1 Huge Fear Every MLB Contender Should Have This Spring
Spring training is fun: The sun is shining, the games don't count and feel-good, best-shape-of-his-life stories abound. Baseball!
Spring is also serious business. Wins, losses and even stats may not matter, but it's a time for teams to evaluate their talent and see which holes they failed to plug over the winter.
Injuries will hit, and key performers will raise eyebrows and pulses with their lack of, well, performance.
Here's a look at every MLB contender's greatest fear. They range from smallish concerns to potentially serious weaknesses, but they're all worth tracking as the exhibition slate unfolds.
*I've stretched the definition of "contender" to include some clubs on the postseason bubble while leaving others out (sorry, Atlanta Braves fans; I await your indignant tweets). The list of teams not included just so happens to line up with FanGraphs' projections. All teams with a projection of fewer than 77 wins were excluded except for the A's, who are projected for 77.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Zack Greinke Gets Shelled
After putting up an MLB-leading 1.66 ERA in 2015, Zack Greinke inked a six-year, $206.5 million deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
He then wobbled like a Maserati with a blowout, posting a 4.37 ERA in 158.2 innings in 2016. That's acceptable for a back-of-the-rotation starter—awful for a guy who was paid more than $1 million per start.
His splits were ugly too. Greinke's ERA rose to 6.02 in the second half, and he allowed 14 earned runs in 22.2 September frames.
The 33-year-old's average fastball velocity held steady compared to 2015, but his walks per nine innings rose from 1.6 to 2.3.
He missed all of July with an oblique injury but scuffled before and after, meaning you can't pin his performance on injury alone.
Given all that, Greinke's Cactus League appearances will take on added significance. There are other high-upside arms in the rotation, including winter addition Taijuan Walker and strikeout machine Robbie Ray.
Greinke, though, is the ace—by reputation and paycheck; he needs to start pitching like it.
Baltimore Orioles: The Starting Rotation Struggles
Baltimore Orioles starting pitchers posted a 4.72 ERA last season, the third-worst in the American League. Yet the O's brought in no significant reinforcements from an admittedly weak free-agent class.
They'll roll with a front three of Chris Tillman, Kevin Gausman and Wade Miley, likely backed by Dylan Bundy and Ubaldo Jimenez.
The hard-throwing Gausman showed flashes last season, and Tillman has top-of-the-rotation ability but battled shoulder issues in 2016.
Overall, Baltimore's starting five is a bastion of uncertainty.
The projection systems are not bullish. Over at Baseball Prospectus, those cold PECOTA computers foresee every likely Orioles starter with an ERA of 4.66 or higher. Yikes.
They could ease some nerves by pitching well in the Grapefruit League, but Baltimore doesn't need its arms to be world-class—not with an offense that retained slugger Mark Trumbo and should once again produce plenty of runs.
The Orioles have to be at least competent, though, and rotation anchors such as Tillman need to be healthy.
Boston Red Sox: Slimmed-Down Pablo Sandoval Still Stinks
Hey, not sure if you've heard, but Pablo Sandoval is svelte again. There's Instagram evidence and everything.
That's hopeful news for the Boston Red Sox, who traded away top prospect Yoan Moncada and infielder Travis Shaw this winter. They still have Brock Holt, who took over at third down the stretch and in the postseason, but the AL East champs are counting on the Kung Fu Panda to anchor third base.
Sandoval has vacillated between bad and awful since signing a five-year, $95 million contract with Boston prior to the 2015 season.
In Year 1, he posted career lows in batting average (.245), on-base percentage (.292) and slugging percentage (.366). In Year 2, he played just three games before undergoing shoulder surgery and infamously busted his belt on a swing.
Sandoval's weight yo-yoed during his years with the San Francisco Giants, but he generally produced. He made two All-Star teams during his seven seasons by the Bay and had a top-10 MVP finish in 2009.
Can he get back to that or something close to it?
Shedding pounds will help, and he's still only 30 years old. If he continues to struggle, however, the Red Sox—who went all-in this winter with the farm-busting Chris Sale trade—will have a big hole to plug.
Chicago Cubs: A Championship Hangover
The Chicago Cubs are the most complete team in baseball. They've got a young, potent offense stuffed with rising stars; their rotation is strong; and they revamped the bullpen with the addition of closer Wade Davis. They were the top defensive team in baseball in 2016 and could be again.
Most essentially, they buried that billy goat once and for all.
Other than freak injuries or unexpected regression, there isn't much to fear. So I'll cheat and go with the nebulous, impossible-to-prove concept of a championship hangover.
Does winning it all make a team complacent or perhaps just a little less hungry? Probably not, especially when they're a budding juggernaut whose window is swinging open.
This much we know, however: Since 1979, only two teams have repeated as World Series champions in back-to-back seasons. It's hard to do, and the odds are against it—even for a squad as loaded as the Cubbies.
Sorry, Cubs-haters—that was the best I could do.
Cleveland Indians: Michael Brantley Suffers a Setback
The Cleveland Indians won the American League pennant last season while getting essentially zero production from Michael Brantley. If they want to make another deep October run, it'd be nice to have him around.
Brantley underwent shoulder surgery in August for the second time in less than a year. He's been hitting off a tee, per Paul Hoynes of Cleveland.com, but isn't making any predictions about when he'll be ready to go full bore.
"I'm not saying anything," Brantley said, per Hoynes. "All I know is that I'm healthy right now, and I have a progression to go through. Once I get through that, I'll be ready to rock and roll."
Cleveland has outfield depth, with Tyler Naquin, Lonnie Chisenhall, Brandon Guyer, Abraham Almonte and non-roster invitee Austin Jackson in the fold.
Naquin, however, could be due for some backsliding after his top-three AL Rookie of the Year finish. The others on that list are role players, not stars.
Brantley, meanwhile, finished third in AL MVP voting in 2014. At his best, he's one of the top outfielders in the game.
The Tribe aren't sunk without him, especially after adding Edwin Encarnacion and his 40-homer pop, but a healthy Brantley makes Cleveland exponentially better.
Colorado Rockies: DJ LeMahieu Regresses
DJ LeMahieu won the NL batting title in 2016 with a .348 average and posted a .911 OPS, which bested his previous career high by .165.
Colorado fans anticipating a repeat performance should brace themselves for a letdown.
LeMahieu's .388 batting average on balls in play was 36 points above his career average, which is sort of like a giant neon sign that spells out "regression."
He was also a different player at Coors Field (where he posted a 1.064 OPS) than he was on the road (.747 OPS).
He's a strong defensive second baseman and will add value to the Rockies as they seek a foothold in the NL West. But it may not be the MVP-level value they're hoping for.
Detroit Tigers: Victor Martinez Breaks Down
The Detroit Tigers decided not to sell this winter, and they will enter spring in clear go-for-it mode.
The Tigers have enough veteran talent on the roster to make some noise, but the loss of any contributor could be devastating.
Keep your eye on Victor Martinez. Detroit's designated hitter played 154 games last season and hit 27 home runs with an .826 OPS.
He also played through knee problems, turned 38 in December and underwent offseason hernia surgery, per Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press.
Maybe Martinez has another year left in his body. Perhaps he'll join forces with Miguel Cabrera and Co. to propel the Tigers on a playoff run, and the club's decision to delay a rebuild will be rewarded.
Guys rounding the bend on 40 and coming off surgery don't always rebound, though. And a Tigers lineup minus an effective Martinez looks a lot less fierce.
Houston Astros: Dallas Keuchel's Shoulder Flares Up
Dallas Keuchel went from an American League Cy Young Award winner in 2015 to a troubled enigma in 2016.
The Houston Astros southpaw saw his ERA spike from 2.48 to 4.55 and his innings drop from a league-leading 232 to 168, and he missed the final five weeks of the season with inflammation in his throwing shoulder.
He's begun throwing off a moundm and the results have been "very positive," as manager A.J. Hinch said, per Jake Kaplan of the Houston Chronicle.
Still, Keuchel has to prove it in game action. The Astros bolstered their offense this winter, adding catcher Brian McCann, outfielder Josh Reddick and outfielder/designated hitter Carlos Beltran.
They haven't added an impact starter, though, despite a rotation that posted a ho-hum 4.37 ERA. They're counting on Keuchel to shoulder the load. And yeah, pun intended.
Kansas City Royals: Alex Gordon's Struggles Continue
Like the Tigers, the Kansas City Royals opted not to sell this winter. It could pay off; K.C. hoisted a Commissioner's Trophy as recently as 2015, after all.
They'll need improved production from a number of players, though, including Alex Gordon.
After signing a four-year, $72 million deal with the Royals last winter, Gordon tumbled off a cliff, as Rustin Dodd of the Kansas City Star outlined:
In 128 games, Gordon batted .220 with a .312 on-base percentage and 17 homers. Among major-league players with at least 500 plate appearances, Gordon was the 10th worst in baseball in weighted runs created plus (wRC+), an advanced metric that measures a player’s total offensive value.
Multiple members of the Royals' offensive core are set to test free agency after the 2017 season, including Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas.
Gordon, meanwhile, is going to stick around. He's Kansas City's highest-paid player, and now he needs to earn it.
Los Angeles Angels: Garrett Richards' Elbow Gives out
In May, Garrett Richards opted out of Tommy John surgery to repair the damaged ligament in his throwing elbow and instead had stem-cell injection therapy.
He returned to action in an instructional league game in October and expressed optimism.
"I honestly feel like the ball's coming out of my hand now better than it ever has," he said at the time, per Pedro Moura of the Los Angeles Times. "I have a better understanding of how I want to throw the baseball."
Richards has to prove it in spring training and beyond.
The Halos rotation will be without departed veterans Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson. It lost Andrew Heaney and Nick Tropeano to Tommy John procedures. Matt Shoemaker, Ricky Nolasco, Tyler Skaggs and Jesse Chavez fill out the starting five. So...yeah.
The bottom line: Los Angeles needs a bounce-back campaign from Richards if it's going to atone for last season's 74-88 finish and leverage AL MVP Mike Trout's prime.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Andrew Toles Turns Back into a Pumpkin
If a screenwriter isn't working on a treatment for Stock Boy: The Andrew Toles Story, they should be.
In case you're unfamiliar with the tale: Toles fell briefly out of the game and took a job stocking shelves at a grocery store before Los Angeles picked him up.
The 24-year-old made his big league debut with the Dodgers in July and finished with a robust .314/.365/.505 slash line in 115 plate appearances.
Now, he's penciled in as Los Angeles' starting left fielder. As good as he looked in 2016, that's a risky proposition.
The projection systems aren't rosy. Steamer predicts a .276/.316/.410 line with six home runs, per FanGraphs. Those are decent numbers for a fourth outfielder but not a starter at a key power position on a club with championship aspirations.
Los Angeles has depth, with veteran Andre Ethier, mercurial Yasiel Puig, Trayce Thompson and Scott Van Slyke vying for playing time along with center fielder Joc Pederson.
If Toles goes from Cinderella to rags, though, the Dodgers' already-unsettled outfield becomes even more chaotic.
Miami Marlins: Potential Sale Creates a Distraction
The Miami Marlins are still recovering from the tragic loss of ace Jose Fernandez, as Bleacher Report's Scott Miller movingly reported.
They also have significant questions to answer in the starting rotation as they seek to maintain contact with the New York Mets and Washington Nationals in the NL East.
The biggest issue facing the Fish, though, may be the impending sale of the franchise.
A deal is in motion to offload the club for as much as $1.6 billion, according to Steven Wine of the Associated Press (via ABC News), though details remain in flux and nothing has been confirmed.
"There's obviously a lot of buzz, there's rumors, there's all sorts of stuff that happens all the time," team president David Samson said, per Tim Healey of the Sun Sentinel. "Are these rumors different than other rumors? Time will always tell what happens."
Big-picture, the idea of polarizing owner Jeffrey Loria's ceding control is a good thing. But the uncertainty surrounding a change of leadership could add one more distraction the Marlins don't need.
New York Mets: More Health Problems in the Starting Rotation
In 2016, the New York Mets rotation resembled the treatment for Final Destination 6.
Ace Noah Syndergaard did his thing, but the rest of the starting five crumbled, with Matt Harvey, Steven Matz and Jacob deGrom all succumbing to season-ending injuries.
All are expected back in 2016. Zack Wheeler, who last pitched in the big leagues in 2014, is also primed to return to either the rotation or the bullpen.
"We are healthy, and we are ready to go," deGrom said, per Kevin Kernan of the New York Post. "It should be an exciting year."
That's the optimistic take. On the glass-half-empty side, Harvey is coming off a procedure for thoracic outlet syndrome, a rare condition with mixed recovery results, as Nick Lampe of SB Nation's Beyond the Box Score outlined.
Matz and deGrom, meanwhile, both underwent elbow surgeries.
The Mets brought back outfielder Yoenis Cespedes to bolster the offense, but New York will live and die by its pitching.
That means, inevitably, the Queens faithful will hold their breath each time an injury-bitten starter takes the ball this spring.
New York Yankees: Masahiro Tanaka's Supporting Cast Fizzles
First, the good news for the New York Yankees starting rotation: Masahiro Tanaka threw 199.2 innings in 2016, his highest total since coming over from Japan three seasons ago, and posted a 3.07 ERA.
He's the ace. Scrawl it in Sharpie.
Behind him, there's hard-throwing right-hander Michael Pineda, who has shown flashes but posted a 4.82 ERA in 2016, and creaky 36-year-old southpaw CC Sabathia.
After that, the Yankees are counting on some combination of Luis Severino, Bryan Mitchell, Luis Cessa and Chad Green. All except Mitchell owned ERAs north of 4.00 last season, and Green has a grand total of eight big league starts under his belt.
The offense is exciting behind budding stars such as catcher Gary Sanchez. The bullpen is set with the late-inning duo of Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman. The farm system is loaded for bear.
It might work out for New York, which is technically in the midst of a youth movement. The Yanks are always under pressure to compete, however, and this duct-taped rotation could be their undoing.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Andrew McCutchen Doesn't Rebound
Rumors swirled all winter around the Pittsburgh Pirates' Andrew McCutchen. General manager Neal Huntington "remains willing to deal," per Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
For now, the 2013 NL MVP is a member of the Bucs. He's moving from center field to right field to cover for his defensive deficiencies, per MLB.com's Adam Berry, and will seek to rebuild his value for a Pirates team that's staring up at the Cubs and possibly the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central.
If he does, he'll either propel Pittsburgh back into contention or provide a valuable chip at the trade deadline.
"We're looking forward to Andrew being a core part of our offense and a core part of this club going forward until he reaches free agency or someone compels us to go in a different direction," Huntington said, per Berry.
Either way, all eyes will be on the 30-year-old five-time All-Star this spring.
St. Louis Cardinals: Adam Wainwright Keeps Declining
The St. Louis Cardinals have coverage in the starting rotation.
Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, Mike Leake and Lance Lynn will likely be in the starting five. Though top prospect Alex Reyes may not be available after suffering a partial tear in his ulnar collateral ligament, per ESPN.com Jim Bowden, the Cards have other options for the rotation. For example, former closer Trevor Rosenthal may be stretched out as a starter, per Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
That means, theoretically, Adam Wainwright could vanish in a puff of scarlet smoke and the Cards might be OK.
Let's get real, though. As they chase the Cubs, the Red Birds badly want Wainwright to regain the form that saw him earn four top-three NL Cy Young Award finishes between 2009 and 2014.
They don't want the guy who missed most of 2015 with an Achilles injury and posted a 4.62 ERA last season.
"I know Adam realizes that he wasn’t that far off from a major surgery, and he has a whole offseason now to be just a frontline pitcher," St. Louis skipper Mike Matheny said in January, per the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Ben Frederickson. "This guy competes even when he doesn't have his best stuff. I think we’re going to see good stuff this year, too."
San Francisco Giants: No One Wins the Left Field Competition
The San Francisco Giants blew their offseason budget on closer Mark Melancon and avoided the winter's top outfield free-agent and trade targets despite a hole in left field.
Now, they'll roll with the inexperienced duo of Mac Williamson and Jarrett Parker.
The 26-year-old Williamson posted a .223/.315/.411 slash line in 54 games for the Giants last season but owns an .855 OPS in five MiLB campaigns.
Parker, who turned 28 on January 1, posted a .236/.358/.394 line in 63 games for the Giants in 2016 and has amassed an .823 OPS in six MiLB seasons.
Neither player lit up any top prospect lists, but the Giants have a knack for turning unheralded minor leaguers into notable big league contributors. Just ask shortstop Brandon Crawford, second baseman Joe Panik and departed third baseman Matt Duffy.
That said, San Francisco is in unambiguous win-now mode. If neither Parker nor Williamson rise to the occasion, the club could be in trouble.
As John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle put it, this gambit is the Giants' "riskiest move entering spring training."
Unless, of course, you believe 34-year-old non-roster invitee Mike Morse can save them again.
Seattle Mariners: Felix Hernandez Doesn't Reclaim His Throne
Felix Hernandez posted his worst ERA (3.82) in nine seasons while battling injuries and velocity decline in 2016. Call it a blip if you'd like.
The fact is, King Felix turns 31 in April. His strikeouts have been diminishing and his walks increasing for the past two seasons.
He may rebound—he's a borderline Hall of Famer, after all. On the other hand, he may not.
"Felix has been working out very, very seriously," Mariners manager Scott Servais said, per 710 ESPN Seattle's Brock and Salk. "I think he's in a different spot."
It's tough to bet against one of the greatest pitchers of his generation. If Hernandez's slide continues, though, all Seattle's offseason machinations could amount to a hill of fair-trade coffee beans.
Tampa Bay Rays: Chris Archer Pushes Too Hard in the World Baseball Classic
To be fair, I wrote about how Chris Archer pitching in the World Baseball Classic is a good thing. It can up his national profile and give Team USA a shot at winning the tournament for the first time ever.
There's a possible dark side, though. Despite prudent and necessary innings limits, the WBC could be a strain on Archer's arm.
The Tampa Bay Rays right-hander is coming off an uneven season wherein he flashed strikeout stuff but finished with a 9-19 record and 4.02 ERA.
His 3.41 xFIP—which is essentially a version of ERA with defense removed from the equation—suggested bad luck, and he posted a 3.25 ERA after the All-Star break. But the results weren't stellar overall.
There's inherent risk that Archer will try to prove too much in the 16-nation tournament. The Rays need him, either as a franchise cornerstone or as juicy trade-deadline bait.
Pitching well in the WBC will help. Going all out and hurting himself won't.
Texas Rangers: Yu Darvish's Track to a Full Season Gets Derailed
Yu Darvish missed the entire 2015 season recovering from Tommy John surgery and dealt with neck and shoulder issues in 2016.
The 30-year-old three-time All-Star logged an impressive 11.8 strikeouts per nine innings and a 3.41 ERA in his 100.1 frames.
Now, he has to show he can sustain that performance over a full 162-game grind in his contract year.
It's important for Darvish, who could set himself up for a massive payday, as Bleacher Report's Zachary D. Rymer explained.
It's also important for the AL West-champion Rangers, whose starting rotation is questionable behind Darvish and veteran lefty Cole Hamels.
"Coming back from Tommy John [surgery] for the second year, I want to see how my body reacts and how I do," Darvish said, per MLB.com's T.R. Sullivan. "Show what kind of pitcher I am."
Toronto Blue Jays: Jose Bautista Doesn't Bat(tle) Back
The Toronto Blue Jays lost slugger Edwin Encarnacion (.263 average, 42 home runs) but signed Kendrys Morales (.263 average, 30 home runs).
That won't be a catastrophic exchange, assuming they get increased production from Jose Bautista.
Joey Bats saw his market crater this winter and ultimately settled for a one-year, $18.5 million contract with the Jays.
The 36-year-old garnered a top-10 AL MVP finish in 2015, but he hit just .234 last season with 22 homers, his lowest total since 2009.
With Encarnacion gone to Cleveland and the AL East a competitive jumble, Toronto needs Bautista to rediscover his bat-flipping ways.
The spring will be an early, important test.
Washington Nationals: The Injury Bug Bites Stephen Strasburg Again
Stephen Strasburg went 15-4 with a 3.60 ERA and 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings for the Washington Nationals in 2016, but he landed on the DL with back and elbow problems and was a NLDS spectator.
That came after he inked a seven-year, $175 million extension with the Nats prior to the season.
Can the 2009 first overall pick stay healthy? That's the multimillion-dollar question.
Strasburg has eclipsed 200 innings only once, in 2014. He's shown sustained periods of excellence but has fallen repeatedly on the injury sword.
"I'm probably not going to be getting any stronger, so I just need to kind of change it around," Strasburg said in August after succumbing to a sore elbow, per Jorge Castillo and Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post.
If he stays healthy, he'll join reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer to form arguably the best 1-2 pitching combo in baseball.
Emphasis on "if."