Scott Miller's Starting 9: 56 Reasons to Pay Attention in Spring TrainingFebruary 17, 2016
From Spotlight to The Big Short, we've seen most of the Oscar contenders (loved both of those, not so hip on The Martian). From Kendrick Lamar to Alabama Shakes, we tracked the Grammys from start to finish the other night.
Hey, what else has there been to do? As Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby once famously said, "People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring."
So enough with the Supreme Court bickering. Surely, we can all agree on sunshine, (Tampa Bay) Rays, sunblock and Sonny Gray, can't we? Finally, pitchers and catchers are trickling into camps this week. And you bet I have some nominations...
1. Top Five Spring Storylines
A loaf of bread cost a nickel, and a dozen eggs cost 14 cents in 1908. Consider yourself ahead of the curve; you'll need this information when the first thing on this list happens...
The Chicago Cubs as World Series Favorites: The question has been asked many times before, but rarely with this much fervor: Is this the year the Chicago Cubs win their first World Series since 1908? True, last time we saw the Cubs, they were getting schooled by the Mets in October. But Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber are another year older, John Lackey provides rotation depth behind Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester, and Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist are perfect pieces for this team. Chicago won 97 games last year and should be better this year. Bonus: The Wrigley Field bleachers will be open from Opening Day this year!
Generation Next: From Bryant, Schwarber and Russell to Carlos Correa (Astros) to Francisco Lindor (Indians) to Matt Duffy (Giants) to Miguel Sano (Twins), Joc Pederson (Dodgers) and Delino DeShields (Rangers) and beyond, last year's rookie class was one of the best ever. Which means, it's going to be some kind of fun watching them continue to develop this year. "It's not just one or a couple, but the depth of them," Atlanta Braves president John Schuerholz told B/R in November. "That is so good for the future." Toss in this year's crop of potential rookie impact players (see item No. 6) and you could spend much of your spring learning the new guys.
Red Sox and Yankees Join Bullpen Arms Race: Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right? So the Kansas City Royals are blushing. Boston and New York each took a page from the Royals' strong bullpen championship playbook, adding Craig Kimbrel (Red Sox) and Aroldis Chapman (Yankees) to already lethal bullpens. Hitters from Tampa Bay, Toronto and Baltimore may need protective earplugs at the plate in the late innings against the Yanks given the heater sizzle from Chapman, Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller. And Kimbrel's addition bumps Koji Uehara back to the eighth inning and Junichi Tazawa to the seventh in Boston. Both clubs are stronger in 2016, in no small part because of their bullpens.
Dodgers Look to New Manager as Yasiel Puig Whisperer: There is a decidedly new look in Los Angeles with Don Mattingly, Zack Greinke and Jimmy Rollins gone. Among the things that have not changed: The mercurial Puig remains more important to the Dodgers winning than even they sometimes would like to admit, which is one enormous responsibility that falls on new manager Dave Roberts. He must establish relationships quickly this spring, and few will be more important than whether he can connect with and earn the respect of Puig.
Surprise, Surprise (Or: The Royals Way): Sabermetrics hates the Kansas City Royals. Hates them. This year, our friends at Baseball Prospectus (and they are our friends; we are not anti-Sabermetrics) project in their PECOTA system that the Royals will finish 76-86. Last year, Baseball Prospectus predicted Kansas City to finish 72-90, and all the Royals did was win their first World Series since 1985. All I know is this: If you want to travel to see the elite this spring, head straight to Surprise, Arizona, where the Royals and Texas Rangers train. Since 2010, four of the six AL pennant winners have sprung from Surprise (Texas in 2010 and 2011, Kansas City in 2014 and 2015).
2. Top Five Off-The-Field Spring Storylines
Clear the monkey bars for playground scraps...
On Designated Hitters, Drafts and Tanking: What do all of those things have in common? The backdrop for this season will be the labor negotiations between owners and players working for a new Basic Agreement. The current one ends after this season, and once upon a time, that surely meant strike or lockout. But after eight work stoppages in 22 years, the game currently is rolling through its 21st consecutive season of labor peace. Commissioner Rob Manfred and players' union boss Tony Clark will work toward keeping that streak alive, and given that the game currently is generating roughly $9 billion in revenues annually, they should be able to come to terms. Biggest current issues: a potential international draft, the continued tweaking of revenue sharing and luxury tax, whether to expand the DH into the NL and the growing number of clubs strip-mining their major league teams while massively rebuilding (hello, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Atlanta).
Discipline Czar: Under a still-new domestic abuse policy, commissioner Rob Manfred and MLB currently are investigating three players for indiscretions: Jose Reyes (Rockies), Aroldis Chapman (Yankees) and Yasiel Puig (Dodgers). The hope is to have everything wrapped up before the start of spring camps, though realistically things could go into March. The terms of punishment (Suspensions? How long?) will be watched by everybody in these precedent-setting cases.
David Ortiz Farewell Tour: Boston's legendary DH is retiring at season's end. No word on whether he has consulted with Derek Jeter on how to stage a home finale that includes as much drama, entertainment, tears and lumps in the throat as your average college commencement week. So, beginning in Fort Myers next week, everything Ortiz does will be…all together now…for…the…last…time.
Will the Washington Nationals need a referee for their clubhouse? Proving he has as much use for chemistry as I did in high school, Nats general manager Mike Rizzo flat out ignored it by shipping ex-closer Drew Storen to Toronto over the winter while keeping closer Jonathan Papelbon. Now, maybe you noticed that the last time we saw Papelbon, he had his hands wrapped around the neck of NL MVP-in-waiting Bryce Harper. The two have made nice since, but here's fair warning: If the Nationals misbehave again this summer, we're sending in Ronda Rousey to knock some heads together.
Year of the Monkey: No offense to the Chinese or their New Year, and especially no offense to the esteemed monkey (always the best attraction at any zoo, easily), but…screw the calendar. The San Francisco Giants will contend again, and forget that even-year horse stuffing. Maybe all the Giants do in their clubhouse is spin the excellently titled J. Geils Band album You're Gettin' Even While I'm Gettin' Odd. But it ain't that simple or well-planned. What is well-planned this year is adding outfielder/leadoff man Denard Span and starters Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija. Manager Bruce Bochy and fabulous pitching coach Dave Righetti again have some tools at their disposal.
3. Five Key Offseason Changes
Hey, what are we all going to do when we don't have the Mets to kick around anymore?
Mets Whip Out the Checkbook: OK, so maybe they didn't quite whip it out. So, perhaps Yoenis Cespedes (three years, $75 million) fell back into their laps as if there was some sort of gravitational pull. Whatever. With Cespedes back and young outfielder Michael Conforto set to break out, and with the game's best young rotation (Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz) in place, New York sets out to prove there is more in Queens where last year came from. New middle infielders Neil Walker (second base) and Asdrubal Cabrera (shortstop) add intrigue, but will they add defense, too?
White Sox Make Their Move: Todd Frazier's power at third base is a very interesting addition for a Chicago team that, frankly, should have been far more interesting than it was last year. The Sox have the ace they need in Chris Sale, a potential next ace in Carlos Rodon, the hope that center fielder Adam Eaton won't kill them again with another slow start and a new catcher in former Tiger Alex Avila. They could win what could be baseball's best division.
Albert Pujols Turns 36: It happened on Jan. 16. To the tune of "Happy Birthday," can you sing "Mike Trout's Prime Continues to Fritter Away"? Pujols probably will start the season on the disabled list following right foot surgery. In the meantime, the three players expected to vie for playing time in left field—Daniel Nava, Craig Gentry and Todd Cunningham—combined for one major league home run last year. It is easy to foresee the Angels thudding to fourth in the AL West this year behind Houston, Texas and Seattle.
Cubs Make Brilliant $184 Million Investment in Jason Heyward: Lots of armchair bankers were outraged at handing this kind of dough to a man who essentially is good for maybe 13 or 14 homers a summer. But here's the deal: Different markets have different needs. For a club in desperate need of the long ball, it would have been bat-crap crazy to give Heyward that kind of cake. But in Wrigley Field, the Cubs already have bashers Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler. What they need is a guy who is as good at getting on base as Taylor Swift is at cranking out hits. Heyward's career on-base percentage is .353. Perfect. Plus, though he's played 239 more major league games than Rizzo, Heyward actually is one day younger than the Cubs first baseman. He fits, long-term, with this killer core of young players.
Houston Does Not Have a Problem, So Get Over It: For my money, one of the most underrated signings of the winter was the Astros adding starter Doug Fister for one year and $7 million. Granted, Fister was as disappointing as the Nationals (from where he came) last summer, but he battled injuries and never could get liftoff. A healthy Fister brings a heavy sinker, and Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa should gobble up ground ball after ground ball. The rotation depth here is immense: Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers Jr. (a breakout star waiting to happen), Collin McHugh, Scott Feldman and Mike Fiers. The position players are young and talented. Oh, to be manager A.J. Hinch.
4. Five Most Improved Teams
Snakeskin boots, anyone?
Diamondbacks: Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller dramatically improve manager Chip Hale's rotation. Paul Goldschmidt is to Arizona what Albert Pujols was to St. Louis a decade ago. A.J. Pollock finished 10th in MVP voting last year. Yasmany Tomas began to find his feet as an outfielder last year after he was shaky at third base. And the Dodgers are weaker without Greinke. Make no mistake: Arizona can contend in the NL West this summer.
Red Sox: Who would have ever dreamed Boston would finish last in the AL East in three of the past four seasons (the one notable exception being its 2013 World Series title year)? New boss Dave Dombrowski stayed in character from his Detroit years by adding a legit ace (David Price), something last year's Red Sox severely lacked. The rotation is better, and the bullpen is better with closer Craig Kimbrel and setup man Carson Smith (acquired from Seattle). And though Hanley Ramirez still could prove to be a problem, the Sox are better with him at first base this year than in left field (where Rusney Castillo should play).
Indians: The emergence of shortstop Francisco Lindor changes the tone of both the infield and the Indians. And despite those crazy winter rumors that perhaps Cleveland would trade from a position of strength—its rotation—to add a bat, thankfully it kept Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer, Cody Anderson, et al. intact. The right manager is here in Terry Francona, and a lot should go right in Cleveland in 2016.
Marlins: Ace Jose Fernandez should be in place from Opening Day, which right there makes Miami better than it was to start last year. Presumably, Giancarlo Stanton will play in more than the 74 games he was in in 2015. Kudos, too, on the addition of Wei-Yin Chen, and don't forget, the Marlins should pick up a lot of W's against rebuilding Atlanta and Philadelphia.
Tigers: Jordan Zimmermann boosts the rotation, Francisco "K-Rod" Rodriguez just might be the closer they've been lacking in Motown seemingly since Willie Hernandez, and outfielder Justin Upton adds timber to a lineup already featuring Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, J.D. Martinez and Ian Kinsler. Not sure that it will be enough to see October again, as the AL Central is baseball's best and most challenging division. But the Tigers should be way better than last year's 74-87.
5. Five Least Improved Teams
Why, how dare the St. Louis Cardinals make this list...
Orioles: Dodged a major hole by re-signing slugging first baseman Chris Davis, but where is the pitching going to come from? Once again, manager Buck Showalter is going to have to pull rabbits out of hats, wave his magic wand and travel a magician's path down the run prevention road.
Cardinals: For the first time in years, St. Louis doesn't begin spring training as the king of the hill in the NL Central. Yes, the Cards are defending champs (what's new?), but this winter weakened them. They lost Jason Heyward and starter John Lackey to the rival Cubs. Yadier Molina is recovering from thumb surgery. Starter Lance Lynn will miss 2016 following Tommy John ligament surgery. And the Cubs are on the rise.
Pirates: It is difficult not to feel awful for these guys, having watched Pittsburgh lose the one-game Wild Card play-in at home in each of the past two seasons. And before that, the Buccos were bounced by St. Louis in the 2013 NL Division Series. We'll see if starter Jonathon Niese can be one of those classically quiet Pittsburgh additions that works (very well could be). And we'll see if John Jaso and Michael Morse can render the memory of Pedro Alvarez at first base nonexistent (maybe). Otherwise, manager Clint Hurdle will be counting on a strong farm system to produce (keep an eye on the development of second baseman Alen Hanson and starter Tyler Glasnow).
Blue Jays: Two enormous losses from last year's thrilling team: ace David Price and can-do general manager Alex Anthopoulos. Stay tuned.
Braves: But, hey, we're talking about 2016 right now. Given the haul they received from Arizona for starter Shelby Miller, they could land on our Most Improved list next season. Let's see how quickly shortstop Dansby Swanson develops.
6. Five Rookies on the Verge
Workin' on our night moves, sang onetime up-and-coming rookie Bob Seger...
Corey Seager, Dodgers: We got a glimpse of him late last year, but the entire package should show up this summer. Internally, the Dodgers have been higher on him than even Joc Pederson. Can't wait to watch.
Byron Buxton, Twins: What last year's tepid debut did was give Buxton a taste of what to expect. Minnesota traded Aaron Hicks during the winter, and now center field is wide open for Buxton, who is a slam-dunk future star.
Steven Matz, Mets: The latest in the New York Mets' assembly line of young studs in the rotation.
Joey Gallo, Rangers: He hits 'em a mile. But can he cut down on those strikeouts (57 in 108 at-bats with Texas last summer)?
Trea Turner, Nationals: Is he ready to take over and thrive at shortstop? The Nationals bid farewell to Ian Desmond and are ready to hand shortstop on a tray to Trea (get it?) if he has a good spring.
7. Five Key Comebacks
Ice, ibuprofen and Godspeed (and careful counters will notice I've slipped six into this category)...
Yadier Molina, Cardinals: The Cards' heart, soul and quarterback is recovering from offseason surgery on his left thumb. The last man to start at catcher on a St. Louis Opening Day not named Yadier Molina? How about Mike Matheny, way back in 2004.
Adam Wainwright, Cardinals: Though he pitched three games in relief late last season after blowing out an Achilles tendon last April, the St. Louis ace still qualifies as being on the comeback trail this spring because he hasn't started a game since last April 25. The Cards lost John Lackey to free agency, and though they did sign free agent Mike Leake, Wainwright obviously is a huge key.
CC Sabathia, Yankees: Between regression on the field and Sabathia entering an alcohol rehabilitation program near the end of last season, many eyes will be on the big lefty this spring.
Marcus Stroman, Blue Jays: Call this the Continuation Comeback. Stroman blew out his left knee last March during a simple spring fielding drill, then stunned the baseball world by ignoring doctors who said he'd miss the entire season by returning in September. He went 4-0 with a 1.67 ERA for Toronto in four starts last September, then made three starts in the postseason. With David Price gone, Stroman is enormously important to Toronto. With a full spring behind him, 2016 could be very interesting.
Yu Darvish, Rangers: Mending from Tommy John ligament transfer surgery last March 17, Darvish is expected back in late May or early June. Given that the Rangers won the AL West last year, his pairing with ace Cole Hamels in the second half of 2016 could make for an unbeatable combination.
Zack Wheeler, Mets: Like Darvish, Wheeler is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and is expected back around July 1. With the Mets' young pitching already carrying them to the World Series last year without Wheeler, his return could pay huge dividends.
8. Five Managers on the Griddle
Please pass the pure Vermont maple syrup….
Robin Ventura, White Sox: Time to win this summer after a highly disappointing 2015 that led to questions regarding whether Ventura has enough fire for the job.
Fredi Gonzalez, Braves: Very well liked in Atlanta, but the Braves also are in a major overhaul, and they're not going to win many games. Sometimes it takes a gymnast to survive those circumstances.
Brad Ausmus, Tigers: Much like Ventura's White Sox, the Tigers disappointed last year, and expectations are high this season. There are those who were surprised new Detroit general manager Al Avila brought Ausmus back for 2016. Much of what went on (injuries especially) last year was not the fault of Ausmus. Doesn't mean the heat won't continue to creep up this summer.
Walt Weiss, Rockies: Colorado is a mess. Right now, Connie Mack couldn't figure this one out.
Bryan Price, Reds: Hopefully, Price can avoid another epic meltdown this summer as he helplessly watches his outmanned team.
9. Spring Power Rankings
Where you don't need no stinking alarm clocks...
1. Sunblock: Careful, nothing can ruin spring camp for players and fans like a five-alarm sunburn.
2. Satellite Radio: Especially in Florida, where sometimes you drive two or three hours to the next camp, it's a necessity. Besides, you've got to do your spring research, right? So tune to MLB Network Radio and Bleacher Report Radio, and you're set.
3. Baseball Prospectus 2016 Annual: In the old days, it was Street and Smith's, right? Look it up, kids. Now, this heavyweight paperback is the key item to travel with.
4. Flip Flops: Because, you know, the vibe is relaxed, and you've gotta be comfortable.
5. Yelp: Because you've gotta research where you're going to have dinner. Though, because we're a full-service spring preview, read on for just a few tips...
9(a). Five Grapefruit League Eats
And if you want to toss in Le Tub down in Hollywood, Florida, a former Sunoco station on the Intracoastal Waterway that serves great burgers and peel-and-eat shrimp, go right ahead….
Frenchy's, Clearwater Beach: With a grouper sandwich in hand, the sand at your feet and the Gulf of Mexico close enough to reach out and touch, this isn't Iowa; this is heaven.
Harry's Seafood Bar and Grille, Lakeland: Located in the old part of town that brings to mind the Old South, the Cajun food here is terrific. Jambalaya, Shrimp Creole, red beans and rice with smoked sausage...I recommend all of it.
Nino's Italian, Fort Myers: An old standard located close to the Twins' camp and not far from Boston's camp, the food here is fresh and comes in large portions. Added bonus: The basket of garlic knots that comes with your salad. Say hello to owner Graziano when you stop in.
Leftovers Café, Jupiter: You'll see plenty of Cardinals and Marlins stop by throughout the spring. And do you know what many of them are after? The sweet potato-encrusted sea bass. Mmm.
Roy's, Tampa: I normally avoid chain restaurants, but this one is so good, and the Tampa location is so convenient to the Yankees camp, it's worth the trip. I've seen Reggie Jackson in here, Goose Gossage and many, many others. The Misoyaki "Butterfish" is great. The Blackened Island Ahi is mouthwatering. And, oh, my goodness, the Melting Hot Chocolate Souffle will send you to sleep smiling and dreaming of watching Masahiro Tanaka in action the next day.
9(b). Five Cactus League Eats
Did I mention Oregano's Pizza on this list? I didn't? There's just not enough room!
Richardson's, Phoenix: Home of the Green Chili Potato, Roasted Pork Mole and enough fresh fish to keep you swimming back for years, this place specializes in "Cuisine of New Mexico." A Cactus League favorite for years.
Tee Pee Mexican Food, Phoenix: A total dive in the very best way. Good eats, large portions, cold drinks, lots of televisions. Perfect place to lose yourself in chips and salsa and March Madness games following an afternoon at the ballpark.
Pizzeria Bianco, Phoenix: This place exploded when Oprah raved about it as the best pizza in America a few years ago. Hard to live up to that, but now that the wait isn't an hour or more every day, it's definitely worth a visit. Great crust, good sauce, interesting pizzas (I like the Wiseguy Pizza, which has wood-roasted onion, house smoked mozzarella and fennel sausage) and located in a cool, old historical building.
Culinary Dropout, Scottsdale: A standby of my annual list—how can you remove a place with the coolest name of all? The cheese fondue and pretzel dish always is a worthy appetizer. The fried chicken and biscuits are good, as is the meatloaf and several other gems.
Italian Grotto, Scottsdale: Perfect place to end a day of baseball: Scouts and broadcasters flock here, and it's no wonder. Gary, the owner, is a huge baseball fan who knows them all.
9c. Rock 'n' Roll Lyric of the Week
That time of year...
"Pale invaders and tanned crusaders
"Are worshipping the sun
"On the corner of 'walk' and 'don't walk'
"Somewhere on US 1
"I'm back to livin' Floridays
"Blue skies and ultra-violet rays
"Lookin' for better days"
-- Jimmy Buffett, Floridays
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.