National League's biggest questions and battles before season starts
With the final week of spring training upon us, we wanted to take a quick look at the biggest remaining questions in each division. We tackled the American League earlier, but here's our look at the unresolved issues in the National League before the season gets underway.
How much of the Nationals’ intended lineup will be on the field on Opening Day?
We already know that centerfielder Denard Span will open the season on the disabled list after having core muscle surgery on March 9. However, the Nationals were hoping that rightfielder Jayson Werth would be ready for Opening Day following early-January surgery to repair the acromioclavicular (AC) joint in his right shoulder. That now seems unlikely: Werth’s only game action this spring has been as a defense-only player in minor league games. The good news is that he has had no issues throwing, but he is still feeling soreness in his shoulder, particularly when hitting, and manager Matt Williams said on Sunday that Opening Day would be “a stretch” for Werth at this point.
In addition to Span and Werth, third baseman Anthony Rendon hasn’t appeared in a game since March 9 due to a strained medial collateral ligament in his left knee, which has put his availability for Opening Day in question, as well. All three, as well as reserve outfielder Nate McLouth, who is also coming off shoulder surgery, could open the season on the disabled list. So could righty reliever Casey Janssen, a free-agent addition to the roster this winter, who has battled shoulder soreness this spring but did get good news on Monday morning via an MRI that showed no structural damage.
Those injuries have opened up spots on a roster that appeared set in mid-February, with non-roster outfielder Tony Gwynn Jr. and righty Blake Treinen possibly among the beneficiaries. More important than the identity of those last few players, however, is the chance that the Nationals could open the season with a third of their lineup on the disabled list.
What will the Cubs’ infield look like?
The Cubs officially reassigned Kris Bryant and Addison Russell to minor league camp on Monday and optioned Javier Baez to Triple A Iowa, none of which was terribly surprising. Service-time issues made it imperative for the Cubs to keep Bryant in the minors for at least the first two weeks of the season. The same rules apply to Russell—rated the third-best prospect in the game by Baseball America and second-best by Baseball Prospectus—who has had a strong spring, hitting .324/.359/.486. Baez, meanwhile, struck out in 41.5% of his plate appearances in his first major league opportunity last year and hit just .173/.218/.231 this spring with 20 strikeouts in 55 PA (36%), making further work at Triple A an obvious necessity.
With those three elite prospects in the minors, the Cubs will likely open the season with Tommy La Stella at second base, Mike Olt at third, and Arismendy Alcantara—bounced from centerfield by the acquisition of Dexter Fowler—as a super-utility man who could see regular starts at both positions. The question is how long that will last. The Cubs could call up Bryant and Russell as early as April 17 and still keep the extra-year of team control gained by denying them a full year of service time this season. In Bryant’s case, it seems like a strong possibility that he will indeed make his major league debut close to that date. Russell, who has yet to play above Double A, may not emerge that quickly, and will have to battle Baez for the first chance to unseat the likely replacement-level La Stella. It would not be all that surprising, though, for Russell to leapfrog Baez on the Cubs infield depth chart.
Meanwhile, despite Baez-level contact issues in the majors last year, Olt and Alcantara are talented players with powerful bats who have had solid springs and could run with the opportunity given to them at the start of this season. That could result in Alcantara being the man who unseats La Stella at second or in Bryant being pushed to leftfield upon his inevitable promotion (and moving Chris Coghlan to the bench). Indeed, two of Bryant’s last three starts in the Cactus League came in leftfield, and he acquitted himself well there.
What might be most important to remember here is that the man making these decisions is Joe Maddon, a manager known for his fondness for multi-position players and defensive flexibility. Maddon averaged 149 unique lineups in 162 games over the 2012 and '13 seasons, according to The Bill James Handbook, which means second and third base could be revolving positions for the Cubs throughout the year. It seems certain that Bryant will be an everyday presence in the heart of the Cubs' batting order, but it would not come as a shock to see him alternate between third and leftfield even after being installed in the major league lineup.
How messed up is the Dodgers’ pitching staff?
Those looking to have a favorable view of the Dodgers’ pitching staff are advised not to look beyond Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. In the rotation, shoulder inflammation will place No. 3 starter Hyun-Jin Ryu on the disabled list to start the season. The good news there is that a pair of MRIs showed no structural damage. The bad news is that fourth and fifth starters Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson have frightening injury histories, and Los Angeles is already hard pressed to produce a viable replacement for Ryu, who has no projected return date at this time. The Los Angeles Times’ Bill Shaikin wrote a week ago that Joe Wieland, acquired from the Padres in the Matt Kemp deal, was the leading candidate to replace Ryu, but Wieland was optioned out of big league camp on March 16 and has not appeared in a major league exhibition game since; he also did not start any of the four games in which he did appear prior to his demotion.
Instead, with veteran non-roster invitee Erik Bedard out with a bad back and top prospects Julio Urias and Chris Anderson having yet to crack Double A, the Dodgers have been giving starts to David Huff and Juan Nicasio. Huff, a 30-year-old lefty with a 5.02 career ERA, pitched exclusively in relief last year and has started just six major league games in the last three seasons. Nicasio, meanwhile, is a 28-year-old righty with a 5.03 career ERA who was acquired from the Rockies over the winter and posted a 5.92 ERA in 14 starts for Colorado last year. Given those track records, the Dodgers may need to dip into the group of young pitchers they optioned out on March 16, a group including Wieland, Zach Lee, Mike Bolsinger, Chris Reed, and Carlos Frias.
That would be problematic enough if the Dodgers had a strong bullpen to help pick up the slack, but with closer Kenley Jansen due to start the season on the DL following surgery on his left foot and righty Brandon League looking at a long-term disabled list stay due to a damaged pitching shoulder, the team’s relief depth has also evaporated. At least there, Los Angeles has some compelling young arms who appear big league ready in righty Yimi Garcia and lefties Adam Liberatore and Paco Rodriguez, the latter of whom appears to have recovered his lost velocity this spring. They'll complement veterans Joel Peralta, J.P. Howell, and Chris Hatcher.