Spring Training Questions: NL Edition

With the Dodgers and Diamondbacks already settled in at their Spring Training headquarters and the rest of baseball reporting this week, we thought it would be a good time to take a look at key questions that must be answered during the next 6 weeks. This post will take a look at key questions in the National League, with a similar post on the American League side coming this weekend.

National League East

Atlanta Braves – Can BJ Upton rebound from a miserable 2013?

After signing a 5-year, 75 million-dollar contract, the Braves expected Upton to play a key role on both sides of the ball. Upton was coming off a 2012 that saw him hit 28 home runs and steal 31 bases. Though Upton had a sub .300 OBP in his last year with the Rays, the Braves still were expecting to add a power-speed dynamic athlete to their lineup. Instead, the Braves saw Upton hit .184 with a .268 OBP and .557 OPS. Striking out in almost 34 percent of his plate appearances, Upton couldn’t recover from his slow start that saw him hit .143 in April and .147 in May. With the loss of McCann, the Braves are going to need Upton to provide more offensive production. It will be interesting to watch Upton in Spring Training and see if he can regain some of his power that was seen in Tampa Bay.

Miami Marlins – Can Giancarlo Stanton put together a complete season?

Stanton’s power is well documented. If you need a reminder, just watch this. Entering his age 24 season, Stanton has hit 117 home runs in his first four seasons, with a slugging percentage of .535. However, Stanton has had a difficult time staying on the field. Over the last two seasons, Stanton has only played in 239 of a possible 324 games. If Stanton is going to take a step up into the elite list of players, Stanton has to be able to put together a complete season. If he can do that, the numbers will be there for Stanton and the Marlins.

New York Mets – Who’s on First?

The Mets have tried to come up with a solution about what to do at first base all winter, yet it seems that they are right back at he beginning. They couldn’t find any takers for Ike Davis and Lucas Duda, looking not to just get rid of one of them but also seeking a decent player in return. With both in camp, it seems as if there will be an open competition to see who is on first come Opening Day for the Mets. I don’t think that there is room on the 25-man roster for both, with Josh Satin serving as the right-handed back up and either Davis or Duda unable to play any other position. Hopefully, one of the left-handed power hitters is able to establish himself in Spring Training and win the job. If not, look for the Mets to try playing Daniel Murphy there, with Eric young Jr. moving to second base and hitting leadoff.

Philadelphia Phillies – Does the aging roster have one more run in them?

Here are the ages of what would seem like the lineup on Opening Day:

C – Carlos Ruiz 35

1B – Ryan Howard 34

2B – Chase Utley 35

3B – Cody Asche 23

SS – Jimmy Rollins 35

LF – Dominic Brown 26

CF – Ben Revere 25

RF- Marlon Byrd 36

That’s five players who the Phillies are looking to be everyday guys that are 34 or older. If the Phillies have one more run in them, 2014 might have to be the year to do it.

Washington Nationals – Can the Nationals put it all together and make a run at the World Series?

The Nationals entered 2013 as a favorite to win not just the NL East, but to represent the National League in the World Series. As 2013 came to a close, the Nationals were in discussion for the biggest disappointment of the year, finishing behind the Atlanta Braves in the NL East, winning only 86 games. The Nationals have a new manager in Matt Williams and most of their roster returning in 2014. The expectations have not diminished. If anything, the pressure has increased. Look for the Nationals to be discussed with the Dodgers and Cardinals for the best team in the National League entering 2014.

NL Central

Chicago Cubs – Where is the pitching going to come from?

If Opening Day was today, the Cubs rotation would consist of Travis Wood, Edwin Jackson, Jeff Samardzija, Chris Rusin, and Jake Arrieta. In 2013, the starting rotation finished 10th in the NL in fWAR and, which isn’t terrible, but has to be better in order to compete with the likes of the Cardinals, Pirates, and Reds. With a ton of position prospects on the way, the Cubs need to find a way to upgrade their talent on the mound.

Cincinnati Reds – Can Billy Hamilton get on base enough to allow his speed to play everyday?

If you were fortunate enough to see the limited time that Billy Hamilton played last September, you could easily see how much of a game changer he can be with his speed. With Shin-Shoo Choo leaving Cincinnati for Texas, the Reds need Hamilton to play everyday. Not only do the Reds need Hamilton to play everyday, they need Hamilton to bat leadoff and get on base at a high clip in front of the likes of Phillips, Votto, and Bruce. With only a .308 OBP in 123 AAA games last year, the Reds have to be concerned that Hamilton is not ready for such a role. Pay attention to his at bats during Spring Training to see if he has improved his ability to control the strike zone.

Milwaukee Brewers – Can Ryan Braun still be Ryan Braun?

If you are a baseball fan, you have heard and seen the saga over the last two years involving Ryan Braun. With the soap opera appearing to be behind him, the question needs to be asked: who is the real Ryan Braun? Is the real Ryan Braun the yearly MVP candidate, or is he something less than that? How will he handle the fans, media, and scrutiny as he tries to repair his image? I actually think Braun will put up another huge year, but it will be interesting to see how his Spring Training goes for him.

Pittsburgh Pirates – Is there enough talent to take the next step?

The Pirates were the best story in baseball last year, not only having a winning season, but making the playoffs, beating the Reds in the Wild Card round, and playing a tough series against the mighty Cardinals. Now that the Pirates have jumped back into baseball relevancy, do they have enough to take the next step and get into an NLCS? Can the pitching, which had the 3rd best ERA in all of baseball, put together another solid year? Is there enough of a lineup to support Andrew McCutchen, the 2013 NL MVP? Can the bullpen be as dominant as they were a year ago? As good as 2013, there are a lot of questions about the Pirates going into 2014. Spring Training will begin to answer some of them.

St. Louis Cardinals – Does Oscar Taveras find a spot in the Opening Day lineup?

If you pay attention to prospect lists, Oscar Taveras has been near the top of many lists for some time now. If he has a good Spring Training, he will only add to what appears to be one of the better lineups in the National League going into 2014. If he does make the team out of Spring Training, there may be a logjam in the Cardinals lineup, as Allen Craig and Matt Adams would both not be able to be in the same lineup with Tavares. If Tavares is ready come Opening Day, it will be interesting to see how the Cardinals handle all of the depth that they have accumulated.

NL West

Arizona Diamondbacks – Who is the Opening Day shortstop?

In 2013, Didi Gregorius had a respectable rookie campaign. Hitting .252/.332/.373 and showing his athleticism in the field, it seemed as though the Diamondbacks may have found a shortstop for the next couple of years. However, though Gregorius’ numbers were respectable for a rookie, he faded in the second half, only hitting .207 in comparison to .275 in the first half. In addition, Arizona has prospect Chris Owings, who was MVP of the Pacific Coast League in 2013, ready for the big leagues. Arizona said it will be an open competition in spring. To me, this will be one of the most interesting position battles to watch this spring.

Colorado Rockies – Can Carolos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki stay healthy?

When healthy, Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki combine for one of the top duos in all of baseball. The problem has been keeping them both on the field. Listed below are the number of games played for both Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki since 2011:

 

2011

2012

2013

Carlos Gonzalez

127

135

110

Troy Tulowitzki

143

47

126

The ability to stay on the field for both will not get easier. Combined with getting older, both players play a demanding defensive position, with Tulowitzki playing shortstop and Gonzalez likely to play centerfield after the Rockies traded Dexter Fowler to the Astros. If the Rockies have any chance to compete in the West, they need 140+ games from both Gonzalez and Tulowitzki. The goal in Spring Training should be making sure their two franchise pieces are healthy for Opening Day.

Los Angeles Dodgers – Who starts in the outfield?

This is well documented but does not mean that it isn’t worth talking about. The Dodgers, one of the pre-season favorites to get to the World Series, have four outfielders (Matt Kemp, Andre Either, Yasiel Puig, and Carl Crawford) for three spots. The Dodgers do not have to worry about this right away, as it seems that Matt Kemp will not be ready for the start of the season. However, if Kemp proves that he is healthy and can get back his MVP level production, the Dodgers have to decide who will be the fourth outfielder. It will be interesting to see if the Dodgers explore trading one of the four outfielders if Kemp can show that he is healthy.

San Diego Padres – Can Josh Johnson regain his form?

The Padres are hoping that this is the year that they can take a step forward and contend for a playoff spot. If they are going to do that, they need Josh Johnson to regain his form from when he was dominant with the Marlins. When Johnson was healthy, he dominated hitters with a heavy sinker and sharp slider. The problem with Johnson is that he has not been able to stay healthy. Having had a miserable couple of seasons, does Johnson have anything left that resembles his once dominant form? Keep an eye on his Spring Training outings to see how he is coming along.

San Francisco Giants – Can the starting pitching turn it around?

The Giants, built around their pitching, were 13th in the NL in ERA for starting rotations with a 4.37 ERA. After winning 2 of the last 3 World Series, the Giants staff couldn’t seem to get on track. With the addition of Tim Hudson, the Giants staff is experienced. With Cain, Bumgarner, Lincecum, Hudson, and Vogelsong, the Giants have what seems to be a rotation that will allow them to compete for at least a Wild Card spot. However, they will have to right themselves after their disappointing 2013. Keep an eye on how the staff progresses throughout Spring Training, specifically Hudson, who is coming off a bad ankle injury.

 

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Thoughts on Kershaw

Kershaw

News broke yesterday that the Los Angeles Dodgers and left-handed pitcher Clayton Kershaw agreed to a seven-year, $215 million contract extension that will cover his age 26-32 seasons. According to MLB.com, the deal contains an opt-out clause that would allow Kershaw to opt out after five years, setting him up to get another massive contract after his age 30 season. The contract is the richest ever for a pitcher and it has the highest average annual value for any player, regardless of position.

I think this deal was a no brainer for the Dodgers, and you can argue that they got a discount with this deal. No question, there is a massive amount of risk with giving a pitcher this type of money, but if there is any pitcher to make this type of investment in, it’s Kershaw. In my mind, if the Dodgers and Kershaw did not agree to this deal before the season began, this deal would have never happened and the Dodgers would have likely had to pay a premium to keep his services if Kershaw had reached free agency. If Kershaw was able to continue his dominance on his mound in 2014 and reach free agency, there is no telling how much a team would have given him. $300 million would not have been out of the question. 

With the extension, the Dodgers are able to pencil Kershaw in at the top of the rotation for at least the next seven years and lead their staff. What does that mean for the Dodgers? Here are the last three seasons for Kershaw:

2011: 21-5, 2.28 ERA, 233.1 IP, 248 K, .98 WHIP, 161 ERA+

2012: 14-5, 2.53 ERA, 227.2 IP, 229 K, 1.02 WHIP, 150 ERA+

2013: 16-9, 1.83 ERA, 236 IP, 232 K, .92 WHIP, 194 ERA+

Any team in baseball would sign up for a pitcher like Kershaw to lead their staff, and very few have the luxury of having a pitcher capable of putting up similar numbers (along with Kershaw, Verlander, Scherzer, Price, Hernandez, Sale, Lee, and Wainwright may all fall on the short list of ace type pitchers). In the last three seasons, he has led the NL in ERA and in 2011 and 2013 he led the NL in strikeouts (in 2012 R.A. Dickey had 230 strikeouts to Kershaw’s 229). In 2011 and 2013 he was the NL Cy Young award winner. Entering his age 26 season, Kershaw should be able to continue his pitching dominance and pitch at an elite level.

With the Dodgers in ‘win-now’ mode, they have their ace to lead them to a title. Kershaw has the resume for the part, with two Cy Young awards, two All-Star appearances, and ERA titles to his name. Adding in Greinke, Ryu, Haren, Beckett, and Billingsley, the Dodgers have the quality and quantity to match the top rotations of the NL. If the Dodgers are able to win a title or two in the next seven years, the $215 million that they will be paying Kershaw may turn out to be a bargain.

Looking at how this affects the rest of Major League Baseball, it will be interesting to see what kind of contract Max Scherzer gets after the 2014 season. Entering his final year before free agency, the reigning Cy Young award winner in the American League will likely be looking for a contract in between Kershaw’s $215 million and Verlander’s $180 million. With Scott Boras as the agent, the Scherzer camp may try to exceed the Kershaw contract and may succeed in doing so with multiple teams likely bidding for his services. In addition, I can only imagine what this does for a player like Mike Trout. Every day that goes by, the Angels better come to terms with handing out a $300+ million contract. 

Getting back to Kershaw, the man got his payday. It was well deserved and, as stated above, may be looked at as a bargain when the contract is completed. Now it is time appreciate the greatness of Kershaw, as we watch what could be one of the greatest left-handed pitchers of all-time when all is said and done if he continues on his current path. I looking forward to watching Kershaw do his thing, leading the Dodgers staff and shutting down lineups every five days.

TS