Early spring, early storylines as camp nears

Puig, Sano, Red Sox among the questions soon to be answered

February 2nd, 2016

Today is Groundhog Day, the day we let a rodent forecast the weather, because -- let's face it -- the forecasts that come from human beings are already imprecise as it is. But Punxsutawney Phil did not see his shadow, predicting an early spring, so we'll take him at his word.

And soon, in baseball camps in Florida and Arizona, a "Groundhog Day" of a different sort will emerge. Because the routine varies so little from day to day in the camps that spring up in Florida and Arizona, players and coaches often refer to those camps as "Groundhog Day," in reference to the Bill Murray movie about a man's life put on repeat.

Groundhog Deals: Do-overs shadow GMs

Fortunately for those of us who don't have to participate in pitchers' fielding practice or bunting drills, Spring Training is not all about the monotony of relentless repetition. There are always at least a few genuinely interesting storylines or position battles in play, and these are five that stand out as we look ahead to Spring Training 2016.

1. Yasiel Puig vs. himself

Puig is a mesmerizing talent -- pounding the baseball, sprinting around the basepaths, dancing with Alanna Rizzo. He is also polarizing -- missing the cutoff man, showing up late, getting berated by anonymous teammates.

With a new manager and the same lofty expectations as ever, the Dodgers are hoping for a fresh start with Puig. They could have made a more earnest effort to trade him this offseason, but Puig's value was not exactly at a high point after last season, and some evaluators aren't certain how to balance his potential with his reputation.

Puig has trimmed some fat off his 6-foot-2 frame, and he said all the right things at FanFest last weekend. But the fact of the matter is that nobody quite knows what to expect from him until he gets in between the lines -- or in the clubhouse. Puig played in just 79 games last year, and the only way he's going to engender fond feelings from the fans and from his teammates is if he posts up and performs, without the lapses in concentration and effort level that have so-far outpaced the impact of his production. Spring Training camp in Glendale, Ariz., will be essential in manager Dave Roberts and his coaching staff establishing a better rapport with Puig, and Puig beginning to prove the doubters wrong.

2. What's in store for some young guns?

Battles for rotation jobs are often among the most earnest position battles on the spring scene, and they are doubly interesting when they involve young and highly touted hurlers.

So we'll be keeping a close eye on former top prospect Archie Bradley as he attempts to assert himself in D-backs camp. Arizona added Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller, but the trade that sent Chase Anderson to the Brewers over the weekend increased the odds of Bradley nailing down a spot in the back end.

We'll also be monitoring the Astros' handling of Lance McCullers. He jumped from Double-A to the big leagues last summer and was excellent (3.22 ERA, 125 ERA+ in 22 starts), but Houston wants to be careful with his innings so that McCullers can pitch for them in October. Having signed Doug Fister to a one-year deal, would the Astros actually send McCullers to Triple-A to space out his outings, as some have speculated? Seems a bit bold. It's more likely that one of Scott Feldman or Mike Fiers loses his spot in the starting five, but stay tuned.

And how about Aaron Sanchez's role in Toronto? He's always had the skill set, and having reportedly added muscle to his 6-foot-4 frame this offseason, he now has the size to handle the rigors of a starter's workload. Sanchez's preference to start could not be more clear. But the Blue Jays do love what Sanchez brought to their bullpen last year, and they've added J.A. Happ and Jesse Chavez this offseason to account for the holes left behind by David Price and Mark Buehrle.

3. Miguel Sano vs. right field

We love Sano's power. We love his impressively advanced ability to read and lay off tough breaking pitches in order to pounce on fastballs. We love Sano's potential to use 2016 to cement his status as an elite slugger at this level.

But frankly, it's hard to love the Twins' plan to make Sano a right fielder.

Not that anybody's rooting for Sano, who entered the big leagues blocked at his third-base position by Trevor Plouffe, to spend the rest of his baseball life as a designated hitter. But Sano is 6-foot-4, weighs more than 260 pounds, and, you know, has never done this before. The sophomore-year adjustment is difficult enough without this being added to Sano's plate. And speaking of plates, Sano didn't push enough of them away to drop 20 pounds, as had initially been proposed going into the offseason. He understandably didn't want to compromise his power, so he settled at five pounds.

The good news is that Sano is pretty agile for his size, and he'll have no less an authority than Torii Hunter around as a guest instructor, helping him with the transition. But because of their international investment in Byung Ho Park as their new DH and their long-standing investment in Joe Mauer as their first baseman, the Twins have a lot riding on Sano making this work.

4. Will injury news lead to transaction news?

It's always an important question going into camp. But the especially slow-moving nature of this year's free-agent market -- in which three guys tied to Draft-pick compensation (Dexter Fowler, Ian Desmond and Yovani Gallardo) are still available and many more bodies fill out the bargain bin make it especially pertinent.

There's also the matter of as-yet-unresolved trade situations. The Reds, for example, would have loved to move Jay Bruce this offseason as part of their rebuild, but finding a fit was difficult because of the deep free-agent outfield class. Still, who's to say a strong camp by Bruce doesn't combine with an injury elsewhere to make this long-rumored possibility a reality?

With the Reds, Braves, Phillies and Brewers all clearly defined as sellers/rebuilders before the season's first pitch, there are still plenty of opportunities for them to serve as the first lines of defense, so to speak, for clubs burned by spring bumps and bruises.

5. Boston's corners conundrum

In the second year of their unmovable multiyear pacts with Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez, the Red Sox have no choice but to hope for the best from two stars who had a wayward 2015. The Panda was quite plump when he showed up to camp last year, and he went on to have not only an abysmal offensive season but a rough defensive one, too. Sandoval is reportedly in better shape this time around, but his performance on both sides of the ball will be the subject of great scrutiny.

Ramirez will receive even more scrutiny, as a function of his shift to first base, which he is currently dismissing as an "easy" switch. That's not how the guy who played Ron Washington described it in "Moneyball," but from a physical, mental and fundamental standpoint, the Red Sox have already devoted themselves to helping Ramirez make it as "easy" a transition as he claims.

We'll see the results soon enough.