Spring is here! Nine key questions as camps open
To understand what has happened to baseball, you have to follow the story of uniform No. 65 of the Yankees. The club carries it around the way you might carry loose change in the car’s cup holder or a spare tire in the trunk. Every so often, somebody shows up from Triple A, wears it for a few days and then goes back to the minors. The No. 65 jersey awaits its next owner.
Last year, the number was worn by four righthanded and nondescript relief pitchers: Danny Burawa, Caleb Cotham, Diego Moreno and Jose Ramirez. The Yankees used 17 righthanded relief pitchers in all, 56 total players in the majors and 75 players in Triple A, including 37 players who went back and forth.
The 1927 Yankees used 25 players all year.
These days, it takes a village to raise a championship banner. In an age of specialization, the universe of what is major league never has been bigger. Players, especially pitchers, come and go. The Dodgers used 55 players in the majors last year. They burned through 80 players in Triple A, 51 of them pitchers.
That’s why I smile when I see pre-spring training predictions. The baseball world turns over too much to make them meaningful this early. The playoff roster of last year’s 10 postseason entrants represented a 23% turnover from Opening Day (players called up from the minors or acquired from other teams). Texas led the way with 11 new players. Carlos Correa (Astros), David Price and Troy Tulowitzki (Blue Jays), Brandon Moss (Cardinals), Chase Utley (Dodgers), Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber (Cubs), Yoenis Cespedes and Michael Conforto (Mets), Cole Hamels (Rangers) and Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist (Royals) are just a few of the players who changed the look of playoff teams. The 2015 Rangers, Blue Jays and Mets and the '14 Royals were each no better than two games over .500 after 100 games and still made the playoffs—mostly because of in-season acquisitions. Hang around and you can figure it out on the fly.
It wasn’t long ago that teams overvalued their prospects, probably because the growth in the cottage industry of covering prospects gave them inflated public value. But in recent years, the pendulum has swung back. Selling hope doesn’t work so well in an impatient society. Five of the first 17 picks from the 2014 draft have already been traded. None of the three most recent No. 1 picks are still with the club that drafted them.
What we get is a game of churn, where teams are in constant flux. Young players are pushed to the big leagues quicker. Workhorse starters have been replaced with a system resembling a relay race. Specialized bullpens have become even more specialized.
So forget about predicting what teams will look like eight months from now. What matters this week is that pitchers and catchers are reporting to camps across Arizona and Florida. We’re still in an early phase of team architecture, but an important one. At this time last year, new Cubs manager Joe Maddon established a culture of high energy and expectations. The Royals, fresh off the sting of losing the World Series by 90 feet, carried a fierce edge into camp (so fierce that when manager Ned Yost cut short an early defensive drill, the players lobbied on the spot to run the drill full throttle). Two years ago, the Pirates emphasized situational hitting and putting the ball in play, a tack that the Mariners will take this year. Cultures, more than the meaninglessness of 25-man Opening Day rosters, are what get established this time of year.
So let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This time of year we have more questions than answers. Here is your starting nine: the biggest questions about spring training for 2016.
1. Who will be this year’s Hanley Ramirez?
Take a major league ballplayer and ask him to play another position. What could possibly go wrong? If you watched Ramirez last spring try his new position, leftfield, for his new team, Boston, you could see it wasn’t going to turn out well.
This year, the Twins will ask hulking erstwhile third baseman Miguel Sano to play rightfield. Matt Holliday, never known for his hands in the outfield, has volunteered to work at first base for St. Louis. The Pirates, continuing to keep their financial powder dry for ... well, we don’t know what for ... are asking former catcher John Jaso to move to first base. The Cubs bought big time into the advanced defensive metrics of rightfielder Jason Heyward and are immediately moving their newly signed $184 million man to centerfield, where he will be flanked by two sub-par defenders: Schwarber in left and Jorge Soler in right. I give the experiment three months before Chicago re-evaluates whether that is a championship outfield.
But the player with the best chance to be the next Hanley Ramirez is ... Hanley Ramirez. This year, the Red Sox asked him to lose weight and learn to play first base—in that order. You would think that a former shortstop could make a decent go of it at first base, but Ramirez is quite larger from his middle infield days. Besides, did you see former shortstop and longtime third baseman Alex Rodriguez last year try to play first base for the Yankees last year at age 39 as if he were wearing two oven mitts?
2. Who are the next blockbuster coming attractions?
Bryant was the Cactus League home run champion in Cubs camp last year, and Correa posted a .328/.370/.488 slash line in the Grapefruit League for Houston. Though neither made the Opening Day roster, they joined their clubs quickly and went on to win their leagues' respective Rookie of the Year awards while helping their teams reach the postseason.
This spring, keep an eye on first baseman A.J. Reed of the Astros (.340 with 34 home runs last year in the minors), 20-year-old outfielder Nomar Mazara of the Rangers (.358 in a one-month Triple A trial), first baseman Josh Bell of the Pirates (65 walks, 65 strikeouts and an .838 OPS) and shortstops Trea Turner of the Nationals (the 14th pick in 2014) and Tim Anderson of the White Sox (No. 17 in the '13 draft)—though none are in that Bryant/Correa class.
The biggest impacts are likely to come on the mound. Pitchers to watch this spring include Tyler Glasnow of Pittsburgh (22 starts from Class A to Triple A last year, none in which he was allowed to throw 100 pitches), Lucas Giolito of Washington (10.0 strikeouts per nine in his four minor-league seasons) and phenom lefthander Julio Urias of the Dodgers (who, at 19, already has more minor-league starts than the 21-year-old Giolito and has a better strikeout rate at 10.7 per nine).
3. How will the Mets handle their young starters (the sequel)?
The best starting rotation in baseball still needs to be handled with care, especially after its young arms pitched the Mets all the way to the World Series and with one key piece (Zack Wheeler) re-joining them after Tommy John surgery. Keep an eye on how manager Terry Collins and pitching coach Dan Warthen slow-play their staff's work in spring training (and two months into the season).
I used to think stability in starting pitching was the key to building a postseason team. Keep your five starting pitchers healthy, and you have good chance at success (i.e., the 2003 Cubs, '04 Red Sox, '11 Rangers and '12 Giants). But because of the Theory of Big Inventory, that’s no longer a requirement, or even a preferred model.
Teams now want to divide the work among more and more arms. Only 78 pitchers last season worked enough to qualify for the ERA title (162 innings); the rate of 2.6 pitchers per team was the lowest in history. Over the past two years, 14 teams had four pitchers qualify, but more of those teams with stable rotations missed the playoffs (eight) than made it (six). Even the two richest teams in baseball, the Dodgers and Yankees, have embraced this Theory of Big Inventory—essentially using floating 25-man pitching staffs with a stockpile of major-league ready arms.
It’s a winning formula. The Royals won the title last year despite getting fewer innings from their starters than any team in the American League. Kansas City used more pitchers just to win Game 1 of the 2015 World Series (seven) than it did to win the entire seven-game 1985 World Series (six).
4. Can Dusty Baker change the culture of the Nationals?
The Nats’ window may already have closed, thanks to poor fundamental play, poor bullpen management and the lack of a cohesive clubhouse—not to mention the departures of shortstop Ian Desmond (still unsigned), centerfielder Denard Span (signed with the Giants), reliever Drew Storen (traded to the Blue Jays) and starter Jordan Zimmermann (signed with the Tigers) and the physical declines of outfielder Jayson Werth and infielder Ryan Zimmerman. Free-agent-to-be Stephen Strasburg, who has a knack for being worse when his great stuff is needed the most (for his career opponents hit .211 off him with the bases empty and .259 with runners in scoring position, the latter of which is below league average), is the next big name with one foot out the door.
After the Nationals’ embarrassing non-hire of Bud Black, the franchise with the longest drought without a postseason series win turned to Baker, a respected man with one of the game's most tortured postseason records: He is 19–25 in his postseason managerial career, including 2–9 when his teams had a chance to clinch. Expect the Baker touch to make for a happy spring training camp, but his real test will come when he is handling a pitching staff under today’s rubric of using more pitchers more often. And if he gets his team to the postseason, he must do something the team has never done since moving to the nation's capital in 2005: win a playoff series. That is the minimum requirement to make this a successful season in Washington.
5. Can first-time managers make a difference?
Four managers will run their first big-league spring training camp: Scott Servais of Seattle, Craig Counsell of Milwaukee, Dave Roberts of the Dodgers and Andy Green of the Padres. Counsell was tabbed as the Brewers' new manager last May after the team fired Ron Roenicke, but of the other three, Green is the only one with previous managerial experience before his current job—he won a minor-league championship with the Diamondbacks' rookie league affiliate in 2012 at age 35. Green, who played in the majors and Japan and has coached in the majors with Arizona, may be the most impressive of the bunch, except it will be hard to notice with the lack of talent on his roster.
Servais and his buddy, general manager Jerry Dipoto, are under pressure to play better offensive baseball for a city that has been falling out of love with baseball. But the manager under the most pressure is Roberts, a smart, affable man who must deal with a deep, hands-on front office that essentially wants to out-man other teams, not necessarily outplay them. Roberts and his bench coach, Bob Geren, will need a PhD in communication from the first day of spring training. They have a roster filled with veterans who will be in and out of the lineup, rotation and bullpen all year.
6. Is 13 the over/under on March Tommy John surgeries?
That sounds too high, until you realize that last year there were 13 such elbow surgeries in March, or about three every week once spring games began. The injured last year included the Mets' Wheeler and Rangers ace Yu Darvish (both of their teams still made the postseason). Get ready for the usual mind-numbing updates on “flat ground” sessions, bullpen work and recovery days for Darvish, Wheeler, Brandon McCarthy of the Dodgers, Homer Bailey of the Reds and Alex Cobb of the Rays, all of whom could be back before the All-Star break.
The fact is, elbows often blow out early in the season. One-third of all Tommy John surgeries last season occurred in March and April.
7. Who will get off the unemployment line?
The line is rich with veteran starting pitchers with last names that begin with L: Cliff Lee, Tim Lincecum and Kyle Lohse. You also have the last men standing who turned down $15.8 million qualifying offers: Desmond, outfielder Dexter Fowler and pitcher Yovani Gallardo.
There also is a truckload of formerly-very-good position players who are getting squeezed out of the game because of the industry’s emphasis on younger players, including Jimmy Rollins, 37; Juan Uribe, 36; Shane Victorino, 35; Alex Rios, 34; David Murphy, 34; Justin Morneau, 34; Will Venable, 33; David Freese, 32; and Matt Joyce, 31. I’ve never seen so many established free agents still on the street as camps open—63 in all, though a few have indicated they are retiring.
8. Will we see a flurry of spring training trades?
Not likely. Last year, there were no significant trades until the last week of spring training, when the biggest names switching teams were Sam Freeman, Jerry Blevins, Erasmo Ramirez and Trevor Cahill. A major deal finally happened on the eve of Opening Day, when the Braves traded Craig Kimbrel to the Padres. This history will not stop the daily speculation of trade activity, which includes the annual favorite pastime of breathlessly noting what scouts from what teams are at a spring training game—as if it’s unusual for a scout to, uh, you know, scout.
9. What’s the early word on who looks good?
Actually, all 30 teams look rather sharp, because MLB has done away with those awful batting practice jerseys (many of which had color-block side panels) and will outfit teams in jerseys that in almost all cases also will be worn during the regular season (often as alternate jerseys). It gives a more finished look to the MLB product, even if the games don’t count.
The early word on the new batch of spring training hats is more mixed. You have your share of winners (Tampa Bay, Houston, Miami, Milwaukee) and losers (all-safety-orange Detroit, all-navy Toronto, Cleveland, White Sox).