American League's biggest questions, battles as spring training ends
With the final week of spring training upon us, we wanted to see what unresolved questions and camp battles were still in play in each division. We gave our take on the National League's outstanding questions here, so here are the biggest issues for each division in the American League.
Wieters underwent Tommy John surgery last June 16, and while the recovery period for position players is shorter than for pitchers—six to nine months, as opposed to at least a year—such a timetable left the Orioles no margin for error when it came to setbacks. But predictably, setbacks have arisen.
While Baltimore was able to get Wieters into a Grapefruit League game as a designated hitter as early as March 4, he has gone 0-for-23 with one walk and four strikeouts at the plate thus far. He made his catching debut in a minor league exhibition on March 14, two days shy of the nine-month mark, and wore the tools of ignorance in a Grapefruit League context on March 17. Alas, a day later, the team revealed that Wieters was suffering from elbow tendinitis, and while x-rays came back clean, last week it became clear that he'll start the season on the disabled list. Amid all of that, Wieters' agent, Scott Boras, took a break from his Kris Bryant service time rabble-rousing to tell the Orioles that Wieters should be on the Opening Day roster as a DH, regardless of his progress behind the plate, but no such luck.
Wieters was scheduled to resume throwing over the weekend and will remain in extended spring training until starting an official rehab assignment with the Orioles' Class A Frederick and Double A Bowie affiliates. Manager Buck Showalter refused to announce a target date for his return, however. Meanwhile, backup option J.P. Arencibia was reassigned to the minors on Monday, meaning that Baltimore is likely to open with light-hitting Caleb Joseph behind the plate and either lighter-hitting Steve Clevenger (who's on the 40-man roster) or suspect defender Ryan Lavarnway (who's not) as the backup.
Speaking of catchers, Tommy John surgery, and other looming questions for the division: The Red Sox placed starter Christian Vazquez on the 60-day disabled list on Monday due to an elbow strain, with TJ surgery looming as a likelihood. Not only does that make Ryan Hanigan the likely Opening Day catcher, but it also surely further intensifies the organization's resolve to retain catching prospect Blake Swihart, who's said to be the dealbreaker in the team's attempt to pry Cole Hamels loose from the Phillies, thus giving them the ace they sorely need. Swihart—ranked among the game's top 20 prospects by Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, ESPN (who has him at 10th) and MLB.com—has 18 games of Triple A experience under his belt but none in the majors, though he's now under consideration to open the year with the Sox. Humberto Quintero is the veteran backup option, though Monday's acquisition of the out-of-options Sandy Leon from the Nationals suggests that nothing has been decided yet.
Who will be the White Sox' second baseman?
Last August, the White Sox traded longtime incumbent Gordon Beckham—owner of an 80 OPS+ and a combined 4.2 WAR beyond his impressive rookie season back in 2009—to the Angels for a
deep-dish pizza live arm, then auditioned Carlos Sanchez and Marcus Semien for the job the rest of the way. Then they traded Semien to the Athletics in the December deal that brought back Jeff Samardzija and re-signed Beckham to a one-year, $2 million deal in January. Chicago didn't guarantee Beckham the job, instead placing him in a battle with Sanchez (who hit just .250/.269/.300 in 104 PA after batting a solid .293/.349/.412 at Triple A), Emilio Bonifacio (signed to a one-year-plus-option deal for $4 million after hitting a meager .250/.305/.345 with 26 steals last year) and Micah Johnson.
A 24-year-old who was drafted out of Indiana University in the ninth round in 2012, Johnson hit .294/.351/.403 with 22 steals split between Double A Birmingham and Triple A Charlotte last year. A hot start in Grapefruit League play made him the presumptive leader of the pack, but he's since cooled off, and a terrible day that included a two-error play as well as mental mistakes reopened questions about his defense. While BP ranked him as the team's ninth-best prospect back in January, they enumerated his weaknesses in doing so: "Glove is below average; can struggle with reads at second; tends to rush; questions on future as infielder; may ultimately move to outfield; arm fits at keystone, but not enough for left side of infield or a corner." Manager Robin Ventura recently said that Johnson still "appears to be the guy," but Sanchez's defensive advantage has kept him in the running, and general manager Rick Hahn is reportedly keeping an eye on the waiver wire.
Can the A's find a leftfielder?
When camp opened, it appeared that a low-horsepower platoon of lefty Sam Fuld and righty Craig Gentry was the most likely outcome for leftfield, with Billy Burns, Mark Canha and non-roster invitee Jason Pridie also in the picture. In early March, the team announced that the 33-year-old Fuld (a career .230/.312/.329 hitter against righties) and the 31-year-old Gentry (a career .282/.364/.376 hitter against lefties) would instead man centerfield, with Coco Crisp shifting to left in order to increase the chances of keeping him healthy. That’s no small challenge given that the 35-year-old switch-hitter hasn't played more than 136 games since 2007 and has averaged 128 over the last four years; while he officially avoided the DL last year, he was in and out of the lineup due to neck issues all season long.
Soon after the announcement, Crisp turned up with a lower right triceps strain, and while he returned to game activity, he received a cortisone shot last week and has just 17 Cactus League plate appearances thus far. He's scheduled to play in a minor league game on Tuesday with an off day on Wednesday, and his status will be determined from there. Oakland is hoping Crisp can squeeze three games in this week before the team has to make a final decision, though the A's have some concern about the soreness caused by bone chips in the offending elbow.
Additionally, rightfielder Josh Reddick is slated to start the season on the disabled list due to an oblique strain, with an eye toward missing the first five games but joining the team during its first homestand. At the moment, signs point to Canha—a Rule 5 pick from Marlins (via the Rockies)—making the Opening Day roster, as he has four homers this spring, including a pair of walkoffs last week. The 26-year-old righty, a former seventh-round pick out of UC-Berkeley, hit .303/.384/.505 with 20 homers at Triple A New Orleans. Burns, a 25-year-old–switch-hitting speedster who stole 54 bases at Double A and Triple A last year but hit just .237/.315/.302, could be part of the roster as well if Crisp hits the DL. Manager Bob Melvin praised Burns' improvements, which thanks to his long look have helped him lead the majors in both hits and runs this spring.