Biggest Decisions That Must Be Made by Opening Day

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistFebruary 21, 2017

Biggest Decisions That Must Be Made by Opening Day

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    Cubs star Kyle Schwarber
    Cubs star Kyle SchwarberNam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    On the surface, spring training is a leisurely affair. Scores and stats don't matter much. The sun is shining. The birds are chirping. Ahhh.

    There's a serious subtext bubbling under the chalk and fresh-cut grass, however. Spring is also a time when choices must be made—real, tough, consequential choices. 

    Trades could be consummated. Players will be demoted and cut. Jobs will be won and lost.

    Every club faces these decisions. Let's run through the biggest that need to be adjudicated before Opening Day, including a former American League MVP on the roster bubble, a young slugger without a position on the defending champs and a troubled franchise in ownership limbo.

Texas Rangers: Make the Call on Josh Hamilton

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    Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    It's been three seasons since Josh Hamilton looked like a big league ballplayer. He didn't play at all last year after undergoing his third knee surgery in the span of nine months. 

    He's in camp with the Texas Rangers on a minor league deal, however, and has a chance to make the 25-man roster as a bat off the bench and possibly even the regular designated hitter.

    The memories are sweet. Between 2008 and 2012, Hamilton made five straight All-Star teams with the Rangers. He won AL MVP honors in 2010. He also battled his share of off-field demons and bolted for the Los Angeles Angels in 2013.

    "It felt good," Hamilton said Tuesday after a reportedly impressive batting practice session, per MLB.com's T.R. Sullivan. "I'm still trying to the feel. Sometimes I jump out at the ball rather than let it travel to me. But it's getting better every day."

    Texas signed Mike Napoli, who can DH as well as play first base, and will also give looks to youngsters Joey Gallo and Jurickson Profar.

    The bottom line is this: At age 35, Hamilton has to earn it.

New York Yankees: Figure Out What to Do with Aaron Judge

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    Rob Leiter/Getty Images

    Aaron Judge finished 2017 with a .179/.263/.345 slash line in 95 MLB plate appearances. He memorably homered in his first at-bat, but he was no Gary Sanchez. 

    The strapping 24-year-old now enters the spring in a competition for the right field job with Aaron Hicks.

    New York Yankees principal owner Hal Steinbrenner threw his weight behind Judge in November.

    "My expectations are he's going to be my starting right fielder this year," Steinbrenner said on the YES Network in November, per Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News. "That's a big deal and a big opportunity. I know he's going to make the most of it."

    Manager Joe Girardi, on the other hand, spoke in less certain terms.

    "I think it's somewhat of an open competition," Girardi said Friday at George M. Steinbrenner Field, the spring facility named for Hal's father, per George A. King III of the New York Post. "Obviously, Aaron Judge came up last year, and at times, he had some good days, and at times, he struggled."

    The Yankees have other pressing items on their exhibition to-do list, such as sorting the starting rotation. Deciding the fate of Judge, though, and figuring out whether he's a piece of the Opening Day puzzle, ranks high. 

Boston Red Sox: Pick a Starting Catcher

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    Boston Red Sox catcher Sandy Leon
    Boston Red Sox catcher Sandy LeonMichael Ivins/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

    The Boston Red Sox have three guys who could reasonably be their Opening Day catcher. That's a good problem to have at a position where top-shelf talent is scarce. 

    Still, it's an issue.

    Sandy Leon made 67 starts behind the dish last season and hit .310 with an .845 OPS. Christian Vazquez made 49 starts and hit just .227, but he rated as the fifth-best pitch framer in the American League, per StatCorner.

    Blake Swihart is also a possibility, though he's the only one of the three with options remaining, which hurts his chances. He's also dealing with throwing issues in spring after getting reps in the outfield last season and suffering a season-ending ankle injury, per Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe.

    "We've got three guys that are fully healthy, that's No. 1, particularly with what Blake went through last year and the surgery in the offseason," manager John Farrell said, per Jason Mastrodonato of the Boston Herald. "But with Sandy, Christian and Blake, yeah we feel really good about the core group that's there. We'll see how things unfold."

Washington Nationals: Choose or Acquire a Closer

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    Washington Nationals right-hander Shawn Kelley
    Washington Nationals right-hander Shawn KelleyDustin Bradford/Getty Images

    The Washington Nationals whiffed on all of the offseason's top free-agent and trade-target closers. Now, they need to make do with what they've got.

    Shawn Kelley, Blake Treinen and Koda Glover headline the in-house options. Then there are non-roster possibilities, including 42-year-old veteran Joe Nathan.

    None of the above is perfect. Kelley has 11 big league saves to his name, Treinen has one, and Glover has zero. Nathan was an elite ninth-inning option in his prime, but there's no telling if he has gas sloshing in the tank.

    The Nats have been linked to Chicago White Sox closer David Robertson, so an outside addition is possible. Washington won't go with a kitchen-sink approach, according to manager Dusty Baker.

    "Most teams like to have one guy," Baker told reporters, "because I just noticed that closer-by-committee really doesn't really work, so I'd like to have my bullpen set up—boom, boom, boom—seventh-inning guy, eighth-inning guy if possible, that's the way the game has gone."

San Francisco Giants: Name a Left Fielder

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    San Francisco Giants outfielder Mac Williamson
    San Francisco Giants outfielder Mac WilliamsonThearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    The San Francisco Giants didn't add a left fielder via free agency or trade this winter.

    Instead, they're relying on the untested tandem of Mac Williamson and Jarrett Parker, with some non-roster spice sprinkled on top.

    The 26-year-old Williamson posted a .223/.315/.411 slash line in 54 games for the Giants last season but boasts an .855 OPS in five MiLB seasons.

    Parker, who turned 28 in January, slashed .236/.358/.394 in 63 games for the Giants in 2016 and has amassed an .823 OPS in six minor league seasons.

    Parker is out of options and Williamson isn't, which means the former could have an edge. The Giants will also consider speedy Gorkys Hernandez, as well as NRIs Michael Morse and Justin Ruggiano.

    It's a roll of the dice at a traditional power position for San Francisco, which is in a win-now window but finished third-to-last in home runs last season.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Make Sense of the Outfield

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    Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder Yasiel Puig
    Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder Yasiel PuigJamie Squire/Getty Images

    Money can't buy you love. Apparently, it also can't buy you clarity in the outfield.

    The Los Angeles Dodgers, baseball's biggest spenders, have a tangled mess in the grass between the foul poles, with no fewer than six players vying for at-bats.

    Center fielder Joc Pederson is the only guy with a reasonable lock on a starting job.

    Mercurial Cuban Yasiel Puig is the ostensible favorite in right, but he was demoted to the minors last season and is always a controversy away from oblivion.

    Left fielder Andrew Toles is a great story, but he's got a scant 115 MLB plate appearances to his name. Trayce Thompson is also untested, and Scott Van Slyke owns a .249 average in 326 big league games.

    Veteran Andre Ethier missed most of 2016 with a broken leg, but he hit .294 with 14 home runs in 2015 and is owed $17.5 million this season.

    That's quite a stew of uncertainty for a team with championship aspirations. It'll be up to the Dodgers to refine the recipe in the Cactus League.

Chicago Cubs: Find a Role for Kyle Schwarber

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Kyle Schwarber could be the Chicago Cubs' third-string catcher. He could be their backup left fielder. 

    That's an issue, because he could also be one of the best power hitters in baseball.

    The 23-year-old has hit 16 home runs in 71 big league games and returned from an early-season knee injury in 2016 to improbably boost the Cubs' title run.

    Now, Chicago needs to find a place for him to play.

    Willson Contreras will get the bulk of the starts behind the dish, backed by veteran Miguel Montero. Ben Zobrist is the primary left fielder, assuming Javier Baez gets increased time at second base.

    It's a conundrum most clubs would kill for, and further proof the Cubbies are baseball's most complete team.

    Still, it makes no sense for an offensive talent like Schwarber to languish on the bench. It'll be up to manager Joe Maddon, king of mix-and-match machinations, to make sure that doesn't happen. 

Chicago White Sox: Decide If They're Done Dealing for Now

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    Chicago White Sox left-hander Jose Quintana
    Chicago White Sox left-hander Jose QuintanaJonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    The Chicago White Sox swung some seismic deals this winter, sending ace Chris Sale to the Red Sox and outfielder Adam Eaton to the Nationals while restocking their farm system in the process.

    They've got more assets to unload, and they could remain active through spring training.

    Left-hander Jose Quintana is an enticing prize for those seeking starting pitching, and most teams are. Robertson, as mentioned, could shore up the back of any bullpen. Third baseman Todd Frazier and second baseman Brett Lawrie have upside, and moving either or both would clear a place for top position prospect Yoan Moncada.

    Blockbuster deals are rare in the spring. Chicago could hold its pieces until the trade deadline and then complete the fire sale.

    Injuries or poor performance could make contenders desperate, though. If so, White Sox general manager Rick Hahn should be waiting by the phone. 

Miami Marlins: To Sell or Not to Sell

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    Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria
    Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey LoriaMarc Serota/Getty Images

    The Miami Marlins are still reeling from the tragic death of ace Jose Fernandez. Now, there's another cloud looming over the franchise.

    Rumors are buzzing that polarizing owner Jeffrey Loria may be selling the team and accepting an ambassadorship to France from President Donald Trump, per Clark Spencer of the Miami Herald.

    "Like I said, there's nothing to talk about," Loria said while leaving the team's spring facility Friday, per Spencer. "When there's news, you'll know it."

    The Fish are accustomed to disharmony; it's been the norm in South Beach for years. 

    If this drama bleeds into the regular season, though, it will create one more distraction the Marlins don't need as they seek to hang with the Nationals and New York Mets in the National League East.

    Loria might not care about that, but the Miami faithful should.

          

    All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and MLB.com unless otherwise noted.