Spring Training camps are about to open in Florida and Arizona. Every team has made changes and still may make more changes before Opening Day. They all have at least some questions to answer.
So, what will dominate talk all the way through March? What is each team's Big Story?
AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST
The impact of the addition of Ryu
As a team that used 21 different starters and had 39 men on the mound in 2019, the Blue Jays completely altered the mindset and morale of the team and the fan base when they signed Korean ace Hyun-Jin Ryu to lead the rotation. Heading into Spring Training, the only questions that remain are, what the left-hander’s impact will look like when it comes to fruition and how big of a difference can he make in the clubhouse of last year’s fourth-place finishers in the American League East?
“We’ve got an ace,” Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said. “When you think of the offseason, it was probably [Stephen] Strasburg-[Gerrit] Cole or Cole-Strasburg, and then Ryu, in that order or however you want to put it. And we got one of the best pitchers in the offseason that was out there. I thought it was a great move by us.” More >
Time to start seeing the kids
At the end of the trying Year 1 of their rebuild under executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias and Co., the Orioles were rewarded with glimpses of top prospects Austin Hays and Hunter Harvey, who excelled in short September samples. The upcoming season should provide more snapshots of the future, only in real time. Half of the Orioles’ Top 30 prospects per MLB Pipeline will be with the team in Sarasota, Fla., this spring, with all but a few with the chance to reach the Majors at some point this summer. The most pressing are Ryan Mountcastle and Keegan Akin, who are expected to fight for jobs this spring. But by the end of 2020, the list of blue-chippers who could be in Baltimore is extensive: Yusniel Diaz, Dean Kremer, Rylan Bannon, perhaps even Zac Lowther and others. The Orioles are still thinking long-term, still focused on building an elite player development pipeline that allows them to compete for years to come. They also hope this is the first of many waves that system produces. More >
Can they contend in the AL East and make it back to the postseason?
Winning 96 games and making the postseason in 2019 was a step in the right direction for a young Rays team, but Tampa Bay will look to take another leap and compete for a division title in 2020. The Rays are led by Charlie Morton, Tyler Glasnow, Blake Snell and a pitching staff that led the Majors with a 3.65 ERA in ‘19 and returns every key contributor. Offensively, the team will have a new look. Austin Meadows, Willy Adames, Brandon Lowe and Yandy Díaz will be joined by offseason acquisitions Hunter Renfroe, Yoshitomo Tsutsugo and José Martínez. Rays general manager Erik Neander didn’t hide the organization's desire to try to improve its offense, and the Rays believe they have done that with the moves they made over the winter. But while they appear to have improved over the winter, it’ll be interesting to see if they did enough to dethrone the Yankees, who won 103 games last season and added Gerrit Cole via free agency. Cole was untouchable against the Rays in the American League Division Series, allowing one run over 15 2/3 innings. More >
Can they win without Mookie?
Mookie Betts will be thousands of miles away in Arizona when the Red Sox open Spring Training without their erstwhile superstar next week. However, it’s unlikely a day will go by in Fort Myers, Fla., without Betts being a topic. The Red Sox are going to be asked about him every day from not only their own sizable media contingent, but also the flood of national reporters who will stop by. The line of questioning will go something like this: How can you win without Mookie? The scrutiny will be fair, because that’s how valuable Betts was in the team’s lineup the last five years. So it will be up to the Red Sox to answer the challenge. Spring Training will provide the first signs of whether the team can be a true contender. More >
All eyes on Gerrit Cole
The Yankees made Gerrit Cole their first-round selection in the 2008 MLB Draft, only to see him honor his college commitment to UCLA. They attempted to trade for him in the offseason of 2017-18 but refused to part with prospects Miguel Andújar and Clint Frazier, prompting the Pirates to accept an offer from the Astros. No wonder general manager Brian Cashman has referred to Cole as his “great white whale,” one that the Yankees finally landed this offseason by blowing the Angels and Dodgers out of the water with a landmark nine-year, $324 million pact.
Cole is viewed as the final piece for a win-now franchise that has been knocking on the door for several seasons, and managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner did not shy away from that when he said that the expectation is for Cole to help bring several World Series championships to The Bronx. When pitchers and catchers report to Tampa, Fla., on Feb. 12, the focus will be on how Cole assimilates into the Yankees universe. Manager Aaron Boone believes that Cole’s leadership will develop organically, and the hope is that he can fill the void left by CC Sabathia’s departure while continuing to pitch like a Cy Young Award contender on the mound. More >
AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL
Will they score enough runs?
Year after year, there’s rarely a question about whether the Indians’ starting rotation will be strong enough to help lead the team to success. So once again, the focus will fall on the offense. Even after trading Corey Kluber to the Rangers, the Tribe has the potential to boast one of the best starting staffs in the league. But did the Indians do enough with the financial flexibility they created to make sure they can put together a lineup that will support their pitching? That answer remains to be seen. The Tribe improved at second base over the offseason, signing César Hernández after declining to pick up Jason Kipnis’ $16.5 million option. The club replaced backup catcher Kevin Plawecki with Sandy León from the Red Sox and added outfielder Delino DeShields and reliever Emmanuel Clase in the Kluber trade. There’s still a chance the team makes a last minute signing in Yasiel Puig, Domingo Santana or another outfielder to help bring some pop to the offense. But with or without an additional outfielder, will the Indians put enough runs on the board to remain in contention in the American League Central? More >
Which prospects will make it?
A lot of eyes will be on the recovery timeline of shortstop Adalberto Mondesi (shoulder surgery) and catcher Salvador Perez (Tommy John surgery), but the story throughout camp this spring will be on which young prospects might crack the 26-man roster. Royals fans have heard all about the next wave of pitching prospects, and several will get their first taste of big league camp. That includes right-hander Brady Singer, their top pick from the 2018 Draft and MLB Pipeline’s No. 59 prospect, and left-hander Daniel Lynch (No. 61), as well as right-hander Jackson Kowar and left-hander Kris Bubic. The Royals don’t have a No. 5 starter penciled in yet, leaving the door open for one of those prospects to be the surprise of camp. And the youth movement doesn’t end there. Up and coming outfielders Nick Heath, Kyle Isbel and Khalil Lee also will be in camp. More >
Spring should provide glimpse of the Tigers' future
Nineteen of the Tigers' top 30 prospects, according to MLB Pipeline, will be in Major League camp, including 10 of the top 11. The big vision at Spring Training will be of a future well beyond Opening Day. When Casey Mize, Matt Manning and Tarik Skubal take the mound in Lakeland, Fla., they won’t be competing for Opening Day rotation spots, not unless something goes haywire. When Isaac Paredes steps in the batter's box and stares back at the pitcher, he won’t be eyeing a roster spot when the Tigers head north in a month. And yet, their presence will be a headline event. They’re a big part of the future that the Tigers are selling, and they have been throughout the rebuilding process. It’s not an imminent future, but a glimpse of those prospects in big league camp brings that future a lot closer than it has been.
As general manager Al Avila put it during the Tigers’ Winter Caravan last month: “The future, the light at the end of the tunnel, is getting a little brighter.” More >
Can they finally get over their playoff hump?
Enough waiting. Enough anticipation. Enough speculation about free-agent rumors and trade packages. The Twins took a 101-win team from 2019 and aggressively pushed to make it better in one of their most active offseasons in recent memory. They have a forward-thinking coaching staff, a talented young core hitting its prime and a solid group of veterans with playoff experience. The only question: Will it be enough for the Twins to finally take the next step and snap the longest postseason losing streak in the history of American professional sports? There are several factors at play here. Can the young hitters and relievers that broke out in 2019 sustain their performance? Will Byron Buxton and Miguel Sanó stay healthy? Can Nelson Cruz and Rich Hill continue to stave off Father Time? What can pitching coach Wes Johnson and his brain trust do with the new arms in town? And most importantly, is there a playoff rotation somewhere in this deep jumble of starting pitchers? More >
Can they go from vastly improved to playoff contenders?
White Sox fans responding to a Twitter question about what would make this 2019 season a success Sunday night seemed set on two overriding themes: playing meaningful games in September and/or making the playoffs for the first time since 2008. But looking at other responses presents a deeper dive as to what could make that success possible: good health, good pitching and continued steps forward from the young core. The talent is there and the offseason was a vast success, but it all must come together on the field for that major playoff leap. More >
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST
Do they have enough starting pitching?
The top priority for the Angels this offseason was to improve their starting rotation after their starters combined for the second-worst ERA in the Majors in 2019. The Angels pursued the top free agent starters available, such as Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg. But after those two signed elsewhere, they pivoted to sign third baseman Anthony Rendon to a seven-year, $245 million contract instead. So the Angels are primed to have an above-average lineup and solid defense but they didn’t add any front-line starters to join two-way star Shohei Ohtani, who is expected to pitch once a week and might not be ready for the start of the season. They improved their depth by acquiring right-hander Ross Stripling in a trade with the Dodgers and also acquired Dylan Bundy in a trade with the Orioles and signed Julio Teheran to a one-year deal. But they don’t have a true ace outside of Ohtani. Lefty Andrew Heaney returns while Griffin Canning is expected to be in the rotation after a solid rookie year. They have other options, including Matt Andriese, Patrick Sandoval, Jaime Barria, Jose Suarez and Félix Peña, so they have more depth than in recent years, but it’ll be interesting to see if it’s enough to help the Angels to the postseason for the first time since 2014. More >
How will new management guide them out of the wake of the cheating scandal?
Astros players, who have been relatively mum this winter in the wake of the sign-stealing scandal that led to the firings of president of baseball operations and general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch, will be in the spotlight when camp opens. Astros owner Jim Crane said last week the players would apologize for their role in what MLB described as a “player-driven” operation to use electronics to illegally steal opponents’ signs during the 2017 season -- the year the Astros won their only World Series. Which players will speak and what they will say will be the overwhelming storyline as camp opens. It’s up to first-year Astros manager Dusty Baker, one of the most respected men in the game, and new general manager James Click to guide the club forward while dealing with the fall-out of the scandal. More >
Can they get over the Wild Card hump?
Having 97-win seasons end in elimination from the postseason in the Wild Card Game two years in a row now leaves the A’s with a feeling of frustration. Oakland believes it has assembled a roster that can make a serious run at a championship, so what gives? The obvious solution would be to win the American League West to avoid the one-game playoff, but dethroning the Astros will be no easy task. However, the loss of Gerrit Cole and a potential cloud hanging over the club following the fallout from its sign-stealing scandal leaves Houston as vulnerable as it has been since the start of its wildly successful run in 2015. The A’s also believe they will only get better in 2020 with full seasons out of their exciting top three prospects in Jesús Luzardo, A.J. Puk and Sean Murphy to complement a strong core that already includes Matt Chapman, Marcus Semien, Matt Olson, Ramón Laureano, Sean Manaea and Frankie Montas. Whether it comes as a Wild Card or division winner, the A’s are looking to get a monkey off their backs this October. More >
Is youth ready to be served?
General manager Jerry Dipoto undertook a “stepback” season in 2019, moving on from big-name players like Robinson Canó, Nelson Cruz, Jean Segura and James Paxton as he looked to bolster the farm system and shed most of the team’s long-term contracts. Now the Mariners must begin to move forward and they’ll do so with a lineup that projects to be the youngest in the American League. Nine of the club’s Top 10 prospects per MLB Pipeline will be in camp, including 19-year-old outfielder Julio Rodriguez and 20-year-old Jarred Kelenic. Neither of those prize prospects is expected to make the Opening Day roster, but the club could break camp with three rookie starters in first baseman Evan White and corner outfielders Kyle Lewis and Jake Fraley, as well as rookies Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn in the rotation. Throw in second baseman Shed Long, shortstop J.P. Crawford and catcher Tom Murphy looking at their first seasons as full-time starters and it’s easy to see why the Mariners are expecting to measure this season more in terms of progress of their young nucleus than wins and losses. More >
This is the Rangers, so starting pitching is always the big story in camp. Corey Kluber is at the top of the list. He is a two-time Cy Young Award winner but also made just seven starts last season because of injuries. The Rangers are eager to see how their prize acquisition will rebound this spring. They also want to see how Kyle Gibson is after dealing with ulcerative colitis last season with the Twins. The condition zapped his strength and the Rangers admit Gibson may be behind the other four starters. Another issue to watch is Mike Minor, who is a free agent after the upcoming season. The Rangers may try to extend him in Spring Training. More >
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
The impact of Ozuna
Once Josh Donaldson signed with the Twins, the Braves took advantage of the chance to replace his power with the addition of Marcell Ozuna, who is coming to Atlanta attempting to restore his value with a one-year deal. Ozuna has declined offensively and defensively over the past two years, but the 29-year-old former All-Star and Gold Glover could have been impacted by a right shoulder impingement that was surgically repaired after the 2018 season. His exit velocity and hard-hit rate were higher last year than they were during his career-best 2017 season. The veteran outfielder is capable of hitting 30-plus homers within a lineup that will feature Ronald Acuña Jr., Ozzie Albies and Freddie Freeman. But the value of his addition will also be felt on the bench which will likely include Nick Markakis and Adam Duvall, a pair of veterans who were initially projected to platoon in left field. More >
It’s time for improvement
At the Winter Meetings in San Diego, manager Don Mattingly summed up where the organization stands in one sentence: “We’re looking at it like it's time to start moving forward,” Mattingly said of advancing the organizational rebuild. The first two years of the process were mostly devoted to developing and evaluating a youthful roster, and the results weren’t pretty. Miami had a combined record in 2018-19 of 120-203, and ranked last in the Majors in runs scored. There was more patience then. Now, after adding veterans like Jonathan Villar, Jesús Aguilar, Corey Dickerson, Francisco Cervelli, Matt Joyce and Brandon Kintzler, there is more urgency to start moving up in the standings. Obviously, after losing 105 games in 2019, ownership understands this build isn’t completely finished. Still, pushing the record closer to .500 is a starting point. So more will be expected from all to believe the future will be bright in Miami. More >
How will the team respond to new manager Luis Rojas?
The Mets were ticking through their offseason agenda mostly as planned until mid-January, when their new manager, Carlos Beltran, became embroiled in Major League Baseball’s sign-stealing investigation. In the span of a week, the Mets parted ways with Beltran and hired Luis Rojas to lead them -- a stunning development less than a month before the start of Spring Training. To a man, the Mets speak highly of Rojas, who has spent 13 years in the organization. But he has no big league managerial experience and only one year on a Major League coaching staff, leaving plenty of unanswered questions at the start of camp. All eyes will be on Rojas as he looks to take a strong Mets roster and compete with it in the stacked NL East. More >
Defending their World Series title
The last time the Nationals walked off the field, they had won the 2019 World Series. This spring, they will return to the park with the tall task of defending that title. While its dominating rotation is back, the team will have to find ways to account for the production of Anthony Rendon, who signed with the Angels in free agency this offseason. Last year, Rendon led the Nationals in hits, RBIs and runs, and he tied for first on the team in home runs. Watch to see how young players, like 21-year-old Juan Soto, embrace this opportunity to make an impact in the lineup. The Nationals turned heads by capturing their first World Series championship in October. Now, the bar has been set high to keep that momentum in 2020. More >
The stakes have never been higher for a Phillies front office that has been charged with rebuilding the franchise since 2015. It tried at varying lengths to win the past couple seasons, but the team collapsed in the second half each time. The late-season failures cost Gabe Kapler, his hitting coach and pitching coach their jobs. It placed increasing pressure on president Andy MacPhail and general manager Matt Klentak to deliver Philadelphia’s first winner since 2011. They chose Joe Girardi to lead the men on the field, believing his experience, reputation and smarts can push them further. Can a manager and his new pitching and hitting coaches really make that much of a difference? The Phillies are counting on it. More >
NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL
Did they do enough to cover their losses?
Of the 25 players on the Brewers’ roster for last year’s National League Wild Card Game, only 12 remain, part of a broad strategy to squeeze value out of every last payroll dollar. Gone are 2019 All-Stars Yasmani Grandal and Mike Moustakas, relief ace Drew Pomeranz and three-fifths of the late-season rotation in Chase Anderson, Zach Davies and Jordan Lyles. Rather than direct the savings to a few high-profile free agents, the Brewers opted to spread it around, trading for young players like catcher Omar Narváez, infielder Luis Urías and pitcher Eric Lauer, and mid-tier free agents including starters Brett Anderson and Josh Lindblom, outfielder Avisaíl García, first baseman Justin Smoak and infielders Jedd Gyorko and Eric Sogard. Payroll is down about $25 million, or 20 percent, from 2019 Opening Day, and many fans are skeptical.
“We’re going to be good,” manager Craig Counsell vowed. More >
Where will the offense come from?
NL Manager of the Year Mike Shildt guided the Cardinals back to the top of the division and to the postseason in 2019 thanks to excellent starting pitching, relief pitching, defense and baserunning. Those strengths helped mask a lackluster offense until the Cardinals were swept by the Nationals in the NLCS. This winter, the Cardinals have parted ways with two hitters, Marcell Ozuna and José Martínez, along with two hitting prospects, Randy Arozarena and Adolis García. All without adding a bat from the outside. Instead, the Cardinals are relying on internal improvement -- hoping that Paul Goldschmidt is more consistent in his second year in St. Louis, that Matt Carpenter recovers from a career-worst year, that Dexter Fowler continues to stay healthy and that Paul DeJong is more reliable throughout the whole season -- to defend their NL Central title in 2020. They’re also betting that the mix of their young outfielders vying for more playing time will take advantage of the clear path that the Cardinals have given them. The Cardinals are looking at the numbers and saying that their veteran hitters will improve, their young players will help and the strengths from last season will remain. Will that be enough in 2020? More >
Ross arrives to reset the culture
The Cubs have enjoyed one of the greatest eras in the franchise's long and storied history in recent years. But, following four straight trips to the postseason -- resulting in three tickets to the National League Championship Series and one World Series triumph -- Chicago did not make the playoffs in 2019. Part of the fallout included a shift in direction for the Cubs, who opted not to offer manager Joe Maddon an extension when his contract expired at season's end. Maddon took a young, up-and-coming team and led them to baseball glory. Now, that young core is a group of veterans and the Cubs are approaching a transition period in the franchise timeline. Enter new manager David Ross, who was a clubhouse leader for Chicago in '15-16 and a World Series hero. Ross wants to shed the "Grandpa Rossy" image and instead bring a new dose of accountability to a Cubs team that did not grow into the dynasty many envisioned. This spring will mark a new era with Ross at the helm. More >
If they're not rebuilding, what’s the plan?
Seemingly every time he’s spoken since taking over as general manager in November, Ben Cherington has rejected the idea that the Pirates are embarking on a full-scale teardown-and-rebuild. He hasn’t laid out a timeline or a bullet-point plan, but even after trading center fielder Starling Marte for two low-level, high-risk prospects, Cherington said he views the Pirates’ path forward as “a build with the current group” and “more of a straight march toward winning around the current group that we have.” There isn’t much left to tear down from a roster that won only 69 games last season, and there is some young talent coalescing in the Majors and upper Minors. But what are they hoping to get out of this season? At the end of the year, which players will still be around to form the foundation of Cherington’s “build”? Will the current group improve enough under first-year manager Derek Shelton to encourage optimism that this won’t be a long road back to the postseason for the first time since 2015? More >
Improved enough to contend?
Following a 75-win season in 2019, the Reds went all-in this winter to make improvements to the tune of nearly $166 million in free agent contracts. The offense -- ranked near the bottom of the NL in several categories and first in the Majors for one-run losses -- was the biggest need addressed as Cincinnati added Mike Moustakas (four years/$64 million), Nick Castellanos (also four years/$64 million) and Shogo Akiyama (three years, $21 million). Also tweaked were the rotation with lefty Wade Miley (two years/$15 million) and bullpen by adding Pedro Strop (one year, $1.85 million). On the other hand, a recent pool accident led to shoulder surgery for Eugenio Suárez and the likelihood he won’t be ready for the start of the regular season. Joey Votto has endured back-to-back subpar years, including a ‘19 season where his OPS dipped below .800. Manager David Bell and the players are embracing the pressure of higher expectations, but can the club end a six-year postseason drought in a division that still has the Cubs, Cardinals and Brewers? More >
NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST
Are they a playoff team?
The D-backs added left-hander Madison Bumgarner (four years/$85 million). They picked up Starling Marte to man center field and Kole Calhoun (two years/$16 million) for right. They bolstered the bullpen with Junior Guerra (one year/$2.65 million) and Héctor Rondón (one year/$3 million). The question is whether that’s enough to vault them from their surprise 85-win finish of a year ago back into the playoffs for the first time since 2017. Catching the Dodgers was already going to be a tall task -- L.A. has won the last seven NL West titles -- and it got even harder after the Dodgers traded for Mookie Betts and David Price. The D-backs won a Wild Card in 2017 and beat the Rockies in the Wild Card Game before getting swept by the Dodgers in the NL Division Series. D-backs GM Mike Hazen has restocked the farm system while keeping the big league team on the fringe of contention. This winter they did not sacrifice any of their upper echelon prospects while also adding talent, but will it be enough to have them playing in October? More >
It only takes a blockbuster trade to rewrite a Spring Training narrative
While the Mookie Betts/David Price acquisitions were clearly with October in mind, a welcome bonus for the Dodgers is that the blockbuster trade recasts what seemed to be a sour Spring Training narrative.
Now, instead of wallowing in the bitter first-round elimination of last postseason or the sign-stealing scandal that might have cost them the 2017 World Series – which had been the winter focus -- the Dodgers open camp by welcoming a superstar MVP entering his prime in Betts and a former Cy Young winner in Price.
What better way to help turn the page and focus on 2020? More >
Now that the Bruce Bochy era has ended, Farhan Zaidi has free rein to preside over the team
After taking over as the Giants’ president of baseball operations in November 2018, Farhan Zaidi largely refrained from carrying out substantial change, wanting to remain respectful of Bruce Bochy’s final season as manager. But Zaidi is operating with more latitude now that Bochy has sailed into retirement. Zaidi bolstered his front-office bandwidth by hiring Scott Harris away from the Cubs and installing him as his new general manager. He put his reputation on the line by selecting Gabe Kapler to succeed Bochy. And he hasn’t been afraid to make unpopular moves, such as non-tendering Kevin Pillar and allowing Madison Bumgarner to depart as a free agent. While Zaidi has avoided labeling the Giants’ current situation a rebuild, the club’s newfound emphasis on youth and player development signals that the organization is in the midst of another transitional season. It would be unrealistic to expect the Giants to seriously contend in 2020, but the season could offer glimpses into a promising future if youngsters like Tyler Beede, Mauricio Dubón and Logan Webb continue to take steps forward and top prospects Joey Bart and Sean Hjelle burst onto the scene at some point this summer. More >
A.J. Preller has entered win-now mode. So are the Padres contenders yet?
In each of the past two offseasons, the Padres inked high-priced free agents to record-setting contracts. But Eric Hosmer and Manny Machado have yet to produce the desired results. Then again, those struggles will be quickly forgotten if the Padres turn things around in 2020 -- the year general manager A.J. Preller has been building for. Preller spent half a decade cultivating a top-tier farm system and putting the young pieces in place for an extended run at contention. His moves this offseason indicate he’s ready to turn the page. The Padres landed Tommy Pham in a trade with Tampa Bay, they signed Drew Pomeranz to a four-year deal, and they dealt two prospects for one year of Jurickson Profar. They even pursued Mookie Betts -- a superstar with only one year remaining on his contract. Make no mistake: Those are win-now moves. But are they enough to push a 70-win team into the playoff picture? By themselves, no. But if Machado and Hosmer bounce back, if Fernando Tatis Jr. and Chris Paddack continue their ascent, if Dinelson Lamet and Garrett Richards are healthy -- the Padres’ contention window might just open in 2020. And Preller’s job might hinge on it. More >
Will Nolan Arenado be there?
The offseason has been dominated by the unhappiness of superstar third baseman Nolan Arenado. Trade rumors have been Denver’s biggest baseball story this winter, and Arenado added to the fire by going public with his conflict with general manager Jeff Bridich. The Rockies have spent the winter insisting upon fair value, meaning the deal must not be seen as a step back for a team expecting to contend. Since the Rockies haven’t signed a Major League free agent or traded for a player of big league experience, there has been little to distract from the controversy. Should Arenado not be dealt, will the looming discord be the next distraction? More >