2011 MLB Preview: Highlighting 50 Reasons To Watch Spring Training

Topher GuthrieContributor IJanuary 31, 2011

2011 MLB Preview: Highlighting 50 Reasons To Watch Spring Training

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    Can you feel that?  Is that the feeling of democracy?  Is that freedom?  No, it’s spring training. As the calendar turns to February and the football season climaxes finally, all eyes turn to Arizona and Florida, anticipating baseball’s long-awaited return.

    Think for just a beautiful second, and you can see it all unfolding—the sprinklers are pattering across the outfield, the Beemers are pulling into the parking lot, the first mitts are popping in poofs of dust.  Lanky pitchers with too-high jersey numbers are loping along the warning track and overweight coaches are stretching into breathable mesh.  The L-screen is being pulled out from the storage shed and somebody spills a bucket of balls onto the infield for the first time.

    After months of looking back on the Giants’ improbable Series win, it’s finally time to thaw out from the winter doldrums and spin it forward, to the essential things to watch in spring training 2011…

Will the Cardinals Sign Albert Pujols?

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    It’s the question that will dominate baseball conversations everywhere until February 19(the deadline Pujols and his representatives have set to iron out an extension), and then for a few weeks thereafter.  Whether you’re in a big league dugout, listening to sports talk radio or standing next to a water cooler, every baseball fan will have an opinion.  The essential question for the Cardinals isn’t whether they want to sign him, and for Pujols it isn’t whether or not he wants to remain a Cardinal.  Do the Cardinals have the capital?

    Serious contracts are often ironed out in 11th-hour negotiations (like the NFL’s collective bargaining this spring) and this deadline may wind up being flexible.  But how will Pujols handle the pressure of nine-figure contract talks and the strong possibility of having to leave his beloved city.

    A recent editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch warned Cardinals fans that life will go on without Pujols in a Cardinal uniform past 2011. Will Pujols really be willing to consider leaving St. Louis?

Who Will Bat Leadoff For the Reds?

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    The Reds led the National League with 790 runs scored last year and boast the league’s most well-rounded returning lineup…except at the top of the order.  Cincinnati spent the offseason looking for a leadoff hitter they could pay close to the league minimum, which means they found no one (sorry, Scott Podsednik).  The job will likely fall to Drew Stubbs, though Brandon Phillips, who batted leadoff for the majority of 2010, remains an option.

    Let’s just say Stubbs is not your father’s leadoff hitter.  He struck out 168 times and laid down three sacrifice bunts last year.  Though he finished with a strong September, his .329 OBP would place him near the bottom among NL leadoff hitters.  Scouts around the league feel as though Stubbs could be in for a monster year in 2011, but he may wind up shortening a swing that yielded 22 HRs and a .444 slugging percentage if he is asked to bat leadoff again.

    It might be all that the Reds lack is a set everyday lineup, and establishing one this spring could put them on a fast track to the playoffs.

Adrian Gonzalez’s Adjustment To Boston

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    Gonzalez has made these adjustments before.  He has gotten huge raises before, changed teams, overcome injuries, and dealt with the pressure that comes with being a team’s biggest star.  However, he has never fielded all of these tough grounders at once, and he has never done so in Boston.

    He’ll have the massive help of playing in a winning organization, surrounded by veterans who have handled many of the same challenges.  But in spring training, he’ll see first-hand the glare of the spotlight that eluded him throughout his career in San Diego, and Red Sox Nation will be anxious to see how he handles it.

    Gonzalez will probably be brought along slowly by manager Terry Francona, as he recovers from offseason labrum surgery.  That means lighter workouts, fewer games and infrequent media sessions.  But how will Gonzalez handle his initial doses of major market, rabid-fan expectations?

Now Playing Center Field for the Dodgers…

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    Will it be the 2009 Matt Kemp or Kemp 2.0?  The latter saw his batting average drop 49 points, his OPS drop 82 points, and his defense and effort get criticized by GM Ned Colletti, causing his agent to question if Los Angeles was the right organization for his client.  In 2009, Kemp earned the rare Gold Glove/Silver Slugger daily double.  In 2010, Kemp earned 170 strikeouts and the wrath of Dodger fans (which is not easy to do).

    No one’s on-field demeanor will be more closely scrutinized this spring than Kemp’s in Glendale a couple of weeks from now.  Kemp seemed disinterested at times roaming centerfield for the Dodgers.  A Matt Kemp who is focused from the first light BP session, driving ropes into the alley, could be a great sign for the Dodgers.

Um, Didn’t You Used To Be Pablo Sandoval?

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    Pablo Sandoval tweeted two weeks ago that he completed his offseason conditioning program in Arizona and added that he "feels good to be back in shape.”  It appears that he has taken his offseason regimen seriously, and the Giants hope that translates into the free-swinging everyday third baseman they are used to. 

    In case you’ve forgotten, that was Mike Fontenot manning third for the Giants during their playoff run last year.  Sandoval claimed personal issues took a toll on his conditioning, which took a toll on his bat speed, his ability to move laterally and the total space he required on the Giants’ bench.  By August, manager Bruce Bochy had seen enough and the Panda took a seat. 

    It’s also easy to forget, in the wake of the Giants’ amazing 2010 run, that a healthy, focused Sandoval is a hit machine, and at the beginning of last year he seemed to be ready to come into his own as one of the top hitters in the NL.  Giants fans will be anxious to see which Sandoval shows up this spring in Arizona.

Key To the Yankees’ Season Is Ivan Nova

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    Maybe the Yankees didn’t sign Carl Crawford because they wanted to give Brett Gardner a full season in pinstripes.  And maybe the Yankees didn’t sign Cliff Lee because…Well, that’s a stretch, but this 23-year-old is a hard thrower, with a strong mound presence and high upside.  He’ll have every opportunity to earn a spot in the Yanks’ rotation. 

    The Yankees rushed Nova to the bigs last year when they found themselves in need of pitching help, and there is a good chance the Yankees will have the same need this spring.  However, the secret in Yankeeland is that there is a strong belief that Nova will be a star someday, and that could begin in 2011.

    Will it be with the Yankees, though?  A strong start by the young right-hander and a slow one by the rest of the rotation (plus the continued absence of Andy Pettitte) will likely turn GM Brian Cashman’s attention toward a veteran (i.e. Chris Carpenter), with Nova a possible trading chip if he gets off to a solid start this spring.

Paging Mr. Pelfrey

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    It might be that Mike Pelfrey is a little inconsistent.  While working on his off-speed pitches during spring training last year, Pelfrey posted an ERA over eight, causing some raised eyebrows among management.  Then Pelfrey posted a 4-0 April with a 0.69 ERA.  He shot out of the gate with a 10-2 mark through June, then went 5-7 the rest of the way. 

    Maybe that’s why new manager Terry Collins named Pelfrey the Opening Day starter three weeks before pitchers report to Port St. Lucie.  Ever heard of an Opening Day starter being named in the beginning of January?  It might seem like putting the cart before the horse, but the Mets hope Pelfrey will benefit from the certainty that he is now the staff ace in Flushing.

    That is, until Johan Santana returns, maybe in June, from shoulder surgery.  If the Mets are still in contention then, it will have to be with Pelfrey leading the rotation.

Can Matt Thornton Be the White Sox Closer?

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    Manager Ozzie Guillen has stated a preference for naming a full-time closer during spring training, so all interested parties will be watching to see if Thornton assumes the job.  Thornton challenges hitters, throws in the mid-90s and has a bulldog’s mentality on the mound.  His WHIP has hovered around one for three years and he filled in nicely as closer while Bobby Jenks struggled late last summer.

    But the closer question remains something like casting Sam Worthington to play the lead in Avatar—a huge question mark surrounded by a massive budget and more massive expectations. The White Sox will have a payroll around $140 million to start the season and are led by established veterans at nearly every position. 

    If Thornton fails to make the position his during the spring, hard-throwing Chris Sale will be right on his heels, and if both struggle out of the gate, the White Sox could as well in the competitive AL Central.  Thornton’s performance this spring could set the tone for the entire White Sox season.

Now Leading Off for the San Diego Padres…

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    The glare of lofty expectations usually finds players whose performance falls far below their potential.  That leads us to Cameron Maybin, who will man centerfield regularly in spacious Petco Park after being traded from the Marlins last December.  The Marlins gave up on Maybin after his arrival from Detroit in the Miguel Cabrera trade, without letting him play even one full season in Florida.  All he’ll be asked to do in San Diego is track down fly balls and provide speed at the top of the order for the punchless Padres.

    Two images stand out for anyone who has watched Maybin’s stay in the majors—swinging for the fences and diving at the breaking ball in the dirt.  In San Diego, he’ll be surrounded by veterans, and maybe he’ll shorten his swing and learn to lay off the breaking ball in the dirt.  If he becomes a line-drive hitter and uses his speed to his advantage, like new teammate Orlando Hudson, the Padres could score runs after all.

Introducing the Nationals’ Opening Day Starter

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    The Nationals pursued every available starter this offseason and wound up with (drumroll here) Tom Gorzelanny.  They lost out on Cliff Lee, Zack Greinke, Carl Pavano, and Jorge De La Rosa.  They also lost out on Stephen Strasburg, who will likely return to the mound in 2012.

    The Nats’ returning ace will be 10-game winner Livan Hernandez, unless….  Jordan Zimmermann has the stuff and command to become a staff ace someday.  The 24-year-old used last year to rehab from a case of the Tommy Johns and, entering 2011, he has the highest upside of any healthy National starter—by a lot.  The lackluster rotation will be filled out by some combination of Hernandez, Ross Detwiler, Jason Marquis, Yuniesky Maya and, John Lannan.  Among those six men, only Hernandez did not spend time toiling in the minors last year. 

    A healthy Zimmermann who is throwing strikes in spring training would be a great sign for a team that struggled with injuries to its pitching staff throughout 2010.  If Zim is having trouble with location in March…Nats fans might want to look away until 2012.

Matt LaPorta Is Finally Here To Stay in Cleveland

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    It turns out LaPorta might not be the blue-chip slugging prospect the Tribe thought they were getting when they targeted him as the centerpiece in the C.C. Sabathia deal.  It might also be that LaPorta is a below-average first baseman with no speed and a high susceptibility to pressure.

    However, the Tribe might be to blame for mishandling his development.  The Indians sent him down to Triple-A twice, then brought him back up, only to sit him on the bench.  He converted to first base last year after playing the outfield in minors, where the Indians plan to keep him for awhile.

    A solid spring will help solidify his role in the middle of the order, and make it easier for the Indians to keep him there.  LaPorta may never be the franchise cornerstone the Indians thought he was (that would be you, Michael Brantley).  But LaPorta compiled a .841 OPS in limited time batting in the fifth slot last year.  It’s hard to imagine a player who could benefit more from having a permanent big league job beginning in spring training.

Can Justin Morneau Play in the Lights?

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    It’s hard to imagine how difficult last season was for Morneau, who was an early MVP candidate before suffering the concussion that ended his season last July.  He experienced headaches and fogginess throughout the remainder of the year.  The post-concussive symptoms would disappear during day-to-day activities, but recur during exercise and cardio activity. 

    Fortunately, Morneau has slowly resumed workouts without any recurrence of symptoms.  He recently played catch and took part in offseason gym workouts, reporting no ill effects.  Doctors have cleared him to ignore his symptoms and go all out in spring training, which means all signs point to him playing first base everyday for the Twins.

    But Twins fans will hold their collective breath until they see him play under the lights for a full nine innings.

Is Aroldis Chapman Throwing 105 Again?

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    Fans everywhere were skeptical when news broke that Aroldis Chapman threw 105 miles per hour during a minor league game last summer.  Couldn’t the radar gun have been flawed or the reading exaggerated?  But then Chapman repeated the feat in a game last September against the Padres, breaking the all-time record previously held by Joel Zumaya.

    Given Zumaya’s recent track record, Chapman’s slender build, the departure of Arthur Rhodes and closer Francisco Cordero’s inconsistent results last year, it is highly likely that Chapman will remain in the bullpen, where he can help fill the eighth-inning role. 

    The whip-like torque that Chapman generates on every pitch is amazing, and Reds management has to be concerned with the violence of his delivery.  Will they rein in his velocity at all, or will Chapman again hit 105 this spring?

Cy Young or Bust for Brandon Webb

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    The stakes are high for Brandon Webb’s recovery this spring.  If the former Cy Young winner can return from shoulder injuries that have sidelined him since Opening Day 2009, the Rangers might not miss Cliff Lee after all (or not as much). 

    A healthy Webb will be locating his sinker this spring, which opposing hitters will be chopping into the ground for slow rollers to Elvis Andrus and Adrian Beltre.  It will be apparent early this spring if Webb can help C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis at the top of the Rangers’ rotation, and if the staff can carry the club back to the top of the AL.

Which Zambrano Will Show Up

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    There are three Zambrano options from which to choose: (a) the Zambrano who finished 8-0 last year and posted a 1.58 ERA in the second half, (b) the crazy Zambrano, last seen swinging at the water cooler with a baseball bat or (c) Zambrano in a Yankee uniform.  The latter seems unlikely, given the $17.5 million he’s owed next year and the no-trade clause he seems unwilling to abandon.

    It should be clear from the first few starts in Arizona which Zambrano will pitch for the Cubs in 2011.  Will Zambrano show up focused, in shape and throwing strike one?  Or will he be distracted and blaming others?

    It might be that there’s no bigger question for the Cubs this spring than Zambrano, who might hold the Cubs’ only hope for a one-two punch at the top of the rotation.  Every other contending team in the NL will feature two aces at the top of the rotation (except maybe Cincinnati, which may have league’s most potent offense), and a contending Cubs team will need a big year from Big Z.

Chris Young’s Silent Quest for 30-30

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    With Justin Upton coming off a sub-par year and Mark Reynolds banished to Baltimore, the D-Backs’ top offensive player will finally be their best defensive player—Chris Young.  Young spent 2010 dropping his strikeout rate while putting together his best offensive season (.257/.341/.452) and holding down spacious center field in Arizona. 

    While Upton’s sub-par year in 2009 could be attributed to huge numbers in the prior year and his age (he’s still just 22), Young has slowly become a more patient hitter and, at 27, showed ample signs last year that he was entering his prime.  As the Diamondbacks convene in Salt River Fields in a couple of weeks, Young will find himself in the relatively new role of offensive leader and the strongest 30-30 candidate in the bigs.

    Unfortunately, while hope springs eternal for most clubs, it won’t for the Diamondbacks, which sport a youthful rotation, a mediocre bullpen, and few prospects on the horizon.  This means Young’s continued growth will happen in the obscurity of the Valley of the Sun.

How Is Zack Greinke's Adjustment Going?

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    It’s easy to forget that Greinke has just two winning seasons and a career WHIP of 1.26.  He is known for his intense focus on the mound that can sometimes get the better of him.  And it was only four years ago that he dealt with anxiety issues that nearly derailed his career.

    And now he’s the ace of a pennant-contending club.  No one is doubting that Greinke can excel in the National League, with no DH and weaker lineups sprinkling the landscape.  But many observers want to see it just to be sure.

    Greinke is dominant when he is on.  He possesses supernatural command and features a four-pitch arsenal highlighted by mid-90s gas that keeps most hitters guessing.  Brewers management and fans will just want to see it a couple times this spring before they are certain he is the new staff ace.

A Swing and a Drive...

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    Is Jose Bautista still hitting bombs? It seems highly unlikely that Bautista will repeat his phenomenal 2010 performance, in which he slugged .617 with 54 HRs and 124 RBI.  His previous high for HRs was 16.  Nearly half of his career total of 113 HRs came in 2010, despite having played five full seasons.  His previous high slugging percentage was .408 before last year, meaning he raised his career best by almost .200. 

    Many analysts have speculated/evaluated/guessed about Bautista’s preposterous one-year spike.  In 2012, he’ll have a chance to make it a two-year spike, and quiet all of the speculation.  We’ll begin to determine whether he is Brady Anderson or Luis Gonzalez this spring.

    While it’s hard to imagine a repeat performance, it’s not hard to envision him pull-hitting his way to 35 bombs and a .550 slugging percentage.  Bautista still strikes out way too frequently and his BA was only .260 last year.  He could improve on both numbers and have a great year, all while not coming close to repeating his power numbers.

Are the Young Mariners Ready for Prime Time?

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    Seattle sure hopes they are.  Dustin Ackley hit .424 and was the Arizona Fall League MVP this year.  Michael Pineda is the Mariners’ top pitching prospect, and he happens to be the prospect most ready for a jump to the bigs in the Mariners' system.  Pineda could team with Felix Hernandez at the top of the rotation, and Ackley could step in at the top of order behind Ichiro.

    Or they could wind up in back in Triple-A.  Other organizations in MLB are rebuilding around a slew of young stars.  The Mariners hopes for player development in 2011 hinge on two or three phenoms.  Ackley and Pineda will each need a solid spring to make the big league team, and the Mariners hope they can bring some excitement back to Safeco in April.

The Future Is Now in Kansas City

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    The Royals might be historically bad this year, but they have hope.  A recent article in ESPN named the Royals as having the top farm system in baseball—with six prospects in the top 100.  Third baseman Mike Moustakas (.322/36 HRs/124 RBI between AA and AAA last year) and first baseman Eric Hosmer are sluggers to build around, and a slew of high upside arms will be ready in a year or two.

    But this is 2011, and these Royals will resemble a minor league squad for most of the year.  They won 67 games in 2010, and Zack Greinke won 10 of those.  Wilson Betemit might be the best option at first and third base (if Billy Butler DHs).  The rotation will feature Luke Hochevar, Sean O’Sullivan and Jeff Francis.  And GM Dayton Moore is not without fault—he did sign Gil Meche to a $55 million contract and Jose Guillen for $36 million. 

    The Royals will play 57 games against the Twins, White Sox, and Tigers, against whom they'll be overmatched all year.  They might as well begin the youth movement this spring.

Is Yovani Gallardo Throwing Strikes?

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    Has Gallardo underperformed to this point in his career, or has he been snakebitten by injuries and bad luck?  The answer may be more clear after spring training.  This will be the year Gallardo gets his innings ceiling raised, avoids freak knee injuries, and doesn’t feel the pressure of being the staff ace.  All he has to do is throw strike one and pitch into the 8th inning from time to time.

    The Brewers have to feel as though Gallardo is the key to their pitching staff.  Zack Greinke and Shawn Marcum are steady hurlers with veteran experience.  But Gallardo might have the best arsenal of pitches among the three.  He features an explosive fastball paired with a huge 12-to-six curve, and accumulates strikeouts in bunches when he’s on.

    Gallardo could wind up as this season’s breakout pitcher in the NL—the 2011 Ubaldo Jimenez.  Or he could wind up as the Brewers’ third best pitcher.  This spring will let Brewers fans know in which direction the young hurler is headed.

Can the Angels Turn It Around?

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    Are the Angels the most imbalanced team in baseball?  They have nearly $40 million committed to their corner outfielders.  The Angels vowed to be looking to get younger and faster this offseason.  Instead they got older and slower by adding Vernon Wells, the latest in a long line of aging corner outfielders (i.e. Vlad Guerrero, Gary Matthews Jr., Bobby Abreu)

    They have no leadoff hitter (except Erick Aybar), only Alberto Callaspo and Brandon Wood to play third, and will rely on Scott Downs and Fernando Rodney on the back end of the bullpen.

    Still, there’s hope in Anaheim.  A healthy Kendry Morales and a return to form for Dan Haren could signal a quick turnaround.

The Pirates Opening Day Starter Is…

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    Someone has to pitch on Opening Day for the Pirates and it might as well be James McDonald, who came over from the Dodgers last year and showed electric stuff down the stretch.  The other options are Paul Maholm or Kevin Correia, either of whom would be the least impressive ace in the National League.

    McDonald has a deceptive delivery and a big-league frame, and could be a cornerstone pitcher for the Bucs.  He’ll need to establish himself early in spring training for the Pirates to have a chance to climb out of the cellar in the NL Central.

Is That Really Nate McLouth Playing Center Field for the Braves?

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    Manager Fredi Gonzalez was quoted this offseason as saying McLouth would bat second this season and play everyday in CF.  In 2008, McLouth hit .276/.356/.497 for the Pirates, with 26 HRs and 94 RBI.  But last year was not 2008.  Last year, McLouth hit .190/.298/.322, with 6 HRs and 24 RBI.  He managed a .234 BA in 180 ABs when he was sent to Triple-A.  He struggled from his first at bat in spring training last year, and the Braves are anxious to see how his first at bat goes this spring.

    The Braves need a return to form from McLouth.  While some feel that he is only being brought back because of his contract (ahem, Milton Bradley), the Braves say they are confident he can return to form.  It’s likely the Braves will need to find another top-of-the-order bat, especially if Chipper Jones doesn’t return to health this spring. 

    It may be that the Braves’ hopes of competing in the NL East will need a boost from McLouth.

Can the Seattle Mariners Put Up Crooked Numbers?

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    Last year was so bad for the Mariners offense that they’re still recovering.  The Ms scored 513 runs in 2010—100 fewer than the Orioles, which were second to last.  It’s likely that the decision to platoon Milton Bradley with Ken Griffey Jr. at DH was the worst baseball idea since turn-ahead-the-clock uniforms.

    It’s hard to envision this year’s offense improving by much.  The only offseason additions are Jack Cust, Brendan Ryan and Miguel Olivo.  Two Mariners have been arrested in the last two weeks.  Bradley will win a job by virtue of the $12 million he is owed this year, which makes him slightly more overpaid than Oprah.  It gets worse.  Left field will be manned by Michael Sanders (.218 BA in 2011), the catchers are someone named Adam Moore and someone else named Rob Johnson, and Josh Wilson will back up Jack Wilson at SS. 

    The only hope will come this spring.  Will Ichiro score more than two runs per week?  Will the Mariners most consistent hitter be someone besides Franklin Gutierrez?  Can the Mariners score more than three runs per game this spring?

Which Javier Vazquez Did the Marlins Sign?

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    Will it be the Vazquez of 2009 or 2010?  Vazquez lost several miles per hour off of his fastball last year, and with 13 seasons and over 2,600 innings pitched in his career, it might be that Vazquez saw his last good year in 2009 with the Braves. 

    Then again, maybe 2010 was an anomaly. Vazquez has twice fallen apart in New York, and a return to the NL, far from the spotlight, will give him a great opportunity to resuscitate his career. 

    What are the chances Vazquez’s performance resembles neither of his last two years, and he settles in as the Marlins third starter behind Josh Johnson and Ricky Nolasco?

How does that O’s Offense Look?

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    The Orioles could have chosen from Adam LaRoche, Carlos Pena, Lance Berkman, Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn at first base.  Instead they signed Derrek Lee after all of the above committed elsewhere for 2011.  They could have chosen from Johnny Damon, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, and could still land Vladimir Guerrero at DH.  Instead they’ll again head to spring training with Luke Scott.

    The big acquisition was Mark Reynolds, who failed to hit his weight last year.  He’ll team with Adam Jones, whose OBP was only .325, and Nick Markakis, to form the heart of the Orioles order.

    The Orioles improvement will depend on the improvement of Jones and Markakis, along with the return to health of Brian Roberts, all of whom will need a strong March to continue the Orioles renaissance from the end of 2010.

Will the Rangers Extend Josh Hamilton?

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    There’s still time for the Rangers to re-sign Josh Hamilton to a long-term deal.  The Rangers have a long history of signing arbitration-eligible players, but Hamilton is not just any player.  On one hand he’s the reigning AL MVP and helped lead the team to their greatest season.  On the other, he brings a lengthy history of injury problems and substance abuse, raising questions about the 30-year-old’s endurance.

    Unlike Albert Pujols, Hamilton has yet to earn the big dollars and his desire to sign a multi-year extension could hinder his 2011 performance.  Additionally, Hamilton was hospitalized in January for a week with pneumonia and has yet to resume workouts.  Combine that with his rib injury suffered last August and there are still obstacles—as there always have been—in front of the lefty slugger.

The Time Is Now for the Marlins

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    With Dan Uggla and Fredi Gonzalez gone, who will lead all of the young Marlins hitters this spring?  Let’s recount who will likely start—Mike Stanton will start in left at only 21, Chris Coghlan will play his third position in three years in center field, Logan Morrison will start in left to begin his first full year, Matt Dominguez will probably start at third base, and second-year standout Gaby Sanchez will start at first base. 

    All could wind up leading the Marlins to the next level, but they’ll have to develop fast against the tough starters they’ll face in the NL East.  Maybe Hanley Ramirez will finally develop as the team leader the Marlins have hoped he would become.

    Ramirez dipped to .300 last year, after hitting .342 the year before, and his apparent lack of hustle may have expedited Fredi Gonzalez out of town.  Renewed energy from Ramirez and the development of the young bats could be a great sign for a team that won 87 games only two years ago.

Can Freddie Freeman Be the Everyday 1B for the Braves?

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    The Braves are handing the first base job to Freeman this spring, and he seems ready to take it.  Freeman hit .319 last year in the minors with 35 doubles, 18 homers, and 87 RBIs.  He’s a plus-plus defensive player who is highly polished at only 21 and could fit in nicely with Jason Heyward for years to come in the middle of the Braves lineup.

    But questions remain that Freeman lacks the upside of Heyward.  Freeman was recently named the 43rd best prospect in baseball by one scout and others say he lacks the tools to be the star the Braves hope he will be.

    So which Freeman will show up this spring?  If Freeman is handling breaking pitches and not striking out too much, he could provide instant value to the Braves.

Now Pitching for the Tampa Bay Rays

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    Ever seen a team lose its entire bullpen in an offseason?  The Twins lost four relievers from last year, but that’s nothing compared to the Rays who return only one of their top eight relievers by innings pitched—Andy Sonnanstine.  So who will close games?  For that matter, who will take the set-up role, long-relief, lefty specialist, mop-up role…

    Manager Joe Maddon doesn’t know those answers as the Rays head to spring training.  It’s possible J.P Howell will return to close, though the Rays signed Kyle Farnsworth, who has closer experience.  Rookie Jake McGee is a top prospect and could make the team as a reliever.  The Rays signed Joel Peralta, who is 34 and had his best year in the majors last year with the Nationals.

    It will be a genuine open competition for innings this spring for the Rays.

Can Francisco Liriano Be the Ace the Twins Need?

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    Regardless of the outcome of his arbitration hearing later this week, Liriano will enter the spring as the fourth-highest paid Twin hurler, behind Matt Capps.  He will certainly receive a pay cut from his $7.7 million salary last year and, unless something changes, it seems highly likely that he’ll sign another one-year deal.

    This for the pitcher most essential to the Twins’ return to the AL Central summit.  Twins’ management and Liriano have a history of not seeing eye-to-eye, since the days of his lengthy rehab from Tommy John surgery in 2006, which he spent recovering at home in the Dominican Republic instead of working out in Minnesota. 

    Liriano was as consistent as ever in 2010, riding his dominant slider and sneaky delivery to 14 wins.  His continued improvement and another healthy year might make him a candidate to be the AL’s breakout pitcher, with a year like another 26-year-old Dominican with dominant stuff—Ubaldo Jimenez.

Hello, Vladimir Guerrero

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    Does anyone remember when Guerrero was ahead of Johnny Damon, Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome in the DH sweepstakes this offseason? Vlad had his best year since 2007, and not only because he stayed healthy.  The knock on Vlad is that he’s injury-prone, but he’s played fewer than 143 games only once in the last five years. 

    It might be that he has the worst agent in baseball.  Guerrero made $6.5 million last year and was seeking $8 million per year for two years.  Now it’s unlikely he’ll earn the $5 million that Johnny Damon will for signing with the Rays.

    Recent reports have the Orioles offering a one-year deal, and it’s likely that Vlad in cozy Camden Yards could pick up where he left off in 2010.  But it’s just as likely he’ll enter the spring without a team.

Can Grady Sizemore Come Back?

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    Sizemore has played only 139 games in the last two years and hasn’t hit a homerun since 2009.  His return from microfracture surgery in his knee has been painfully slow, and the Indians are only hopeful that he will return to the field this spring.  He may never combine the speed and power that he did in 2008, when he hit 33 HR and stole 38 bases, while playing above-average defense in center for the Tribe.

    The general timetable is Opening Day for Sizemore.  But he has yet to test his knee under game conditions and there is little precedent for microfracture recovery in the big leagues.  All eyes in Indians camp will be watching Sizemore’s spring closely.

Is Starlin Castro a Star Right Now?

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    Only two other 20-year-olds have had a season like Catsro’s 2010, in which they surpassed Castro's batting average (.300), on-base percentage (.347) and slugging percentage (.408).   They are Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez.  Castro also played above average defense for the Cubs and showed off a Shawon Dunston-like arm from deep in the 5.5 hole.

    Was it a fluke or was it only the beginning?  Castro’s condition and focus at the plate could be critical to the Cubs’ chances this year.  If Castro can repeat his 2010 production, he could be counted on at the top of the order.  The Cubs have lacked a leadoff hitter since Kenny Lofton in 2003 (remember 2003, Cubs fans?).

    Castro will finally be able to legally drink near the end of spring training.  I would disclose his birthday, but it probably would hurt your feelings.  Relying on someone so young might be foolish, but it could work for the Cubs.

How About That Rays Infield?

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    Think you have money problems?  Try being the Tampa front office.  Johnny Damon will likely enter the spring as the highest paid Ray.  Dan Johnson and Sean Rodriguez could be the left side of the Rays’ infield.  The second highest returning run producer will be Ben Zobrist, with 75 RBI.

    The Rays are well-versed at rebuilding projects.  But they are not accustomed to rebuilding on the fly.  Their twin signings of Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon may have raised eyebrows, but it’s likely they’ll both open the season as regulars, with Damon in left and Ramirez the DH.

    It’s hard to imagine a playoff team with more questions entering the following spring.  The emergence of top prospect Damon Jennings could allow Damon to be the fourth outfielder or Ben Zobrist to take over at 1B.

Ryan Braun for MVP

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    It’s hard to believe Ryan Braun doesn’t get more attention, but it’s easy to imagine that changing this spring.  Braun is a three-time starter for the NL All-Star squad.  He has led the NL in multi-hit games for two straight years.  He has more extra-base hits than anyone (that’s right, anyone) over the last three seasons. 

    There’s only enough attention for one hitter in Milwaukee and that goes to Prince Fielder.  But Braun has superior career numbers across the board and his power swing is just as pretty.  His 2010 was an “off” season but he still hit 25 HRs with 104 RBI, while dropping his K rate for the third straight year. 

    All of the attention in the division is on free agents-to-be Fielder and Albert Pujols, while the new arms in Brewer-land will get the remainder of the publicity this spring.  But the Brewers will go nowhere without Braun anchoring the lineup.

Is Josh Johnson Healthy and Throwing Mid-90s Gas?

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    What’s stopping Josh Johnson from being the best pitcher in the NL?  It’s easy to ask that question when you watch him pitch.  He has mid-90s heat, a dominant slider and a nasty change-up—a similar arsenal to Johan Santana five years ago, except built around a 6'7" frame.

    Health has been the biggest obstacle for Johnson, who was shut down in September with a shoulder injury.  It was the latest injury for Johnson, who overcame Tommy John surgery in 2007, and has since gone 33-12.  Last year, Johnson strung together 13 consecutive starts with two or fewer runs allowed.  He also led the league with a 2.30 ERA.

    So what’s stopping him?  A dominant spring could catapult him to the top of the early Cy Young chatter.

Are Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello Throwing Strikes?

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    Scherzer’s strong second half in 2010 and Porcello’s strong 2009 make them likely candidates to fall in behind Justin Verlander in the Tigers’ rotation.  But their inconsistent pasts make them the key to the Tigers pitching success in 2011.

    After adding Victor Martinez and re-signing every free agent (except Johnny Damon), there are no questions about the lineup.  But can Scherzer throw strikes as consistently as he did after his recall from the minors last summer, after which he went 10-7 with a 1.15 WHIP.  Meanwhile, Porcello showed uncanny poise for a 20-year-old rookie in ’09, winning 14 games. 

    Their continued development this spring will signal a big year for the Tigers.  But setbacks by either hurler would mean a lot of pressure on Phil Coke and Brad Penny for a team with championship aspirations.

Oh, Saltalamacchia

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    Jarrod Saltalamacchia has struggled with injuries and confidence for three years since being sent to Texas in the Mark Teixeira deal.  That has not stopped the Red Sox from tabbing the young slugger to split time behind the plate with 39-year-old Jason Varitek, meaning he’ll likely get the balance of the work at catcher.

    The Red Sox showed a great deal of faith in Salty after not re-signing Victor Martinez or bringing in a veteran like Rod Barajas or Bengie Molina.  Worst case scenario has Salty struggling defensively, skipping the toss back to the pitcher (as he has been known to do), and having trouble calling games for the Red Sox staff.

    And it could get worse.  The Red Sox have gone into full Steinbrenner mode this offseason, making it unusual that they didn’t address the catcher position.  A solid spring from Salty could quickly get his career on track.

Will Jeff Francis Start Opening Day?

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    The Royals might enter spring training with the worst rotation in the history of rotations.  Francis will battle Luke Hochevar, Sean O’Sullivan, Kyle Davies and Vin Mazzaro to see who gets the Opening Day nod.  Given their track record and upside, it is possible that only Hochevar and Mazzaro will remain with the Royals next year, by when they hope to have brought up prospects Mike Montgomery, John Lamb and Danny Duffy. 

    Does the Jeff Francis signing ring a bell, Royals fans?  The Royals only recently have gone with a youth movement, but they have a long history of signing bargain basement vets to eat innings (hello, Scott Elarton and Brett Tomko). 

    The real question for Royals fans is how many days until spring training in 2012.

Can K-Rod Harnesses His Rage?

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    Carlos Zambrano wasn’t the only NL hurler with a case of the crazies in 2010.  Francisco Rodriguez cut off his relationship with his girlfriend by cutting a ligament in his pitching thumb.  The bizarre scene ended in K-Rod's arrest and ended his 2010 campaign.

    The Mets need K-Rod and K-Rod needs the Mets, like a bad co-dependent relationship.  K-Rod had 25 saves and a 1.15 WHIP prior to the injury/arrest in 2010, and a return to form this spring will be a great sign for the Mets, which will need a strong bullpen to compensate for the questions in the rotation.

Can Don Mattingly Help Get the Dodgers Back on Track?

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    In 2009, a talented, young core of Dodgers players were among the most heralded in baseball, leading the club to consecutive NLCS appearances.  They were led by Matt Kemp, James Loney, Russell Martin, Jonathan Broxton, Chad Billingsley and Andre Ethier.  Dodgers’ brass resisted the temptation to offer any of them in a deal for veteran stars, choosing instead to stand pat and watch the core grow together.

    Fast forward to 2010.  The club seemed disinterested at times and stumbled to finish below .500.  The offense scored 113 fewer runs and the Dodgers hit only 120 HRs, second-lowest total in the NL.  Both Kemp and Ethier struggled and Loney’s slugging percentage dropped for the fourth consecutive year.   Jonathan Broxton and Russell Martin got hurt, and Martin wound up signing with the Yankees.

    Enter Don Mattingly, who appears to have the respect of the players and the experience to get their attention.  He is the former batting champ who could rekindle a waning Dodgers offense, as Manny Ramirez did two years ago.  A focused core of not-so-young hitters this spring will set the tone for 2011 in Dodgertown.

Will Rockies Pitchers Get Groundball Outs?

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    One thing that is clear about pitching in Colorado is that flyball pitchers usually fail,  which is why Ubaldo Jimenez was so successful in 2010.  Jimenez throws consistently harder than any starter in baseball (a 96.1 MPH average) and keeps the ball down.  Jhoulys Chacin throws a fastball with a lot of sink and Jorge De La Rosa combines above-average command with an ability to induce grounders.

    The Rockies were 12th in ERA last year despite having a 19-game winner, a 14-game winner, and a dominant closer, and the secret for improvement might be in the groundball.  An improved pitching staff is all that keeps the Rockies from competing with the Giants in the NL West.

Where Are Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman?

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    The Astros definitely got younger, replacing long-time faces-of-the-franchise Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt with Brett Wallace and J.A. Happ.  They also replaced Pedro Feliz with Chris Johnson, making the Astros among the youngest clubs in baseball.  The youth movement seemed to work late in 2010, as the Astros posted a 40-33 record after the All-Star break, good for fourth best in the National League in the second half. 

    S what is the Astros identity now?  It’s not offense, as the Astros finished 28th in the majors in runs (just 3.8 per game), and last in HRs (108).  It might not be pitching, where the Astros will be led by Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers, with a significant drop-off from there. 

    This spring the Astros will need to define the type of team they want to field.  They have seen attendance drop for five straight years since winning the NL pennant in 2005.  They no longer have their core players fans relied on for excitement.  Will the Astros redefine themselves in 2011, and will it begin this spring?

Can Victor Martinez Catch Everyday?

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    The answer is probably no, but the Tigers may head north with only two catchers on the roster, the other being Alex Avila.  Martinez has struggled behind the plate and does not excel at calling a game, which may be why the Red Sox felt he was expendable.  But playing Martinez at catcher would allow Magglio Ordonez or Carlos Guillen to DH, where both are obviously more comfortable at this stage in each of their careers.

    The catcher question will be one of the few up for grabs this spring for the Tigers, a team that appears set at every other position. 

Will Carlos Beltran Play Center?

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    And will he play for the Mets all season?  That question will be decided during the season, but for now, new manager Terry Collins says he will give the oft-injured Beltran a chance to win the job he has held since signing with the Mets six years ago.  It will be clear early in Port St. Lucie if Collins will stick to his plan or return the job to Angel Pagan who handled the job superbly in Beltran’s absence last year.

    Would Beltran accept a move to right field to make room for Pagan?  He has played center throughout his career and may not be willing to move under Collins, who is not exactly the players’ manager that former skipper Jerry Manuel tended to be.  However, Beltran appeared to have lost a step once he returned from knee surgery last July.  His conditioning and continued recovery would be a huge step in the right direction for the Mets.

Will Brett Anderson Be the A’s Ace?

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    The young lefty compiled a 2.80 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP in an injury-shortened 2010, after winning 11 games the year before.  Still only 22, Anderson has always pitched with lofty expectations, and it’s likely the post-hype hype will continue into this spring, as the A’s appear capable of winning the AL West for the first time in Anderson’s short career

    Anderson is the anti-phenom.  The expectations are based primarily on his mental makeup and low-90s heat.  He is the son of a baseball coach and his preparation and maturity are what make him a future star.  The A’s will need him to take the next step in his development this spring to battle the Rangers heading into the season.

Neftali Feliz in the Rotation

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    Recently, Ron Washington told a reporter that the Rangers would give Feliz a shot at starting this spring.  Nolan Ryan said at Rangers’ Fan Fest that they would: “see how he handles it and see how his breaking ball and his changeup are, and then we'll make a decision.” 

    Feliz’s role could depend on other decisions this spring, including Brandon Webb’s comeback and Alexi Ogando’s development into a big league pitcher.  The team traded its only other experienced closer, Frank Francisco, last week.

    The Rangers could need Feliz back in the closers role, where he dominated at times.  But they could also need him in the rotation, where they have long felt he could develop the arsenal of pitches necessary to be among the best young arms.  Will he go Papelbon or Wainwright this spring?

Can Jake Peavy Throw a Baseball?

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    With Jake Peavy on track to resume throwing this spring, it’s easy to forget how serious his injury last July was.  He basically detached a large muscle in his shoulder from the bone to which it was connected.  Scouts for years had predicted major injury for Peavy due to his awkward mechanics, and it’s possible the Padres traded him in part for this reason. 

    The White Sox are among the few teams with a surplus of starting pitching, and Peavy will not be rushed back.  Manager Ozzie Guillen says Peavy has resumed light throwing and may be ready for Opening Day.  He doesn’t know.  Nobody on the South Side knows, including Peavy himself, and doubts are looming, as they did for Brandon Webb last year.

    Which is why this spring will be pivotal for his recovery.  Peavy will spend the spring strengthening his shoulder and crossing his fingers.