Important MLB Questions That Must Be Answered by Opening Day
Believe it or not, Opening Day and the 2014 MLB regular season are almost upon us—two weeks from now (earlier for some teams), the games begin to count—and more than a handful of teams still sit in spring training with unanswered questions.
Some teams are scrambling to replace recently injured starters, debating whether their internal options will suffice or if they have to go outside of the organization for help, while others sit undecided about key position battles that are, in some cases, simply too close to call.
Were these questions about which player becomes a team's fourth (or fifth) outfielder or who emerges from a mediocre crowd of middle relievers to break camp with a club, teams wouldn't be facing potentially devastating consequences should they make the wrong choice.
Those pieces are interchangeable and easily replaced.
That's not the case with the questions we'll ask on the pages that follow, and because of that, it's wise for these teams to take their time before locking in their final answers, something that needs to happen sooner rather than later.
Which questions absolutely must be answered over the next two weeks?
Let's take a look.
Who Plays Shortstop in Detroit?
With Jose Iglesias out of action until further notice thanks to injuries to both of his shins—and with the possibility that further notice might not come until 2015, according to ESPN.com's Jerry Crasnick—the Detroit Tigers find themselves in an unenviable position roughly two weeks from Opening Day.
They're looking for a starting shortstop.
Signing a free agent like Stephen Drew or exploring a trade, perhaps for the Seattle Mariners' Nick Franklin, is certainly an option, but general manager Dave Dombrowski told reporters, including The Detroit News' Tom Gage, that the team would initially look internally for a replacement.
Those internal replacements include Eugenio Suarez, who has never spent any time in the major leagues; Hernan Perez and Danny Worth, who have hit a combined .233 over nearly 300 major league at-bats; and Steve Lombardozzi, acquired from the Washington Nationals to serve as the team's primary utility infielder.
No matter who the Tigers put at the position, their infield defense will be weaker as a result, as none of the available options can come close to Iglesias' defensive skills. That's bad news for a team that's widely expected to contend for a World Series title.
Are the Mets Really Going with Ruben Tejada at Shortstop?
While the New York Daily News' John Harper reports that the New York Mets continue to monitor the trade market for an upgrade at shortstop and, according to Newsday's Anthony Rieber, have kept an open dialogue with Scott Boras about free agent Stephen Drew, the team is prepared to go into the regular season with Ruben Tejada as the everyday starter.
The Mets continue to hold out hope that Tejada can get back to being a contributor with the bat while providing solid defense as he did two years ago. Unfortunately, that player has been nowhere to be found this winter, with Tejada mustering only one hit in 22 spring at-bats while committing four errors.
Those are some scary numbers.
After spending $87 million this winter to sign outfielders Curtis Granderson and Chris Young, along with veteran starter Bartolo Colon, that the Mets have left shortstop untouched not only puts a damper on their offseason, but it leaves a gaping hole both at the bottom of the lineup and on the left side of the infield.
Who Will Be the Fifth Starter in St. Louis?
With Jaime Garcia sidelined with a sore shoulder and Lance Lynn cementing his place as the St. Louis Cardinals' No. 4 starter, Joe Kelly and Carlos Martinez have been embroiled in a battle for the fifth and final spot in the Cardinals starting rotation.
While Kelly has more experience, he's been badly outperformed by Martinez this spring. In three starts, Kelly has allowed eight earned runs and 13 hits over 9.1 innings of work. Martinez, on the other hand, has allowed only two earned runs and five hits in 10 innings.
"He's had a nice spring. He's throwing very well," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny told MLB.com's Steve Dorsey. "He has a very good approach to what he wants to do. I think he's got a nice mix. He certainly has the arsenal."
It would seem as if Martinez has won the job outright, but with no official decision from Matheny, Kelly may still have a shot at cracking the rotation with a strong finish to the spring.
Who Starts at Shortstop in Arizona? Will the Loser Get Traded?
Despite putting together a solid rookie campaign in 2013, Didi Gregorius might be the odd man out in the battle for shortstop on the Arizona Diamondbacks.
In his latest Insider-only post, ESPN's Jim Bowden says that the Diamondbacks have decided to give the starting job to Chris Owings (.273 BA/.683 OPS), who has outperformed Gregorius (.205 BA/.500 OPS) at the plate this spring.
With veteran Cliff Pennington on the roster as the primary utility infielder and backup shortstop, Gregorius, widely considered to be a better defensive player than Owings, could become a valuable trade chip for the Diamondbacks to play before the regular season begins.
With a number of teams looking for both short-term and long-term answers at the position, it wouldn't be surprising to see the 24-year-old wearing another uniform by the time Opening Day rolls around.
Who Replaces Addison Reed in Chicago?
Should you find yourself speaking to Chicago White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper, don't make the same mistake that MLB.com's Scott Merkin made when he asked about Chicago's plans for the ninth inning this season.
"To even talk about closer, it's premature," Cooper said. "I'll go back to what I said a while ago. When they're all healthy, we feel like we've got a couple, three guys who can go out and do it."
Of the three guys Cooper is talking about—Ronald Belisario, Nate Jones and Matt Lindstrom—only two, Belisario and Jones, have appeared in a game this spring, with Lindstrom still sidelined by a strained oblique.
Lindstrom is the most accomplished closer of the trio, having successfully converted 45 out of 64 save opportunities over his seven-year career, including going a combined 38-of-46 while serving as the closer for the Miami Marlins and Houston Astros in 2009 and 2010.
Belisario has been less effective when presented with the chance to close, converting only four of a possible 21 saves over the past five seasons with the Dodgers.
Yet it's the hard-throwing Jones, who, despite failing to convert any of the seven save opportunities that he's had over the past two years in Chicago, many believe is the favorite to win the job.
While the White Sox made the right move (and a great trade) in dealing their former closer, Addison Reed, to the Diamondbacks this past winter, it's left the bullpen in a state of flux. Defining roles and getting whoever the closer will be some time in save situations this spring should be a priority.
Is Dee Gordon the Dodgers' Starting Second Baseman?
According to Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times, the answer to that question appears to be yes.
Hernandez says that the lineup Los Angeles fielded in its Cactus League finale, one that featured Dee Gordon batting eighth and starting at second base, is the lineup that the Dodgers plan on using during the regular season.
Gordon, who spent the bulk of 2013 with Triple-A Albuquerque, had become something of an afterthought in Los Angeles. That, coupled with the fact that the Dodgers signed Cuban infielder Alex Guerrero for $28 million last October (presumably to be the team's starting second baseman), makes Gordon's return to relevance nothing short of shocking.
Manager Don Mattingly, long a Gordon supporter, praised his second baseman's play this spring to Mike Baxter of the Los Angeles Times:
He’s been really good. Defensively, I think he looks a lot more comfortable. We continue to try to just help him understand exactly who he is as a hitter, how he’s going to be most effective. Make sure he’s putting his tools to work all the time.
Whether it's Gordon, Guerrero or someone else at the position on Opening Day, defense, and not big-time production with the bat, will be the key to holding on to the job.
Who Starts at the Hot Corner in Cleveland?
Between his experience at the position and his superior numbers at the plate this spring, it would seem as if Lonnie Chisenhall (pictured) has little to worry about when it comes to losing his starting job at third base to former catcher Carlos Santana.
Chisenhall has outperformed Santana at the plate, with a nearly 100-point lead in batting average (.281 to .188) and an almost 200-point lead in OPS, .847 to .650.
Yet Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona is in no rush to name his starter, as he explained to MLB.com's Scott Miller:
April 1 is kind of an artificial deadline. We don't have to set the playoff roster or things like that. We've got a long season ahead of us. Opening Day is a big day, but it's not the final day.
That's as far as I'm willing to get. [Reporters] have a good way of trying to get ahead, which we don't need to do.
Given Santana's relative lack of experience at the position, it would stand to reason that Chisenhall will be the everyday starter at the hot corner in Cleveland during the regular season, with Santana handling the DH responsibilities.
But until Francona makes a decision, Santana still has a shot to get the nod on Opening Day.
Will Stephen Drew or Kendrys Morales Sign?
Neither Stephen Drew nor Kendrys Morales is going to rush to sign a deal that doesn't meet his expectations, according to the two players' agent, Scott Boras, who explained to ESPN's Jerry Crasnick just how serious his clients were:
The system they've been dealt has basically prevented them from free agency. They want to make sure about their next step, whatever that will be. It means either signing a long-term contract now — and we're still taking offers on those — or a number of other prospects that could occur after the season starts or in June, after the draft happens.
Everybody talks about these players turning down these [one-year] qualifying offers like they're village idiots. The reason is, they don't want to be in the same position again next year.
Both free agents remain linked to teams on the rumor mill, with the dance between Boras and the Mets regarding Drew still ongoing, according to Newsday's Anthony Rieber. Meanwhile, Morales' former team, the Seattle Mariners, are interested in re-signing him, according to ESPN's Jim Bowden.
The problem for both is what it's been throughout the winter—aside from being tied to draft pick compensation, teams simply believe that their asking prices are too high.
While missing a chunk of the regular season isn't an ideal scenario for either player, Boras is hellbent on getting his clients the contracts that he believes they deserve—and it wouldn't be a surprise if they remained unsigned come Opening Day.
Who Starts at Second Base for the Nationals?
Just over a month ago, new Washington Nationals manager Matt Williams declared an "open competition" at second base between Danny Espinosa and Anthony Rendon, as reported by CSN Washington's Mark Zuckerman:
I believe it’s open competition, and that’s all you can say about it at this point. They haven’t even taken their first grounder officially yet. But I think that it’s good to have competition in spring. It makes guys come into camp ready…There’s no favorite at this point. We’re going to give them both ample opportunity to become the starter, and we’ll see where we go.
So far this spring, Rendon has done more with his opportunity than Espinosa, putting together a .321/.412/.500 slash line over 28 at-bats, numbers that make Espinosa's .194/.306/.258 marks over 31 spring at-bats look even worse by comparison than they are on their own merits.
Espinosa's versatility and history of success at the major league level (with the exception of 2013) and the loss of Steve Lombardozzi this winter makes him an intriguing addition to the roster as a utility infielder.
But assuming that the open competition is based on their play in spring training and nothing else, it would appear as if Rendon has the inside track on the starting job.
Will Grady Sizemore Be Starting for Boston on Opening Day?
After missing each of the past two seasons due to a litany of injuries and surgeries, former All-Star Grady Sizemore got a chance to show what he could do with the Boston Red Sox this spring, and halfway through the exhibition season, he has not disappointed.
"We can't deny the thought that Grady Sizemore has looked very well in camp," Red Sox manager John Farrell told Masslive.com's Jason Mastrodonato recently. "We're still in the process of trying to get our arms around his durability."
Questions about his durability may be the only thing keeping Sizemore from claiming victory in his competition with Jackie Bradley Jr. for the Opening Day nod in center field, as he's outperformed his younger counterpart at the plate this spring:
|Bradley Jr.||33||.182||.573||3 (0)||4||3||9|
Long considered the heir apparent to Jacoby Ellsbury in center field, Bradley's struggles this spring are reminiscent of his issues last season, when he hit only .189/.280/.337 over 95 at-bats with the Red Sox.
To be sure, having Bradley as the starter and Sizemore available off of the bench would be the ideal scenario, but if spring training performance means anything, it's the veteran—and not the youngster—who has earned the Opening Day nod.
Who Replaces Brian Roberts in Baltimore?
Replacing a fan favorite is never easy to do, but someone's got to do it.
For the Baltimore Orioles, the task of replacing Brian Roberts at second base has been left up to a three-horse race between Jemile Weeks, Ryan Flaherty (the presumed favorite to win the job heading into spring training) and Jonathan Schoop (pictured), Baltimore's top position prospect.
Flaherty (.290/.361/.484) and Schoop (.400/.424/.633) have performed admirably this spring, while Weeks (.148/.314/.185) has struggled to keep pace with the competition.
Baltimore manager Buck Showalter was noncommittal when asked by Dan Connolly of The Baltimore Sun to handicap the competition, though he made it clear that Schoop remains in the thick of the race:
Nothing has changed. He came in here with an opportunity to make our club, and he has not taken a step back at all. I'm glad we've got some more time for things to separate themselves a little. Because he has [minor league] options or whatever, that doesn't have anything to do with it. He is in a very competitive situation right now.
One thing that could sway things in Schoop's favor is Showalter's familiarity—and confidence—in Flaherty's ability to excel in a super-utility role, something he's done for the Orioles and Showalter since 2012, manning six different positions during that time.
Keeping Flaherty available on the bench, rather than locking him into a defined role, could lead to Schoop breaking camp with Baltimore as the Opening Day starter at second base.
Will Colorado Go with a Platoon in Center Field?
Trading Dexter Fowler to the Astros this past winter may have given the Colorado Rockies some payroll flexibility, but it left the team with an unsettled situation atop the lineup and in center field. With Opening Day quickly approaching, who gets the nod in either spot remains to be seen.
None of the team's options to replace Fowler in center field—Brandon Barnes, Charlie Blackmon, Corey Dickerson or Drew Stubbs—has put enough separation between themselves and the rest of the field this spring to win the job outright:
When asked about his thoughts on the position by The Denver Post's Troy Renck, manager Walt Weiss was noncommital to any of the four candidates, only saying, "That's a really competitive situation. You have guys showing up well."
Of the four, Stubbs has the most major league experience and has the most range defensively, but he struggles at the plate against right-handed pitching. Dickerson has more upside than anyone else in the group, but he's been ineffective against southpaws.
Thus, a platoon situation between Dickerson and Stubbs seems inevitable.
Who Replaces Patrick Corbin in Arizona's Rotation?
AZCentral.com's Nick Piecoro tweets that the partial tear in Patrick Corbin's UCL is significant enough to require Tommy John surgery, noting that the ace of Arizona's rotation plans on seeking a second opinion before deciding on a course of action.
Even if Corbin forgos the surgery and tries to rehab his arm, he won't be toeing the rubber for the Diamondbacks anytime soon. Luckily for Arizona, one thing the team has is a plethora of options to replace him in the rotation.
The favorite to get the first crack at Corbin's starting spot is 24-year-old Randall Delgado, who has pitched to a 4.07 ERA and 1.28 WHIP over 43 career major league starts.
Unlike Josh Collmenter, another Arizona reliever with starting experience, Delgado has been stretched out this spring, though the results (seven earned runs and 14 hits over 11.1 innings) have left much to be desired.
Also in the mix is Archie Bradley, arguably the best pitching prospect in baseball and a future ace for the Diamondbacks. However, as he showed this spring, with six walks in 8.1 innings of work as a starter, he still has some work to do on his command at Triple-A.
That, coupled with every team's desire to avoid having a young rising star reach Super Two status, could conspire to keep Bradley off the team's Opening Day roster.
But as Arizona general manager Kevin Towers told Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci before Corbin's injury, Bradley is a special player who the team may not be able to keep from breaking camp with the club.
"In a perfect world it would be good to get him more innings down in the minors, Towers said, "but if he keeps throwing like he [has], how can you? We don't have anybody on our staff who has his stuff."
How Arizona answers the question of who will replace Corbin in the rotation will be one of the more closely watched storylines over the last two weeks of the exhibition season.
Will Starlin Castro Be Ready for the Regular Season?
Coming off of the worst season of his four-year career, Starlin Castro needed a strong spring to not only regain his confidence, but to reassert his position as the Chicago Cubs' starting shortstop while making a good impression on new manager Rick Renteria.
Unfortunately for the soon-to-be 24-year-old Castro, a hamstring injury has limited him to only two spring at-bats and has been slow to heal—to the point where it's fair to wonder whether he'll be ready for Opening Day.
“Our biggest concern is just to make sure he’s ready for the season,” Renteria told the Chicago Sun-Times' Gordon Wittenmeyer. “Before we even get to the point where I’m comfortable with him and his baseball skill, I want to make sure that he’s completely, totally good to go physically.”
Castro was penciled in as Chicago's starting shortstop and also as the team's leadoff hitter.
Should he be unable to go on Opening Day, veteran utility man Emilio Bonifacio figures to replace him, both atop the lineup and in the field.