Predicting Winners and Losers of 2016 Spring Training Entering Start of Games
Spring training games officially kicked off Monday, but your mind is already wandering to the start of the regular season.
It's OK, you can admit it.
Sure, the exhibition slate has its charms. Mostly, it's just nice to see actual baseball being played in the sunshine again, especially in those parts of the country where winter still casts its icy, soggy pall.
In the end, though, this is all merely preamble to the 162-game marathon and subsequent October chase. That's what we live for.
In that forward-looking spirit, let's take a theoretical leap over the next month-plus of Cactus and Grapefruit League action and predict who some of the biggest winners and losers will be when the spring dust has settled.
This is mostly guesswork, of course. We can't factor in the many surprises—unexpected injuries, late signings and trades, crazy hot and cold streaks—that are guaranteed to crop up.
Still, knowing what we know now, we found room for a Boston Red Sox infielder (though maybe not the one you think), a couple of former aces and a slugger on the comeback trail, a closer in limbo and, why not, a significant rule change.
Feel free to add your predicted winners and losers in the comments, knock the dirt off your spikes and proceed when ready.
Loser: Hanley Ramirez
With all the hand-wringing over Pablo Sandoval's girth, it's easy to forget there's another corner infielder with potential issues in Boston Red Sox camp.
For the second straight spring, Hanley Ramirez is being asked to learn a new position. Last year, it was left field, where he ended up posting minus-19 defensive runs saved, per FanGraphs. In case you're unfamiliar with defensive metrics that's…not good.
Ramirez also fell off at the plate after inking a four-year, $88 million pact with Boston, posting a pedestrian .249/.291/.426 slash line.
It's possible the move to first will yield better results. For what it's worth, Ramirez logged three error-free innings there in an exhibition against Boston College on Monday.
"I thought he received the ball well," manager John Farrell said after the game, per Jason Mastrodonato of the Boston Herald.
Of course, Ramirez earned praise for his play in left last spring until the contrary evidence mounted. So while a rebound with the leather and the lumber isn't out of the question, Hanley looks like a prime candidate for further regression and disappointment.
Enough to make Boston fans and media wags forget about Sandoval's waistline? That remains to be seen.
Winner: Adam Wainwright
The Chicago Cubs spent the winter showing up their division rivals, making one splashy addition after another while the St. Louis Cardinals perched on the sidelines.
But St. Louis could still get a huge boost with the return of ace Adam Wainwright, who is looking to come back from an Achilles injury that cost him virtually the entire 2015 campaign.
Yes, Wainwright turns 35 in August, an age when many players begin their declines. But a peek into the not-so-distant past reveals a pitcher who put up back-to-back top-three National League Cy Young Award finishes in 2013 and 2014.
Wainwright's glory days, in other words, are right behind him. And there could well be more ahead.
Devastating as last season's injury was, it gave Wainwright nearly a full year of rest. Add the fact he broke into the big leagues as a reliever, and you have a guy with fewer miles on his arm than his age and pedigree suggest.
"It did me some good," Wainwright said of his forced time off in 2015, per ESPN.com's Mark Saxon. "I was able to save a lot of bullets."
And in a development that should make every Cards fan grin, catcher Yadier Molina—who is recovering from thumb surgery—caught a Wainwright bullpen session Monday and hopes to be ready for Opening Day, per Chuck King of the Associated Press (via the Peoria Journal Star).
Setbacks are always a possibility, but it says here Wainwright will have a strong spring, take the hill on Opening Day and pick up where he left off.
Loser: Matt Cain
When word came down that Matt Cain was going under the knife before a single exhibition game was played, San Francisco Giants fans surely feared the worst.
Turns out, it was merely a ruptured cyst in Cain's right arm with a timetable to resume throwing about 10 days after the procedure, according to Andrew Baggarly of the San Jose Mercury News.
Still, it's an inauspicious beginning for Cain, who hasn't posted a sub-4.00 ERA in any of the past three seasons, had bone spurs removed from his elbow in 2014 and made just 11 starts last year after suffering a forearm strain in April.
The Giants spent $220 million this winter to bring in starting pitchers Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija. And they have stud southpaw Madison Bumgarner to anchor the rotation.
Surely Cain will be given every opportunity to succeed and prove he can again approximate the guy who eclipsed 200 innings every season between 2007 and 2012.
If he doesn't, however, the Giants could roll with another option, including sophomore sinkerballer Chris Heston, who threw a no-hitter last year.
Cain wasn't done in by his recent operation. But it did set him back a step and cast doubt over his comeback, which is the last thing he needs right now.
Winner: Giancarlo Stanton
Continuing on the comeback theme, Giancarlo Stanton is returning with something to prove. That should thrill baseball fans and terrify opposing pitchers.
Stanton, arguably the best pure power hitter in the solar system, played in just 74 games last season due to a hand injury. Now, the Miami Marlins masher can use spring training to remind us all of his jaw-dropping prowess.
New Marlins manager Don Mattingly believes.
"You see him hit balls, and you know he is big, but when you see him in person, you're like, [Oh wow]," Mattingly said, per MLB.com's Joe Frisaro. "You look at his age, and he's 26. You've seen he's been playing a while, and you're like, 'This cat is still young.'"
We should probably also mention Miami's new hitting coach, a fellow by the name of Barry Bonds. Perhaps you've heard of him.
Really, though, Stanton doesn't need anyone to tell him what to do with a bat in his hand. He just needs to go out and do it.
We can hardly wait.
Loser: Aroldis Chapman
The New York Yankees are no strangers to controversy. Heck, they employ Alex Rodriguez, human lightning rod.
But there's simply no way Aroldis Chapman isn't causing a distraction at Yankees camp.
For whatever reason, MLB is taking its sweet time deciding whether to suspend Chapman for the October incident during which he allegedly attacked his girlfriend and fired shots in the garage of his Miami home.
It seems likely Chapman will ultimately be disciplined as baseball seeks to highlight its new domestic violence policy.
The fireballer, who came over in a trade with the Cincinnati Reds, is something of an enigma off the field as well, as ESPN.com's Wallace Matthews explained:
Chapman spends much of his time in the clubhouse facing into his locker, often while staring into a smartphone. His interview sessions with the beat writers, hampered somewhat by a language barrier, often yield one- and two-word answers and rarely exceed a couple of minutes. …
Even manager Joe Girardi, who said last week he would strive to "get to know" Chapman before forming an opinion on the domestic violence suspension hanging over the pitcher's head, basically admitted he had yet to accomplish that mission.
Chapman, Matthews noted, has already flashed his devastating stuff on the mound this spring. He's part of a Yankees bullpen that is one of the club's unquestioned strengths, so performance could trump all else.
But a festering disciplinary problem and a slow-warming relationship with your manager and the media don't foretell smooth sailing.
Update: On Tuesday, MLB announced it had suspended Chapman for 30 games.
Winner: Middle Infielders
It isn't called the Ruben Tejada Rule, but it might as well be.
After the New York Mets shortstop was knocked out of the 2015 playoffs and badly injured by Chase Utley of the Los Angeles Dodgers, it was inevitable MLB would revisit the rules regarding takeout slides.
Here's the specific language of the new rule, per an official release by MLB and the players' union:
A "bona fide slide" for purposes of Rule 6.01 occurs when the runner:
(1) begins his slide (i.e., makes contact with the ground) before reaching the base;
(2) is able and attempts to reach the base with his hand or foot;
(3) is able and attempts to remain on the base (except home plate) after completion of the slide; and
(4) slides within reach of the base without changing his pathway for the purpose of initiating contact with a fielder.
In other words: Go for the base, not the legs of the guy trying to turn the double play.
Not everyone will love this change. Inevitably, there are some who romanticize the hard-nosed style of play these slides represent. Or, rather, represented, because we now need to put it in the past tense.
While there aren't many full-blown takeout slides in spring training, the players who truly win long term are the middle infielders, who can now go about their jobs safe in the knowledge they won't be tackled mid-pirouette.
All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.