Questions? Yeah, we’ve got questions.
Like, what’s with all the spy balloons lately, and why hasn’t somebody like the Astros come up with something like that to steal secrets from competitors?
Or have they?
How come managers wage constant job battles but have no WAR?
And what’s it all mean anyway if you can score a winning run in extra innings without actually being required to reach base?
We may never find the answers to such mysteries of the universe.
But with pitchers and catchers reporting for spring training this week, we might at least have a chance to learn in the next six weeks the answers to these burning questions facing each National League team:
Does Madison Bumgarner have enough left in the tank to win a rotation spot, if not help a team with sneaky talent chase a long-shot playoff berth?
With increased expectations around Phoenix, the sometimes snarly veteran may have to prove he’s at least a little closer to his four-time All-Star and World Series-hero form than he’s been in three seasons with the DBacks (4.98 ERA) to secure that role as he enters the final two years of an $85 million contract in his age 32 season. If anyone has the competitive streak to do it, it’s the guy called MadBum. Did we mention snarly?
How effectively will Braves replace All-Star, Gold Glove shortstop Dansby Swanson?
The envy of most of the rest of baseball for the long-term contracts it has secured with almost every significant player on the roster, the sudden gap at the most important position in the infield — more important than ever with shifts banned — is the storyline of the spring for the 2021 champs. The Braves would love to see promising 22-year-old Vaughn Grissom become the next homegrown kid to make his star with the Braves and the position out of camp. They also have veteran Orlando Arcia as a fallback in the spring job battle.
Who’s on third? Yeah, that’s definitely one question, but the bigger one is who will be the kings of the hill for the division’s big spenders ($300 million-plus this winter) when they break camp with an eye on chasing down the Cardinals.
We’re talking about the rotation. The big pitching free agents of the Cubs’ last two winters, Marcus Stroman and Jameson Taillon, are at the front end, with 2022 homegrown breakout starter Justin Steele somewhere in the middle and veteran Drew Smyly somewhere at the back end. Does resurgent journeyman Adrian Sampson (3.23 in 24 starts last two years) or impressive rookie Hayden Wesneski (from the Yankees at the deadline) win the last spot? And what about three-time Opening Day starter Kyle Hendricks’ status as he nurses that bad shoulder back to health — he could be a key to the whole season if he’s back and effective in May, as hoped.
‘Where you gonna go?’
All right, maybe this was the question of last spring after CEO Phil Castellini stuck his foot in it with that comment to fans criticizing ownership. But then he did it again last month, suggesting to a local booster group the Reds might be out of contention before the season starts. So much for hope springing eternal. Meantime, keep one eye on Reds top prospect Elly De La Cruz, the infielder ranked fourth on Keith Law’s top 100 prospects list. (Probably best to keep the other eye closed when it comes to the Reds.)
Anybody seen Kris Bryant?
This is the $182 million question for a Rockies team that swears it’s trying to win and seemed to show it last year with the mega signing of the 2016 MVP — before Bryant disappeared for all but 42 games because of back and foot injuries. They at least need his health and availability to set a tone in camp for a team without the same kind of expectations this year. And then they need Bryant to be healthy enough to show enough early in the season to make the Rockies worth watching (if not competitive).
Los Angeles Dodgers
What the hell?
Mookie Betts in 2020. Trevor Bauer* and then a Max Scherzer/Trea Turner trade in 2021. Freddie Freeman in 2022. And what, Miguel Rojas and an aging J.D. Martinez this time around? During an offseason when everybody else in baseball spent more on free agents than any year in history? #SMH. At this rate, the Dodgers might have to settle for 100 wins this year. Of course, that all starts with the health this spring of a potentially deep and high-impact rotation (Julio Urias, Clayton Kershaw, Tony Gonsolin, Noah Syndergaard, et al) that has had its share of past health issues and is without Walker Buehler (Tommy John surgery) and Bauer (released after activation from the longest domestic violence suspension in the 8-year history of MLB-MLBPA’s joint policy).
Can Sandy Alcantara pitch more often and maybe play some shortstop and catch while he’s at it?
There’s your Fantasy Island remake if you’re a Marlins fan. Not that Alcantara, for one, needs any reminders what it feels like to be on an island. But until Ricardo Montalbán or Roselyn Sanchez shows up with those tickets to paradise, fans can at least dream this spring on young outfielder Bryan De La Cruz’s potential to fill an impact role in the lineup, hope on Jazz Chisholm Jr.’s glove as he moves from the infield to center field, and pray for rain.
Is everybody forgetting the Brewers? And who’s this Brice Turang fellow?
OK, those are two questions, but the answer to the second might tell the story of how silly the first question should be. The Brewers have averaged 90 wins in each of the last full seasons, missed the playoffs by a game last year and return both front-of-the-rotation studs in Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff. They need a quality second baseman, which is especially important with the shift ban taking effect. And Turang, a former first-round draft pick and last year’s impressive Triple-A shortstop, could be ready to stick with an impact.
New York Mets
Does Chili’s in Port St. Lucie offer 15% off with AARP card?
Asking for five friends. Consider the collective age of the rotation just one more way Steve Cohen’s Mets have gone big since he bought the team a couple years ago. By big in this case we mean an average Opening Day age of 36, with Japanese rookie Kodai Senga the baby of the group at 30. The aces are 40-year-old newcomer Justin Verlander and relative youngster Max Scherzer, who turns 39 in July. Granted, those two are first-ballot Hall of Famers. But their health and maintenance, starting this spring, might be the key to the Mets season. Because chances are if they fall, the Mets can’t get up.
Have you seen the size of those bases?
As soon as people get over the visual shock of baseball’s new larger bases that Red Sox manager Alex Cora said “look like a pizza box,” all eyes in Clearwater should turn to $300 million free agent Trea Turner, who might be better equipped than any player in the game to exploit the change — and, in turn, make the defending NL champs even better in 2023. The fastest player in the game, with pop and 230 career steals from the shortstop position, gets an extra 4 1/2-inch jump and throw-over/step-off limits to further make pitchers’ lives hell when the likes of Kyle Schwarber, Rhys Hoskins and (eventually) Bryce Harper are at the plate. It may not exactly be the stuff of roster-battle intrigue, but it could be the most compelling spectacle to watch anywhere this spring as teams adjust to the bases and step-off rules this spring.
Does Reynolds’ rap make it harder to cook?
Bryan Reynolds might be the Pirates’ best player. He’s certainly it’s most interesting and potentially disrupting as spring training opens — his status overshadowing even the return of former Pirates star and fan favorite Andrew McCutchen. After extension talks broke down in December Reynolds requested a trade, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but obviously has not been traded and has not spoken publicly about it. That last part will change once he shows up for the first media availability of the spring. Like the Buccos didn’t have enough to try to figure out with this underfunded, underwhelming roster.
St. Louis Cardinals
If a popup falls in Jupiter and there’s no Cardinal there to hear it, is spring training really happening?
The Cardinals have 19 players headed to the World Baseball Classic, including 14 from big-league camp. Nobody has more. They include MVP Paul Goldschmidt and veteran stars/leaders Nolan Arenado and Adam Wainwright. How long any of them will be gone and whether all those absences will disrupt the NL Central favorites’ ability to open the season strong is the biggest issue to overcome for one of the most stable rosters in the league.
San Diego Padres
Round and round Fernando Tatis Jr.’s surgically repaired shoulder (and wrist) and off-the-field merry-go-round go; where he stops nobody knows. In other words, what position will the $340 million superstar and former shortstop play this season once his PED suspension is up in April?
With Ha-Seong Kim coming off a Gold Glove-finalist season (and 5.1 WAR) in place of Tatis and $280 million star Xander Bogaerts joining the middle infield, Tatis is headed to the outfield, likely in left, with spring training to figure out the kinks. He is expected to be healthy and at full strength as camp opens.
San Francisco Giants
What if money can’t buy you glove?
The Giants waved around as much cash over the winter as any team only to finish a couple bucks behind the Yankees for free agent Aaron Judge and to find a problem with Carlos Correa’s physical after striking a $350 million agreement. The worst-fielding team in the majors by multiple metrics last year pivoted to a handful of more incremental moves involving several bounce-back bets and remain miles behind the likes of the Dodgers and Padres in their division on paper. Whatever they do this spring needs to start with fungoes on the back fields and less time in the cages.
How fast can Juan Soto get the Nats back to the playoffs?
Soto, the young superstar the Nationals traded when a record extension offer couldn’t get a deal done, won’t do much for the Nats’ efforts to rise from the ashes from his new home in San Diego. But the prospect haul GM Mike Rizzo got in last summer’s trade will speak volumes about how long it’ll take Washington to return to prominence — maybe starting as soon as this spring, when touted left-hander Mackenzie Gore presumably gets a healthy runway after a forearm injury last summer and shortstop C.J. Abrams gets a chance to build on his tepid 2022 debut. Younger, lefty-hitting outfielders James Wood and Robert Hassell might get a cameo or two for the big club this spring with an eye more toward next year.
Gordon Wittenmyer covers Major League Baseball for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @GDubCub.