Stories to watch as pitchers and catchers report
The countdown has run its course before the spring unveiling of Shohei Ohtani, the Japanese two-way star whose quest to pitch and hit regularly in the big leagues with the Los Angeles Angels represents the most fascinating story line of the year.
And while that saga figures to play out over the entire season, there are several other spring stories worth keeping an eye on. With most camps beginning workouts on Wednesday, here’s a look at some of them:
Big-name players like Eric Hosmer, J.D. Martinez and Jake Arrieta are among the 100-plus players who still haven’t found an employer for 2018, as the free agent market endured an unexpected winter freeze.
Though there has been some more movement as the calendar approaches mid-February, this year’s Spring Training is certain to feature the late arrival of a huge number of newcomers to teams. Some of them may alter the contour of playoff races.
How will their addition impact team chemistry at a time when bonds begin to get formed? And what will be the lingering feeling among players who expected to cash in, only to find their market value had plummeted? Will any resentment carry over into the season?
In some ways, this will be a spring like no other in recent memory.
WHO’S IN RIGHT?
Granted, that’s not as catchy as “Who’s on first?’’ But the decision regarding who patrols right field for the New York Yankees bears watching.
So far, Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge have said all the right things about being willing to play elsewhere, and that initially eases any angst over a potentially contentious issue for neophyte manager Aaron Boone.
Still, at some point Boone will have to pick a regular right fielder between his two behemoth sluggers, both of whom are quite skilled at the position but lack experience in left field (combined major NO PLAYER will be scrutinized more carefully during Spring Training than the so-called Babe Ruth of Japan, Los Angeles Angels rookie Shohei Ohtani. Not since Ruth, after all, has anyone thrived as both a hitter and a pitcher in the majors, and even The Babe gave up pitching eventually. (Reuters) league games in LF: zero). Judge may seem to have the edge based on his knowledge of right field at Yankee Stadium and other American League parks.
But does that mean Stanton plays primarily in left, or as a designated hitter? At 28, his athleticism and defensive ability would be wasted as a DH. And if he moves over to left, what happens to Brett Gardner, who won a Gold Glove there in 2016? Maybe he returns to center field, but Gardner is 34 and hasn’t been the regular centerfielder since 2013.
While the Colorado Rockies went the traditional route and secured an establish closer by signing Wade Davis to a three-year, $52 million deal, several other clubs are taking alternate approaches.
Davis’ former team, the Chicago Cubs, opted to replace him with Brandon Morrow, a former starter who has logged two saves in the last eight years. The St. Louis Cardinals, who let go of former closers Trevor Rosenthal and Seung Hwan Oh, enter camp with a list of closer candidates that includes newly signed Bud Norris, veteran reliever Luke Gregerson and even prized right-hander Alex Reyes once he’s back from Tommy John surgery.
The Arizona Diamondbacks, coming off a playoff appearance, have to sort out whether to promote setup man Archie Bradley or to entrust save situations to newcomers like Brad Boxberger or Yoshihisa Hirano.
Even the World Series champion Houston Astros may have some uncertainty when it comes to the ninth inning. Ken Giles goes into camp as the presumptive closer, but after his October struggles, the club may look at options among the likes of Chris Devenski, Will Harris, Hector Rondon and Brad Peacock.
It’s not just that six managers are taking over new teams, or that five of them have never managed in the majors before. More remarkable is how prominent a spot each of the rookies is filling.
Two of the game’s marquee franchises, the Yankees and Boston Red Sox, will renew their rivalry with their own former players at the helm. The Yankees went way outside the box in picking Boone, who has never even served as a coach. Alex Cora was less of a surprise as the Red Sox’ choice, but he has only one year as a bench coach under his belt.
Another top contender, the Washington Nationals, went from a 22-year veteran in Dusty Baker to rookie skipper Dave Martinez, while the New York Mets are hoping Mickey Callaway can parlay his success as a pitching coach into the managerial post. And former Los Angeles Dodgers farm director Gabe Kapler brings his new-age ways to the Philadelphia Phillies dugout.
All will draw intense scrutiny as they steer teams in large media markets. By comparison, old hand Ron Gardenhire will fly under the radar in taking over the rebuilding Detroit Tigers.
At a time when most of baseball is going younger, even teams not trying to tank, the San Francisco Giants are taking the AARP route. OK, maybe they’re not going to be quite that old, but when Brandon Belt turns 30 on April 20, the only regular in the club’s projected lineup still in his 20s will be second baseman Joe Panik, a veritable toddler at 27.
After sinking to stunning depths last season, tying for the majors’ worst mark at 64-98, the Giants brazenly rejected the notion that they needed to rebuild and instead went after experienced players, trading for Andrew McCutchen (31) and Evan Longoria (32) and signing Austin Jackson. Together they’re expected to boost an offense that scored the second-fewest runs in the majors last year.
By declining to engage in a youth movement, the Giants are embracing the concept that talented players in their early 30s can coalesce into a cohesive unit similar to the ones that carried San Francisco to World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014.
Spring Training results won’t reveal whether that approach will succeed, but those early weeks may provide an indication of what kind of impact the newly arrived veterans will have. (USA Today/TNS)