Each MLB Team's Huge Question Heading into Opening Day 2019
In a perfect world, none of the 30 teams in Major League Baseball would have any lingering question marks in the home stretch to Opening Day on March 28.
But when has the world ever been perfect?
We're here to look at each team's biggest unanswered question as a new season looms. Some are as simple as which players are going to fill which roles. Others concern the health and/or playing ability of star players. Still others concern possible roster construction faults.
We'll go in alphabetical order by city.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Who's Catching?
The Arizona Diamondbacks have yet to decide whether Archie Bradley, Greg Holland or Yoshihisa Hirano will be their closer, but that's a competition for a mere label.
The bigger question is what's going on behind the plate. The D-backs seemed ready to carry three catchers, but their signing of Adam Jones presumably equals one fewer roster spot. That could be bad news for Alex Avila, Carson Kelly or John Ryan Murphy.
Kelly, 24, may be safe on account of the rock-solid .792 OPS he's accumulated this spring. Murphy, 27, is an outstanding defender who's out of minor league options. Avila, 32, is coming off a rough 2018 season, but he's boosting his stock with a hot finish to spring training that's boosted his OPS to 1.066.
Whatever the case, the Snakes have a tough call to make.
Atlanta Braves: Is Their Pitching Staff Good Enough?
The Atlanta Braves mostly played it cool with their offseason endeavors. Their pitching staff, in particular, was left completely alone.
That decision isn't aging well. Staff ace Mike Foltynewicz and relievers A.J. Minter and Darren O'Day are ticketed to start 2019 on the injured list, as is top prospect Mike Soroka.
The reigning National League East champs did add a security blanket by signing veteran right-hander Josh Tomlin to a minor league deal Thursday. But if they want to take things even further, they can still add either Dallas Keuchel to their starting rotation or Craig Kimbrel to their bullpen.
By all accounts, the Braves aren't in a rush to sign either of them. That could be a bluff. Or, it could be a sign they're willing to take their chances with what they have rather than spend more money.
In either case, they're taking a chance.
Baltimore Orioles: What's Up with Dylan Bundy?
To put it bluntly, this season doesn't really matter for the Baltimore Orioles.
They lost 115 games in 2018 and subsequently cleaned house and installed new leadership led by general manager Mike Elias. His only real priority for 2019 is acquiring and developing young talent.
The former can be done via trades of what veterans they have left, provided they have any value worth cashing in. To that end, Dylan Bundy is a problem in need of fixing.
As a 26-year-old former top prospect who's under club control through 2021, he should be a shiny trade chip. But he's coming off a 5.45 ERA and 41 homers allowed in 2018 (worst in the majors), and he's now being lit up in spring training. In 17 innings, he's allowed 27 hits and racked up a 7.94 ERA.
Whatever it takes, the Orioles must get him back on track before his value depreciates any further.
Boston Red Sox: Is Their Bullpen Good Enough?
Like the Diamondbacks, the Boston Red Sox also have room for only two of the three catchers they're carrying in spring training.
A far bigger worry, however, is the state of Boston's bullpen.
The Red Sox went into the spring with the notion to let their incumbents silence doubts about the spots vacated by Kimbrel and Joe Kelly. It's not going so well. Neither Matt Barnes nor Ryan Brasier nor Tyler Thornburg has had a spring to write home about.
According to Chris Cotillo of MassLive.com, Red Sox chairman Tom Werner said in February that a reunion with Kimbrel was "extremely unlikely." The luxury tax implications would be severe, yet the Red Sox could nonetheless change that in a hurry if they wanted to.
It's either that or they can throw spring results to the wind and take their chances.
Chicago Cubs: Is Their Bullpen Good Enough?
Elsewhere in the same boat as the Red Sox are the Chicago Cubs.
Though Cubs relievers led the NL with a 3.35 ERA in 2018, their actual relief work was shakier—i.e., it featured many walks and relatively few strikeouts—than that number indicates. To address that, all the Cubs did this winter was bring in Brad Brach on a low-risk one-year deal.
So far this spring, several injury concerns have cropped up. Incumbent closer Brandon Morrow likely won't return from elbow surgery until May. Pedro Strop was set to fill in for him, but he's come down with a hamstring strain.
If the Cubs are OK with spending some money, they're yet another team that could use Craig Kimbrel. If not, they'll have to make do with what they have in Major League Baseball's toughest division.
Chicago White Sox: Who's Going Fifth?
Now that they reportedly have slugging prospect Eloy Jimenez locked up for the long haul, the Chicago White Sox can focus on resolving the battle for the No. 5 spot in their rotation.
According to Jesse Sanchez of MLB.com, one-time top prospect Manny Banuelos feels like he's done enough this spring to earn the job. Albeit with a 5.14 ERA, the 28-year-old's spring line includes 14 strikeouts and 12 hits allowed in 14 innings.
For his part, 36-year-old Ervin Santana didn't make his Cactus League debut until Wednesday, and it resulted in him giving up four runs in four innings. But after finger surgery helped knock his average fastball down to 88.8 mph in 2018, he's now back in the low 90s, per Sanchez.
If the White Sox tab Banuelos, they'll be hoping for a long-term asset. If it's Santana, they'll be hoping for a trade chip.
Cincinnati Reds: Who's in Center Field?
The Cincinnati Reds opened a hole in center field when they non-tendered Billy Hamilton last November. Several months later, it's still open.
The easy option is to give the job to Scott Schebler. He's a solid hitter who clubbed 30 homers in 2017 and who now has a 1.299 OPS in spring training. He isn't a true center fielder, but Great American Ball Park has a relatively tiny outfield.
Alternatively, the Reds could tab top prospect Nick Senzel. He only needs to convince them he's ready. To this end, he's helping his cause with his defense. His .762 OPS isn't great, but it's not bad, either.
The Reds also have Phil Ervin to consider. He's a right-handed hitter who could platoon with either Schebler or Jesse Winker, and he's built a strong case for himself with a 1.222 spring OPS.
The Reds can't complain about any of this. Three good options are better than no good options, after all.
Cleveland Indians: Who's Flanking Leonys Martin?
Leonys Martin is locked into the Cleveland Indians' center field gig for 2019. Otherwise, their outfield depth chart is a mystery.
There's a bit more clarity now in the wake of the team's minor league deal with Carlos Gonzalez. But as MLB.com's Mandy Bell pointed out, the three-time All-Star likely won't be ready to line up alongside Martin until mid-April.
Between now and then, the Indians will have to choose outfielders from a group consisting of Jake Bauers, Greg Allen, Tyler Naquin, Jordan Luplow and Trayce Thompson. Of the bunch, Allen has helped his cause the most with a 1.072 OPS in Cactus League action.
No matter who takes what job, the ultimate question is if Cleveland's 2019 outfield can do better than a 2018 unit that produced only 4.5 wins above replacement, according to Baseball Reference.
Colorado Rockies: Who's Catching?
The Colorado Rockies are yet another team trying to whittle a spring cast of three catchers down to only two for Opening Day.
Chris Iannetta, 35, is the resident veteran of the bunch. He's also coming off a 2018 season in which he provided solid offense (.730 OPS) and defense. Trouble is, he's struggled with a .129 average and .440 OPS this spring.
That may be an open door for Tony Wolters and Tom Murphy. Wolters, 26, has a built-in edge by way of being the best defensive catcher in the Rockies system. Murphy, 27, isn't as well-regarded defensively, but he's teasing strong offense with an .893 OPS and three homers this spring.
Iannetta and Wolters are the favorites to open with the Rockies, but Murphy's lack of options means the Rockies would have to risk losing him on waivers. So from every perspective, they face a tough call.
Detroit Tigers: Will Nicholas Castellanos' Market Ever Heat Up?
The Detroit Tigers are pretty much out of trade chips to cash in as they seek to finish their rebuild, save for one big one: Nicholas Castellanos.
The 27-year-old right fielder wanted to be moved before spring training opened, but GM Al Avila couldn't find any takers. Barring a significant injury elsewhere, it doesn't seem likely that takers will suddenly line up for Castellanos, who's due for free agency after 2019, before Opening Day.
For his part, there isn't much Castellanos can do. He can only add to an offensive track record that includes an .831 OPS since 2016 and hopefully keep his less-than-stellar defensive track record from getting any worse.
There should be a market for him at some point in 2019, but time is somewhat of the essence. The Tigers may only extract a good price for him if they're able to trade him early, as opposed to at the last minute ahead of the July 31 trade deadline.
Houston Astros: Who's Going Fifth?
With loads of talent up and down their roster, the Houston Astros look well-equipped to win 100 games for the third straight season in 2019.
The only thing they need to figure out is who's going to be their No. 5 starter.
Top prospect Josh James seemed to be the leading contender when camp opened, but a quad strain sidelined him long enough for Brad Peacock and Framber Valdez to take over the competition.
On numbers alone, Peacock is the clear front-runner by virtue of a 1.50 ERA, 10 strikeouts and one walk in four spring appearances. But while Valdez can't match Peacock's performance on the whole, he did close the gap a bit with four scoreless innings against Atlanta on Sunday.
The job will almost certainly go to Peacock. But until the Astros make an announcement, Valdez still has a chance.
Kansas City Royals: Is Danny Duffy Damaged Goods?
The 2019 Kansas City Royals will either be a surprise contender or a rebuilder looking to sell its wares on the summer trade market.
Either way, they're going to need Danny Duffy to lead their rotation. That's looking increasingly like an iffy proposition.
The 30-year-old's 2018 season was marked by early and late trouble with his left shoulder and ultimately marred by a 4.88 ERA and poor peripherals across the board. It's a new season now, but his shoulder is already bothering him again.
None of this justifies the excessive trolling that forced Duffy off social media, but it does raise a glaring question about whether he can get back to being the sometimes-ace that he was between 2014 and 2017.
If the answer turns out to be "no," the Royals' season may not be a productive one by any measure.
Los Angeles Angels: When Will Shohei Ohtani Return?
The Los Angeles Angels started 2019 off on the right foot by signing resident super-duperstar Mike Trout to a record-sized $430 million contract. Now all they have to do is get him to his second postseason.
To that end, having a healthy Shohei Ohtani would make a huge difference.
The 24-year-old ace/slugger had Tommy John surgery in October, but the Angels are hoping he can hit while he heals. Preferably, about as well as he did in last season's Rookie of the Year campaign, which featured a .925 OPS and 22 homers.
To this point, however, Ohtani has only advanced as far as taking batting practice. It's something, but manager Brad Ausmus told reporters it's still hard to "put a time frame on" Ohtani's readiness.
The more time Ohtani misses, the bigger the load Trout, Justin Upton and Andrelton Simmons will have to carry on offense.
Los Angeles Dodgers: How Much Can They Count on Clayton Kershaw?
Yet this is ultimately little more than an inconvenience. The far bigger question is how much the Dodgers can count on Kershaw anymore, period.
Following back problems in 2014, 2016, 2017 and 2018, 2019 is already Kershaw's fifth injury-marred season out of the last six. His diminishing dominance is yet another red flag. Kershaw was still good in 2019, but lesser stuff led to increased hittability and, in turn, less-than-great results.
Unless his shoulder completely breaks down, the Dodgers can obviously still use Kershaw in 2019. But it might be time for them to rethink the idea that he's an ace and perhaps adjust their outlook for the season accordingly.
Miami Marlins: Who's Starting After Jose Urena?
For the second year in a row, hard-throwing righty Jose Urena will be starting for the Miami Marlins on Opening Day.
But what of the rest of their starting rotation?
Whether they use a traditional five-man rotation or stretch to a six-man rotation, the Marlins are still weighing their options. According to MLB.com's Joe Frisaro, they are Dan Straily, Pablo Lopez, Sandy Alcantara, Trevor Richards, Caleb Smith and Wei-Yin Chen.
Straily and Chen are the veterans of the bunch, but both have struggled this spring. That may be good news in particular for Lopez, Alcantara and Richards. They've pitched 54.2 innings this spring and allowed only 14 earned runs (a 2.30 ERA) with 57 strikeouts and 16 walks.
However the Marlins play it, their hope will be to have a bright spot in what figures to be a dark season.
Milwaukee Brewers: Is Their Rotation Good Enough?
It was easy to presume the Milwaukee Brewers would address their starting rotation over the winter. Instead, they worked around it and added to their offense and bullpen.
This wasn't necessarily the wrong idea. After all, a deep offense and bullpen were two reasons why the Brewers overcame less-than-awesome starting pitching to win 96 games in 2018.
Still, it's fair to have some concern about Milwaukee's starting rotation.
Jimmy Nelson is making progress, but he's still not all the way back from his 2017 shoulder operation. Neither Zach Davies nor Chase Anderson (who'll open 2019 pitching out of the bullpen) has had a good spring. Young righties Brandon Woodruff, Freddy Peralta and Corbin Burnes have plenty of upside, but only Woodruff has really lived up to it this spring.
This hardly signals that Milwaukee's model for success is busted. But given the depth of the NL Central for 2019, it's possible that it won't work as well this season.
Minnesota Twins: When and in What Capacity Will Miguel Sano Return?
As recently as 2017, Miguel Sano was living up to his status as one of the Minnesota Twins' young cornerstones with an .859 OPS and 28 home runs.
Things haven't gone so well for the 25-year-old slugger since then.
Because of injuries and a demotion to the minors, Sano played in only 71 games and mustered a .679 OPS and 13 homers for the Twins in 2018. He showed up to camp in good shape, only to be sidelined by a procedure to heal a laceration on his foot.
Sano may not be ready to return until May, and by then there may be a question of where he fits. He could play third base but perhaps not if newcomer Marwin Gonzalez has grabbed hold of the position. Elsewhere, C.J. Cron and Nelson Cruz are stationed at first base and designated hitter, respectively.
Sano will get a shot to re-establish himself somewhere, but it's bound to come with a short leash.
New York Mets: Who's on First?
Or, more accurately: "Who's on first base for the New York Mets both now and later?"
Pete Alonso (1.034 OPS) and Dominic Smith (.869 OPS) have staged a compelling battle for the gig this spring, so it's no wonder the team is leaning toward carrying both of them.
"I've been thinking a lot about that, because that is something that could happen," manager Mickey Callaway said Wednesday, per Mike Puma of the New York Post.
Ah, but what about after Jed Lowrie and Todd Frazier come off the injured list? The initial plan was for the former to knock the latter from the hot corner to the cold corner. If that's still in play, a healthy Frazier would hypothetically knock Alonso and/or Smith from first base.
But what if one is too hot to be demoted? Or both of them, for that matter? What do the Mets do then?
Even they probably don't know right now.
New York Yankees: Is Their Pitching Staff Good Enough?
The New York Yankees began spring training with zero holes in their pitching staff.
Several weeks later, however, righty flamethrowers Luis Severino (inflammation) and Dellin Betances (impingement) are ticketed for the injured list with bum shoulders. Veteran lefty CC Sabathia will also get a late start to his season following offseason heart surgery.
Such things have already compelled the Yankees to sign veteran southpaw Gio Gonzalez to a minor league deal. He'll help them weather the storm in the short term, as will incumbent hurlers like Domingo German, Luis Cessa and Jonathan Loaisiga.
However, the Yankees' early injury woes have raised questions about whether their pitching depth is good enough for the long haul. They may need to eventually make a trade or two to keep pace with the Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays atop the American League East.
At the least, it's not too early to start thinking about it.
Oakland Athletics: Is Their Rotation Good Enough?
The Oakland Athletics didn't need much help from their starting pitchers to win 97 games in 2018. Only three teams' starters logged fewer innings than theirs did.
Even knowing that, however, they're pushing their luck with the rotation they've arranged for 2019.
At the start of spring training, it was Mike Fiers, Marco Estrada, Brett Anderson and then two question marks. It was a risky plan that only started to look better when hard-throwing righty Frankie Montas and top-prospect lefty Jesus Luzardo embarked on impressive springs.
But then Luzardo came down with a shoulder strain that could keep him out of action until June, according to MLB.com's Jane Lee. Neither of his likely replacements (Aaron Brooks and Chris Bassitt) have his upside.
Like the Brewers, the A's can hope for their other strengths to carry them. But if that doesn't pan out, they could lose ground to the Astros in the AL West in a hurry.
Philadelphia Phillies: Is Third Base a Problem Without a Solution?
The Philadelphia Phillies began the offseason with their eye on third base as a position in need of upgrading. A megadeal for Manny Machado would have done the trick.
The Phillies opted for Bryce Harper instead, which left them to find a solution for third base from within. To that end, their plan was to see if Scott Kingery could steal Maikel Franco's starting gig.
As it turns out, both players have flopped this spring. Kingery has slightly outperformed Franco but only with a .640 OPS relative to Franco's .631 OPS. That's probably not good enough for him to pull off the upset.
The bright side, such as it is, is that Franco has enough experience for the Phillies to downplay his poor spring and hope for the best in 2019. The less bright side is that Franco is also primarily responsible for the minus-0.3 WAR the Phillies got out of third base last season.
In short, third base still needs an upgrade.
Pittsburgh Pirates: What Can They Expect from Gregory Polanco?
It's hard to second-guess the Pittsburgh Pirates' pitching staff, which is arguably the best in the NL Central.
Their lineup, on the other hand, practically invites second guesses. It has decent depth but nobody that's going to strike fear into opposing pitchers. And it may stay that way until Gregory Polanco returns and gets back to what he was doing in 2018, during which he had an .839 OPS and 23 homers in 130 games.
Polanco underwent surgery to repair a dislocated left shoulder last September. His recovery timeline was estimated at seven to nine months. About six months later, MLB.com's Adam Berry reports that the 27-year-old's timeline "is still uncertain."
Whenever Polanco returns, he'll have to prove he's still the same player. Having undergone such a serious operation could indeed hinder him on both offense and defense.
In short, the Pirates can't do much but cross their fingers with regard to their star right fielder.
San Diego Padres: Is Their Rotation Good Enough?
Despite their signing of Manny Machado, the San Diego Padres are still more of a rebuilder than a contender. But if they get more than expected out of their pitching staff, they could actually have a shot at October.
Their rotation, in particular, has much to prove.
San Diego's starting five will be led by lefties Joey Lucchesi and Eric Lauer, both of whom fall decidedly more toward "innings-eater" than "ace" on the starting pitcher spectrum.
Lefty Matt Strahm and top-prospect righty Chris Paddack have looked like aces this spring, but they have a total of eight major league starts between them. The other top candidates for San Diego's rotation are lefties Logan Allen and Robbie Erlin, neither of whom has had a good spring.
It's ultimately hard to know what to make of the Padres rotation. It's lined up to be either a surprise success or a totally unsurprising dud.
San Francisco Giants: Is Madison Bumgarner Back?
The San Francisco Giants probably could have traded Madison Bumgarner over the winter, but it would have meant selling low on the four-time All-Star and three-time World Series champion.
Whether they keep him and try to contend or ultimately look to trade him, the Giants will need Bumgarner to revert to his old ways this season. Regarding this, there are good signs and bad signs.
The 29-year-old has been clocked as high as 93 mph this spring, wherein he's struck out 18 and walked only one in 18.2 innings. However, he's also allowed 25 hits and accumulated a pedestrian 5.79 ERA.
One decidedly positive takeaway from Bumgarner's spring is that he's healthy after shoulder and hand injuries limited him to 38 starts across 2017 and 2018. But the jury's still out on whether he's an ace again.
Bumgarner's value to the Giants will remain in limbo until that question is answered.
Seattle Mariners: Are They Stuck with Edwin Encarnacion?
The best rooting interest for the Seattle Mariners' 2019 season might involve pulling for Jerry Dipoto to add to his extensive list of creative trades.
Yet even he may be unable to move Edwin Encarnacion.
The Mariners acquired the 36-year-old slugger from the Cleveland Indians in a three-team trade last December. The Tampa Bay Rays sent $5 million to Seattle in the deal, which effectively lowered Encarnacion's contractual obligation (per Spotrac) from $21.7 million to $16.2 million.
However, that's still a lot of money for a guy whose offensive output fell from an .881 OPS and 38 homers in 2017 to an .810 OPS and 32 homers in 2018. Encarnacion has begun the new season with a .290 OPS, followed by an 0-for-6 showing in Seattle's two-game series against Oakland in Japan.
Encarnacion's trade value is lowering pretty much by the day. Unless he snaps out of it, the Mariners may be stuck with him.
St. Louis Cardinals: Is Their Pitching Staff Good Enough?
The St. Louis Cardinals did well to add Paul Goldschmidt (who was also extended Thursday) and Andrew Miller to an 88-win roster over the winter, but they arguably should have done more to address their pitching staff.
It's even more arguable now, as the Cardinals' spring has been marred by an injured shoulder for starter Carlos Martinez and additional injuries to relievers Luke Gregersen (shoulder) and Brett Cecil (arm fatigue).
The healthy pitchers the Cardinals have aren't necessarily an uninspiring group, but they do come with nits to pick. Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha, for example, haven't been pictures of durability lately. The same goes for Miller, for that matter, as well as for top prospect Alex Reyes.
The Cards nonetheless seem willing to chance it with what they have. But if they have second thoughts, they're yet another team that might want to double back on Dallas Keuchel or Craig Kimbrel.
Tampa Bay Rays: Do They Have Enough Power?
Perhaps the Rays' only weakness was in the power department. The 150 homers they hit ranked 27th in MLB.
For now, things are looking up for 2019. Newcomers Avisail Garcia, Mike Zunino and Yandy Diaz have combined for nine long balls this spring, while incumbent youngsters Brandon Lowe and Austin Meadows have added five more. With their help, power could be a much bigger part of Tampa Bay's attack.
Everything's relative, however, and that's where the question of whether the Rays have enough power comes in. They'll ultimately need to hang with the Red Sox and Yankees, who might actually improve upon the 475 homers they combined for last season.
So until further notice, the Rays' power remains unproven.
Texas Rangers: Is Their Rotation Even Functional?
The Texas Rangers are angling to be a surprise contender in 2019. It could work but only if their starting rotation defies expectations.
Veteran lefty Mike Minor is an underrated No. 1, but after him is veteran righty Lance Lynn, whose 2018 season can be charitably described as "up and down." Then there are three pitchers in various stages of comebacks from Tommy John surgery: Drew Smyly, Edinson Volquez and Shelby Miller.
The early returns from this group are a mixed bag.
Lynn (5.40) and Volquez (5.40) have pitched better this spring than their ERAs indicate. Minor has been neither particularly worse nor particularly better than his 3.97 indicates. For their part, Miller hasn't been sharp and Smyly has only mustered 9.1 innings in four starts.
In short, it doesn't necessarily look like the Rangers are on to something with their motley crew of starters. More testing is needed in the regular season.
Toronto Blue Jays: Are Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez Back?
Everyone's looking forward to Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, but Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez could be just as instrumental in returning the Toronto Blue Jays to contention in the near future.
Stroman, 27, is coming off a 2018 season in which shoulder trouble limited him to a 5.54 ERA over only 19 starts. Sanchez, 26, has had all sorts of finger and hand injuries over the last two seasons, in which he's posted a 4.72 ERA over 28 starts.
Previously, Sanchez had led the AL in ERA in 2016, while Stroman followed with a big breakout of his own in 2017. With a 2.19 ERA, 13 strikeouts and one walk this spring, Stroman looks ready to get back on track. Apart from his five walks in 11.2 innings, Sanchez has also looked good.
All Stroman and Sanchez have to do now is pitch well when it counts. If they can do that while Guerrero, Bichette and other pieces fall into place, the Blue Jays might just opt to keep them through 2020.
Washington Nationals: Is Their Bullpen Good Enough?
The Washington Nationals responded to Bryce Harper's free agency by going after pretty much everyone but him.
The result of this strategy looks pretty good, save for a bullpen that has red flags planted in it as Opening Day approaches.
The Nats can count on Sean Doolittle in the closer's role, but newcomers Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough will need to ensure he has games to close. Though both have good stuff, they've struggled to harness it this spring. In 15.1 total innings, they've struck out only 12 while issuing 10 walks and allowing 11 hits.
If they want to win an elusive World Series title, he just might be.