We may not have all the answers when it comes to an intriguing lot of American League clubs that open spring training with as many as 11 teams claiming they have legitimate shots at making the playoffs.
But we have at least one burning question for each of them:
Do the O’s have enough starting pitching to take the pressure off the bullpen and take another step toward the top of the division?
The surprise success story of the team in 2022 was more the tale of an exceptional Orioles bullpen than their emerging young lineup core. But keeping that inherently volatile position area a strength could depend on how much the O’s have improved their rotation with the trade for Oakland’s Cole Irvin and the one-year signing of Phillies free agent Kyle Gibson, a former All-Star who struggled especially down the stretch in 2022. If that’s the best they’ve got for the front two spots, it’s even more important what they’re able to build out between 30-year-old journeyman Austin Voth and a bunch of young guys.
Boston Red Sox
Will the real Boston Red Sox please stand up?
Spring training will go a long way toward defining whether a dramatically new-look roster has a chance to go from last year’s face plant to something more resembling the Bosox clubs that won three of the last seven AL East flags, four of the last 19 World Series and made the playoffs 11 of the last 20 seasons. Until then, are the Sox the team that wouldn’t go big enough to keep popular All-Star shortstop Xander Bogaerts from signing with the Padres or the team that went $313.5 million large to extend Rafael Devers? The poor-fielding team that backfilled for the Bogaerts loss and long-term Trevor Story injury with a low-level trade for injury-hampered shortstop Adelberto Mondesi (and signed an astounding 10 shortstops to minor-league contracts) or the big-market club that made sure it landed Japanese free agent outfielder Masataka Yoshida? Does Justin Turner cover for the loss of J.D. Martinez, both in the clubhouse and the lineup? Are Chris Sale and Corey Kluber the kind of front-of-the rotation pitchers they used to be — need to be? Or is the rotation a juggling act again? The only thing that seems sure about these guys is that nobody else in the league has a wider range of reasonably predictable outcomes.
The Guardians added two big-league players after their unexpected AL Central title, signing first-baseman Josh Bell to a two-year, $33 million deal and catcher Mike Zunino (coming off shoulder surgery that sidelined him the second half of last season) for a year and $6 million. That’s it? Yep. And it might be enough. They return most of a rotation headed by Cy Young righty Shane Bieber, all four 2022 Gold Glove winners, stud closer Emmanuel Clase and four-time All-Star second baseman José Ramirez, who has top-6 MVP finishes each of the last three years. All they have to do this spring is stay healthy and figure out some pitching roles.
Chicago White Sox
Can Eloy Jimenez handle a glove-less existence in the lineup?
The White Sox were one of the most under-performing teams in baseball last year and on paper didn’t do much about it. If anything, things got worse in very sobering, real-life ways with last month’s news of closer Liam Hendriks’ cancer diagnosis and MLB’s investigation of newly acquired pitcher Mike Clevinger under the league’s and union’s joint domestic violence policy. It makes Jimenez’s pushback on the club’s intention to make him a full-time DH seem petty. But when it comes to things within the team’s power to sort out during spring training, it might start there, given the importance of Jimenez’s powerful bat and his deficiencies in the field for a mostly lousy-fielding team.
Javy Báez bounce-back or bust?
Nobody summed up the Tigers’ 2022 season of utter failure and collapse better than their biggest free agent signing, Javy Báez, who not only had his worst offensive year for a full season but declined so steeply from his Gold Glove days at shortstop that new team president Scott Harris faced questions about whether Báez will be moved off the position in the second year of a six-year, $140 million contract. The short answer is no. The larger answer involving what comes next with the former MVP runner-up will go a long way toward figuring out how big a task Harris inherited. “If you look at his track record of his defense at shortstop,” said Harris, who was in the Cubs’ front office much of Báez career there, “you may notice that 2022 is an anomaly.” Whatever else the Tigers might accomplish this spring, nothing related to their immediate — and long-term — looks as big as the player owed the club’s biggest financial commitment.
What’s the catch?
More specifically, are the World Series champs really planning to go into another season with Martin Maldonado and his .184/.276/.333 slash line the last three years as their primary catcher. Sure, the guy has a 2017 Gold Glove and works well with the Astros’ stud pitching staff. That’s important. But so is getting more than minus-2.5 WAR (third-worst in the majors) from that position. Failing to trade for Sean Murphy from the A’s or outbid the Cardinals for Willson Contreras, the Astros now need to find out this spring if they have better options than 120 games of Maldonado starting — or if they need to use that time to yet go outside the organization.
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Kansas City Royals
What’s Zack Greinke got left in the toolbox — and is it enough to help build a ballpark on his way to the Hall of Fame?
The Royals’ greatest pitcher of the century returns on a second consecutive one-year deal — and at 39 perhaps even for a farewell tour — for a team with an overhauled field staff and way too many questions and flaws to be taken seriously in the AL Central. But this is also a team working public funding for a new downtown stadium, which means he might have added value beyond a moon-shot playoff run. If Greinke gets through spring training with enough juice to make things interesting every fifth day out of the chute — and maybe even influence more development among the team’s promising young arms — that might be as good as it gets on the field toward influencing the stadium talks.
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Los Angeles Angels
What’s that sound?
It’s the tick-tick-ticking of superstar unicorn Shohei Ohtani’s career with the Angels, which — barring a mega-extension — ends with a trade this year or free agency after the season. That Angels career also is on the verge of ending without so much as a winning season since he arrived in 2018. Phil Nevin, in his first full year as manager, gets the unenviable task of doing what Joe Maddon, Brad Ausmus and Mike Scioscia before him could not: find enough support for his two-way sensation (and Mike Trout for that matter) to engineer a chance in October. He might want to start by finding an adequate shortstop (David Fletcher? Luis Rengifo? Really?) and enough quality to fill his planned six-man rotation. Could be a long spring.
Perhaps not surprisingly after paying $200 million for a shortstop who failed physicals with two other teams first, spring training for the Twins looks like a matter of health and injury prevention more than anything else, and even more than other teams. If they can do that, they might have bought themselves a division title with that big signing of Carlos Correa — who impressed in the clubhouse as much as he performed on the field (when healthy) in his lone season with the club last year. This is a team that lost more games to the injured list last year than anybody else, and among the most important of the affected players to watch are star outfielder Byron Buxton, who missed nearly half the season because of hip and knee injuries, and key starting pitcher Kenta Maeda, who missed all season because of 2021 Tommy John surgery. Both are considered full strength and full-go as camp opens.
New York Yankees
Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?
Right back where you belong, that’s where, and for no less than $360 million. Aaron Judge, the latest Yankees outfield legend in a lineage that began with Babe Ruth and ran through DiMaggio, Mantle and Bernie Williams, is now all but assured of being — like most of them — a Yankee for life after signing that nine-year free agent deal to stay. Some suggest he’s got nowhere to go but down after his 62-homer MVP season, but he enters camp as the newly ordained Yankee captain — first since Derek Jeter — and tone-setter for a huge spring for a team still trying to chase down the Astros in the AL. If only he could play short, where top prospects Oswald Peraza (the favorite) and Anthony Volpe wage the key position battle of camp.
No, really, who cares and how is this team going to make fans start caring again? A team that won 86 games in 2021 after three straight playoff appearances slashed almost every established player of value from its roster since then and watched its MLB-worst attendance plummet to 787,902 — the franchise’s lowest since the 1970s. Maybe some of the prospects they’ve acquired in the last two years for the likes of Matt Olson, Sean Manaea, Matt Chapman and Sean Murphy can make some noise this spring and reverse the trend? Keep an eye on left-hander Ken Waldichuk, who gets a chance to compete for a rotation spot six months after getting traded by the Yankees in the Frankie Montas deal last summer.
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Remember that stud prospect whose service time was manipulated so publicly by the M’s two years ago that a top executive was fired?
No, it wasn’t Julio Rodriguez. Which is the point. Turns out nobody needed to manipulate centerfielder Jarred Kelenic’s service time and exec Ken Mather could have kept his mouth shut, let Kelenic’s .168 average and .589 OPS play out naturally over parts of the 2021 and ’22 seasons and kept his job. The bigger question now involves where this leaves the rising, high-expectation Mariners and the 23-year-old lefty hitter once ranked as high as fourth on multiple MLB prospects lists. With a Mariners roster busting with young talent and poised to build off last year’s postseason series win, this might be the biggest spring of Kelenic’s career to show he belongs in the core and start delivering on all that promise.
Tampa Bay Rays
Hey, Kevin Cash, now that your boys made the playoffs four straight years for the first time in franchise history, where are you going next?
That’s, right, Disney World. With their Port Charlotte facility heavily damaged by Hurricane Ian last fall, the Rays have relocated this spring to the Braves’ old site on the Disney property near Orlando for the first couple weeks of camp (then plan to switch to Tropicana Field). It’s perfect for a team that signed pitcher Zach Eflin, made a boatload of off-the-radar moves, didn’t add the hitter they said they planned to (missing out on Michael Brantley and Brandon Belt), still needs to figure out its middle infield, needs to keep uber-talented Wander Franco healthy, lost more big-league pitching than it added — and probably will still find a way to pull a playoff spot out of its, er, hat. What better place than the Magic Kingdom for the Rays to concoct the next spell they’ll cast on the AL East?
The more powerful force: the almighty dollar or Bruce Almighty?
Now that they’ve actually flexed both, maybe the Rangers don’t have to answer that one to finally turn a corner after six straight losing seasons. After getting little in return for their half-billion (with a ‘b’) spent on middle infielders Corey Seager and Marcus Semien a year ago, the Rangers spent $185 million more on the most dominant pitcher (when healthy) on the planet in Jacob deGrom. But it’s deManager they hired out of retirement in Hall of Fame-bound Bruce Bochy who brings the swagger and credibility to this group, starting now. “We plan on contending,” he said as camp opened. Hard to imagine anyone who watched him in San Francisco and San Diego doubting that.
Toronto Blue Jays
Who’s taking the fifth?
The Jays return from their playoff season with a remarkably established and complete-looking roster that has a chance to be even better, especially after signing All-Star starter Chris Bassitt. He slots into a deep first four of a rotation that also includes José Berrios, Kevin Gausman and Alek Manoah. So who provides the fifth element that gives them a chance to rise in the rugged AL East: Yusei Kikuchi or Mitch White or a camp surprise?
Gordon Wittenmyer covers Major League Baseball for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @GDubCub.