Updating the Hottest Questions of MLB Spring Training Week 6
You're ready for the season to begin, and so is Madison Bumgarner.
Oh, he may still have a few kinks to work out in terms of stuff or mechanics. But in a Cactus League start Thursday against the Chicago Cubs, the cantankerous San Francisco Giants left-hander proved he was in midseason umbrage form.
After striking out Jason Heyward in the fourth inning, Bumgarner and the Cubs outfielder exchanged words, with Bumgarner stalking aggressively off the mound. After the game, Bumgarner suggested Heyward and Dexter Fowler, who was on second base at the time, may have been communicating about pitch types or locations, per CSN Bay Area's Alex Pavlovic.
Heyward later denied it and said he was simply asking Fowler to tell him if the final strike was correctly called.
Whichever version you buy, the takeaway is the same: Spring training is long. Long enough for silly spats like that to grab headlines, because we're all past ready for meaningful baseball.
That's not to say the exhibition slate is devoid of intrigue. As Opening Day draws closer, position battles heat up, roster decisions loom large and statistics start to matter, at least a little.
In this week's edition of "hottest questions," we found room for a closer showdown in Toronto Blue Jays camp, an All-Star third baseman on the rise (and another possibly on the bench), a Cubs pitcher not named Jake Arrieta or Jon Lester and, yes, some Alex Rodriguez retirement talk.
Dig in when ready, but—for the love of Bumgarner—don't tip any pitches.
Will Drew Storen Take over as the Blue Jays' Closer?
Last season, when the Washington Nationals acquired Jonathan Papelbon at the trade deadline, Drew Storen lost his job as closer. Now, after an offseason swap to the Toronto Blue Jays, Storen might return the favor to young Roberto Osuna.
Osuna, who just achieved legal drinking age in February, posted a 2.58 ERA last season with 75 strikeouts in 69.2 innings and converted 20 out of 23 save opportunities. The 28-year-old Storen, however, has the edge in experience. His best season came in 2011, when he saved 43 games for the Nats.
So an old-fashioned spring competition seemed to be in order. Thus far, there's no obvious leader.
Entering play Friday, Osuna had allowed four hits and two earned runs in five innings with one walk and five strikeouts. Storen, meanwhile, had surrendered one earned run in five innings with two walks and two strikeouts.
Those are tiny samples, obviously, and there isn't enough difference between the stat lines to make a determination anyway. The real deciding factor may be in how Jays manager John Gibbons views the two pitchers, and that would appear to tip the scale toward Storen.
"Osuna can give you more than one inning," Gibbons said, per USA Today's Jorge L. Ortiz. "Drew's probably limited to one inning. That's kind of who they are."
Osuna, then, will likely become the super setup man, building a bridge to Storen in the ninth—at least initially. Just because you're the closer on Opening Day doesn't mean you'll be nailing down saves in September.
If you ask Storen, he's fine either way. Per Ortiz: "It's more about being an elite reliever than being a closer or having all these saves. If you're an elite reliever that helps the team win, the business end takes care of itself."
Is Nolan Arenado Bryce Harper's Biggest MVP Competition?
Every year, at least a few players get stupid hot in spring training and put up eyeball-melting numbers. Some fizzle once the regular season starts, while others keep raking and never look back.
We can't know which of this year's exhibition stars will carry over their success without the benefit of hindsight. But we sure can ogle their stat sheets and wonder.
Take Nolan Arenado. The Colorado Rockies third baseman is far from an unknown scrub. He tied Bryce Harper for the National League lead with 42 home runs last season, after all.
But it's worth wondering if his crazy Cactus League output is the prelude to a genuine monster season, the kind that could wrest NL MVP honors away from Harper.
Entering play Friday, Arenado owned a gaudy .548 spring average to go along with six doubles, a triple, three home runs and a 1.508 OPS. Yes, he's taken just 42 at-bats; yes, it's March.
"I've hit some balls hard, but I've gotten lucky a lot too," Arenado said, per ESPN.com's David Schoenfield. "Everything's dropping. I'm not putting too much into it."
To which a Rockies beat writer replied, per Schoenfield: "Sure, he’s been lucky. If you want to call hitting the ball out of the park and hitting 300 mph rockets through the shift luck."
Let's say Arenado does carry his scalding stick into Opening Day and well beyond. Could he be in line for serious MVP chatter?
The fact that he's been the best defensive third baseman in the NL over the past three seasons, per FanGraphs, helps his cause. Working against him, however, is the fact that he plays for the Rockies.
Colorado will almost assuredly be a losing team in 2016. Fair or not, voters tend to consider that when handing out individual awards. Plus, Arenado plays half his games in the rarefied, hitter-friendly air of Coors Field—indeed, his OPS last season was 125 points higher at home.
Right now, Arenado is doing his damage in Arizona. And we're a long way from handing out hardware.
Mostly, Rockies fans picking their way through a rebuild should be overjoyed to have a 24-year-old franchise cornerstone who's teasing the leap to superstar status.
Eyeballs, prepare to be melted.
Is Kyle Hendricks the Cubs' Secret Weapon?
Jake Arrieta is the Chicago Cubs' ace. Jon Lester and John Lackey are the playoff-tested veterans. And Kyle Hendricks is, well, someone many casual baseball fans probably have never heard of.
If this spring is any indication, that could change soon.
Through 19 exhibition innings, Hendricks has racked up 19 strikeouts while surrendering just two walks and four runs. In other words, he's throwing like much more than a back-of-the-rotation arm.
"There's a lot of headlines on our team. I'm pretty far down there," the 26-year-old right-hander said, per Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times. "That's fine with me. I like it that way. I like focusing on myself, and if there’s not much going on, not much hype, that’s fine."
His gaudy strikeout total, Wittenmyer pointed out, will probably dip once the season begins and hitters start catching up to pitchers like Hendricks, who relies on command and movement.
At the same time, Wittenmyer continued, "the success isn’t a fluke, especially with his changeup looking as good as it has with less than two weeks to go before the opener."
Hendricks finished 2015 on a strong note, yielding just three runs and striking out 25 in his final 18 regular-season frames. Add his superlative spring, and there's reason to believe this much-hyped Cubs team could be even deeper and more dangerous than expected.
If Hendricks helps the North Siders win that long-elusive title, you can bet everyone will know his name.
Is Alex Rodriguez Retiring After 2017 or What?
Alex Rodriguez is retiring after the 2017 season, unless he's not.
The background, in case you missed it: On Wednesday, the veteran New York Yankees slugger told ESPN.com's Andrew Marchand that he plans to hang 'em up when his current contract expires after the 2017 campaign.
"I've really enjoyed my time," Rodriguez told Marchand. "For me, it is time for me to go home and be dad."
Soon after, he hedged a bit. "I'm thinking in terms of my contract, which ends in 2017," he wrote in a text message, per Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News. "After that, we'll see what happens. I've got two years and more than 300 games to play."
That's A-Rod in a nutshell. Commanding headlines, confounding media types and keeping us all guessing.
Really, Rodriguez might not have a choice. Think back to 2007, when Barry Bonds—whose all-time home run record A-Rod has an outside chance of breaking—finished his contract with the San Francisco Giants.
That year, Bonds led all of baseball with a .480 on-base percentage, but no one gave him a job the following season, even when he offered to play for the league minimum. A similar fate could easily befall Rodriguez, who will turn 42 in July 2017 and carries his own cargo hold full of steroid baggage.
Here's what we know for sure: As long as A-Rod wears a big league uniform, he'll continue to befuddle and fascinate in equal measure.
Will the Red Sox Actually Bench Pablo Sandoval?
Last spring, Pablo Sandoval was one of the Boston Red Sox's big offseason acquisitions. (No, that wasn't a weight joke.)
Now, a scant 12 months later, Sandoval is in danger of losing his starting gig.
Sandoval's Grapefruit League numbers aren't terrible; he's hitting .265 with a couple of home runs. But he's coming off the worst season of his career and is facing more of the same questions about his conditioning.
And, most essentially, he has competition.
Travis Shaw, who cracked 13 home runs in 65 games as a rookie last year, is hitting a robust .419 this spring with a 1.108 OPS entering play Friday. With Sandoval battling back stiffness, per ESPN.com's Scott Lauber, the door could be open for Shaw to grab the third base job.
Recently, Boston manager John Farrell said Shaw "could be competing for regular at-bats," per CSN New England's Sean McAdam.
That doesn't mean Sandoval is destined for the bench. The Red Sox owe him $17 million in 2016, and he's still just 29 years old, with a proven track record as a postseason hero from his days with the Giants. Undoubtedly, Boston wants the Kung Fu Panda to succeed.
But suddenly, the hot corner has evolved from a non-story to a genuine competition in Beantown. And we're not out of the exhibition woods yet.