15 Burning Questions for 2017 MLB Spring Training
It's not true that the first burning question about spring training is, "Did you bring the sunscreen?"
Not at all. As you can see in the picture above, it's cloudy in Florida!
It's sure to clear up soon, and hopefully everything that happens under the Florida (and Arizona) sun over the next six weeks brings some clarity to the baseball world. For now, we have questions, and here's a look at 15 of the biggest ones as spring training opens this week.
What Do the Cubs Do with Kyle Schwarber?
The depth chart on the Chicago Cubs website lists Kyle Schwarber as a backup left fielder and third-string catcher.
That can't be right for a guy who walked out of the Arizona Fall League and batted .412 in the World Series.
It is right, and it isn't. As spring training begins, Javier Baez is the second baseman, which makes Ben Zobrist the left fielder. Willson Contreras is the catcher, not that the defensively challenged Schwarber would be a full-time option there anyway.
"I still want to catch," Schwarber told The Mully & Hanley Show on Chicago's 670 The Score.
The Cubs still want him to hit, so you can bet the ever-creative Joe Maddon will find ways to get him in the lineup regularly. And you can bet one of the biggest questions of what figures to be a mostly celebratory Cubs spring training will be how exactly Maddon plans to do that.
How Do the Royals/Marlins Get Past the Ventura/Fernandez Tragedies?
As colleague Scott Miller detailed in a beautifully written story on Bleacher Report, the September death of ace right-hander Jose Fernandez remains fresh and painful for the Miami Marlins. Fernandez was a huge part of the Marlins' plans for building a winning team, but he was also a huge part of the team.
The first days of spring training will bring back those terrible memories. The rest of spring training will bring reminders, every fifth day, that someone else is going to be taking the starts that should have belonged to Jose.
The feelings will be the same in Surprise, Arizona, where the Kansas City Royals are gathering for the first time since the January death of Yordano Ventura, their star right-hander.
"It's not something we will get over," first baseman Eric Hosmer told Bob Nightengale of USA Today. "It's not something we will forget."
They can't forget, but the Royals and Marlins will need to move beyond the tragedies that robbed them of two outstanding young pitchers—and two outstanding young men. Even if the holes in their hearts remain, they'll need to fill the holes left in their rotations.
The Royals are planning on a bounce-back season. They finished 81-81 and out of the playoffs in 2016 after winning the 2015 World Series.
The Marlins got better last year and plan to move fast toward contending in the National League East.
By Opening Day, both teams should have a better idea of how realistic those plans are.
Can the Red Sox Count on a Panda Revival?
This was Pablo Sandoval last spring: overweight, out of the lineup and eventually injured.
This is Pablo Sandoval this spring: in better shape, likely back in the lineup and counted on to at least resemble the difference-making player he once was.
The early reports from Boston Red Sox camp in Fort Myers, Florida, are encouraging. Panda looks good, columnist Nick Cafardo wrote in the Boston Globe.
But as Cafardo also wrote, the Red Sox need Sandoval to be good. They need him to start at third base after trading Travis Shaw to the Milwaukee Brewers in the Tyler Thornburg deal. They need him in the middle of the order now that David Ortiz has retired.
Manager John Farrell, who made the big decision to hand Shaw the third base job last spring, says there will be competition again. But for the Red Sox to be at their best, Sandoval needs to resemble the $95 million player they signed two years ago but still haven't seen.
Who Pitches the Ninth Inning for the Nationals?
The biggest question in the nation's capital this week is...who closes for the Nationals?
OK, maybe it's not the biggest question in Washington. There's no doubt it's the biggest question for a Nationals team that has been to the postseason three times in the last five years without winning a single series (and often losing games late).
The Nationals traded for Mark Melancon last year, but he left to sign with the San Francisco Giants. Other closers were available on the free-agent (Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen, Greg Holland) and trade (Wade Davis, David Robertson) markets, but the Nationals began spring training without having acquired any of them.
Robertson could still be a possibility because the Chicago White Sox haven't yet traded him elsewhere.
For now, there's Shawn Kelley, whose seven saves in 2016 were a career high. There's also Blake Treinen (one career save) and Koda Glover (19 career appearances and no saves).
Teams find closers over the course of seasons and sometimes win championships with closers they find. But it's risky, which is why teams spent $86 million on Chapman (New York Yankees), $80 million on Jansen (Los Angeles Dodgers) and $62 million on Melancon (Giants).
The Nationals didn't spend nearly that much. Perhaps Sean Spicer can explain why.
Will Anyone Sign Matt Wieters?
Matt Wieters is a good player. A very good player.
It's true that the new emphasis on pitch-framing numbers doesn't help him, because (according to StatCorner) Wieters ranks well below average in that category. But Salvador Perez ranks even lower, and the Kansas City Royals happily handed him a five-year, $52.5 million contract well before he was eligible for free agency.
Wieters and Perez, incidentally, were two of the three catchers on the American League All-Star team last July (Stephen Vogt was the third). It was the fourth time in the last six years Wieters was an All-Star.
Now spring training is opening, and Wieters remains unsigned. The Baltimore Orioles said they love him, but they didn't make him a qualifying offer and then signed Welington Castillo to replace him.
It's not hard to look around and find many teams that could use Wieters. It is hard to find teams anxious to sign him.
Some team eventually will. But who will it be, and when will it be?
Pitchers and catchers are reporting this week. For now, Wieters has nowhere to report to.
Is This the Year the Mets Finally Get Their Dream Rotation?
The New York Mets could see it coming together, a rotation of five young aces that would carry them to greatness.
But it never did come together, not all at one time. Not yet.
Matt Harvey was hurt. Zack Wheeler was hurt. Steven Matz was hurt. Jacob deGrom was hurt.
Now, this spring, they're all back. All of them, and Noah Syndergaard too.
The first four are coming off surgery of one kind or another. Wheeler hasn't thrown a major league pitch since the end of the 2014 season, so he'll see his innings limited and could even see time in the bullpen.
Still, the possibility is there for now. The Mets will spend spring training seeing how healthy David Wright is and how Neil Walker and Lucas Duda have recovered from back trouble.
But the most important story from Mets camp will be the health of the pitchers and whether the dream rotation could actually come together sometime in 2017.
Can Another Yankees Kid Become This Year's Gary Sanchez?
Gary Sanchez has played all of 55 major league games. Many of them were impressive games, but it's still just 55 games.
And yet, as the New York Yankees continue with their rebuilding project, the biggest story can't be whether Sanchez can repeat his 20-home-runs-in-201-at-bats pace from his rookie year.
The Yankees need Sanchez, but they also need the next Sanchez to emerge from their suddenly strong farm system. They need Aaron Judge to turn some of those strikeouts into home runs, for Clint Frazier to show off his multiple talents or for Gleyber Torres to show he's closer to being big league-ready than the Yankees think.
As Ken Davidoff wrote in the New York Post, all the talented kids should make this a fun spring training for the Yankees and their fans. But to make it a fun summer, they're going to need some of the kids to show they're on the fast track this spring.
Can the Tigers' Aging Core Make One More Title Run?
Sadly, the Detroit Tigers never did win a World Series for owner Mike Ilitch, who died last week at age 87.
Some people may also say it's sad the Tigers didn't make any big trades this winter and that they're going to spring training with their aging roster mostly intact.
The other way to look at it is the Tigers won 86 games last year, finishing just three games out of a postseason spot. It won't take much improvement for this to be a playoff team again for what would be the fifth time in seven years.
Miguel Cabrera is still one of the most feared hitters in the game. Justin Verlander nearly won the Cy Young Award.
How much does this group have left? Can they give Ilitch's family the title they never could win in his lifetime?
Or will this summer bring more talk of trading away veterans for kids who may win sometime in the future?
Can Yasiel Puig Be Part of the Dodgers' Answer, or Is He Still the Problem?
Yasiel Puig is still just 26 years old.
He's a right-handed power hitter on a Los Angeles Dodgers team that desperately needs to get better against left-handed pitching. He told reporters he understands where he has gone wrong in the past, according to Doug Padilla of ESPN.com.
It's understandable if you're skeptical. It's understandable if the Dodgers are skeptical.
It's also undeniably true the Dodgers will be a better team if they get anything close to the best out of Puig's still-enormous talent.
For now, Puig needs to win a job in a crowded Dodgers outfield. He needs to prove he can follow through on the things he said over the winter.
This spring may not provide all the Puig answers, but it should at least provide the start of an answer.
What's Next for Andrew McCutchen?
I'll admit, I never thought Andrew McCutchen would be going to spring training with the Pittsburgh Pirates this year.
But even though Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review wrote that general manager Neal Huntington "remains willing to deal," McCutchen will begin the spring (and likely end it) as a Pirate.
He'll also begin camp as a right fielder, a move the Pirates announced before camp began. Starling Marte will play center field and Gregory Polanco will play left, a move that acknowledges McCutchen's slipping defensive skills.
The Pirates need a bounce-back year from their best-known player. It's hard to imagine they'll win without it. Even if they don't win, they need McCutchen to play well to give him more value on the trade market, either this July or next winter.
McCutchen can be a free agent after the 2018 season, and because he'll be 32, it's very unlikely his next contract will be with the budget-conscious Pirates. A trade this winter made sense, but obviously Huntington never found a team willing to pay the high price he set.
A trade still makes sense unless a McCutchen revival lifts the Pirates into contention in the National League Central. Either way, plenty of eyes will be watching to see how he looks this spring.
Will MLB Change the Rules?
Baseball is slow to change. It's one of the best things about the sport and also sometimes the most frustrating thing.
So it caused quite a stir when Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports reported on a radical experiment to change the rules in extra innings. Teams in the lowest levels of the minor leagues would start every inning with a runner on second base, from the 10th inning on. A variation of the rule is already used in the World Baseball Classic.
That rule may never reach the major leagues. If I had to guess, it never will.
But ESPN.com's Jayson Stark wrote about three other changes that could happen, even this season. Stark reported Feb. 6 that MLB would like to both raise the strike zone and eliminate the need to throw four wide pitches for an intentional walk. Stark reported Monday that MLB would also like to limit the time managers have to ask for a replay review to 30 seconds after the end of the play.
All the proposals are part of the pace-of-game initiatives pushed by commissioner Rob Manfred. Some make more sense than others.
Getting rid of some of the dead time while managers wait to decide on replay would be a significant improvement.
Will the Trade Market Heat Up?
Despite all the talk, Brian Dozier is still a Minnesota Twin. Andrew McCutchen is going to spring training with the Pirates, and David Robertson and Jose Quintana reported to camp with the White Sox. Ryan Braun hasn't left the Brewers. J.D. Martinez remains with the Tigers, as do Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander.
There weren't nearly as many big trades as many of us anticipated this winter, which only means there will be more talk of trades this spring and into this summer. Big spring training trades have become more unusual, and it's unlikely any will happen this year.
But the White Sox are still trying to rebuild (and did well when they traded Chris Sale and Adam Eaton). The Twins still wonder if they can get more value from Dozier by trading him. The Pirates still know they're unlikely to sign McCutchen to a new deal before his contract expires. The Tigers still have a roster that's getting old fast.
Whether or not any big trades happen this spring, the conditions are there for big trade talks to continue.
How Much Can the Indians Count on Michael Brantley?
It's amazing the Cleveland Indians got to Game 7 of the World Series after injuries that kept Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar from starting a single game in the postseason. But it's amazing the Indians even made it to the postseason when Michael Brantley played just 11 games.
Brantley was supposed to provide the Indians with a much-needed boost when he came back last year, but his right shoulder never recovered from labrum surgery. He eventually needed a second surgery in August.
In January, Brantley told reporters he felt better than he did at the same point a year ago.
"I want to play every day," Brantley said.
If Brantley can come back and join newly signed Edwin Encarnacion in the middle of the lineup, the Indians look much better. If Carrasco, Salazar and the rest of their rotation stay relatively healthy, they could again be the best team in the American League.
Did the Astros Do Enough for a 2017 Rebound?
The Houston Astros were a surprise playoff team in 2015, and perhaps they were a surprise playoff miss in 2016.
They responded to missing the postseason (despite just two fewer wins than in 2015) by making three significant additions to the lineup, signing Carlos Beltran and Josh Reddick and trading for Brian McCann. They did all of that early, which only meant people could spend the rest of the winter wondering whether they'd also try to boost the starting rotation.
They didn't, or at least they haven't so far, despite being linked to pitchers like Jose Quintana, Chris Archer and Sonny Gray (including in this tweet from Bob Nightengale of USA Today).
If Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers stay healthy—both were shut down at the end of 2016—perhaps they'll have enough. But if Astros starters stumble at all in the spring, expect the questions to get louder.
Did they do enough to improve?
How Close Are the Braves to Building a Winner?
The Atlanta Braves have built a new stadium, with SunTrust Park set to open with a March 31 exhibition game against the New York Yankees.
The Braves have built a farm system, and they were able to show off talented young shortstop Dansby Swanson at the end of last season.
But have the Braves yet built a winner?
No one expects them to contend for the National League East title, which will likely belong again to either the New York Mets or Washington Nationals. But after a winter in which they signed Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey and traded for Jaime Garcia and Brandon Phillips, the Braves deserve to be taken more seriously this spring.
How seriously? Let's see how they look in Florida.
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