Five burning questions with Spring Training on deck
Welcome to Presidents' Day, the last official holiday before the unofficial one that baseball fans worldwide have been anticipating all winter.
This coming Thursday, Feb. 19, will bring pitchers, catchers, eager position players, managers, coaching staffs, rays of sunshine and crowds of fans to the complexes of Arizona and Florida for the first time in 2015. In other words, Spring Training is finally here, and the questions leading up to Opening Day all the way through October will begin to be answered.
Here are five big ones that are on all our minds as we once again smell the grass, see the blue sky, hear the crack of the bat, the smack of the glove, and those four magical words: pitchers and catchers report.
1. How 'bout those champs?
Shouldn't it always start with the World Series winner? The last time we saw the San Francisco Giants, third baseman Pablo Sandoval was squeezing a Salvador Perez popup to win the club's third World Series championship in the last five years. Well, Sandoval is gone now, having signed as a free agent with Boston, and the Giants replaced him at third base with Casey McGehee.
Otherwise, San Francisco general manager Brian Sabean didn't do much in the offseason. The roster looks very similar and will hope to get first baseman Brandon Belt and righty Matt Cain healthy for an entire season to break out of that "slump" that only sees them win rings in even-numbered years.
2. For that matter, how 'bout those almost-champs?
The Kansas City Royals were so close to winning their first title in 29 years. They took the Giants to seven games, had Alex Gordon on third base to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth, and just ran into a bit too much of San Francisco ace Madison Bumgarner.
The Royals look good for 2015, though. GM Dayton Moore kept their spectacular bullpen intact and even added to it, re-signing Luke Hochevar. The team also filled roster holes with designated hitter Kendrys Morales, outfielder Alex Rios and starter Edinson Volquez and went for pitching depth with comeback candidates Kris Medlen, Joe Blanton and Ryan Madson. Now they'll hope that young players such as Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar continue to emerge the way they did under the bright lights of last October. For the first spring in a while, the world will be watching.
3. How will the famous faces in new places adjust?
Jon Lester went to the Cubs to give a young team with a lot of talent a star at the top of the rotation for a possible postseason run. Max Scherzer signed for huge bucks in Washington and will front a five-man starting crew that looks like one of MLB's best in years. The Red Sox landed Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez in hopes that this massive collective investment will give them another last-to-first turnaround.
Josh Donaldson was traded from Oakland to Toronto. Russell Martin signed with the Blue Jays. Jeff Samardzija went from Oakland to the White Sox. David Robertson and Melky Cabrera signed with the South Siders. The leading home run hitter in the Majors last year, Nelson Cruz, signed as a free agent with the Mariners.
The Yankees got Andrew Miller and resigned Chase Headley. The D-backs went for Cuban slugger Yasmany Tomas. Yoenis Cespedes went to Detroit, Rick Porcello to Boston. Jason Heyward went to St. Louis, Shelby Miller to Atlanta. The Dodgers got Jimmy Rollins and Howie Kendrick, and the Padres? Well, they did so much, they get their own question (see No. 5 below).
It all means there will be a lot of players in new uniforms to pay attention to when Spring Training begins.
4. Who will pull off the biggest surprises?
It's tough to say before teams take the field, but things are looking up for the Cubs, with Lester up top, smart veteran additions (Dexter Fowler, Miguel Montero, Jason Motte, David Ross, Chris Denorfia), brilliant young talent all over the field (Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, Javier Baez, just to name three) and a top-prospect slugger (Kris Bryant) possibly on the way soon, and a charismatic new skipper (Joe Maddon), things are looking good for a North Side revival.
The Marlins might show up on the contending radar, too. Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich were already two of the Majors' brightest emerging outfield stars, ace Jose Fernandez should return from Tommy John surgery at some point this year, and the additions of Mat Latos, Michael Morse, Dee Gordon, Martin Prado and Ichiro Suzuki should have them stronger and deeper at every position.
5. What will the Padres do next?
This might be the most fun question of all, considering how much they've done already since GM A.J. Preller took over and orchestrated a wild winter we won't soon forget. Where to even start? San Diego added outfielders Matt Kemp, Justin Upton and Wil Myers, plus catcher Derek Norris and third baseman Will Middlebrooks. The rotation and bullpen were deepened with new additions Brandon Morrow, Josh Johnson, Brandon Maurer and Shawn Kelley.
And, oh yeah, just for the heck of it, Preller waited until a week ago to land ace James Shields. That doesn't mean he's done, though. Nineteen-year-old Cuban sensation Yoan Moncada is still available, and there's still a few days before pitchers and catchers report.
There's plenty of time to get another deal done.