Spring training preview: American League East
Over the next few days, SI.com's baseball experts will examine the Big Question, Big Position Battle and Big Prospect for all 30 teams as part of our week-long spring training preview. Teams are listed by their order of finish from 2014. Note: The Big Prospect is a player who will be in major league camp but has not yet debuted in the major leagues.
The Big Question: Will Matt Wieters be ready for Opening Day?
The most remarkable thing about the Orioles' unlikely run to last season's AL East title was that they completed it without the three players who were expected to be their offensive leaders. They lost Wieters to Tommy John surgery in May, Manny Machado to a torn knee ligament in August and Chris Davis to an amphetamine suspension in September. Even so, Baltimore had the AL's sixth most prolific offense and swept the Tigers in the ALDS before losing four straight to the Royals in the ALCS.
However, with Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis taking their combined 54 home runs and 158 RBIs to Seattle and Atlanta, respectively, and after a winter in which their biggest free agent expenditure was the $2.25 million they gave to Delmon Young, the Orioles need all three of those players to return to both health and form. The most important of them is likely Wieters, the three-time All-Star catcher who ought to be in the thick of his prime.
Wieters, 28, finally went under the knife in mid-June, meaning that he'll have had less than 10 months to recover by Opening Day. While catchers should theoretically require less Tommy John rehabilitation time than pitchers, their history with the surgery is minimal and somewhat discouraging, as my colleague Jay Jaffe wrote last summer.
In fact, in many ways Wieters will be navigating uncharted waters. Baltimore's season might hinge on whether he can do so successfully, as his backup, Caleb Joseph, finished 2014 in an 0-for-30 tailspin.
The Big Battle: Rightfield
After nine solid, if generally unspectacular, seasons with the Orioles, Markakis took the Braves' four-year, $44 million offer and headed south, leaving a significant hole in rightfield at Camden Yards. General manager Dan Duquette shoveled some dirt into it in January, when he acquired Travis Snider from the Pirates, but perhaps not enough. Snider was once one of the game's top prospects — he was ranked sixth overall by Baseball America as a Blue Jay in 2009. But his best season, his last one, included a .264 batting average, 13 homers and 38 RBIs in 140 games and, strangely for a lefthanded hitter, a pedestrian .734 OPS against righties.
Other options in right will include Steve Pearce (if he is not required to DH), David Lough, Alex Hassan and Cuban escapees Dariel Alvarez and Henry Urrutia. One intriguing name is Nolan Reimold, who seemed on the cusp of a breakout early in 2012 (through 16 games he had five homers and 10 RBIs) when he dove into the stands for a foul ball and suffered a neck injury that has required several surgeries to correct. After brief stints with Toronto and Arizona, the Orioles re-signed him to a minor league deal in early February. Reimold will join what might be one of the most wide open positional derbies that any team will hold this spring.
The Big Prospect: Hunter Harvey
Dylan Bundy made his big league debut at the age of 19 in September 2012, and few would have expected that the five outs he got that month would at this point remain the only ones he has recorded in his Orioles career. Bundy didn't pitch at all in 2013, eventually undergoing Tommy John surgery, and his return last summer was only modestly promising: In 41 1/3 A-ball innings, he had a 3.27 ERA and struck out 37 batters.
It's far too early to write off the 22-year-old righty, who was BA's No. 2 prospect in 2013. But he has been surpassed on most lists by another young arm: the 20-year-old Harvey, the club's first rounder in '13 out of North Carolina's Bandys High, who throws 97 mph and has averaged 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings over two minor league seasons.
Even with a miserable performance from Ubaldo Jimenez, to whom the club committed $50 million over four years last winter, Baltimore's rotation ranked fifth in the AL with a 3.61 ERA, and it should feature five unheralded holdovers in Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris, Miguel Gonzalez and Kevin Gausman. Even so, the club has recently been aggressive in promoting its prospects to the majors, and it would be unsurprising to see Bundy or even Harvey reach the big leagues at some point this season, particularly if they have strong springs.
New York Yankees
The Big Question: What's going to happen when he returns?
Never before has the spring debut of a player who appears to be on the short side of a designated hitter platoon been so anticipated. Of course, never before has there been a player quite like Alex Rodriguez, in a multitude of ways.
Now reinstated from his season-long PED suspension, Rodriguez, at 39, appears set to resume his career, and to resume making the $61 million the Yankees reluctantly owe him over the next three years. It will, of course, be entertaining: Every at-bat will be an event, every gesture from him and his teammates will be parsed, every step he takes will be analyzed.
The thing is that the Yankees' lineup could use the production offered by some semblance of the Rodriguez of old. This is an offense that ranked 13th in the AL in runs last year, ahead of only Houston and Tampa Bay, and otherwise added only Garrett Jones. Jones' OPS with the Marlins last year, .720, was some 50 points worse than Rodriguez's when last we saw him, for 44 games during a 2013 season in which he was coming off a torn labrum in his hip and was already embroiled in the Biogenesis scandal, with all of its distractions.
So no, the Yankees don't want Alex Rodriguez. But they might well need him, if he proves this spring to have anything left whatsoever.
The Big Battle: No. 5 Starter
A lot will have to go right during spring training for this to be the Yankees' only concern about their starting rotation. CC Sabathia will have to bounce back from knee surgery that ended his 2014 after eight starts, during which he posted a 5.28 ERA and threw his average fastball less than 90 mph. Masahiro Tanaka's partially torn UCL, which he treated not with Tommy John surgery but with platelet-rich-plasma therapy, will have to hold up. Michael Pineda, who dazzled in his 76 1/3 innings last year (he went 5-5 with a 1.89 ERA), will also need to reach April healthy — no sure thing, as those innings were the first the 26-year-old threw since 2011.
The fifth spot, then, figures to come down to Chris Capuano and Scott Baker (although a host of other pitchers, including Esmil Rogers and Adam Warren, should be in the mix). In a void, the choice between the 35-year-old Capuano (who went 3-4 with a 4.35 ERA last year) and the 33-year-old Baker (3-4, 5.47) wouldn't appear to be a positive one. But if the Yankees aren't forced to start both of them, it's a choice that they will consider themselves fortunate to have to make.
The Big Prospect: Aaron Judge
It has been some time since the Yankees have produced a bona fide, homegrown slugger — a full decade, in fact, since Robinson Cano made his debut. But the organization might finally have another one on their hands in Judge, a 22-year-old outfielder who was the 32nd pick in the 2013 draft.
Judge stands 6-foot-7, but his height did not preclude him from posting precocious numbers in 2014, his first professional season. At two levels of A-ball, he combined to hit .308 with 17 homers, 78 RBIs and an OPS of .905. That earned him a non-roster invitation to spring training, where he'll represent the first fruit of the club's new philosophy, which has them committed to developing stars as opposed to buying them after they've peaked.
Toronto Blue Jays
The Big Question: Is Dalton Pompey ready?
The Royals' success last year means that the Blue Jays will enter 2015 as the owners of baseball's longest streak of seasons without a playoff appearance. Their blueprint to end that 22-year drought includes having six likely regulars (Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Maicer Izturis, Russell Martin, Dioner Navarro and Jose Reyes) who are 31 or older, and two others (new imports Josh Donaldson and Michael Saunders) who are at least 28.
Then there's the player who Toronto's brass hopes will lock down the centerfield job this spring: the Ontario-born, matinee idol-named Pompey, who turned 22 in December.
As of 2013, Pompey, a 16th-round draft pick in '10, had yet to make a plate appearance above A-ball. Last season, though, he soared through the team's system, as his bat came around to match his speed and his defense. In 113 games in the minors — the last 12 of them in Triple A — he hit .317 with a .861 OPS, swiping 43 bases in 50 tries. That earned him a September call-up and an audition to replace the out-of-favor (and since out-of-town) Colby Rasmus in center.
Pompey did enough in his 17 games to enter camp as the favorite to start there on Opening Day, and he'll be given every opportunity for a couple of reasons. One is that the win-now Jays' other option, Kevin Pillar, is better suited to a backup role. The other is that Pompey can provide an athleticism that Toronto's slugger-filled lineup lacks, outside of Reyes.
The Big Battle: Closer
Between 2012 and '14, Casey Janssen saved 81 games for Toronto, pitching to a 2.94 ERA. Janssen, though, is now a member of the Nationals, and because the Blue Jays have thus far declined to sign a free agent to replace him, it appears as if their new closer will be one of three in-house options.
The most likely candidates are a pair of lefties who have each recently excelled as setup men, Brett Cecil and Aaron Loup. Both throw fastballs that average 92 mph and can touch 95. Both have a little closing experience, as Cecil converted five of seven save chances last season and Loup four of eight.
Either would likely be fine, but the most intriguing option is the third one: Aaron Sanchez. Sanchez was rated as the game's 32nd-best prospect by BA prior to last season, and after his big league debut last July, he kept delivering 97-mph fastballs that were all but unhittable. In 33 innings and over 24 appearances, he pitched to a 1.09 ERA and an even more impressive WHIP of 0.697.
The problem is that the 22-year-old Sanchez is supposed to be a starter, and he will almost certainly end up as one. But Toronto might decide to delay his transition to the rotation by one more season, thereby giving itself a potentially elite end-of-game weapon.
The Big Prospect: Daniel Norris
The 21-year-old southpaw won some attention this offseason because he quite literally lives in a van down by the river, but he'll be able to alleviate the Blue Jays' concerns about that life choice with a strong spring — and there's little reason to think he won't have one. Like Pompey, the 2011 second-round pick advanced from A-ball to Triple A last season, with a 2.53 ERA and 11.8 strikeouts per nine, and he got a taste of the big leagues, working 6 2/3 September innings. With a fastball that can touch 94 and a precocious slew of secondary pitches, Norris could win the rotation's No. 5 slot behind R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Drew Hutchison and Marcus Stroman, thereby allowing the Blue Jays to put Sanchez in the 'pen without regret and field a more complete team than any of the unsuccessful 21 iterations before it.
Tampa Bay Rays
The Big Question: Where is the offense coming from?
Start with a club that ranked dead last in the AL in runs, jettison four of its top six RBI men — in addition to a 24-year-old who remains among the game's top righthanded power-hitting prospects — and what do you get? It's not a trick question. You get a lineup that doesn't figure to score much at all, and a team that will have to find other ways to win.
The Rays' offense is built around Evan Longoria, but even he has not quite developed into the superstardom for which he once seemed destined: his .724 OPS last year was the worst of his career by more than 100 points. Longoria, Desmond Jennings and James Loney will lead a lineup that is now without the traded Ben Zobrist, Matt Joyce, Yunel Escobar, Sean Rodriguez and Wil Myers, and improving on last year's meager 3.8 runs per game will be a difficult task.
Under the leadership of Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon, the Rays were always forced to approach team building differently than most, and now that the longtime president of baseball operations and manager have both departed, they'll have to continue to do so. The idea, clearly, is that the three main holdovers improve (or return to form) all at once, and that they're bolstered by contributions from seemingly unlikely sources like John Jaso, Kevin Kiermaier and Nick Franklin. Tampa Bay will spend the spring hoping for any sign of a breakout from anyone at all.
The Big Battle: No. 5 starter
The Rays will quite obviously live and die by their pitching, and the good news is that they appear to have the game's best young rotation. Alex Cobb is, at 27, the senior member and the ace — he's posted a 2.82 ERA over the past two seasons and could emerge as a Cy Young contender. Locked in behind him are Drew Smyly (3.24 ERA in '14), Chris Archer (3.33) and Jake Odorizzi (4.13).
This spring's central competition will be for the fifth spot, and the leading contenders are Nathan Karns and Alex Colome, the latter of whom had a 2.66 ERA in five appearances last season. The winner, though, might only hold the job for a month or two, until Matt Moore — an All-Star in 2013 — returns from Tommy John surgery. (Moore began throwing off a mound in late January.) If scoring runs might be a challenge for the Rays, preventing them shouldn't be.
The Big Prospect: Steven Souza
Souza was the key player Tampa Bay got back in the massive, and massively surprising, 11-player, three-team December trade that sent Myers — just a year removed from winning AL Rookie of the Year — to San Diego. We might draw two central conclusions vis a vis the deal, from the Rays' point of view: that they were more concerned about Myers' development and long-term recovery from his 2014 wrist injury than most, and that they rated Souza, a veteran of eight minor league seasons, more highly than most.
The 6-4 Souza will turn 26 in April, and yet his big league career has so far consisted of just 26 plate appearances. Even so, he has torn up the minors in each of the past three years, culminating in a 2014 in which he batted .345 with 18 homers, 77 RBIs, 28 steals and an OPS of 1.004 in 100 games down on the farm. Those are numbers that seem as if they ought to have raised eyebrows and earned him an extended shot at the next level, but he never got a chance on the crowded Nationals and was largely downgraded by the industry because of his age.
Now he goes from an also-ran in Washington to a virtually certain starter and potential No. 5 hitter with Tampa Bay. This spring will be his first chance to show that the Rays were, once again, right to think very, very different.
Boston Red Sox
The Big Question: Who's the ace?
With Jon Lester a new Cub, James Shields a new Padre, Max Scherzer a new National and Cole Hamels still a Phillie, the Red Sox didn't land any of the biggest-name pitchers this offseason, and thus enter spring training without a clear No. 1 starter. In fact, their cobbled-together rotation will include just one pitcher, Clay Buchholz, who was a member of their 2013 championship team. But questions about Boston's starters extend far beyond the one concerning who will get the ball on Opening Day. Last year, the members of the Red Sox' presumptive rotation — Buchholz, Joe Kelly, Justin Masterson, Wade Miley and Rick Porcello — combined to go 44-49 with an ERA, 4.55, that would have ranked 27th in the majors, ahead of only the Rangers, Rockies and Twins.
There are a few reasons for cautious optimism. The group is relatively young (only Buchholz is even 30); Porcello experienced a modest breakout in his sixth and final season with the Tigers last year, setting career bests with a 3.43 ERA and 204 2/3 innings pitched; and a number of them, particularly Buchholz and Masterson, have the stuff and past success to suggest that a bounce back might be in order. However, bereft of that crucial import that never came, it could be a slog. Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system currently predicts the Sox' offense to score 806 runs, 35 more than any other club's, and they might need every one of them to return to the playoffs after last year's absence.
The Big Battle: Outfield
Yoenis Cespedes' tenure in Boston lasted two months, as the Red Sox flipped him to to the Tigers in December in exchange for Porcello, but still the team is faced with a logjam in the outfield. Free-agent signing Hanley Ramirez is set to play left, as his natural positions — third base and shortstop — will be manned by Pablo Sandoval and Xander Bogaerts, respectively. That leaves three men to play center and right: Rusney Castillo, the Cuban to whom the Sox committed $72.5 million over seven years last August; Mookie Betts, the 22-year-old who hit .317 with two homers, 10 RBIs and three steals last September; and Shane Victorino, who is in the final season of his three year, $39 million deal.
Victorino played just 30 games last year thanks to a strained hamstring and then surgery to repair a bulging disc in his back, and for now he appears to be destined for the bench. Quality depth is never a problem, especially for a club whose most important offensive player, David Ortiz, is 39 years old, though you'd prefer not to pay a reserve $13 million a year. The best case would probably be for everyone to stay healthy, and then for the Sox to deal Victorino and his expiring contract for pitching help — which, of course, they are likely to need.
The Big Prospect: Blake Swihart
One reason why Hamels remains in Philadephia is that the Red Sox reportedly refused to include the 22-year-old Swihart in a potential deal for him, and with good reason. Swihart, a 2011 first-round pick, is now the game's consensus top-rated catching prospect after a '14 season in which his bat caught up with his advanced skills behind the plate. He hit .293 in a season he split between Double and Triple A, with 13 home runs, 64 RBIs and an .810 OPS.
The Red Sox will start the season with Christian Vazquez (a young defensive specialist) and Ryan Hanigan (an old defensive specialist) at catcher, but Swihart might force his way to Fenway Park by mid-summer. After all, he represents one of the few things that these days might be even harder to find than an ace: a backstop with a complete skillset.