- As camps open in Arizona and Florida, each team must address a pressing topic, such as: Will the Blue Jays make more moves? Will the A's trade Sonny Gray? And what can David Wright offer the Mets?
This story originally appeared on FoxSports.com.
Spring training is upon us, which means the questions are only beginning.
Some questions must be resolved in March. Others will linger into the regular season. And some will remain deep into the year, perhaps until October is over.
Well, one step at a time. Here is the biggest question that each team faces as camps open. (Teams are presented in alphabetical order by division, from AL East to AL Central to AL West to NL East to NL Central to NL West).
Ken Rosenthal is a senior writer for FoxSports.com and a field reporter for MLB on Fox.
Orioles officials can't be happy that Castillo, who was signed as a free agent this off-season to replace catcher Matt Wieters, will play for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic next month. Castillo is more an offensive asset than a defensive one, and the time he is away will be time that he could have spent acclimating to his new pitching staff.
Sandy Leon was a revelation for much of 2016 before batting .213 with a .539 OPS in September/October. Once upon a time, both Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart were considered the Red Sox’s potential catchers of the future. Maybe the time for one of them finally is arriving—though Swihart, as the only one of the three that can be optioned to Triple A, faces an uphill fight.
We will not learn in the spring whether Greg Bird (first base) and Aaron Judge (rightfield) will be able to hold down their positions long-term. New York's bigger question, for the moment, is the state of its rotation, which is full of risk at the top (Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia) and uncertainty at the bottom (Luis Severino, Luis Cessa, Bryan Mitchell, Chad Green, Adam Warren).
This question, of course, applies to every team, but the low-revenue Rays are in a more precarious position than most. A series of injuries, most notably to centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier, helped wreck them last season. Shortstop Matt Duffy (left Achilles), rightfielder Steven Souza (hip) and first baseman Logan Morrison (left wrist)—each of whom is coming off surgery—will have to bounce back strong if Tampa Bay has any hope of contending.
The Jays’ off-season signings again were economically prudent, but outfielder Jose Bautista is 36, designated hitter Kendrys Morales and reliever J.P. Howell are 33 and reliever Joe Smith is 32. Meanwhile, first baseman Justin Smoak occupies a spot that could go to a better bat (perhaps Pedro Alvarez, who is still available in free agency?) and the bullpen could fall under immediate scrutiny if Howell and/or Smith do not throw well in the spring.
The White Sox will continue weighing offers for lefthander Jose Quintana and others, but understand that Quintana and closer David Robertson might bring more at the non-waiver deadline if they perform well in the first half. Three potential agents—third baseman Todd Frazier, second baseman Brett Lawrie and leftfielder Melky Cabrera—remain highly available.
While the team’s biggest question is whether leftfielder Michael Brantley can return from shoulder trouble, let’s not forget how hard the Indians pushed Kluber last October. In a postseason that stretched to Game 7 of the World Series, Kluber threw 34 1/3 innings, bringing his year-long total to 249 1/3, and he also made three starts on three days of rest. The Indians are certain to proceed with caution this spring.
The Tigers have far deeper issues; even if they contend this season, that will only prolong their inevitable roster teardown. As it stands, outfielder Cameron Maybin was the only significant player the Tigers traded, and with Maybin now in Anaheim, there is a competition in center in Detroit between Tyler Collins, JaCoby Jones and the newly acquired Mikie Mahtook.
The front office signed free-agent righthander Jason Hammel to replace Yordano Ventura, who died last month in a car accident at age 25. The bigger question, perhaps, is how the players will respond to Ventura’s absence from their day-to-day baseball lives. The Royals already were dealing with different uncertainty—the potential free agencies of first baseman Eric Hosmer, third baseman Mike Moustakas, shortstop Alcides Escobar and centerfielder Lorenzo Cain. Now they have a much more serious situation they must overcome.
He reported overweight last spring and took poorly to rightfield, although he did finish with 25 home runs last year. But third base finally opened full-time after the Twins parted ways with Trevor Plouffe, who signed with Oakland this off-season, and now the burden is on Sano to establish himself as more than a DH. The ascensions into stardom of Sano and outfielder Byron Buxton are still the Twins’ best hope for a revival, provided that at some point they improve their starting pitching.
Spring-training blockbusters are rare, and the Astros already have spent the entire off-season trying to land a top-of-the-rotation starter. The White Sox' Jose Quintana, the Athletics’ Sonny Gray and the Rays’ Jake Odorizzi were among their top targets, and each still can be had if Houston meets a certain price. An injury to one of the Astros’ projected starters would only increase the team’s urgency.
General manager Billy Eppler added a number of interesting position players—including infielders Danny Espinosa and Luis Valbuena and outfielders Cameron Maybin and Ben Revere—but it all will mean little if Garrett Richards and his fellow starters do not return to form. Richards underwent stem-cell treatment to avoid Tommy John surgery, and Matt Shoemaker missed the final month due to a skull fracture after getting hit by a comebacker. Tyler Skaggs put up a 4.17 ERA in 10 starts after making his season debut in July, but he should be more consistent in his first full year removed from his own Tommy John operation.
The Athletics could not get their desired value for Gray after he posted a 5.69 ERA in his injury-marred 2016 season. However, a prospective suitor might jump if Gray shows early signs of a revival while pitching for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. The A’s are building an intriguing young nucleus; trading Gray would allow them to collect even more promising parts.
GM Jerry Dipoto is at 13 off-season trades and counting. That means spring training will actually be a meaningful bonding experience for Seattle, as its 25-man Opening Day roster figures to include at least 10 players who were not with the club at the start of last season. Chemistry can be overrated, but teams that undergo dramatic transformations sometimes need time to find their rhythm.
If the 2010 AL MVP can give a passing resemblance to the hitter he once was, the Rangers will have their DH. Hamilton, who turns 36 in May, should be motivated—this is the last season of the five-year, $125 million contract he signed with the Angels after the 2012 season. The question is whether he is healthy after missing all of last season while recovering from knee surgery. Texas's other options at DH include James Loney, Will Middlebrooks and Travis Snider, all of whom are on minor-league contracts.
Winter Report Card: Texas Rangers
The Braves hold eight of the game’s top 78 prospects, according to Baseball America. Dansby Swanson, No. 3 on that list, will be the team’s starting shortstop. Second baseman Ozzie Albies (No. 11) and lefthander Sean Newcomb (No. 78) are getting closer to the majors. It will be fascinating to see which of the kids generates the most buzz.
Spring training will not provide a full answer, but for Volquez it could be the first step toward a revival after he posted a 5.37 ERA for the Royals last season. The Marlins, following the death of Jose Fernandez last September, signed Volquez, made a trade with the Reds to get Dan Straily and added Jeff Locke on a minor-league deal. None of those pitchers is close to Fernandez’s equal, but Volquez at his best is a quality innings-eater with leadership ability.
The Mets face bigger long-term questions—like the health of their starting rotation and the future of outfielder Michael Conforto—but Wright is an immediate concern. He recently turned 34 and has appeared in only 75 games the past two seasons due to serious back and neck issues. Jose Reyes will go from a super-utility man to the regular third baseman if Wright is again unable to perform.
Crawford, the Phillies’ shortstop of the future, is coming off a disappointing, injury-marred season; he batted only .244 with a .647 OPS after moving to Triple A. On the other hand, he just turned 22, and Baseball America still rates him as the 12th-best prospect in the game, down from No. 6 a year ago. A good camp by Crawford, and incumbent shortstop Freddy Galvis will be in trouble; his .274 on-base percentage last season was the lowest in the majors.
The Nationals’ trade talks for White Sox closer David Robertson are seemingly at an impasse, so expect Washington’s pursuit of bullpen help to continue all spring. The party line is that the Nats are happy with their internal options—Shawn Kelley, Koda Glover, Blake Treinen, etc.—but after striking out on free agents Mark Melancon and Kenley Jansen, what else can they say?
As one Cubs official put it, referring to the team’s World Series run, “It would be unrealistic not to expect some kind of pitching hangover.” The extent of that hangover might not be evident in the spring, but Chicago managed its starters carefully all last season. The final innings totals, including postseason: Jon Lester 238 1/3; Jake Arrieta 219 2/3; Kyle Hendricks 215 1/3; John Lackey 201 2/3.
A spring-training trade of Cozart might only be possible if another team’s shortstop suffers an injury, but the Reds finally moved second baseman Brandon Phillips on Sunday, trading the three-time All-Star and pending free agent to Atlanta, and Cozart will also reach the open market at season's end. Cincinnati wants to rebuild with Dilson Herrera and Jose Peraza up the middle. The more playing time those two get in 2017, the better off the Reds will be long-term.
The Brewers will open camp with at least seven potential starters for five spots—righties Chase Anderson, Zach Davies, Matt Garza (pictured), Junior Guerra, Jimmy Nelson and Wily Peralta and lefty Tommy Milone—and manager Craig Counsell has said he will “consider” different ways of deploying his pitching. What that means is not yet clear, but a rebuilding team is the perfect laboratory to experiment with different usage patterns.
The answer at the moment is, “rightfield,” which will be McCutchen’s new position this season after 10,317 1/3 career innings—every inning of his eight-year career—in center. A trade, though, is inevitable, and a big spring by top outfield prospect Austin Meadows could help force the issue sooner than later. McCutchen, 30, will be focused on a comeback season either way, after the former NL MVP slumped to a career-low 103 OPS+ last season.
St. Louis committed 107 errors last year, the sixth-most in the majors and the most by any team with a winning record. The Cardinals finished one game behind NL wild-card teams New York (90 errors) and San Francisco (an MLB-best 72 errors). St. Louis then signed Dexter Fowler to play centerfield, pushing Randal Grichuk to left, and it will have a pair of 26-year-olds anchoring the middle infield in Kolten Wong at second base and Aledmys Diaz at shortstop in his second full season. It sure sounds better. And, though spring-training games matter little, manager Mike Matheny is sure to emphasize crisper defense from the start of Grapefruit League play. The Cardinals need to set a tone early and carry their focus into the season.
If everyone stays healthy, why not? Zack Greinke, Robbie Ray and Taijuan Walker will occupy the top three spots. Archie Bradley, Patrick Corbin and Shelby Miller are vying for the final two places in the starting rotation, with decent alternatives behind them. Arizona remains in a good position to exploit its relative pitching depth in a bid to improve on last year's 69-93 finish.
The youth of the Rockies’ rotation, combined with the relative inexperience of their catchers, is striking. Each of Colorado's potential starters—Tyler Anderson, 27; Chad Bettis, 27; Tyler Chatwood, 27; Jon Gray, 25 (pictured); Jeff Hoffman, 24; German Marquez, 21—is younger than 28 years old. None of them have made more than 90 career starts. The two catchers, Tony Wolters and Tom Murphy, have appeared in 103 major league games combined.
Assuming good health, something will have to give—the Dodgers will open the spring with surpluses of starting pitchers, outfielders and reserves. A roster crunch appears inevitable and difficult decisions await. Righthander Brandon McCarthy and lefthander Scott Kazmir were trade candidates all off-season but have not yet been moved. And if outfielder Yasiel Puig remains with the club, it might not be in an everyday role, as Andre Ethier, Enrique Hernandez, Joc Pederson, Trayce Thompson, Andrew Toles and Scott Van Slyke are also in the mix for playing time.
Spring training is not too early to ask this question; Fangraphs currently projects the Padres’ rotation to be the worst in the majors. That could change, though, as the team continues to explore free-agent alternatives such as lefty Travis Wood and righty Jered Weaver. But for now, try picking an Opening Day starter from Trevor Cahill, Jhoulys Chacin, Jarred Cosart, Christian Friedrich, Luis Perdomo and Clayton Richard.
Look ma, an actual head-to-head competition! GM Bobby Evans has said his preference is for Jarrett Parker or Mac Williamson to win the job outright, and Parker is out of options. Neither is exactly a prospect—Parker, a lefty hitter, is 28 and Williamson, a righy, is 26—and the Giants could also look for modestly priced upgrades throughout the spring.