The World Baseball Classic is over, but spring training certainly is not.
Now that Shohei Ohtani has struck out Mike Trout to finish the most popular, widely watched WBC in the 17-year history of the event, the actual business of the final week of preparing MLB rosters accelerated into Thursday’s openers.
And that means precious few days to make, for some teams, very big decisions — and in a few cases to clear as much sweat as possible from their brows over unresolved crises.
Four of the most important decisions for teams left that might have big ripple effects for their longer-term prospects and those around them:
How the Houston Astros replace Jose Altuve
Altuve, who had surgery Wednesday on the thumb he broke when hit by a pitch during the WBC, could miss close to half the MLB season.
Replacing the eight-time All-Star at second base? That’s not the big issue; utility guys Mauricio Dubon and David Hensley should be able to confine and cover the defending World Series champs in the field.
But in the Astros’ leadoff spot? That’s the big deal, especially for a team with big middle-order hitter Yordan Alvarez compromised with lingering effects of a hand injury.
Don’t look for the Astros to go outside the organization anytime soon with new general manager Dana Brown saying the plan is to “exhaust what we have” internally, at least for now.
That could mean right-handed Jeremy Pena, last year’s impressive rookie, who finished the season batting second, could just move up a spot, providing among other things a version of the sudden-power threat Altuve brought to the table. He has batted leadoff this spring regularly in Altuve’s absence.
Others could take over or rotate through the spot: Lefty Kyle Tucker (.344 on-base percentage the last two years), eventually lefty Michael Brantley (.356 career) and maybe even — in a tryout or for matchups — Hensley (.441 OPS in brief look after callup last year).
Could be a work in progress for manager Dusty Baker for months.
Speaking of leadoff hitters for 100-win playoff teams…
New York Mets leadoff man Brandon Nimmo looked like a sure injured-list member for the start of the MLB season when he went down with a leg injury on an awkward base-running play late in camp.
But the $162 million outfielder’s MRI showed no structural damage, and he told reporters afterward he hopes to be ready to play in the opener. “I was relieved it wasn’t more serious,” he said.
Now the next few days become critical to show he’s ready.
Speaking of expensive, injured Mets…
How the Mets replace $102 million closer Edwin Diaz after his freak, season-ending knee injury, suffered while celebrating a WBC win, might have the biggest impact on the NL East race for any issue involving one player.
Owner Steve Cohen, who has spent huge and often to build his MLB playoff team, told the New York Post he has no plans to do that to replace Diaz, citing the danger of overreacting and the consequent “tendency to make mistakes or overpay for somebody.”
“If we need to fill a hole, we’ll fill it, but I don’t see a need to overreact,” he said.
Instead, look for veteran closer David Robertson, the right-hander signed this winter after a post-Tommy John bounce-back with the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies last year, and holdover righty setup man Adam Ottavino — with the more potentially dominant arsenal — to get first shots to earn the regular role.
Left-hander Brooks Raley could also join that mix, especially if the Mets go with a committee approach.
Speaking of New York….
The 99-win Yankees, who are dealing with their own raft of IL cases as they open the MLB season, still haven’t named a starting shortstop — with two of their top three prospects still waging spirited job battle.
Top prospect Anthony Volpe — No. 5 overall on MLB Pipeline’s ranking — has put together the predictably better offensive spring, while No. 3 Yankee prospect Oswald Peraza has predictably shown the better glove.
“No bad choice,” ace Gerrit Cole said.
Manager Aaron Boone said the decision might come down the 11th hour before rosters are set — and maybe without a staff consensus even then.
“I think everyone in that [staff meeting room] understands there’s two really good players there, and guys with really bright futures,” he said.
Speaking of futures …
With the start of the season looming large, spotlights in some camps are on last-minute extension candidates, as many players don’t like to negotiate once the season starts.
Manny Machado of the San Diego Padres and Corbin Carroll of the Arizona Diamondbacks already signed long-term extensions during spring training.
Among key players who have been in talks with their teams this spring at least three stand out as worth watching for a final-week deal: the Padres’ Josh Hader, Phillies’ Aaron Nola and Cubs’ Nico Hoerner.
Gordon Wittenmyer covers Major League Baseball for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @GDubCub.