that is for him to perform, and the only way he can perform is if he's playing.
Yes, two years of Jeff Samardizja is better than one—or one-and-a-half—but with free agents like Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana still available and Chicago's high reported asking price for their ace, the Cubs will head into the regular season with the 29-year-old at the front of their rotation.
That asking price is huge, according to FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan, who says that the Cubs asked Atlanta for either Jason Heyward or Justin Upton and asked Toronto for a multi-player package that included Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman, the team's two best pitching prospects.
With free-agent options like Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana still available, no team is going to pay such a hefty price for Samardzija, even if he is a better pitcher than his free-agent counterparts. At the same time, the Cubs aren't about to minimize his value and take back less than what they want for him.
Remember, they don't have to trade Samardzija—it just makes sense for a rebuilding club, one that isn't going to contend in 2014 (and possibly 2015), to move him for additional pieces to assist the rebuild.
While Samardzija will ultimately be traded, that deal won't be made this spring.
Since Minnesota selected him second overall in the 2012 draft, all Byron Buxton has done is crush the opposition—hitting for average, power and flashing his above-average speed when he's on base and in the field. All of that earned him the honor of being named Baseball America's 2013 Minor League Player of the Year.
Widely considered baseball's top prospect, the 20-year-old Buxton has never played above High-A. Normally, prospects like Buxton get a small taste of spring training before being assigned to minor-league camp, giving the big-league club a chance to evaluate players with a realistic shot of making the Opening Day roster.
But Buxton is a special talent, and his performance will not only dictate that he continues to get playing time but also that the Twins can seriously consider him for an early-season promotion should the team's current center field options—Aaron Hicks, Darin Mastrioanni or Alex Presley—fail to get the job done.
One of the most electrifying prospects in baseball, the overwhelming belief is that Oscar Taveras will start the 2014 in Triple-A, rounding into shape after missing all but 47 games in 2013 due to an ankle injury that ultimately required surgery to repair.
He's done playing minor-league ball.
Taveras, 21, recently did extensive running for the first time since his surgery and had no setbacks, according to Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “He’s been working hard, doing a lot of short movements, explosive movements,” skipper Mike Matheny said of Taveras. “This should lead him to being ready to go.”
Currently, the Cardinals have Allen Craig penciled into the right field spot with Matt Adams taking over for Craig at first base. But Taveras, who can hit for average and power from the left-side of the plate, has considerably more talent than Adams, who isn't nearly as good a player as Craig.
Now that he's healthy, Taveras will put his skills on display for all to see this spring and make Matheny's choice easy; he'll win the starting spot in right field, pushing Craig back to first base and Adams to the bench.