It’s spring training time. For fans, spring training brings hope, the sunshine, the crack of the bat and every other wonderful indicator of the upcoming baseball season.
For teams, though, it’s time to get to work. How are rosters going to be filled out? What will the lineups look like?
What are the most intriguing battles to follow in spring training? That’s the question we’re answering here.
What do Jason Heyward and Pablo Sandoval need to do in spring training to help rectify terribly contracts? What battles are most important for rebuilding teams? Which contenders have the most significant fights?
What are the eight most intriguing battles to follow in spring training?
Chicago Cubs: Jason Heyward vs. himself
We start with a unique battle in that it’s not one player against another. Even still, it is one of the more interesting battles out there.
Heyward should head into spring training with one thought in his mind: Make Joe Maddon’s job difficult. Or, to borrow a phrase from Maddon himself, try not to suck.
A rough spring training from Heyward will make Maddon’s job easy.
That would give Chicago a natural every-day lineup of Willson Contreras at catcher, Anthony Rizzo at first, Javier Baez at second, Kris Bryant at third, Addison Russell at short, Albert Almora Jr. or Jon Jay in center, with Kyle Schwarber and Ben Zobrist as the corner outfielders.
Even with a massive contract, Heyward would be the odd man out.
But what happens if Heyward rediscovers his bat?
Does he become a corner outfielder? If so, where does Schwarber fit in? He’s not just a No. 3 catcher. Could a big camp from Heyward open the door for a trade? It’s certainly possible.
If not, would Heyward be moved to center? Jay is a prototypical fourth outfielder. But Almora is one of the game’s top prospects.
Might a strong spring training from Heyward open up trade possibilities for Almora? If nothing else, it would certainly create some interesting questions.
Given that the Cubs are the reigning World Series champs and what happens in spring training could open the door for at least one high profile early season trade, Heyward vs. himself is a remarkably compelling spring training battle.
Philadelphia Phillies: Howie Kendrick vs. Aaron Altherr
The depth chart on Philadelphia’s official website has Altherr listed as the backup at all three outfield positions. Still, Altherr remains highly regarded within the organization.
— Philly.com Sports (@phillysport) February 17, 2017
Given the team’s general youth movement, Kendrick is likely the most vulnerable.
In 2015, Altherr hit 14 MiLB home runs in 433 at-bats. When he got to the majors, he hit five home runs in only 137 at-bats.
Unfortunately, Altherr missed nearly all of 2016, but he still hit four home runs in a fairly limited time.
He’s already shown that he can hit home runs at a strong pace. Altherr is only 26. The prime power years are usually in the late 20’s into the early 30’s. So, if he recovers from 2016’s injury, Altherr’s power could get even more prolific.
If Altherr can regain his 2015 form and crack this lineup, the Phillies become a team with a solid offensive foundation and would have a lineup with 6-7 legitimately tough outs.
That’s a big step in the right direction for a team that hasn’t seen any tangible success since 2011.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Julio Urias vs. Scott Kazmir vs. Brandon McCarthy vs. Hyun-Jin Ryu
Four guys fighting for two spots. The pitchers to really watch here are Urias and Ryu.
Urias is the most fascinating guy in this mix. He’s only 20 and has the most raw potential of the quartet. But the Dodgers have been incredibly cautious with Urias since he joined the organization in 2013. Between AAA and the majors in 2016, he threw only 122 innings. But even that was his highest total as a pro by a fairly significant margin.
If he clearly outshines the other three, Los Angeles will almost be obligated to make him one of the starters. Still, being so cautious with a starting pitcher is always a chore, especially given that the Dodgers are one of baseball’s best teams.
Ryu was an integral part of Los Angeles’ success in 2013 and 2014, but things changed a lot from there. He missed all of 2015 with an injury, appeared only once in an ineffective outing last year only to be sidelined again with an injury.
Which Ryu will show up in spring training? Will he give the Dodgers enough confidence to put him back in the rotation?
Even with the questions, a rotation that includes both Urias and Ryu is a good thing for Los Angeles. The starting rotation of Clayton Kershaw, Kenta Maeda, Rich Hill, Urias and Ryu would be quite formidable.
Kazmir and McCarthy are really the safe plays.
Both are established veterans, and at this point, it’s hard to imagine either with a high ceiling. The top-three would still give the Dodgers a strong starting staff, but Los Angeles would be a little more beatable if its starting rotation couldn’t include Urias and Ryu.
Chicago White Sox: Yoan Moncada vs. Brett Lawrie
This battle isn’t so much about who will start on opening day. That will probably be Lawrie.
— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) February 18, 2017
The question is, how much heat can Moncada put on him?
A strong spring training from Moncada will be a good sign that his MLB struggles in 2016 were just a bump in the road. Also, with a strong spring, smart money would say that Moncada will be with the White Sox relatively early in the season.
But what happens with a bad spring?
All of a sudden, doubt would start to creep in. The earlier that Moncada can show his struggles last year weren’t a sign of anything to come, the better off he’ll be. With a bad spring training, optimism won’t be easy to come by.
In 2016, Tim Anderson gave us a strong glimpse of what he can do at the Major League level. If Moncada — MLB.com’s No. 2 ranked prospect — can do the same thing in 2017, the the White Sox will be able to look ahead to a decade of a strong middle infield. That’s a great foundation for a rebuilding team to have.
It starts with a strong performance this spring.
Texas Rangers: Ryan Rua vs. Joey Gallo
Whether at first base or designated hitter, it’s fair to say that Mike Napoli will be an every day player. But who gets the other spot?
Gallo has fantastic power and is defensively versatile. But with a career MLB slash line of .173/.281/.368 and a whopping 76 strikeouts in only 133 at-bats, he’s got a lot of work to do. Rua’s career MLB slash line of .255/.308/.404 is certainly better, but it also leaves a lot to be desired.
For the Rangers, it’s important that one of these players steps up and grabs this position by the horns.
Gallo has the higher ceiling, no doubt. If Texas was a bad team, it’d almost be worth it to give him the spot and put Rua on the trade blocks. But Rua is a much safer pick. He isn’t a perfect player, but his flaws haven’t shown him to be a liability at the MLB level. That’s valuable for a team that had the American League’s best record in 2016.
There’s a lot to watch with these two during spring training.
New York Yankees: Greg Bird vs. Chris Carter
The Yankees are perhaps MLB’s most interesting team. Are they a rebuilding team? The emergence of players like Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge would certainly suggest they are. But what kind of rebuilding team signs Aroldis Chapman and Matt Holliday in the same offseason?
How this battle goes will go a long way in determining what kind of team New York will be in 2017. Or at least, it will tell us how the Bronx Bombers see themselves.
Carter is perhaps this generation’s version of Adam Dunn. You have to put up with a lot of strikeouts and be okay with someone who doesn’t get on base very often. But at the same time, Carter has the power to rectify a dismal 0-for-4 game with a 450-foot walkoff homer. He’s flawed, but Carter is a safe bet.
If New York sees itself as a contender and doesn’t want to gamble, Carter is the guy.
But if the Yankees see themselves on the fringe of contention or worse, Bird is the better play. He missed all of 2016 with an injury and has only 157 at-bats to his name. But in those at-bats, he hit an impressive 11 home runs. Better yet, he slashed at a respectable .261/.343/.529.
Of course, Bird also brings the dreaded small sample size. That makes him more of a gamble. He has the higher ceiling but also the lower (or at least less predictable) floor.
If one player vastly outperforms the other, it’s a no-brainer. But if the two have comparable springs, the Yankees decision here will tell a lot about what kind of team New York thinks it will have.
Tampa Bay Rays: Matt Andriese vs. Jose De Leon
While we expect the Rays to be surprisingly good in 2017, we don’t think they’re a playoff team. So this pitching battle may not have the same postseason impact as the one going on in Los Angeles. Still, it’s similar.
Andriese isn’t a veteran like Kazmir or McCarthy, but he represents a similar option — the safe play. His two years in the majors haven’t been bad. Still, there’s nothing about Andriese to indicate that he’s anything other than a bottom half of the rotation guy.
The same is not true for De Leon, one of baseball’s top prospects.
De Leon struggled in his brief time with the Dodgers in 2016. Still, he’s been nothing short of dominant at every stop along the way in the minors. In his MiLB career, DeLeon has a K/9 rate of 12.1. Even in a strikeout heavy era, that’s well above average for a starting pitcher.
De Leon is certainly young, and his brief 2016 MLB stint showed that he has to learn the art of pitching. But his stuff is absolutely overwhelming.
@SandyKazmir His new teammate Jose De Leon had a 32% K% with 27 pop outs to push his K+PO% to 40%. Any defense would love these guys.
— Sandy Kazmir (@SandyKazmir) February 17, 2017
A starting rotation of Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Alex Cobb, Blake Snell and De Leon would at least have the potential to be one of the best in the American League.
Tampa still has a long way to go on offense before it can call itself a contender. But a strong spring training from De Leon is a sign that the team’s starting pitching is headed in the right direction.
Boston Red Sox: Pablo Sandoval vs. Brock Holt
The first two years of the Panda’s career in Boston have been awful. In 2015, he slashed at .245/.292/.336 and hit only 10 home runs. At the time, those were all career lows. He then missed nearly all of 2016, logging only six at-bats.
Both with the Red Sox and San Francisco Giants, Sandoval’s struggles have almost coincided with a weight gain. Fans throughout New England can breathe a temporary sigh of relief because right now, it looks like he’s in decent shape.
— Marcus Vanderberg (@marcowill) February 16, 2017
Holt is another interesting end of this. At one point, Boston seemed to have high hopes for his future with the team. But thus far, his MLB career has been fairly underwhelming.
A strong camp from Sandoval would make him the Red Sox third baseman. His massive contract is untradeable. But with a bad spring training, Boston would almost be obligated to leave the Panda on the bench. This is especially true if Holt performs well.
But what happens if they both play well?
In that case, the Red Sox would have a potential trade chip in Holt. He’s been underwhelming throughout his career but is not even 29. He wouldn’t be the first hitter to bloom a little late.
As is the case with the Cubs, this is interesting for a few reasons. One, can a guy with a huge contract redeem himself? Two, can a once promising player make a good enough showing for himself to be a trade option and a valuable asset for another team.
Multiple layers make this one intriguing.