10 Burning Questions from MLB's Spring Training
MLB spring training is the time of year when there are all sorts of questions but unfortunately not a whole lot of answers.
For some teams, the questions are good ones. Take the St. Louis Cardinals for instance, whose biggest question this spring is trying to sort out which of the club's talented young pitchers will prove to be the answer in the No. 5 spot in the rotation.
Of course, for some players, like free agents Ervin Santana, Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales, the biggest question is figuring out just where exactly they'll be playing during the upcoming season.
So, here's a look around the league at 10 burning questions from MLB's spring training.
Note: All stats and videos courtesy of MLB.com.
How Many Home Runs Will Jose Abreu Hit in His Rookie Season?
Jose Abreu launched his first home run as a member of the Chicago White Sox, as the club played to a 6-6 tie against the Kansas City Royals on March 6.
The two-run shot to right field figures to be the first of many long balls for the 27-year-old slugger, whom the White Sox inked to a six-year, $68 million deal in the offseason. The first baseman posted outlandish power numbers while playing in Cuba's Serie Nacional. During the 2011-12 campaign, Abreu clubbed 35 home runs in 71 contests, according to Ben Badler of Baseball America.
Nobody expects Abreu to keep up such a prolific pace now that he'll be facing far more advanced pitching than he did in Cuba, but clearly the potential is there for Abreu to enjoy a monster rookie season.
Dave Schoenfield of ESPN set the over/under on Abreu's home run output at 29.5. So what do you think? Will Abreu beat that prediction or come up short?
Who Will Play Second Base for the Los Angeles Dodgers?
The Los Angeles Dodgers signed Cuban shortstop Alex Guerrero to a four-year, $28 million deal in the offseason with the intention of making him the club's new second baseman.
However, in early Cactus League action, Guerrero has struggled to adjust to his new defensive home, as Steve Dilbeck of the Los Angeles Times reports. As Dilbeck notes, another strike against Guerrero is the fact that he didn't play any baseball at all last season.
So far, the highlight of Guerrero's spring was the grand slam he hit off Jeff Francis in the Dodgers' 10-3 win over the Cincinnati Reds on March 5 (as can be seen in the video above). Should the Dodgers decide that Guerrero isn't an option for Opening Day, there are plenty of contenders ready to step in, but none are particularly compelling.
Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times lists Dee Gordon, Justin Turner, Miguel Rojas, Chone Figgins and Brendan Harris as the in-house options. For now, I'd expect the Dodgers to give Guerrero as many at-bats and as many innings as possible in order to prove his glove and bat are big-league ready. However, if he fails to do so, the most logical option would be to go with a platoon of Gordon and Turner.
Who Will Win the No. 5 Spot in the St. Louis Cardinals Rotation?
The St. Louis Cardinals have an abundance of options when it comes to deciding who will win the No. 5 spot in the club's rotation.
Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller are all "virtual locks" to break camp as part of the rotation, a notion supported by Bleacher Report's Corey Noles.
With Jaime Garcia set to miss Opening Day, as reported by Jenifer Langosch of MLB.com, that leaves Joe Kelly, Carlos Martinez and Tyler Lyons to battle it out for the remaining spot. There's an excellent case to be made for including any of the three pitchers.
Kelly is the most proven, as he went 9-3 with a 2.28 ERA in 15 starts for the Cardinals in 2013. Martinez possesses a fastball that can touch 100 mph, while the inclusion of Lyons would give the Cardinals a left-hander in the rotation.
Ultimately, unless one of the three candidates absolutely lights up the Grapefruit League, I'd expect the team to stick with Kelly, who posted a 2.10 ERA in six games (five starts) last September.
Is Billy Hamilton Ready to Lead off for the Cincinnati Reds?
There are no doubts about Billy Hamilton's ability to play center field or to cause havoc on the basepaths. However, whether the 23-year-old is ready to take over as the new leadoff hitter for the Cincinnati Reds is another question altogether.
The most pressing concern is whether the switch-hitter will get on base enough to utilize his blazing speed. Last year, Hamilton posted just a .308 OBP in Triple-A, as he drew 38 walks in 547 plate appearances.
Hamilton definitely has the confidence of manager Bryan Price, who has been impressed with the center fielder's approach at the plate so far. Price said of the young outfielder, via Richard Justice of MLB.com: "We just want to see the fight in him. We've seen that. Pitchers have attacked him, and he has been able to grind out at-bats. I've never seen him overwhelmed."
After swiping 155 bases in the minor leagues in 2012, Hamilton clearly has the potential to be one of the more dangerous leadoff batters in all of baseball. Then again, should that responsibility prove to be too much pressure for the rookie, dropping him down to the bottom of the lineup would be far from a disaster.
Who Will Sign 1st: Ervin Santana, Stephen Drew or Kendrys Morales?
With Opening Day rapidly approaching, Ervin Santana, Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales all remain unemployed.
Of the three draft-pick-compensation free agents, Morales appears to be in the most unenviable spot of all. The switch-hitter has only played 59 games in the field over the past two seasons, which makes him a poor fit for every club in the National League.
Stephen Drew has the benefit of playing a premier defensive position, but there has been a remarkably small amount of interest for the shortstop throughout the offseason and into spring training. His most recent employer, the Boston Red Sox, "have seemed reluctant" to bring him back as doing so would entail shifting Xander Bogaerts to third base, according to Scott Lauber of the Boston Herald.
Meanwhile, the New York Mets have also been heavily linked to Drew, but a deal doesn't exactly appear imminent. According to Joel Sherman of the New York Post, the Mets are not interested in adding "significantly" to the club's payroll.
Of the three, I'd expect Santana to ink a deal first. The right-handed starter has fired his agent, according to Dionisio Soldevila of ESPN Deportes. That's just the type of desperate move that suggests Santana is willing to do whatever it takes in order to finally land a new job.
Will Masahiro Tanaka Live Up to His Megadeal?
Masahiro Tanaka has only pitched five spring training innings as a member of the New York Yankees, but already his splitter is creating all sorts of buzz.
Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard gave his take on the pitch, via Andrew Marchand of ESPN New York: "His split finger is going to be a force to reckon with." Meanwhile, Marlon Byrd was impressed with Tanaka's fastball, dubbing it "explosive," per Marchand.
It's certainly encouraging that Tanaka has more than held his own in his first two Grapefruit League outings. Through his first five innings of work, the 25-year-old has only allowed one run on four hits, while striking out four. Still, it's simply far too early in the process to make a sound judgement on whether the Yankees' massive investment in Tanaka will pay off.
Will Jose Fernandez Endure a Sophomore Slump?
Jose Fernandez has no intention of falling into a dreaded sophomore slump, as the right-hander explained at the outset of spring training via Joe Frisaro of MLB.com: "I've heard about it. A lot of guys have said something about it. I don't know, but, I'm feeling really, really good."
In fact, Fernandez told Frisaro he hoped the upcoming season will be "a lot better" than 2013. That could prove to be quite the challenge as Fernandez went 12-6 with a 2.19 ERA, 176 ERA+ and a 9.7 K/9 ratio on the way to snagging NL Rookie of the Year honors last year.
With remarkable stuff and a relentless work ethic, Fernandez should once again be one of the most dominant starters in the National League. The only reason his second season might qualify as a "sophomore slump" is because he simply set the bar so ridiculously high in his debut campaign.
Who Will Take over for Jacoby Ellsbury as Table-Setter for the Boston Red Sox?
There simply aren't that many players who can do what Jacoby Ellsbury does.
Last year, the center fielder racked up 52 stolen bases and posted a .355 OBP while leading off for the Boston Red Sox. With Ellsbury now a member of the New York Yankees, the Red Sox will need to find a new spark plug for the club's lineup.
Shane Victorino is a logical replacement, as the veteran switch-hitter brings speed (21 stolen bases in 2013) and solid on-base skills, as he put up a .351 OBP in his first season in Boston. However, Jonny Gomes can't be ruled out as an option.
The 33-year-old led off in the Red Sox's Grapefruit League opener, which could be a sign of things to come, according to manager John Farrell. Boston's skipper stated, via Scott Lauber of the Boston Herald: "[Gomes] puts up quality at-bats...and we saw that repeatedly last year. This is a look at maybe an alignment we see during this year, too."
One complication of utilizing Gomes out of the leadoff spot, though, is the outfielder only plays part time, as he platoons with Daniel Nava. The most likely outcome is that the Red Sox will cycle players through the top spot early in the regular season so that Farrell can discover who will be the best fit as the club's new table-setter.
Will Albert Pujols Return to His Old Form?
Mike Scioscia, the manager of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, expects Albert Pujols to enjoy a bounce-back season now that the slugger is finally healthy, as he explained via Jerry Crasnick of ESPN:
This guy is a special player, and we've only seen the tip of what he can do. He's a Gold Glove first baseman. He runs the bases well. He's going to be a different player this year because his tools have been rebuilt. He's able to move, he's able to run and he's stronger in the box. He's excited about that, as are we.
Pujols confirmed that he's back to 100 percent, telling Alden Gonzalez of MLB.com that "everything feels great." The big question, however, is if the 34-year-old will remain healthy throughout the 2014 season.
As Crasnick notes, Pujols has dealt with plantar fasciitis—the condition that limited him to just 99 games a season ago—since 2004. That suggests the nine-time All-Star's health concerns aren't fully in the rear-view mirror just yet.
Who's the Top Team in the American League East?
The American League West is looking fierce. Both the AL and NL Central divisions are once again loaded. Still, there's nothing quite like the AL East.
The Boston Red Sox are the reigning World Series champions. The Baltimore Orioles boast one of the most powerful lineups in the entire league. The New York Yankees have brought in an absurd assortment talent in the form of Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann and Masahiro Tanaka. The Toronto Blue Jays admittedly haven't done much of anything this offseason, but if the team can remain healthy, the Blue Jays lineup is fearsome.
Ultimately, I expect the race for the division title to come down to the teams with the best starting staffs. With apologies to Masahiro Tanaka, that's the Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays. For now, I'll give the edge to Tampa Bay, as the Rays may also have the "best" defense in the league, according to Richard Justice of MLB.com.
Of course, I wouldn't be shocked if a pair of teams from the AL East claim both of the league's wild-card spots.
If you want to talk baseball, find me on Twitter @KarlBuscheck.
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