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AL Spring Training Primer: The Key Question Facing Each Team in Camp

Is Justin Verlander rediscovering his Cy Young form? Is A-Rod going to spawn chaos for the Yankees? Do the Angels have any healthy pitchers? Let’s examine the key question facing each American League team as spring training commences.

I’ll be honest: I’m generally not a big fan of spring training. Seeing baseball players perform baseball-like activities serves as a harbinger of things to come, which is nice, but when the game results don’t matter and the rosters are the size of a high school graduating class, even six weeks of practice and exhibition games isn’t as illuminating as we’d hope. Much as we’d like to believe that a non-roster guy can come in, hit .600 over 20 games and leave camp as the Opening Day shortstop, it doesn’t happen very often, and teams usually enter camp with a pretty good idea of how their lineups and rotations are going to shake out when they leave.

Nevertheless, fans and media have questions. Here’s the most pressing one facing each American League squad as spring training begins.

Baltimore Orioles: Are the corner infielders ready to return to form?

In 2012 and 2013, the Orioles had great success because of Manny Machado and Chris Davis. In 2014, they had even greater success despite getting very little from Machado and even less from Davis. At 22, Mini-Keg is still young enough that it’s not unreasonable to ask for a mulligan on 2014, and it’s hard not to be optimistic about his ability to overcome the frustrating injuries and immaturity that dogged him last year; Machado will not be limited this spring after recovering from his second consecutive season-ending knee injury. Meanwhile, you should bet big on an improved season from Davis, because it doesn’t take a lot to do better than hitting .196 and taking a 25-game amphetamines suspension. After an inactive offseason for the franchise, fans will surely feel better if these two start strong.

Boston Red Sox: Should someone go buy more baseballs?

rick-porcello-red-sox-spring-training-triTony Gutierrez/AP

Last year’s Red Sox underachieved offensively, but adding Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez should help, as should expected improvements from Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr. (if he’s not traded), and Mookie Betts. And that’s good, because writing the phrase “Rick Porcello is the best starting pitcher on a team that plays half of its games in Fenway Park” reminds me of a time growing up when my brother and I went out in the backyard and tried to see how far we could hit a racquetball with an aluminum bat.

Chicago White Sox: Is it Rodon time?

My favorite player in last year’s draft was NC State lefty Carlos Rodon, who went no. 3 overall to the White Sox and made it to Triple-A before season’s end. Rodon is 6-foot-3, 234 pounds and can get a fastball into the low 90s from the left side, which means he’d have to seriously screw up to fail to get a look from a major league team, but he also possesses a slider that follows an aerial path that more closely resembles a good tennis forehand than anything else you’ll find in baseball. He’ll start making big league hitters fall over at the plate this March, then reach the majors at some point this season, at which point White Sox fans can start dreaming about what it’d be like to have Rodon and Chris Sale start the first two games of a playoff series.

Cleveland Indians: How much of the improved pitching staff is for real?

trevor-bauer-curve

Can Corey Kluber repeat his tremendous, Cy Young–winning season? Is the slider-happy Carlos Carrasco we saw in 2014 the real Carlos Carrasco? Can Danny Salazar and Trevor Bauer finally translate stuff into success over 180 or more innings? If even two of those questions can be answered in the affirmative, the Indians could easily take the AL Central. And while we’re asking questions, why can’t Bauer fly his remote-control helicopter at spring training? Major League Baseball’s war on fun continues unabated.

Detroit Tigers: Is Justin Verlander cooked?

The early reports on Verlander from Tigers camp have been glowing, so maybe 2014 really was just a down year due to the unbelievable amount of miles on his arm, and maybe he’ll come back rested and return to the form of, if not 2011 and 2012, at least something better than last year. But maybe the Tigers are going to look at the starting pitchers who’ve left in the past two years (Doug Fister, Max Scherzer, Drew Smyly, and even Porcello) and wonder if their window would have stayed open longer if they’d kept one of them instead of a guy who seems to have turned into the rich man’s Lance Lynn.

Houston Astros: What does Houston’s front office know about Evan Gattis that we don’t?

evan-gattis-rosin

Last summer, I sat in the stands at Houston’s Minute Maid Park and said to myself, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a worse defensive left fielder than Marc Krauss.” GM Jeff Luhnow must have heard me and taken that as a challenge, because I’m not sure why else he’d trade for Gattis, who does one thing well (hit dingers), but can’t draw walks or hit for average, runs like a three-legged pig in quicksand, and plays the field with a conspicuous lack of finesse. Why would the Astros trade Rio Ruiz, Mike Foltynewicz, and a third ambulatory human for a player like that?

My theory: It’s only 315 feet to straightaway left in Houston, and Chris Carter, a player who’s open to many of the same criticisms as Gattis, just hit 37 home runs for the Astros last year. Field dimensions alone might make Gattis more valuable to Houston than any other team.

Kansas City Royals: Who’s starting Opening Day?

The Royals return pretty much every major contributor from the team that came within a game of winning the World Series last year, but the one they lost is a doozy.1 The thing about James Shields isn’t that he’s particularly good, though he is; it’s that he throws 225 innings a year like clockwork. Rookie Yordano Ventura was about as good on a rate basis, but he threw 44 fewer regular-season innings than Shields last year, almost five full games that went to the soft part of the bullpen instead of a top-line starter. That’s admittedly not as big of a deal with this bullpen as it is with most, but it’s still not great. The question facing Ventura, Danny Duffy, and maybe playoff hero Brandon Finnegan isn’t whether they can pitch as well as Shields, but whether they can pitch as much as Shields.

Los Angeles Angels: Are all the pitchers healthy or do the Angels need to fire their medical staff?


1.

Billy Butler is lovable and recognizable, but DH-only players who post sub-league-average batting lines are fairly easy to come by.

garrett-richards-injured-triAP

The Angels won baseball’s toughest division by 10 games last year despite having a mostly ramshackle starting rotation. The days of C.J. Wilson and Jered Weaver as a knockout one-two punch are over, as both are mid-rotation guys at this point in their careers, and the team’s chances at repeating depend largely on the questionable health of several young starters. Garrett Richards was awesome until he blew out his knee in August; he hopes to be ready to start Opening Day, but we’ll learn more about his status this spring. Tyler Skaggs also went on the DL in August to have the dreaded Tommy John surgery, so it’s unclear if he’ll be able to pitch at all in 2015. And as usual, it’s unclear if Hector Santiago’s arm will hold up over 160 or more MLB innings. Even with the addition of Marlins super-prospect Andrew Heaney, the Angels have some work to do.

Minnesota Twins: How long until Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton come up?

Sure, the major league team is going to get better soon, but Twins fans really have their eye on Sano and Buxton, who are as good a pair of hitting prospects as any team has, but both of whom essentially lost an entire year to injury in 2014. Minnesota’s long-term plans rely on both not only being physically recovered, but also making up for lost development time.

New York Yankees: How can this group achieve maximum chaos?

alex-rodriguez-yankees-triKathy Willens/AP

Last week, my friend and podcast mate Paul Boye brought up a possibility that should warm the hearts of those who thrive on the suffering of others. The Yankees are holding three jersey retirement ceremonies this year: May 24 for Bernie Williams, August 22 for Jorge Posada, and August 23 for Andy Pettitte, True Yankees all. Meanwhile, Alex Rodriguez, the most hated man in baseball, is closing in on two milestones: He needs seven home runs to pass Willie Mays for fourth on the career home run list, and 61 hits to reach an even 3,000 for his career. If there is a just God in heaven, A-Rod will reach one of those milestones on one of those holy days of Yankeeism. Of course, all of this is dependent on A-Rod being able to hit seven home runs this year.

Rodriguez might be one of the greatest players of the past 25 years, but he’s also a 39-year-old who’s played in just 44 major league games since 2012 concluded. This spring, we’ll see what kind of physical shape he’s in and how much his skills have atrophied. And maybe we’ll be able to tell if the Yankees are committed to giving him playing time, or if they’re going to try to gaslight him into retirement.

Oakland Athletics: Will luck and quality even out?

Last year’s A’s were a juggernaut before bad luck and injuries torpedoed them in the second half; this year’s version seems to be geared more toward slipping into the second wild-card position and trying its luck. There’s a lot to like about the new acquisitions: Brett Lawrie is still one of the best athletes in the game, and Ben Zobrist’s versatility makes him the perfect Oakland player. The Athletics almost certainly can’t underperform their Pythagorean record by 11 wins again, which will help. But will losing Josh Donaldson, Jon Lester, Jeff Samardzija, and Brandon Moss hurt more? We’ll start to see how the new unit jells this spring.

Seattle Mariners: What happened to the rest of Jesus Montero?

jesus-montero-mariners-triCharlie Riedel/AP

I’ve got to say, if I were a ballplayer and a member of my team’s front office called me fat as publicly and ostentatiously as a Mariners cross-checker did to Montero last year, I would spend my offseason alone with a thesaurus and a notebook in the corner booth at a local pizzeria, having a large pie and a pitcher of beer 12 meals a week while figuring out new ways to tell my employer to go fuck himself. I would not report to camp, as Montero did, looking like I wanted to have a cameo in the next Magic Mike movie. Way to take the high road, Jesus. I hope you hit 40 home runs.

Tampa Bay Rays: Can we please give John Jaso some love?

There are some players I irrationally like, and Jaso, a catcher/DH who’s starting his second tour of duty in Tampa, is one of them. Jaso has never registered more than 404 plate appearances in a season, yet he remains valuable because while there are a bunch of guys who can catch and a bunch of guys who can hit, there aren’t many who can do both. Even in part-time duty, Jaso has posted league-average power numbers and walked about as much as he struck out, which makes him a very rare and very underappreciated player. Small wonder he’s played most of his career for teams that have a reputation for collecting guys like that.

Texas Rangers: How much can you expect from Rougned Odor?

rougned-odor

Following last week’s news that super-prospect Jurickson Profar will likely miss a second straight season with a shoulder injury, the second-base job once again falls to Odor, who looked very small, very young, and very out of his depth at times as a 20-year-old rookie in 2014. The thing is, even being bad in the majors at that age is an indicator of tremendous talent, and attrition or no, Odor posted a below-average-but-not-awful 90 wRC+. He’s not Profar, but Odor has nowhere to go but up.

Toronto Blue Jays: Does Michael Saunders carry Marcus Stroman to and from practice like Luke Skywalker carrying Yoda?

Saunders (6-4, 225 pounds) and Stroman (5-9, 185 pounds) will both be fan favorites this year in Toronto. In Saunders’s case, that’s because he’s Canadian and there’s nothing Canadian sports fans love more than Canadian athletes. (Except maybe international hockey, because, hey, everyone’s got to have something to be proud of.) Stroman, however, has assembled a six-pitch arsenal that’s best described as a greatest hits compilation of the best pitchers in the game. Maybe it’s unreasonable to expect so much from a soon-to-be 24-year-old with only 130.2 big league innings to his name, but it’s hard not to get carried away imagining Stroman turning into a Happy Meal–size version of Roy Halladay.