5 MLB Spring Training Storylines to Watch
As most of the nation deals with cold air that is coming from Siberia -- seriously, folks, we're dealing with air that came from freaking Siberia here -- baseball players have either arrived or are arriving at spring training facilities in both Florida and Arizona.
And while Florida is caught up in this Siberian Frozen Polar Votex Express of Doom, it'll get warm and sunny there soon. And at the very least, those of us buried up to our necks with snow and ice can look at pictures of actual, real green grass, pearl-white baseballs, and men in shirt sleeves and baseball caps, all doing baseball things.
Over the course of the last few weeks, I've delved into some of the more intriguing storylines shaping up for this season. What are the Yankees going to do with Alex Rodriguez? Is Miguel Cabrera going to bounce back from a disappointing 2014? What the heck is going on in the Red Sox outfield? And I looked at 10 hitters who could break out this year, along with peeks at David Wright, Manny Machado, Joey Votto and Troy Tulowitzki, all of whom are trying to bounce back from injuries last season.
But now, with pitchers and catchers arriving and baseball finally, at long last, getting back underway, here is a look at five additional storylines to watch for this year.
Where Will All The Phillies Vets End Up?
Yes, yes, yes, I know. It's going to be an awkward camp in Clearwater this spring. Starting pitcher Cole Hamels is already on record as saying he wants to play for a winner (news flash: that ain't the Phils anymore), Cliff Lee was using a Magic 8-ball to help answer questions about his future on Thursday.
...I'm not kidding -- a Magic 8-ball.
Jonathan Papelbon is still in camp despite numerous attempts by team officials to trade him, and Ryan Howard has all but been told the team would be better off without him. So yeah, it's not going to be a pretty start to the season.
But you've got to believe Hamels will get dealt at some point this year, probably closer to July but possibly before camp breaks, especially if a potential playoff team suffers an injury to its starting rotation. There are plenty of teams desperate for quality relievers and, if Papelbon stays healthy and pitches like he always has, he should garner attention as well. Lee will be an attractive arm at midseason if his elbow doesn't explode, and Ryan Howard -- well, let's just hope they can find a nice home for him where he can roam free and play with other Ryan Howards.
But where these four veteran players end up, and when, will be of particular interest this season.
Can Prince Fielder Rebound?
I've never had a herniated disk in my neck that needed fusion before, but I gotta tell ya, I don't think that sounds like a lot of fun. But that's what Prince Fielder had last year, so you can see why he was pretty terrible during the first, and only, 42 games he played with the Texas Rangers.
Fielder says he's healed and has received a clean bill of health, which is good. The Rangers are paying him $18 million a year every year through the year 2020 (the Tigers are kicking in $6 million a season as part of their deal with Texas last off-season), so the Rangers are hoping their slugging first baseman will return to form. Texas already lost Jurickson Profar for what will likely be the rest of the season after discovering he has a torn labrum in his shoulder that will require surgery.
Prince has seen his power numbers steadily drop since 2011, going from 38 homers to 30, to 25 and then just 3 last year in 178 plate appearances. His isolated power (ISO) has also dropped from .267 in 2011, to .215, to .178, to .113 last year, and his home run per fly ball percentage (HR/FB) has gone from 21.8%, to 17.9%, to 13.5%, to 7.7%.
That's a troubling trend. However, Fielder is just 31 years old and is playing in a park that should be much more hospitable to him that Comerica Field was. If his neck isn't killing him, it will be interesting to see how his power numbers respond, if at all.
The Returns of Jose Fernandez, Matt Harvey, Michael Wacha and Masahiro Tanaka
I'm not quite sure who I'm more excited to see return in 2015. When those four pitchers, Jose Fernandez, Matt Harvey, Michael Wacha, and Masahiro Tanaka went down with injuries, baseball lost four of the most exciting arms in the game.
Fernandez had Tommy John surgery and is scheduled to start pitching off a mound soon. However, his timetable to return to the Marlins isn't until sometime between June 15 and July 15. But when he does come back, he could be a huge mid-season pick-up for a Miami team that could be a surprise contender in the National League this season. In his brief career, the 22-year old is 16-8 with a 2.25 ERA averaging 10.3 strikeouts a game with an ERA+ of 172.
Harvey also had Tommy John surgery, but he got hurt back in August of 2013 and is about 18 months removed from surgery, so all systems are go for him to anchor the Mets' rotation at the start of the season. The big question will be whether he can duplicate the phenomenal season he was having two years ago before he got hurt, when he went 9-5 with a 2.27 ERA in 26 starts, striking out 9.6 batters per nine innings with a league-leading Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) of 2.01. He started the All-Star Game that year and finished fourth in the Cy Young voting.
Wacha, the team's 2013 postseason hero, suffered what was called a "shoulder stress reaction" last season and missed two months, going 5-6 with a 3.20 ERA in just 107 innings pitched. The good news is that his velocity was consistent last season and that the injury did not require surgery. The 23-year-old has perhaps the most upside of any of their young hurlers, and could be the difference between the Cardinals winning the National League Central and finishing outside of a playoff spot.
The Yankees' Tanaka burst onto the scene last year after signing a huge $155 million, seven-year contract with New York, and appeared as though he'd be worth every penny, going 13-5 with a 2.77 ERA in 20 starts. But then Tanaka partially tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. It was feared he'd need surgery, but instead opted for rest, and came back late in the season to make two starts for the Yankees. Reports are he threw a bullpen session in spring training on Thursday, and all systems are go. Last year, Tanaka struck out 9.3 batters per nine and walked just 1.4.
Max Scherzer and the Nats Super Rotation
I still believe what I wrote last month when the Nationals signed Max Scherzer to an insane seven-year, $210 million that pays him the money over a 14-year period. But as I mentioned, it sure does give the Nats a rotation that appears almost unbeatable in the regular season. And while the Marlins and Mets have visions of making some noise in the NL East, it's going to be hard to make up ground against a crew that also features Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman, Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister.
Yes, the Los Angeles Dodgers have a solid rotation, the addition of Jon Lester gives the Cubs a solid group, and even James Shields makes the Padres a threat. But it will be very interesting to see just how far a Super Rotation can take a team, especially in the playoffs. After all, it didn't do much for the 2011 Phillies in a short series.
It will also be interesting to see if the Nats decide to extend Zimmerman, who is in the last year of his deal. Regardless, Zimmerman is there now, and the Nats are all-in for a world championship in 2015.
Who Is the Most Improved Club?
It's hard to say who that is, but I've got my top four: the Padres, White Sox, Red Sox and Cubs. All made themselves better to varying degrees this offseason.
San Diego completely remade their roster this offseason, and were in on virtually every big-name player. They scored a very nice contract with Shields to anchor what was an already solid starting rotation. They completely re-tooled their outfield as well, bringing in Matt Kemp, Wil Myers and Justin Upton in trades. It was a transformation that would have made Renee Zellweger proud.
Chicago's off-season went under the radar for some reason, but they appeared to get a bit better too, picking up an ace in Jeff Samardzija, David Robertson, first baseman, DH Adam LaRoche, and outfielder Melky Cabrera. But was it enough? Chris Sale, Samardzija and Jose Quintana make a nice top-three, but there are holes in other places.
Boston has a glut of position players after signing Hanley Ramirez to play left field and Pablo Sandoval to play third. They didn't do enough to bolster their starting rotation, however, relying on Rick Porcello to be the staff ace. Frankly, this is a team that is screaming for one more important piece to be added to the puzzle, Cole Hamels. But, so far, they've been reluctant to offer to the type of prospects Philadelphia is seeking in return. Still, I think this is a deal that happens at some point this season.
The Cubs' addition of Lester will clearly help a rotation that could be one of the NL's best, with Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel, Travis Wood and Edwin Jackson in it. And if any of those guys stumbles or gets hurt, they have the resources to trade for a Hamels or, if the Reds fall out of contention by mid-season, a Johnny Cueto. The third base job should go to super prospect Kris Bryant at some point, and the rest of the team is bursting at the seams with young talent, specifically the young Cuban Jorge Soler.
Baseball is finally here, everybody. Let's all thaw out by the warm glowing warming glow of spring training pictures on your internet.