Will the Cubs live up to the rampant World Series expectations? Are the D-backs for real? Can David Price make his contract worth it? Are the Royals a dynasty in the making? Do the Blue Jays, Astros and Mets have staying power?
Spring Training preview materials will be loaded with these questions and more, but the obvious truth is that Spring Training itself can't answer those questions. So the goal in this particular preview, mere days away from pitchers and catchers report dates, is to pose an actual, spring-specific question each Major League club is facing on the cusp of camp.
I'm dedicating this column to the memory of my friend and teammate Tom Singer, who suddenly passed away earlier this week. Tom was one of the more inquisitive and creative minds in the business, and I know he was looking forward to showing up at Spring Training camps and asking unique questions of his own.
Here we go….
Mets: How carefully should the young starters be eased into the season?
For the Mets, it will be a delicate balance between overworking and underworking Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard after they all saw significant innings increases due to the postseason run. Syndergaard jumped 65 2/3 innings from his 2014 total in the Minors, while deGrom and Harvey jumped 37 2/3 apiece. Because of injury, Steven Matz (15 2/3) didn't see quite as big an increase, though he, like Syndergaard, is entering his first full Major League season, an adjustment in and of itself. These guys need to be properly prepared for the every-five-day grind, but they should also probably see a less rigorous spring workload than the typical big league starter.
Nationals: Is Trea Turner ready for the big leagues?
The Grapefruit League will be a great test of the Nats' new-look infield. Anthony Rendon is moving back to his natural position at third base -- a fine move in isolation (he grades out better defensively there than at second base). But some scouts believe Daniel Murphy would be far better suited at third than at second base and that Rendon is the better defensive option at second. And then, of course, there's the big question at short, where the Nats' options come down to a utility guy (Danny Espinosa) who has spent far more of his career at second, a light-hitting free-agent signee (Stephen Drew) and the top prospect (Turner), who has only played 212 games in what has already been a whirlwind pro career (including 27 with the Nats down the stretch in 2015). Lots of questions in this infield.
Marlins: Can Barry Bonds help Marcell Ozuna's swing?
New manager Don Mattingly and new hitting coach Bonds pleaded with the front office to keep Ozuna despite the rampant trade rumblings and the disconnect between player and organization last season. Ozuna was one of eight players identified as above-average in each of the five-tool categories by Statcast™, so the potential is off the charts. But his decline in production last season -- leading to a controversial stay in Triple-A -- was as swift as it was stunning, and spring is an important time for Ozuna and Bonds to develop a positive working relationship.
Braves: Will Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn open any eyes with their spring at-bats?
It's no secret the Braves would love to move one or both of these guys. So they are destined to receive a steady dose of Grapefruit League at-bats as the Braves try to garner enough interest for a salary dump swap. With Freddie Freeman working his way back from a wrist injury, perhaps Swisher will see some time at first base.
Phillies: Is Tyler Goeddel the next Odubel Herrera?
Last year, Herrera arrived as a Rule 5 Draft pickup and wound up leading the Phillies in WAR (and yes, that says as much about the Phils as it does Herrera). Now, Goeddel is the marquee Rule 5 Draft addition (the first overall pick). That he'll make the big league club is a foregone conclusion, because the Phillies have nothing to lose by keeping him. The question is how much the athletic but unpolished Goeddel will separate himself from Aaron Altherr, Peter Bourjos and Cody Asche in the battle for playing time in Pete Mackanin's lineup.
Blue Jays: Will Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion agree to extensions?
In the lead-up to Opening Day, the new-look front office will have to weigh the attraction of satiating the fan base and ensuring stability in the long-term lineup against the obvious risks that come with power hitters in their mid-to-late-30s. These discussions will take place when all parties arrive in Dunedin, Fla., later this month.
Yankees: CC Sabathia or Ivan Nova?
The last rotation spot is the lone source of genuine positional intrigue in Yankees camp. (That said, Starlin Castro's continued immersion at second base and first-ever trial at third base, where the Yanks might need him as a Chase Headley backup, is interesting). Sabathia is the former Cy Young Award winner coming off a homer-prone year that ended in alcohol rehab. Nova is the Tommy John alum the Yanks tried to trade. General manager Brian Cashman has said Sabathia's $25 million salary wouldn't preclude the Yanks from sticking CC in the bullpen if somebody else (Nova is the obvious candidate, though Bryan Mitchell is another) wins the job outright.
Orioles: What's the outlook for the outfield?
They're reportedly making progress with Yovani Gallardo to fill a big hole in the rotation, so let's focus on the outfield here. Big-bodied Hyun-soo Kim, fresh off signing a two-year contract with the O's, will arrive from South Korea and try to prove he has the range and athleticism to handle the everyday left-field assignment. Adam Jones was tasked with covering a ton of outfield ground last year, and his performance tailed off in the last two months of the season. At the moment, right field likely belongs to Nolan Reimold, though an O's team familiar with in-spring splashes could still sign somebody to support or replace him.
Rays: Will James Loney, Desmond Jennings or Brandon Guyer be moved?
It's a question that presumes a healthy camp, of course, but it would solve a logjam. Dealing Loney would allow Logan Morrison and Steve Pearce to share first, Corey Dickerson to spend the bulk of his time at DH and Jennings, Kevin Kiermaier and Steven Souza Jr. to provide dependable defense in the outfield, with Guyer as a bench option vs. lefties. Or the Rays could move Jennings or Guyer and open up more at-bats for Pearce and Morrison. Whatever the case, one presumes the Rays would be seeking relief help in any deal involving their position player depth.
Red Sox: Can Hanley Ramirez handle first base?
The Red Sox don't have any position battles, but that doesn't mean they don't have position issues. Hanley's position switch last year -- from shortstop to left field -- wasn't subjected to any truly challenging plays during the spring schedule, but obviously the ball is going to find him at first. Because they're paying Ramirez a ton of money, the Red Sox have no choice but to hope this works -- and the same goes for Pablo Sandoval at third. The Panda's physical condition will, naturally, be a spring storyline all its own.
Cardinals: What is Yadier Molina's timetable?
Molina will spend camp's early days not swinging the bat or catching bullpen sessions, but building strength back up in his left thumb after having a second surgery this winter. Because there's no telling how long that process will take and how much it will affect his season preparation, it's hard to know if Molina will be ready by Opening Day. To say getting him back in a timely matter is important for the Cards is, of course, an understatement.
Pirates: How well is Jung Ho Kang progressing?
Because of the division's demands, the decisions to deal Neil Walker and non-tender Pedro Alvarez, and the lack of additions of bankable depth options, the Pirates can ill-afford any medical setbacks for Kang, who suffered a fractured tibial plateau and torn lateral meniscus on an ugly takeout slide by Chris Coghlan last September. The move to third base (with Jordy Mercer at short and Josh Harrison replacing Walker at second) will limit Kang's lateral movement when he returns. As of now, the Pirates are expecting him back in April, with Sean Rodriguez (last seen assaulting a water cooler) filling in and Minor League free agent Cole Figueroa competing for a bench job.
Cubs: Can Kyle Schwarber improve in left field?
As much as we love this Cubs lineup, there's no denying there are defensive concerns in the outfield, where Jorge Soler had some surprising struggles in '15, Jason Heyward is moving from right to center and, most importantly, Schwarber was a mess during the NLCS. Schwarber has been working on his first step and flexibility this winter, and that work will be put to the test in Arizona. But his efforts in left coincide with his work behind the plate, where he still hopes to remain an option long-term. Combine all of this with Schwarber's bid for more at-bats against left-handed pitching, and the kid's got a lot on his plate.
Brewers: How's Ryan Braun feeling?
Not that the Brewers are making an earnest effort to contend in 2016, but Braun could still potentially play himself into a viable trade chip (provided the Brew Crew is willing to eat some cash, of course) if he's healthy and producing the way he did for much of '15. Braun had surgery for a herniated disc in the offseason, but he won't have a clear idea of how well his back is responding until the regular swings that come in the Cactus League.
Reds: Will a market develop for Jay Bruce?
He only remains in Cincinnati as a function of the unusually deep and late-developing free-agent outfield market this winter, because the Reds, now in full-on rebuild mode, were motivated to move him. Most likely, Bruce will start the season with the Reds and try to piece together enough of a bounce-back campaign to become July trade bait. But all it takes is one spring injury elsewhere to suddenly make the idea of dealing for Bruce more palatable for a contending club. The Reds also have to hope Zack Cozart's grisly knee injury last year hasn't affected his defense at short, because he, too, could play himself into trade-chip status.
Royals: Can Christian Colon steal playing time from Omar Infante?
In the third year of a four-year deal, Infante will make $7.75 million, and there was a time when that fact alone would settle him into a starting spot for this small-market club. But you might have noticed things are a little different in the realm of the Royals these days, and they're calling this a legitimate position battle between Infante and Colon, who drove in the winning run in the World Series Game 5 clincher. (Top prospect Raul A. Mondesi will also get consideration but is far more likely to start the season in the Minors). Sure, the Royals are paying Infante a good amount of money, but, hey, they took Colon ahead of Matt Harvey in the 2010 Draft! One way or another, they'll look for better returns on both of these investments.
Twins: Will Miguel Sano stick in right?
Byung Ho Park's transition to the bigs is also a major matter in Minnesota, but Sano's defensive work -- directly related to Park's arrival -- will be a more pressing spring concern. Torii Hunter will be in camp as a special assistant to work with the 6-foot-4 Sano in the outfield, and the Twins' lineup alignment demands that this experiment be successful. Sano was tasked with dropping 20 pounds this winter. Citing a desire to maintain his power, he dropped just five. He's agile for his size, but this is undoubtedly a big test for him.
Indians: Will Michael Brantley continue his rapid recovery?
He's the key to the whole darn thing for an Indians team projected by FanGraphs to have the best record in the division despite a less-than-dynamic winter. Brantley didn't have surgery on his lead shoulder until early November, which means you can count him out for Opening Day and likely all or most of April. But because his recovery has progressed so well so far, Brantley must avoid the temptation to do too much too soon, lest he suffer a setback that crushes a Tribe club already prone toward slow starts.
White Sox: What's up at short?
Tyler Saladino played terrific defense at third base for the Sox down the stretch last season, but his 68 OPS+ detracted from his value. So it's an open question whether he's ready for prime time at a prime spot, and he could be pushed in camp by top prospect Tim Anderson. The other, still-lingering question here is whether the Sox will wind up too tempted by Ian Desmond's reduced price tag to pass him up. With a protected top-10 Draft pick, the White Sox are better positioned to sign Desmond than many others in the market.
Tigers: Can Bruce Rondon work his way into the bullpen plans?
Well, obviously we'll be playing close attention to the statuses of Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. But they've both had a healthy offseason, so, at this point, there's little reason to doubt they'll be in the Opening Day lineup and, hopefully, ready to produce. But Rondon's dismissal from the club due to a lack of effort makes him an interesting figure in camp. The Tigers' bullpen has a new closer in Francisco Rodriguez and better balance overall, but there's always room for a motivated flamethrower. We'll soon learn for sure if Rondon is committed to winning the respect of his teammates.
Dodgers: Will Hyun-Jin Ryu be ready by Opening Day?
And if so, what does that mean for fellow lefty Alex Wood? The Dodgers have assembled rotation depth to allow Ryu to ease into action, rather than rush back from labrum surgery. So the most likely outcome is that he starts the season in extended Spring Training or on a rehab assignment. But the Dodgers could also be tempted to take advantage of Wood's ability to be optioned to Triple-A Oklahoma City.
Giants: How is Joe Panik's back?
He's 25 years old and coming off an All-Star season. But that season was cut short by back woes. Doctors have not discovered any structural damage, so Panik did not have surgery. But only time and performance will dictate whether this will be a persistent problem for a club all too familiar with back issues involving their second basemen (see: Sanchez, Freddy and Scutaro, Marco).
D-backs: Can Yasmany Tomas acquit himself in the outfield?
In their bold bid to take a major competitive step forward, there's no denying the D-backs sacrificed defense by involving Ender Inciarte in the Shelby Miller swap. The question is how much. Tomas enters the year as an everyday corner outfielder (Arizona is still unsure whether he'll remain in right or swap spots with left fielder David Peralta) after proving he can't handle the hot corner. Tomas has indicated he's more comfortable in right field, though the D-backs might prefer to have the better defender there and use this spring to get Tomas acclimated to left. And oh by the way, Tomas, who had a .707 OPS last season, needs to hit, too.
Padres: Can Andrew Cashner limit walks and neutralize lefties?
Yeah, yeah, the spring results don't matter. But scouts are in the stands for a reason. Cashner is a guy with ace-quality potential when he's right -- and that's a big deal for a Padres team either hoping to surprise some people in the NL West or use Cashner as a valuable trade piece midseason (or even sooner). Last year, Cashner's effectiveness against left-handed hitters spiraled (.383 wOBA vs. a .294 mark a year earlier), and his overall walk rate jumped to 8.2 percent.
Rockies: What will Jose Reyes' punishment be?
In invoking punishments under the sports' domestic violence policy for the first time, Commissioner Rob Manfred has big decisions to make with Reyes, Yasiel Puig and Aroldis Chapman. But Reyes is the only member of that group who is facing a criminal procedure. He has pleaded not guilty to domestic abuse charges, and his trial is slated to begin April 4 (Opening Day, of course). Manfred can make his decision independent of those proceedings, and there's no telling how stiff the penalty will be. Reyes is the Rockies' highest-paid player and a guy they hoped would rebuild his offensive value (and, ergo, his trade value) at Coors Field. Right now, there's no way of knowing when or if he'll be on the field in 2016.
Rangers: Can Jurickson Profar get back in baseball shape?
We'll venture away from the obvious intrigue surrounding Yu Darvish's timetable, because, by all accounts, he's still on track for a May return. Profar provides intrigue of his own. This is a guy who was once considered the top prospect in the game, but hasn't played a single inning in the field the last two years because of shoulder issues that eventually required surgery. Profar's bat action as a designated hitter in the Arizona Fall League caught the attention of scouts, and several teams contacted the Rangers in an attempt to buy low on the middle infielder. The Rangers wisely held onto him, and they'll ease him back into action in the field this spring. His odds of making the big league club are slim to none, barring injury to somebody else. But the Rangers are about to see if Profar can emerge as an important depth piece in their bid to win the AL West again.
Astros: Will Evan Gattis be ready for Opening Day?
It was revealed this week that Gattis required surgery for a sports hernia, sidelining him for four to six weeks. That's going to hurt his ability to get his timing back before the end of Grapefruit League play, so the Astros will dole out more playing time to Jon Singleton, Matt Duffy, A.J. Reed, Tyler White and Preston Tucker. While the Astros, in letting Chris Carter walk, might generally be trying to get away from the all-or-nothing approach that was one of their calling cards in '15, Gattis is still clearly a key cog in this offense. He was also hopeful of increasing his value to the team beyond his DH duties, losing weight and doing catching drills in the offseason.
Angels: What's Albert Pujols' timetable?
The Angels are getting crushed in many corners for not doing more to improve their production potential around Mike Trout, opting instead for a more contact-heavy approach. Maybe the Halos have it right, but there's little denying that their lineup look demands healthy and productivity from Pujols, who is working his way back from November surgery on the plantar plate of his right foot. Pujols is already hitting off a tee but is not expected to resume full baseball activities until March, putting Opening Day in jeopardy. Pujols rushed back to action too quickly in 2013, to the point that it affected his performance, and the Angels don't want that to happen again.
Mariners: Can James Paxton win a rotation spot?
Technically, it's Taijuan Walker, Nate Karns and Paxton for two spots, though you'd have to imagine the 29 starts and the progress Walker made as '15 evolved give him the inside edge on one of those. Karns was Dipoto's first addition in a busy offseason, but Paxton is the guy who was long lauded as one of the M's prominent prospects. Injury issues have limited Paxton to 30 career starts over parts of three Major League seasons, but the left-hander has dropped some pounds and will come to camp intent on proving he's ready to turn his potential into production. Other guys potentially in the mix for that last spot are Mike Montgomery, Joe Wieland and Vidal Nuno. Paxton seemingly has the most upside of those options, but he's got to earn it.
Athletics: What is the rotation beyond Sonny Gray?
Oakland has probably one of the most -- if not the most -- unsettled rotation situations in the big leagues. The A's signed Rich Hill with the intent of inserting him into the rotation, though he hasn't been a regular starter at this level since 2009. After Gray and Hill, it's a wide-open competition involving Kendall Graveman, Jesse Hahn, Chris Bassitt, Sean Nolin and possibly even Jarrod Parker (who is attempting to come back from two elbow surgeries) and Sean Manaea (a promising trade acquisition who hasn't pitched above Double-A but who manager Bob Melvin has called a "wild card" in the rotation battle). Should be fun to watch this evolve.
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Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor and an MLB.com columnist. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.