MLB teams have been working out at their respective Spring Training complexes for almost a month, but this week, it really feels like baseball is back. Grapefruit and Cactus League schedules have kicked off, and Opening Day is now less than a month away.
A lot of people say Spring Training is way too long, but it gives teams the appropriate amount of time to sort out position battles and see if they have enough depth on their rosters. Each organization is dealing with a different set of expectations in 2016. No matter how high or low these expectations are, there’s pressure to live up to them.
Here’s one burning question each National League team must answer once games start counting in April:
Arizona Diamondbacks: How quickly will all that spending pay off?
Despite coming off a 79-83 performance in 2015, there are reasons to believe the Dbacks are on the cusp of being a contender. With young players like Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock leading the way, they ranked as a top 10 offense based on fWAR. The problem was their pitching staff wasn’t very effective, ranking in the bottom five based on fWAR (both according to FanGraphs).
So, how do you fix that problem? You go out and reel in Zack Greinke and Tyler Clippard via free agency and acquire Shelby Miller in a trade. Oh, and also trade for Jean Segura to help out a questionable middle infield.
On paper, these were huge improvements, but they came at a cost – both financially and sacrificing top prospects. The only way to justify it will be to win. In what should be a competitive NL West with the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers, that won’t be easy to accomplish.
Atlanta Braves: Which current MLB players will they build around in their new stadium?
The Braves are one of the few NL teams who are in rebuild mode this year. If you weren’t convinced before, watching them ship out players like Miller and Andrelton Simmons reaffirmed that. The goal here is for the process to be short, allowing Atlanta to open their new stadium next season with a competitive ball club.
The front office was open to discussing trades involving anybody except Freddie Freeman, so we know he’s not going anywhere. But what about starting pitcher Julio Teheran? Entering his age-25 season, he could be part of that core group, but he must first bounce back from a 2015 campaign in which he posted a 4.04 ERA and 1.31 WHIP while struggling mightily against left-handed hitters.
Chicago Cubs: Is this the year they finally win it all?
This should be no secret: the Cubs are freakin’ stacked. Their rebuilding process was painful, but now that young players like Addison Russell, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber are in the big leagues, it was clearly worth the wait.
Fresh off a 97-win campaign and their first NLCS appearance since 2003, the front office put the pedal to the floor by surrendering draft picks for Jason Heyward and John Lackey, along with replacing Starlin Castro with Ben Zobrist. Oh, and although the roster could’ve been set, let’s not forget them bringing back what appeared to be their heart and soul in Dexter Fowler last week.
Again, it should be no secret that Chicago is primed to take the next step. However, it’s not like they’re trying to break a 30-year drought like the Kansas City Royals last year…they have over 100 years of disappointment weighing on them. Last year’s playoff experience will help them cope with high expectations in 2016, but this is still unchartered water for a very young roster.
Cincinnati Reds: Is their rebuild going to work?
Unlike the Braves and Brewers, the Reds have had a much harder time selling high on their major-league talent in order to kick start the rebuilding process. They traded away fan favorite Todd Frazier in a three-team deal with the Chicago White Sox and Dodgers, but some are saying the prospect haul LA received was more impressive than Cincy.
Off-field issues and a subsequent suspension forced the Reds to sell lower on Aroldis Chapman, Brandon Phillips vetoed two different proposed deals and another player’s medicals nixed a recent attempt to ship Jay Bruce out of town.
Cincinnati isn’t going to be good this year. We all know that – especially in a deep division like the NL Central. The question soon will be, are the young players they’ve received (and will receive) enough to get them back to contention in the near future?
Colorado Rockies: Will they rebuild or still try to think they can compete?
After trading Troy Tulowitzki last July, we thought the Rockies finally waved the white flag and would start selling off MLB talent to get the top-tier starting pitching they so desperately need.
Instead of trying to find a suitor for Carlos Gonzalez, they held onto him, signed Gerardo Parra to a three-year deal and traded Corey Dickerson to the Tampa Bay Rays for reliever Jake McGee. Will those moves make them better? Yea, probably, but it’s not like they were an 85-win team last year looking to get themselves over the hump and back into the playoffs. They were a 68-win last place team in the NL West.
Los Angeles Dodgers: How much depth does the starting rotation actually have?
I recently wrote that what the Dodgers lost in elite production with Greinke, they gained in depth, flexibility and upside with Kenta Maeda and Scott Kazmir. Although they also have Alex Wood and both Brandon McCarthy and Hyun-jin Ryu coming off injury, there’s plenty of risk involved, as well.
None of these pitchers needs to produce like Greinke. They just need to stay healthy and perform well as a unit behind Clayton Kershaw, who will do most of the heavy lifting. They appear to be better equipped to handle injuries now, but that also depends on how many injuries they’ll eventually have to handle.
Miami Marlins: Can a new coaching staff take them to the next level?
With the Nationals and Mets taking up most of the headlines, the Marlins are getting lost in the shuffle. They have a young squad, but started to show some life last September by going 19-12 to finish out the season strong. Now, they’ll also have a healthy Jose Fernandez and Giancarlo Stanton anchoring the pitching staff and everyday lineup, respectively.
What will also help is a fresh perspective from a new coaching staff. A lot of people likely envied Don Mattingly’s old position with the Dodgers, but he was forced to manage a lot of difficult personalities, and did it well enough to win consistently. Also, bringing someone on board like Barry Bonds to help a bunch of young hitters was probably one of the best moves this winter.
Right now, the narrative is all about New York and Washington, but Miami has the pieces in place to make more noise than many are expecting this year.
Milwaukee Brewers: Who else gets traded now to help out the future?
The past couple years haven’t been kind to the Brewers, and while many people are more concerned about what’s going on with their adorable ballpark pup, Hank, the front office has been busy dealing MLB players to build for a better future.
So, who exactly is left? The most attractive position players left include catcher Jonathan Lucroy, who wants to be traded, and left fielder Ryan Braun. Due to Braun’s contract status, it’ll probably be hard to deal him, but there’s almost no chance Lucroy makes it through the year in Milwaukee, especially if he’s healthy. Will they sell off more by dipping into the bullpen at the trade deadline? That remains to be seen.
New York Mets: Can a potentially historic rotation live up to the hype?
This young and impressive group of hurlers was on full display last October. Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz showed why this rotation has the potential to be something of historic proportions in 2016. While Bartolo Colon is currently holding down a spot, he’s just keeping the seat warm for Zack Wheeler once he returns from Tommy John surgery.
The experience of the postseason was great for them, but how will it affect them physically? The coaching staff is doing everything possible to ease them into the year, but we’ve all seen pitchers get hurt despite having the best care possible.
Pitching is what kept the Mets in contention before Yoenis Cespedes put them over the top. He’s back to help the offense, but New York is built around this remarkable group. They’ll go as far as their pitching can take them.
Philadelphia Phillies: Is the left side of the infield set for the next decade?
Just like the last run of competitive Phillies baseball was built around players like Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, the organization potentially has a left side of the infield that could be building blocks for the next generation.
Maikel Franco showed his promise at third base in 80 games played last year after slashing .280/.343/.497 with 14 homers and 50 RBI. Freddy Galvis is currently keeping shortstop warm, but the Phillies aren’t going anywhere this year. Once top prospect J.P. Crawford is ready, he’ll take over.
Eventually having Franco and Crawford in the lineup every day will certainly help keep the fan base at least somewhat interested while the organization rebuilds.
Pittsburgh Pirates: The outfield is one of the best, but what about the infield?
The Pirates probably have the best outfield in baseball. Andrew McCutchen puts up MVP-caliber numbers every year, Starling Marte is a Gold Golver and Gregory Polanco is still just scratching the surface of his potential.
But the infield? That’s a different story. Second baseman Neil Walker was traded to the Mets and first baseman Pedro Alvarez was non-tendered, leaving holes to be filled. Josh Harrison will shift from third to second, Jung Ho Kang will eventually return to play third and Jordy Mercer is manning short, while John Jaso and Mike Morse platoon at first.
There are lots of questions for this group, but if there’s any team in baseball that can do a lot with a little, the Pirates have shown they’re capable of such over the last few years.
San Diego Padres: What’s the new long-term plan?
Prior to 2015, general manager A.J. Preller was busy building a team ready to immediately compete. Then, they posted a 74-88 record, so he was forced to change course. He traded Yonder Alonso, Joaquin Benoit and Craig Kimbrel for prospects, while he wishes he could’ve shipped James Shields out of town, as well.
Ian Desmond was an offseason target, but he opted for smaller risk with a one-year deal for Alexei Ramirez. He at least toyed with the idea of Cespedes, but that didn’t happen either. How the front office and coaching staff handles this year will be a good indicator of what San Diego’s long-term plan is.
After the last two winters, it’s hard to really tell what that is.
San Francisco Giants: Is the “even year” momentum still going to be a thing?
The last time an MLB team other than the Giants won the World Series during an even year, it was the Phillies in 2008. Whether they went into this past winter thinking they had a reputation to uphold or not, they reinforced the rotation behind Madison Bumgarner as well as they could with Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija.
Bringing in Denard Span to take over center field and the leadoff spot will be huge, as long as he’s healthy. Making sure Hunter Pence stays on the field is also something San Francisco really needs to be successful. The NL West was probably the most active division with regard to notable offseason moves, and it’s possible the Giants have the best overall team.
St. Louis Cardinals: Is the outfield deep enough to be successful?
St. Louis had a clear plan at the start of the offseason: make a splash with David Price and/or Jason Heyward. They were aggressive in their pursuit of both, but came up empty-handed. There are uncertainties in the rotation and at catcher, but the biggest one of all is in the outfield.
Matt Holliday has been solid throughout his Cardinals career, but was limited to just 73 games due to injury in 2015, and he isn’t getting any younger. Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk stepped in and performed great last year, but now they’re the starters. There doesn’t appear to be a lot of depth behind them, so St. Louis is hoping the injury bug doesn’t hit them in 2016 again.
With stiff competition in the NL Central from the Cubs and Pirates, they must stay close to full strength in order to clinch a postseason spot for the sixth consecutive season.
Washington Nationals: Can a changed clubhouse culture bring different on-field results?
The Nationals were expected to be World Series contenders last season. Instead, injuries and a bad clubhouse environment derailed those chances, ending with missing the playoffs entirely. They’ll look to overtake the Mets in the NL East with most of the same team back (but healthier) and a new manager in Dusty Baker.
Will a change in the environment help? Washington was Matt Williams’ first managerial gig, and it showed by the end of his tenure. Bringing someone like Baker in, who has a lot of experience and a good reputation with players, was probably the best thing to do from a morale standpoint. We’ll soon find out how much of a difference it’ll make, but at least Jonathan Papelbon will try harder to keep his hands to himself this year. We think.
Thanks for reading! Don’t forget to follow me on Twitter so we can celebrate the return of baseball together: @mmusico8.