Sto­ries to watch as pitch­ers and catch­ers re­port

Jerusalem Post - - SPORTS - r #Z +03(& - 035*;

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:

THE JOB­LESS

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.

CLOSER CO­NUN­DRUMS

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.

NEW­BIE MAN­AGERS

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.

GE­RI­ATRIC GI­ANTS

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)

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