10 Things we hope to learn this Spring
By Andrew Fish Fain
Pitchers and catchers have reported to all training camps, and full squads aren’t far behind. We are just days away from our first spring games, and just over 4 weeks away from the Dodgers and Diamondbacks opening the regular season in Australia.
But before the games start for real or otherwise, there are a number of questions that baseball fans want to know the answers to. Spring training is a perfect place to learn some of these mysteries. So we will try to answer the Top 10 questions people want answers to heading into the 2014 season
• What will happen to the Gang of Four?
That is the name being given to the four bigger named free agents who have still not found homes. The one thing all have in common is that they were all given qualifying offers, so any team that signs them loses a draft pick. But you can’t tell me Stephen Drew, Nelson Cruz, Kendrys Morales and Ervin Santana can’t help some team.
I think each and every one of these guys has a home that just makes a ton of sense if the baseball people (that means Owners, GM, Agents & Players), would just do the inevitable:
Nelson Cruz is a perfect fit hitting behind Robinson Cano in Seattle, giving their new big money guy (who we will get to a little later), the protection he will sorely need.
Kendrys Morales and the Pirates were a match made in heaven. This is a team that not only finished above .500 for the first time in 20 years, but they also made the playoffs. So now is not the time to go cheap. Since they haven’t spent any cash really since the off-season, and had a ton of it come off when the lost AJ Burnett, why not spend a little and get yourself some pop at first, something you haven’t had for quite a while.
Stephen Drew should trade in his Red Sox for Mets blue and orange. The team can’t survive with Reuben Tejada manning the middle, and Drew has been rumored in the Big Apple for some time both his glove and bat should be a welcome addition and will lengthen a line-up that has a new look that could be dangerous. Sandy Alderson has had conversations with him, but until his demands come down, he may be out there for a while.
Ervin Santana should hope for a good exchange rate as he heads up to Toronto to pitch for the Blue Jays. He would slot in nicely where Josh Johnson left, and if Brandon Morrow can stay healthy and they can get even a little out of the kids, there rotation starts to look pretty good. Considering that the Jays pick is protected, they wouldn’t even have to give up compensation to get him.
• How will Tanaka adjust to the US and NY?
Well if he performs like most of the Japanese pitchers who have made the transition to the United States (Hiroki Kuroda, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Yu Darvish with Hideo Nomo being the exception), his first year will be average at best. That will become a problem, considering how much he is being paid and the fact that he is pitching for the Yankees. GM Brian Cashman has already tried to temper expectations by saying he is just their #3 starter. But again, does a 3 deserve $155 mil? I think not, and I don’t blame Yankee fans for being a little ticked off.
The big question will be if his psyche can handle the boos he will get when he gets shelled at Yankee Stadium. Remember, Japanese pitchers only pitch once a week, with much smaller balls and less talented hitters. I think a 12-7 record with an ERA around 4.00 is what should be expected. He will never touch with how good Darvish is going to be, as he is not the strikeout pitcher Darvish is, but he will eventually shape up into a decent three+/two-.
• Can the Yankees get back to contending?
With the Captain Derek Jeter retiring after this season, you know the Bronx Bombers would love to send him off with another World Title. Sadly, I don’t think that is going to come close to happening.
Yes, they added Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran and Tanaka, and Mark Teixeria and Jeter should both be healthy this year, but it is not enough. Not only did they lose their best hitter Robinson Cano to free agency, but like him or hate him A-Rod will not be there either and he is a solid bat, even at his advanced age.
This team is still full of holes and question marks. Will Teixeria stay healthy and go back to his power ways? Can Kelly Johnson and Brian Roberts be everyday players and add something? Can Carlos Beltran’s knees hold up? Will Ellsbury be able to stay off the DL? Are Sabathia and Kuroda over the hill as last year would suggest? Can David Robertson be even half the closer Mariano was? Who will set-up for this team?
See, too many questions and not enough answers to go around. Last year Joe Girardi did a masterful job to get the Yankees to win 85 games, this year 85 may be the celing.
• Where will David Price go?
As of this writing, the answer to this question is easy … Nowhere!!! The Rays are bucking their own trend of trading guys at their highest value before they have to pay them. With 2 years until free agency for the southpaw ace, this was the off-season that the Rays would have been able to get the biggest haul.
If the Rays are in the playoff hunt in July (as they should be), then Price will remain the head of their young and impressive rotation, and he will be dealt in the off-season.
However, if the Rays are out of the race for some strange reason come July, he will be the biggest chip on the trade market.
I am not sure they will be able to get the haul they got from Kansas City in the James Shields deal, but you better believe they will get one Major League ready top prospect and at least 2 other solid prospects who are about a year or two away.
So which teams have the ability to trade for Price? Well the Dodgers are the leaders in the clubhouse, being able to offer Joc Pederson, Zach Lee and Corey Seager. But the Mariners with phenom Taijuan Walker can make a strong case, just like the Cardinals with their bevy of young arms and even the Rangers could get involved at that point. Just don’t expect Price to be wearing anything other than a Rays uni this season.
• Who will be this year’s Indians/Pirates?
Picking who will be the biggest surprises is always a tough bet. But every year there is at least one team in each league who nobody really saw competing battling for a playoff spot. Last season the Pirates and Indians were those two teams. Is there room for two more teams to make that leap? I say yes.
Let me start by saying the Padres, Royals and Mariners will all be improved, but I don’t really see any of them falling into this category. No, I have the two teams I think will be the surprise this year and let’s start in the Junior Circuit.
The Los Angeles Angels have been a major disappointment since doling out large deals to Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton. But this is the year they put it all together and get back in the post-season. Pujols is finally healthy again and I don’t see Hamilton struggling as much this year. Add in the best player in the game in Mike Trout plus the addition of a solid 3rd baseman (something they haven’t had since Troy Glaus), David Freese and this team’s offense will be much improved.
Their rotation, which had been a weak spot has been bolstered by the addition of a pair of lefty’s Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs. With little pressure on them in the 4 & 5 hole, they should hold up nicely behind Jered Weaver, CJ Wilson and Garret Richards.
Over in the NL the team to be on the lookout for is the Milwaukee Brewers. With Matt Garza added to the top of the rotation that already features bounce back candidate Yovani Gallardo and Kyle Lohse, their rotation has become very solid.
Their offense gets Ryan Braun back (more on him in a minute) to go with Carlos Gomez in center and last year’s surprise Khris Davis in right. The infield is even stronger with the slugging platoon of Mark Reynolds and Juan Francisco at first, Scooter Gennett and Jean Segura up the middle with studs Jonathan Lecroy and Aramis Ramirez behind the plate and at 3rd respectively, offense will not be hard to come by. They even have some trade chips should they need it come the deadline in July.
So look for the Brewers and Angels to battle for a spot in the post-season this year, surprising all but the most avid of all baseball fans.
• Which Ryan Braun will we see?
That depends on how strong his psyche is. If he can handle the boos he will hear, both at home and on the road (which I think he can), then I think you will still see one hell of an outfielder. Remember, when most of these PED users started taking them, they did it not to improve their game, but to be able to recover faster from the daily bumps and bruises, as well as the bigger injuries.
Without the PED’s, I still think you will see a .300 hitter who is capable of 30 blasts and 100 driven in. He may not steal as many bases as he once did, and he may not be a perennial MVP candidate, but he will still be a very effective slugger.
• Who will be the odd man out in the Dodgers OF?
This question is not as simple as it would first appear. All during the off-season the Dodgers were listening for deals for one of their four outfield bats, especially Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier.
While Kemp would get the bigger haul, the problem is he is still recovering from micro fracture surgery on his ankle. So the Dodgers are only being offered .50 on the dollar.
When he is healthy, he is one of the best hitters in the game, so while the trade would be better, the Dodgers may not want to give up a healthy Kemp.
So Andre Ethier becomes the guy I believe the Dodgers will deal before the season ends. He has pop in his bat, hits left-handed and can play all 3 OF positions. He is on a reasonable contract, that I am sure the deep pocketed Dodgers would be willing to pick-up a chunk of for the right players. If I were to venture a guess, I think the one deal the Dodgers may take would be sending Ethier and maybe a prospect to the Reds for Brandon Phillips. This move especially makes sense if rookie Alexander Guerrero can’t handle 2nd base.
What makes dealing one of the outfielders a little more palatable for the Dodgers is that their top prospect, Joc Pederson, is also an outfielder and they will need some room for him too soon.
• Was Robinson Cano worth it for the Mariners?
If the Mariners sign Nelson Cruz, like I mentioned earlier in this piece, the deal should very well be worth it, at least for the first 6 years until age starts to catch up to him.
With Cruz protecting him in the line-up and a solid young staff on the hill, as well as newcomers Corey Hart and Logan Morrison, I think this Mariners squad could be in the wild card hunt come September.
If they don’t get any protection for him, then Cano will just be constantly pitched around and the Mariners will have spent over $200 million on one of the best walkers in the game.
• Who are the kids to look out for heading into the season?
Every year Major League clubs get an infusion of youth and exuberance by adding a prospect or two to the line-up or rotation. Sometimes the kids make the club out of spring training, other times an injury or poor play causes them to get called up mid-season.
2013 was a banner year for these kids as guys like Wil Myers, Gerrit Cole, Yasiel Puig, Jose Fernandez, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Christian Yellich all made a major impact on their clubs. So who will be those guys this year?
Well here is a list of at least 7 guys who I guarantee you will hear from in the 2014 season:
Taijuan Walker – P Mariners; the kid with the hardest cutter in the game is just about guaranteed a spot in the M’s rotation. He has the skill set to be an ace, yet the luxury of being able to learn from and pitch behind King Felix and Hisashi Iwakuma.
Jameson Tallion – P Pirates; His stuff is A+, but his control is more like a C. When he learns to harness what he has, he will team with Gerrit Cole to form one of the best 1-2 combo’s in the NL.
Archie Bradley – P D-Backs; throwing strikes is the key to a long career, but with Bradley’s velocity and incredible curve it hasn’t been easy so far. Once he gets that consistency, he will be mainstay in the D-Backs rotation.
Billy Hamilton – OF Reds; any time this kid gets on first, with his speed it might as well be a double. He is the fastest man in baseball, and will easily steal 100 bags as the Reds leadoff man and centerfielder. Of course, in order to steal second, you have to get on first, which may pose the biggest problem for him.
Addison Reed – SS A’s; He is poised to lead the next wave of shortstops in the majors. He has all the speed, skill and athleticism to revolutionize the position. He needs to work on his defense, his footwork around the bag specifically, in order to make the impact he should.
Miguel Sano – 3B Twins; There is one thing this kid doesn’t lack is confidence. After hitting 35 bombs in 123 minor league games last season, Sano came out and said he expects to hit 45-55 this season in the bigs. I am not so sure of that, but there is no question he will be a big improvement over what the Twins have there currently.
Byron Buxton – OF Twins; He is ranked as the number 1 prospect in all of baseball, and for good reason. He has all the tools to be the next Mike Trout. He just needs to learn to settle down and hit Major League pitching and Buxton is a name you will be hearing for years to come.
• Who will be in the post season and win it all?
Finally, a question that won’t be answered in Spring Training, but merely a forecast of who is playing for October.
AL West: Oakland A’s
AL Central: Kansas City Royals
AL East: Tampa Bay Rays
AL Wild Cards: Los Angeles Angels & Detroit Tigers
ALCS: The A’s over the Angels
NL West: Los Angeles Dodgers
NL Central: St Louis Cardinals
NL East: Washington Nationals
NL Wild Cards: Milwaukee Brewers & San Francisco Giants
NLCS: The Dodgers over the Cardinals
World Champions: Dodgers over the A’s