Predicting How MLB's Top 10 Spring Training Storylines Will Play Out
It's that time of year again, baseball fans!
With pitchers, catchers and reserve outfielders rolling into your favorite Grapefruit or Cactus League location, narratives, reports and predictions are in abundance.
Much has changed since the last competitive baseball games were played in late October. Thus, fans and media members have had endless days and nights to contemplate the most intriguing subplots to spring training.
Over the next six weeks, these stories will unfold in Florida and Arizona. To be fair, we may not have a definitive answer to most of these before the regular season begins. Still, by the time the teams pack up and head north for the start of the season, a picture of the 2014 season will emerge.
The following is a peek into the biggest spring training storylines and how they'll be thought of by the end of March.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Arbitration numbers and projections courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors. Roster projections courtesy of MLB Depth Charts.
1. Are the Red Sox Good Enough to Repeat?
The Boston Red Sox enter camp as the defending World Series champions, but the group that won it all in 2013 ceases to exist.
Such is the nature of Major League Baseball in the era of free agency. Without Jacoby Ellsbury, Ryan Dempster, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Stephen Drew, the 2014 outfit in Boston will be noticeably different than the band that went from worst to first last summer.
Of course, that doesn't mean the team won't be as good as the 97-win team that shocked baseball and the American League East. In fact, if Grady Sizemore returns to his old, healthy form, Dustin Pedroia regains his power stroke and Xander Bogaerts emerges as baseball's next phenom, the Red Sox could be better this year.
By the end of March, the Red Sox will likely confront doubters. With the AL East improving on a daily basis, don't expect Boston to break camp as the consensus favorite to win it all again.
Once again, Boston will have to prove naysayers wrong. This time, it will attempt to defend a World Series crown.
2. Will the Yankees Return to October?
After spending $503 million on talent this winter, the New York Yankees entered February as baseball's biggest story. When Derek Jeter announced his plans to retire at the end of the 2014 season, an extra spotlight began to shine upon this franchise.
In New York, the stars have aligned. After fielding a dreary and below-average group for most of 2013, the glitz and glamour have returned to the Bronx. From the media contingent that follows Masahiro Tanaka's every move to Derek Jeter's farewell tour, the Yankees are a major story again.
Of course, they are far from a flawless product.
General manager Brian Cashman acknowledged that during a conference call with the media in January, per Anthony Rieber of Newsday.
"I think people want to see how the bullpen's going to shake out," Cashman said. "People are going to want to see how the infield's going to shake out . . . What's Brian Roberts going to be? What's Derek Jeter going to be as he comes back from his injury? What's Mark Teixeira going to be at first base as he comes back from his wrist [injury]? Can Kelly Johnson secure and handle on a consistent basis third base? . . . Speaking to the obvious questions that people would have every right to ask."
With question marks in the bullpen, starting rotation and infield, the next six weeks will be spent piecing together the best possible 25-man roster, not preparing for a summer-long waltz atop the AL East.
When the Yankees arrive in Houston for Opening Day, expect the question marks on their roster to overshadow the money spent this winter.
3. Can the Phillies Make One Last Run?
After losing 81 and 89 games, respectively, over the last two seasons, the Philadelphia Phillies don't carry the look of a contender into Clearwater, Fla., and the start of camp.
But don't tell that to their outspoken closer, Jonathan Papelbon. According to Jeff Skversky of WPVI ABC6 in Philadelphia, Papelbon, if he was a betting man, would take his chances with this Phillies team.
"If I was a gambling man, I would take us to go all the way," Papelbon said.
Few will echo those sentiments, but the Phillies can be a surprise contender if a myriad of questions are answered in their favor:
Is Cole Hamels' shoulder healthy? Will A.J. Burnett bring his 2012-2013 form to Philadelphia? Can Chase Utley and Ryan Howard stay healthy? Is manager Ryne Sandberg prepared to challenge a veteran core of past champions? Can Marlon Byrd repeat his resurgent 2013 season? Is Domonic Brown prepared to make the leap to stardom? Have last year's NL Wild Card winners—Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates—lost enough talent to let Philadelphia into the race?
When the regular season begins, health will be paramount to the feeling around this team. If Ryne Sandberg's group breaks camp as a healthy, uninhibited roster, the Phillies will carry themselves like a team prepared to make one more run before age and attrition finish them for good.
4. Where Will the Top Remaining Free Agents Land?
Due to qualifying offers and first-round draft pick compensation, difference-making players remain on the free-agent market. After the Baltimore Orioles took a calculated risk on Ubaldo Jimenez, four notable players remain jobless with spring training underway: Ervin Santana, Kendrys Morales, Nelson Cruz and Stephen Drew.
Barring an unforeseen injury during personal workouts, all will sign major league contracts before Opening Day.
Here's where they might end up:
Ervin Santana, Toronto Blue Jays: Starting pitching held the Blue Jays back in 2013. With Santana and R.A. Dickey atop the rotation, the Blue Jays could be another contender in the AL East.
Kendrys Morales, Baltimore Orioles: After surrendering the 17th pick in the first round as compensation for Ubaldo Jimenez, sacrificing a later selection for Morales becomes more palatable.
Nelson Cruz, Seattle Mariners: Robinson Cano needs protection in the lineup.
Stephen Drew, New York Mets: According to Adam Rubin of ESPN New York, incumbent shortstop Ruben Tejada has arrived in great shape. For now, that's great news for the Mets. If he doesn't hit, however, it won't matter. By mid-March, Drew could arrive to boost Terry Collins' lineup.
5. Can the Dodgers Live Up to Expectations?
After a 5-2 loss on June 22, 2013, the Los Angeles Dodgers looked like baseball's most disappointing team. At 30-42, the postseason was a dream, Yasiel Puig's hot start was overshadowed by losing and manager Don Mattingly's seat was getting warmer by the minute.
Then, without warning or notice, the Dodgers became the best team in baseball. From then on, Los Angeles won 62 of 90 games, good for a .688 winning percentage. Despite dropping the NLCS in six games to the St. Louis Cardinals, expectations are soaring for the 2014 season in Hollywood.
If the Dodgers can conjure their late-June through September form, 110 wins or more isn't out of the question.
As camp opens, Don Mattingly is attempting to take the pressure off his team by allowing it to play the game its way, free-spirited and loose.
According to Andy Martino of the New York Daily News, Mattingly opened up spring training with this edict for his club: "We’re going to have fun, and if people don’t like it, that’s their problem.”
Some won't like it, but by the start of the regular season, Los Angeles' talent will overwhelm any other storyline around the team.
6. Will the Braves Be Rewarded for Long-Term Spending?
The Atlanta Braves have spent $222.7 million this winter in order to keep a winning core together in Atlanta for years. According to David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a long-term deal for shortstop Andrelton Simmons could be the next order of business for the Braves.
In order to reap the benefits of young, ascending talents like Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Craig Kimbrel and Julio Teheran, the Braves will need to win during the shelf life of their respective contracts.
After capturing the NL East in 2013, more will be expected this coming season.
In fairness, the Braves have years to win and prove themselves right for betting on a core of 20-something-year-old stars.
For some, though, patience isn't an easy virtue. Expect the Washington Nationals to overtake the Braves in the eyes of scouts this spring. When the season starts, pressure will be shouldered by the new faces of the Braves franchise.
7. Will New Rules Cause Growing Pains?
When the 2014 season begins, two major rule changes could have an impact from the first pitch of the first game: the elimination of home plate collisions and enhanced instant replay, including managerial challenges.
In both cases, expect major growing pains to accompany the implementation and look of the game during the first few months and years of adjustment.
Of the two, the elimination of home plate collisions will be easier to navigate, especially for a forward-thinking franchise like the Cardinals. According to Jenifer Langosch of MLB.com, the Cardinals—just days into camp—are already preparing new ways to handle plays at the plate.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, a former standout defensive catcher, spoke about how his players will have to adapt.
"We have to completely revamp the mechanics from where we set up and how we go about placing a tag," Matheny said. "But our catchers have been extremely open to it understanding the reasoning and they have adapted real well. We have accomplished a lot already in just two times working on it. [We] already have come a long ways figuring out mechanically what we can do."
Home plate strategy will be nothing compared to the pressure baseball, managers and umpires have to seamlessly introduce expanded replay and challenges into a game that's long and drawn out without extra stoppages.
Furthermore, without true competition in spring games, it will be difficult for managers to simulate when and where to challenge blown calls.
By Opening Day, the kinks in baseball's newly proposed rules will be far from ironed out. The games will count, but the process will just be commencing for those inside the game.
8. Can Ryan Braun Win Back Fans?
From 2007-11, Ryan Braun wasn't just a great young player; he was on the trajectory to an immortal career and potentially becoming the face of baseball for a new generation.
During that span, Braun owned a 145 OPS+, slugged 161 home runs, stole 96 bases and won a National League MVP award. In that five-year period, he was the only player in the sport to hit at least 150 home runs and steal 75 or more bases.
If there was a debate surrounding the best all-around player in the game, it started and stopped with Ryan Braun's name.
Clearly, things have changed around the Milwaukee Brewers star. After testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs at the end of his 2011 season, Braun fought and won his battle against baseball in 2012. But one year, later, he was caught, disciplined and suspended due to his involvement with Biogenesis.
After an injury-plagued and suspension-shortened 2013, Braun returns to baseball looking for redemption.
Until he stays clean for an entire season and hits at his former MVP level, that will be difficult to conjure from any fanbase in baseball—including his own in Milwaukee.
9. Can Ausmus, Williams Replace Legends?
Predicting a Washington Nationals-Detroit Tigers World Series battle isn't far-fetched. In fact, due to the talent in both Washington and Detroit, it's a distinct possibility.
If it occurs, two spring questions will be answered soundly: Matt Williams and Brad Ausmus.
No, the former players-turned managers aren't necessarily the questions marks. While it's fair to wonder how they'll perform in their first respective jaunts in the dugout, the cloud over them is deeper and more complicated.
Namely, how will they perform in the role of replacing legendary managers?
In Washington, Davey Johnson is out after the Nationals underwent a disappointing 2013 season. In Detroit, Jim Leyland retired after a one-of-a-kind career that pitted stops in Pittsburgh, Florida, Colorado and Detroit.
Now, Williams and Ausmus, respectively, have major shoes to fill. Due to the talent in both organizations, winning shouldn't be a problem for either.
By the end of spring, expect the pressure to fall on Ausmus due to the love and admiration that Detroit's players had for Leyland. Any misstep or slump will be met with concern around this potential World Series team.
In Washington, the opposite will ring true. Williams' fresh approach, preparedness and work ethic will resonate with a team looking to get off to a hot start and erase the disappointment of last season.
10. Who Is the Next 'Face of Baseball' After Derek Jeter?
When Derek Jeter's 2014 season ends, Major League Baseball will lose more than a great shortstop and champion—it will lose the face of the sport.
Over the next six weeks, expect many columns to be written about why "Player A" or "Player B" is deserving and poised to take up Jeter's mount as the face of the sport. In most cases, the idea, recognition and nomination will be well deserved.
From Bryce Harper to Manny Machado to Andrew McCutchen, baseball is loaded with young, brilliant talents that can become ambassadors for the sport over the next decade.
But when factoring in talent, age and market size, one player stands alone as the next face of Major League Baseball: Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout.
By the end of spring training, Trout will be ready to embark on a third consecutive American League MVP-caliber campaign, four months away from his 23rd birthday. And he'll be poised to finish the season as the most valuable age-22 player in the history of the sport, according to Baseball-Reference (subscription required).
If the Angels bounce back in 2014, Trout could experience the postseason for the first time in his young career. By then, a battle with the Yankees could serve as the seminal passing of the torch between Jeter and Trout.
Which spring training storyline is most intriguing?