A great unknown for each team ahead of Opening Day

April 4th, 2022

No matter how much teams prepare as Opening Day nears, there's always an unknown or two -- or five -- that remain. As we near the dawn of a new regular season, each MLB.com beat writer highlights one great unknown for their club as the 2022 campaign approaches.

American League East

Blue Jays: Gabriel Moreno
Moreno is the Blue Jays’ catcher of the future, but when does the future start? Toronto’s No. 1 prospect might be slow to get rolling early this season after visa issues delayed him from getting to Spring Training, but the 22-year-old is ranked as the No. 7 prospect in baseball by MLB Pipeline for a reason. If all goes according to plan, Moreno will be ready for his MLB debut at some point later in ’22. This is a different equation with a catcher, though, than an infielder or outfielder. Moreno doesn’t just need to react to plays on the field, he needs to learn a pitching staff and manage games behind the plate. If the Blue Jays are 55-40 and surging towards the postseason, how do they manage that transition behind the plate with the stakes so high? -- Keegan Matheson

Orioles: Third through fifth starters
Innings, innings and more innings. The Orioles have only two proven starters in John Means and Jordan Lyles. The rest of their rotation is filled with question marks. Even Tyler Wells, who earned a rotation spot, has uncertainty when it comes to his length and long-term durability. The spots are open for the taking, mostly to be filled by mid-20-year-olds who face career inflection points, recently shedding prospect status but without much success in 2021. Top prospects like Grayson Rodriguez (No. 2), D.L. Hall (No. 5) and Kyle Bradish (No. 10) will soon fill the rotation with quality and hope, but until then, it could be a fickle position for the O’s. -- Zachary Silver

Rays: Starting rotation
The question mark, for now, is how their rotation will hold up this season. Ryan Yarbrough will provide valuable innings all season, and they’re hoping for a tick up in his performance with his rediscovered velocity. Corey Kluber was brought in to be the steady veteran presence, but he’s battled injuries in recent years. A lot of their hopes reside with the young quartet of Shane McClanahan, Drew Rasmussen, Luis Patiño and top prospect Shane Baz. They’ve thrown a combined 322 2/3 innings in the Majors, which speaks to their inexperience and potential workload limitations this year. But they also have as much raw ability as any rotation in baseball. The Rays are betting on talent over experience, and the great unknown is how far the former will take them. -- Adam Berry

Red Sox: Matt Barnes
Can Barnes regain the closer’s role? The hard-throwing righty was so dominant in the first half last year that he made the All-Star team. In the second half, he struggled so mightily that he was not only pushed out of high-leverage situations but he was left off the American League Championship Series roster. Barnes worked hard in Spring Training to straighten out his mechanical flaws and he has expressed confidence in being able to do so. How well the bullpen can come together is perhaps the biggest question mark for this team. -- Ian Browne

Yankees: DJ LeMahieu
LeMahieu is arguably the club’s best pure hitter, but the three-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove Award winner is entering ’22 without a set infield position. The working plan is to have him bounce between second base, first base and third base -- an idea the Yanks first voiced in ’19 -- but no one in camp seems exactly sure how, when or where LeMahieu will find the at-bats he needs. LeMahieu called it “a good problem to have” and said he’s not concerned. -- Bryan Hoch

AL Central

Guardians: Josh Naylor
Cleveland may need to learn more about how Amed Rosario fits into its roster or what Bobby Bradley can turn into as a Major League hitter, but the biggest unknown heading into the 2022 season is Naylor. After a gruesome collision in the outfield last June prompted an 8 1/2-month rehab stint, Naylor returned to Cactus League action without any restrictions, but will start the year on the 10-day IL to have more time to get more games under his belt. When he inevitably returns, the team will need to see if he can turn into the player it was hoping he could be last year before injuries got in the way. Could he be a long-term answer in the outfield or will he find his home at first base? Regardless of when he gets to the big league squad, this team needs help offensively and he’ll need to be a big contributor. -- Mandy Bell

Royals: Starting rotation
The Royals made a significant step forward last season in getting several young pitching prospects from the 2018 Draft to the Majors. Brady Singer and Kris Bubic had debuted in 2020. Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar and Jonathan Heasley were all promoted in ’21. Add in Brad Keller and Carlos Hernández, and the Royals believe they have several starters of their future ready to make an impact. The next step is turning that potential impact into wins. Zack Greinke should help with some of that, as the Royals will rely on him to be a workhorse at the top of the rotation. The rest will fall on some mix of starters in Singer, Bubic, Lynch, Kowar, Heasley, Keller and Hernández.-- Anne Rogers

Tigers: Spencer Torkelson
Nobody in Tigers camp is saying Torkelson has something to prove. He was the first overall pick in the 2020 Draft for a reason, and even he said in Spring Training the Tigers knew what they were getting. He’s a right-handed hitter with potentially massive power, but it remains to be seen how quickly that power translates to the big leagues. He was more of a slasher in Spring Training, spraying doubles around the field and putting up tough at-bats against quality pitching. The Tigers don’t need him to fill a spot in the middle of their lineup right away; he’ll probably bat closer to the bottom of the order to begin the season. Still, the better Torkelson hits early, the more balanced the lineup looks, and the more dangerous Detroit can be offensively. -- Jason Beck

Twins: Joe Ryan
It's certainly strange to think of the team's Opening Day starter as something of an "unknown," but it's also tough to get around the fact that the 25-year-old is only five starts into his Major League career. He's an integral part of this team's future, and the stability of the rotation will have an outsized dependence on his ability to step up as a reliable anchor. So far, Ryan has given the Twins every reason to believe he can be that guy. He has a track record of Minor League success and was dominant for massive swaths of his September cameo. Still, considering he relies heavily on a fastball that isn't all too overpowering, he'll need to continue demonstrating that he can get MLB hitters out over a larger sample size. -- Do-Hyoung Park

White Sox: Michael Kopech
Kopech has the pure stuff most aces would dream of from start to start. So, the right-hander’s overall ability as he moves back into the rotation from his ’21 reliever/starter role certainly is not unknown entering the ‘22 season. But what Kopech can provide on the mound as a starter, especially in the early going in terms of innings and pitch count, is the big question. Kopech entered camp a little behind other White Sox starters after dealing with COVID-19 at the end of February. He threw two innings during his first Cactus League start and will start the Cactus League finale, with an apparent target of taking the mound for the home opener on April 12th. Kopech’s innings total will be monitored all season, so going a little shorter at the outset could be part of the solution. If Kopech is as good as expected, this rotation could be one of the best in baseball. -- Scott Merkin

AL West

Angels: Anthony Rendon
The Angels signed Rendon to a seven-year deal worth $245 million before the 2020 season but COVID-19 led to a shortened campaign and Rendon dealt with several injuries last year, including undergoing season-ending right hip surgery in August. Rendon has a strong track record -- he’s a career .287/.369/.484 hitter and is regarded as a plus defender at third -- but he has a lot to prove this year after his injury-marred '21 campaign. If Rendon can return to his prior form, it would be a huge boon for the offense and further deepen the lineup. -- Rhett Bollinger

Astros: Jeremy Peña
Peña is taking over at shortstop for one of the most decorated and popular players in club history in Carlos Correa, who signed with the Twins. Peña, who is the Astros’ No. 1 prospect per MLB Pipeline, is the best defensive player in the system and is riding the momentum of a strong offensive finish to the season last year at Triple-A. He injured his left wrist diving for a grounder in Spring Training last year and had surgery that cost him much of the season, but he returned to set a career high with 10 homers while hitting .297 in just 30 Triple-A games, claiming a spot on the 40-man roster. -- Brian McTaggart

Athletics: Jed Lowrie
The A’s are planning to have Lowrie play a lot of first base, a position he has not played in the Major Leagues since 2011, and one for which he enters the season with only 28 total innings under his belt. Lowrie enjoyed a career rejuvenation in his return to Oakland last season, but with the switch-hitter turning 38 years old in April, it’s unclear just how much production the club can count on getting from him. Regardless, his veteran presence and acute knowledge of hitting should serve Oakland's clubhouse well as a resource for the younger hitters to lean on. -- Martín Gallegos

Mariners: How they handle/maintain the No. 5 starter
Matt Brash won the No. 5 rotation spot over the weekend. The Mariners’ No. 6 prospect is hungry, he’s shined and he’s been on the same schedule as the rest of Seattle’s starters all spring. But how they manage him -- and the other waiting-in-the-wings pitching prospects -- has been of much intrigue. Brash threw 99 1/3 innings last year, putting him in line to jump into the 140-150 range in 2022. George Kirby, who has been piggybacking Brash, only threw 67 2/3 in '21, and the Mariners will have him open the season in the Minors to monitor his accumulation. Levi Stoudt, coming off 81 2/3 innings, is also expected to contribute this year. The promising performances have prompted management to halt its pursuit of an impact starting pitcher. They still could at the Trade Deadline, but for now, they’re rolling with the prospects. -- Daniel Kramer

Rangers: Starting rotation
If the Spring Training numbers carry over for even a fraction into the regular season, the Rangers will rake. But will it be enough to win games if the rotation doesn’t take a step forward? Jon Gray, the Rangers’ big pitching acquisition this offseason, was named the Opening Day starter. He’ll be followed by Taylor Hearn, Martín Pérez and Dane Dunning in no particular order, while the fifth starter competition seems to be coming down to the wire. So can the veterans Gray and Pérez provide quality innings at the top of the rotation? The Rangers hope so. But the key will ultimately be who the fifth starter is -- Kolby Allard, A.J. Alexy, Glenn Otto or Spencer Howard -- and if he, Dunning and Hearn can take the next step and reach their potential. -- Kennedi Landry

National League East

Braves: Back end of the rotation
This is the most complete team the Braves have had entering a season since the early 2000s. But there are definite questions about the back end of the rotation. Huascar Ynoa had some success when healthy last year. But the primary concern centers on Kyle Wright’s attempt to prove he can be consistent at the Major League level. He made just two regular season starts for Atlanta last year, but benefited from the chance to spend a few uninterrupted months developing at the Triple-A level. He quieted his critics with 4 2/3 valuable relief innings in Game 4 of the World Series. But he has a lot to prove as he has completed five innings in just five of his 14 career starts. This will be a big season for the right-hander, whom the Braves took with the fifth overall selection in the 2017 MLB Draft. -- Mark Bowman

Marlins: Center field and closer
There are two question marks for the Marlins: How will Jesús Sánchez look in center field and how will a closer-by-committee fare? Without a natural center fielder on the roster, Miami will slot Sánchez between Jorge Soler and Avisaíl García. It's a position Sánchez hasn't played since 2019 at the Triple-A level. Since the Marlins intend on moving players around, expect to see Jon Berti, García and perhaps Brian Anderson in center. And without a proven closer, Anthony Bender (150 ERA+ as a rookie) should be the primary option until Dylan Floro (15 saves) returns. As is the case with the lineup, Miami will work favorable matchups in the bullpen. -- Christina De Nicola

Mets: Jacob deGrom
The hope entering spring was that deGrom would be healthy and productive over a full season for the first time since 2019. But when the news hit less than a week before Opening Day that deGrom was dealing with a bout of shoulder soreness, it once again cast his short- and long-term outlooks into question. If deGrom, who is suffering from a stress reaction, can return in June and give the Mets 20-plus solid starts, they’ll sign up for that right now. But if deGrom’s injury lingers or he’s not himself when he returns, the Mets could struggle to string together wins. -- Anthony DiComo

Nationals: Stephen Strasburg
Strasburg’s health remains a massive question mark for the Nationals’ starting rotation for the third season in a row. Since being named MVP of the 2019 World Series, the right-hander has pitched just 26 2/3 innings because of season-ending carpal tunnel surgery in '20, and season-ending thoracic outlet syndrome surgery in '21. The Nats have been taking a cautious approach in Spring Training -- to date, Strasburg has not appeared in a game -- and there is no timetable set for his '22 debut. Manager Dave Martinez has projected Strasburg could make between 20 and 25 starts this season. -- Jessica Camerato

Phillies: Third base
Who’s on third? Alec Bohm entered camp as the heavy favorite. Then Johan Camargo entered the picture. Then Bryson Stott entered the picture with less than two weeks remaining in camp. Stott has outplayed everybody, but it is not a super easy decision because of the implications of optioning somebody like Bohm to Triple-A. Regardless, the production at third base offensively and defensively could be huge for this team. If they get solid production offensively, the Phillies lineup turns into a real meat grinder for opposing pitchers. If they get even average defense at third base, it could shorten a lot of innings for Phillies pitchers. -- Todd Zolecki

NL Central

Brewers: Christian Yelich
He is the Brewers’ ultimate difference-maker, for better or worse. In 2021, he fought back problems in April and May and fell into a bad place that persisted into June and beyond, even though Yelich and club officials all say he was completely healthy. Of the 161 Major Leaguers who got at least 450 plate appearances last season, Yelich was 113th in wRC+ (101), 118th in Fangraphs WAR (1.5) and 143rd in slugging percentage (.373). Yelich is known for keeping a cool head and offers regular reminders that hitting in Major League Baseball is very hard, even if some players in some seasons make it look easy. He’s intent on returning to a high level of production. -- Adam McCalvy

Cardinals: Jack Flaherty and Alex Reyes
Flaherty, who started 8-1 last season prior to suffering an oblique strain, was deemed to have a “small tear” in his shoulder, according to team president John Mozeliak. Flaherty says he has pitched with that injury for years, and he is hopeful that the platelet-rich plasma injection he got in his shoulder will allow him to return by early May. As for Reyes, his promising career has once again been put on hold by injuries. Reyes was an All-Star in 2021 when he converted his first 20 save opportunities, but shoulder soreness and ineffectiveness down the stretch cost him his closer’s job. Now, following a stem cell injection to ease his labrum pain, Reyes is hoping to be back on the mound by the end of May or early June. The ability of Flaherty and Reyes to return quickly from injuries could be major keys for a Cardinals franchise that might run thin on pitching without two of their biggest arms. -- John Denton

Cubs: Jason Heyward
This will be a critical year for Heyward, who is still an important figure inside the Cubs' clubhouse. He has already shown leadership this spring with his move to center, but the veteran's on-field production needs to improve in '22. That is especially true given how the front office is keeping an eye firmly on the future. Heyward, 32, is set to earn $22 million in each of the '22 and '23 campaigns. His performance to start this season will undoubtedly be under the microscope, especially with center fielder Brennen Davis, the Cubs' top prospect, waiting in the wings. -- Jordan Bastian

Pirates: Oneil Cruz
When does Cruz get called up? Cruz will begin the season with Triple-A Indianapolis, but it’s a matter of when, not if, he plays for the Pirates. Cruz was nothing short of phenomenal in the Minor Leagues last season and many -- including Cruz himself -- believed the young shortstop had done enough to warrant a spot on the Opening Day roster. If Cruz plays enough games, there’s a very realistic possibility that he wins the Rookie of the Year Award. -- Justice delos Santos

Reds: Starting rotation
Because Luis Castillo and Mike Minor won’t be ready in time, the Reds will have a very young rotation with three rookies and a second-year pitcher lined up behind Opening Day starter Tyler Mahle. Top prospect Hunter Greene and his triple-digit velocity will be appointment viewing every time he pitches. But with only a 3 1/2-week camp and none of the current starting five having a long track record of an innings workload, there could be some shorter starts early on that will tax the bullpen. If Castillo returns healthy and hits the ground running, the younger Reds’ rotation could be more formidable than expected. -- Mark Sheldon

NL West

D-backs: Health
No one in the front office will use it as an excuse, but injuries played a big role in the D-backs' struggles last year. Will they be able to stay healthy this year? That's a question no one can answer with any certainty about any team. Without a ton of depth as they await the next infusion of young talent, keeping their regulars on the field will be a huge priority. -- Steve Gilbert

Dodgers: Cody Bellinger
Which Bellinger will show up this season? If Bellinger can provide anywhere near the same production he enjoyed during his 2019 NL MVP season, the Dodgers’ lineup has a chance to be the best in franchise history. But if Bellinger resembles the hitter he was during a dreadful '21 season, the Dodgers will have a big hole in their order. The Dodgers’ confidence in Bellinger has not wavered. He’ll be the team’s everyday center fielder and still provides Gold Glove caliber defense at a premium position. Some more production from his big bat wouldn’t hurt, though. -- Juan Toribio

Giants: Catcher
How will the Giants divide playing time behind the plate now that Buster Posey has retired? Joey Bart has long been viewed as Posey’s heir apparent, but the rookie catcher scuffled in his first taste of the big leagues in 2020 and will face a steep learning curve as he learns to manage a veteran pitching staff in his first full season in San Francisco. Still, Bart has looked more confident this spring, earning praise for his framing skills and flashing his right-handed power by slugging a pair of home runs in Cactus League action. While the Giants see “everyday catcher upside” in Bart, they don’t plan on handing over the reins to him straight away. The 25-year-old is expected to begin the season in a timeshare with veteran Curt Casali, who has a sterling defensive reputation and reported to camp in excellent shape. -- Maria Guardado

Padres: MacKenzie Gore
Remember Gore, the utterly dominant uber-prospect, who was once on track to become one of the best young pitchers in baseball? Dare we say it: He might be back. Gore endured two brutal seasons in 2020 and '21 as he struggled with his command while his mechanics were thrown out of whack. But after working extensively with new pitching coach Ruben Niebla, Gore looks like a different pitcher this spring. He’s been finding the strike zone with all four of his pitches, to great effect. After plummeting in most prospect rankings, it’s entirely possible that Gore lives up to his billing after all. -- AJ Cassavell

Rockies: Sam Hilliard
Hilliard has size, swing power and speed. He finished last season crushing pitches, the way he finished his debut in 2019. But in between, the 6-foot-5, 236-pound outfielder has struck out an alarming number of times and had trouble holding onto a roster spot. The choice to keep Hilliard rather than Raimel Tapia, who may win a batting title one day, is a message that it’s Hilliard’s time to turn tools into production. -- Thomas Harding