Let’s be honest: The off-season was a dud. For the first time since the winter of 2009–10, no free agent changed teams by signing a contract worth $100 million. There were six such major stars on the move the previous winter, and 20 in the last six years. Nobody in the middle tier of teams stepped up with a major upgrade, though Seattle GM Jerry Dipoto gets credit for a flurry of incremental moves. Even the Collective Bargaining Agreement broke no new ground with how the game can be modernized. (The scourge of expanded September rosters remains.) We start 2017 with the way we ended '16: with the Cubs as the best team in baseball, and the Indians, Dodgers and Red Sox presenting their greatest threat.
Ah, but baseball never fails to surprise us. The season is too long, the injuries too common and the transactions too frequent to have the playoffs figured out in February. Raise your hand if you saw last season coming down to Mike Montgomery pitching to Michael Martinez with the winning run at the plate in the 10th inning of the seventh game of the World Series.
For now, let’s just focus on the season of the sun—spring training, when optimism abounds, everybody is in the best shape of his life, UCLs haven’t yet snapped like guitar strings and every prospect is a future Hall of Famer. This is the place to start: amid the hype and hope piled on thick in Arizona and Florida, where pitchers and catchers will report as early as Wednesday and full-squad workouts will take place no later than the middle of next week.
What follows is my list of the biggest storylines of spring training. At this time last year, my list included risky position switches for the Red Sox' Hanley Ramirez (it worked out okay) and the Twins' Miguel Sano (not so much); the Rangers' Nomar Mazara, the Nationals' Trea Turner and the Dodgers' Julio Urias among the rookies to watch (and, ahem, the Astros' A.J. Reed); the annual question about the health of the Mets’ young pitchers (back again on the list this year); and the impact of new managers Dusty Baker (to change the culture in Washington) and Dave Roberts (to handle constant roster churn with the Dodgers).
So here’s your spring training starting nine for 2017. I believe the list is in the best shape of its life.
1. Who are the Red Sox without David Ortiz?
The last Boston team without Ortiz, in 2002, featured Carlos Baerga as the DH. The last time the Red Sox won a playoff game without Ortiz on the team happened in 1999, with Brian Daubach and Butch Huskey splitting the role.
No team this winter lost a bigger bat or a bigger personality than Boston did when Ortiz retired. Spring training will provide some answers as to how the Red Sox will replace Ortiz, both in the clubhouse and on the field.
The team now belongs to Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts, though it’s difficult to imagine either one pulling the team together in the dugout in the middle of a World Series game to rally the troops. In that regard, Ortiz will not be replaced; the vibe will just become very different.
In the lineup, the question will be this: Who provides the important lefthanded bat to balance a righthanded heavy lineup? Ortiz only led the league in slugging, OPS, RBIs, doubles and intentional walks. No one hitter is going to do that. So the answer could come from a combination of rookie outfielder Andrew Benintendi, newly signed DH Mitch Moreland and third baseman Pablo Sandoval.
Think about Ortiz as the Sandy Koufax of hitters: the owner of the greatest final season in baseball history. Without Koufax in 1967, the Dodgers allowed 105 more runs (a 21% increase), and their offense could not compensate, scoring 87 fewer runs. Los Angeles dropped from 95 wins to 73.
Without Ortiz, the Red Sox may well score fewer than the league-leading 878 runs they scored last year. In fact, Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system has them dropping by a whopping 128 runs to 750—returning to just about where they were when they finished in last place in 2015. But the key to overcoming the retirement of Ortiz will be preventing runs—and that’s where newly acquired southpaw Chris Sale comes in. The personality of this team will shift from Ortiz to the Big Three starters: Sale, reigning AL Cy Young winner Rick Porcello and David Price, last winter's big off-season signing.
2. Which hitters will be on the comeback trail?
At one point, you would have put the Nationals' Bryce Harper, the Pirates' Andrew McCutchen and the Cubs' Jason Heyward in the conversation among the most exciting players in baseball. Last season each of them fell to astonishingly poor levels of production. This spring they will be under a microscope.
Harper, 24, is the best bet to bounce back because of his age and because he has had time to recover from the right shoulder/neck injury that plagued him in the second half of last season. Harper injured himself during a series in late June in Milwaukee and wasn’t the same player after that, hitting .238 with nine home runs in 74 games. His physical decline was measurable: According to StatCast, he lost more than four miles per hour off his competitive throws and played as far as 11 feet closer to the plate to compensate for his lack of arm strength.
McCutchen, according to one baseball source, played through nagging hip injuries last year, which would account for his awful body language on defense and on the bases. (Slow-footed Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina was better at going first to third). Quietly, McCutchen did return to his All-Star level late in the year, posting an .869 OPS in his final 50 games. A switch to rightfield this season may hurt his pride, but it should help his offensive game.
Heyward, 27, underwent a swing overhaul this winter under the direction of Cubs hitting coaches John Mallee and Eric Hinske. His previous form, in which he re-gripped the bat as the pitcher loaded and blocked off his front side, made him useless against velocity on the inside part of the plate. With his hands in a lower slot, Heyward should be better—if he can conquer his extreme timing problems.
3. Which pitchers will be better in 2017?
Oakland's Sonny Gray, 27, was once considered the most valuable young pitcher on the trade market. Then 2016 happened. Plagued by trapezius and forearm issues, Gray was so bad for the A's (5.69 ERA in 22 starts) that his value cratered. His velocity dipped, and hitters hammered his four-seam and two-seam fastballs.
The Astros' Dallas Keuchel, 29, won the 2015 Cy Young Award but lost the ability to command and sink his two-seamer in '16; hitters batted .302 against the pitch after hitting .233 against it the previous year. Keuchel eventually was shut down due to shoulder soreness, an injury that most likely bothered him longer than we knew. Is he healthy? That’s the biggest question in Houston’s camp.
The Rangers' Yu Darvish, 30, returned from Tommy John surgery last year with the same velocity, same strikeout stuff and slightly better command. Thus his "comeback" refers only to his ability to make 30 starts in his free-agent walk year.
By the way, keep this list in mind: Most strikeouts in a pitcher's first 100 major league games.
1. Yu Darvish, 812
2. Tim Lincecum, 756
3. Dwight Gooden, 749
4. The health of the Mets’ young starters
Every bullpen session and every spring training start will generate a report card on Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Steven Matz and Zack Wheeler. The Mets have a talented but fragile starting staff behind Noah Syndergaard—the reliable one who has become the most exciting pitcher in baseball.
The Mets have this dream that their four recuperating young arms will stay healthy together for the first time. They would be better off buying lottery tickets. There is nothing in each individual’s history to suggest durability, never mind that all of them will become durable at the same time. Here’s a look at the fragile four, with their Opening Day ages.
Matz (25): He underwent surgery to remove bone spurs in his left elbow last September. Since he was drafted eight years ago, he never has made 25 starts or thrown 150 innings in any season.
Wheeler (26): He has missed two years since undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Harvey (28): He is coming off thoracic outlet surgery, which came two years after he underwent Tommy John surgery. The recovery rate from thoracic outlet surgeries is far less certain than from elbow surgery. Harvey has never made 30 starts in a season and has thrown only 282 major league innings over the past three years.
deGrom (28): He underwent surgery five months ago to repair his ulnar nerve in his pitching elbow. He, too, previously had Tommy John surgery, and is working on his seventh year with a re-built ligament—just about the timeframe that worries some baseball people about the possibility of a revision surgery. deGrom turns 29 this summer and has pitched only 802 2/3 pro innings over seven years.
What is the likelihood that the Mets get 30 starts each from any four young starters? Not good. Keep this in mind: Over the past 10 seasons, only one National League pitching staff has received 30 starts from four pitchers between 23 and 29 years old: the 2012 Reds (Homer Bailey, Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos and Mike Leake).
5. The trade of Jose Quintana to Houston
It has to happen. The White Sox need to continue their rebuild and cash in on Quintana while he is healthy. Houston, even with a dynamic offense, is not a playoff team without improving its rotation. Righthander Francis Martes and outfielder Kyle Tucker would be the key pieces going back to Chicago. Adding major league-ready starter Joe Musgrove, as the White Sox would prefer, pushes the price too high for Houston; a lesser third piece gets it done.
6. The role of Kyle Schwarber on the Cubs
Last spring training, the Cubs groomed Schwarber to be the personal catcher for Jason Hammel—and that would be the extent of his catching, with the bulk of his time reserved for leftfield and at DH for the handful or so games in AL parks. After Schwarber blew out his knee last year, will Chicago still plan on giving him even occasional starts behind the plate? Do you simply take advantage of his bat by playing him only in leftfield and removing him late in games with a lead? Will manager Joe Maddon really bat him leadoff? If so, Maddon is almost certain to bat his pitcher eighth to try to get some runners on for Schwarber. In any case, the priority is to maximize one of the most special young bats in baseball.
7. The employment of Matt Wieters
It seems like the strangest story of the off-season: why a four-time All-Star, two-time Gold Glover and switch-hitting catcher with 20-home run power does not have a job. It’s actually not that strange: It comes down to money, and clubs—starting with the team that knows him best, Baltimore—determined he just wasn’t worth multiple years at $15 million plus. Why? Wieters has become a below average offensive player (OPS+ of 92 over the past two years) and grades out as below average in pitch framing. When you’re signing a player for big bucks over a long term, you want reliably above average skills. Wieters’s best skills—blocking and throwing—are considered more complementary skills than impact skills.
Still, Wieters would be a great addition for several teams, but only on a one-year deal at this stage of the off-season, when money and roster spots are precious. He’d be a good fit for Colorado, where his experience would benefit a young starting staff and take workload and pressure off Tony Wolters, a smallish converted infielder who never has caught more than 66 games in any season on any level.
8. Action on pace of play
The clock is ticking for commissioner Rob Manfred to turn talk into action. We all know baseball has to cut dead time out of games. His trick is to convince the players association to actually do something about it—before Opening Day.
9. How much does Team USA care about winning the World Baseball Classic?
The World Baseball Classic is a fun event with global significance—TV ratings in Japan, for instance, are bigger for the WBC than for the Olympics—but it hasn’t gained traction among American fans, partly because Team USA is 10–10 in WBC competition and has never reached a final. The tournament will only grow when American-born players completely buy into the concept—Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw have yet to play in the tournament—and play with the same passion as we see from other countries. Too many times during a game, I would look at the USA dugout and see players seated quietly on the bench, while opposing teams were on the railing or out of the dugout upon big hits. This is a critical year for the WBC, and its future depends on Team USA playing with emotion and reaching the final.