Baseball / Sports

Key spring training questions . . .


Will announcer Hawk Harrelson be happy?

In an interview with CSN Chicago, Harrelson said of last year's 99-loss squad: "That was the worst performing team ... that I have ever been associated with as a player and as an announcer." At least management did something about it. This year's opening-day lineup will feature four different starters from the team that opened 2013 against the Royals: outfielders Avisail Garcia and Adam Eaton, third baseman Matt Davidson and first baseman Jose Abreu, the Cuban slugger Chicago hopes will add some needed power. Chris Sale anchors what could be a solid starting staff, which includes former Royal Felipe Paulino. If Paulino thrives, it no doubt will lead to gnashing of teeth from fans here.


Can they do it again?

After a dreadful 2012 season in which they won just 68 game, the Indians qualified for the wild-card game last year with 92 victories. Pitchers Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir (351 innings, 24 victories) are either gone or expected not to return, so Danny Salazar will need to step up and Cleveland may lean on Excelsior Springs native Shaun Marcum. Still, the projections (FanGraphs' ZiPS and Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA) aren't kind to the Indians' pitching prospects this season. It'll be interesting to see how catcher Carlos Santana's conversion to third base goes, and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera must bounce back (.242, 14 homers in 2013) or he may cede his spot to the franchise's top prospect, Francisco Lindor.


How long will the window stay open?

The Tigers are favored to win a fourth straight AL Central title and you need look no further than the rotation for the reason why. Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander have Cy Young awards in their homes, and Detroit is so loaded with starters, it seemingly gave Doug Fister to Washington, opening the door for Drew Smyly. If there is a reason to worry in the Motor City (other than the Lions' perpetual sad state), it's the age of some of the key players. Verlander is 31 and coming off an injury. He's also thrown 1,772 in nine seasons. Two-time MVP Miguel Cabrera turns 31 in April, new closer Joe Nathan is 39, outfielder Torii Hunter is 38 and DH Victor Martinez is 35. But there is a new kid on the block: Nick Castellanos is 22 and will take over at third base.


What about the offense?

There was plenty to fix for the Twins, who were 13th in the American League in runs scored a year ago, while allowing the second-most runs in the league. The rotation was upgraded with the additions of Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes, but the lineup offers little beyond Joe Mauer, who is switching from catcher to i----rst base. The good news for Twins fans is that top prospects outfielder Byron Buxton and third baseman Miguel Sano had solid ZiPS projections from FanGraphs. The bad news? Neither is expected to have much of an impact this season. It also remains to be seen what effect (if any) will be felt on the team with general manager Terry Ryan undergoing treatment for cancer.


AL WEST: How can the Astros compete?

Oakland has won two straight division titles, the Rangers added Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo to the lineup, the Angels can realistically expect Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton to bounce back, and the Mariners splurged on Robinson Cano. The Astros, who have lost 324 games the past three seasons, are still in rebuilding mode and will be overmatched. Pitcher Scott Feldman was Houston's big move this offseason, but that will hardly make a dent in their chances. Bullpen strength may be a key factor the race. The A's added Jim Johnson, Luke Gregerson and Eric O'Flarety to an already solid unit. Former Royal Joakim Soria may replace Joe Nathan as the Rangers' closer, while Joe Smith should beef up the Angels' relief corps. But LA has issues with the rotation, which should be a strength for Seattle if Hisashi Iwakuma's finger injury isn't serious.

AL EAST: Does financial disparity really matter?

In an effort to snap their agonizing one-year streak of missing the playoffs, the Yankees dropped $438 million in offseason spending. They brought in Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, Masahiro Tanaka and Brian McCann. The last Yankees splurge of that nature was before the 2009 season and it paid off with a World Series title. However, last year's Blue Jays are the cautionary tale after spending big last offseason and finishing last in the East. Meanwhile, the Rays' projected payroll that will near $80 million, pushing their limits (although it's spare change to the Yankees). The Rays have won 90 or more games the past four seasons, reaching the playoffs three times. Pitching rules in Tampa, and ace David Price is back despite his $14 million contract. Of course, the defending World Series champion Red Sox are well-armed, too. There's depth in the rotation and a solid bullpen. Most of the key members of the lineup are back, too.

NL WEST: Can anyone keep up with the Dodgers?

Forget for a moment that the Dodgers are getting $8 billion over 25 years for their television deal. Yes, they can throw so much cash around that it makes the Yankees blush, but last season was remarkable. Floundering in last in the West with a 30-42 record, LA then went 53-13 and seized control of the division. With Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu in the rotation, it's hard to see them relinquishing the West this season. The Giants, who won two of the last four World Series titles, could make noise. The Diamondbacks bolstered the lineup with addition of Mark Trumbo and the Padres could push for a .500. But none should come close to touching the Dodgers.

NL CENTRAL: Will the division produce three playoff teams again?

Um, no. The Reds were the second wild card a year ago, but they didn't replace a key arm (Bronson Arroyo) and hitter (Shin-Soo Choo) and bid farewell to manager Dusty Baker. The Pirates will feel the loss of pitcher A.J. Burnett, but they should be in the playoff hunt again, particularly if Francisco Liriano (16 victories, 3.02 ERA) shows last year was no fluke. The Cardinals are universally praised for churning out talent and making smart personnel moves. They won the Central and advanced to the World Series last year, but improved with additions of Jhonny Peralta and Peter Bourjos. Michael Wacha and Shelby Miller have bright futures and Jaime Garcia will be back. The Brewers' rotation is better than most realize with Matt Garza, Yovani Gallardo and Kyle Lohse, but there are offensive holes. Meanwhile, the Cubs are still rebuilding.

NL EAST: Is this a two- or three-horse race?

The Nationals' 2013 motto was World Series or bust. Well, they busted big time. The not only failed in that endeavor but didn't even make the playoffs. But the Nationals have a new manager in Matt Williams and upgraded an above-average rotation with the addition of Doug Fister from the Tigers. A healthy and non-wall crashing Bryce Harper should boost the offense as Washington aims to overtake the Braves, who lost two members of the rotation in Paul Maholm and Tim Hudson (a combined 18 wins and 284 innings). However, Mike Minor, Kris Medlen and Julio Teheran are back, so they're not hurting too bad. The Braves' biggest need is bounce-back seasons from second baseman Dan Uggla and outfielder B.J. Upton. The Phillies are hoping for one last return to glory and made a splash this week with the signing of A.J. Burnett, who will join Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels in the rotation (if they stay healthy). To stay in the hunt, Philly will need some of the graybeards in the field to rekindle their youth: Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley.

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