Spring training preview: American League East
The Big Battle: Third base
With Alex Rodriguez suspended for the season, the hot corner is wide open in the Bronx for the first time in more than a decade. At Tuesday’s press conference to introduce Masahiro Tanaka, general manager Brian Cashman referred to New York’s third base situation as “Kelly Johnson and a cast of characters.” Signed to a $3 million deal as a utilityman back in December, when Rodriguez’s fate was still up in the air, the lefty-swinging Johnson has plenty of experience at second base and leftfield but just 31 games at third base between the majors and minors. He hit only .235/.305/.410 in 407 plate appearances with the Rays last year, for a 99 OPS+; he’s been below 100 in four years out of his past five, with 2011 the exception.
Though both Eduardo Nunez and Brendan Ryan have seen action at the hot corner before, the top in-house alternative to Johnson is 29-year-old Scott Sizemore, whom Cashman signed to a minor league deal in January. After hitting.245/.342/.399 (105 OPS+) for the Tigers and A’s in 2011, the righty-swinging Sizemore lost all of the last two seasons (save for two April 2013 games) to ACL tears in his left knee. He’s got more experience than Johnson at third (97 major league games, 20 minor league ones), and if he’s healthy, he could be part of a platoon arrangement or even enter the fray at second base, where he has 60 games of MLB experience and 353 in the minors.
The Big Prospect: Mason Williams, centerfielder
A speedy 22-year-old centerfielder with Gold Glove potential, Williams entered last season ranked in the upper half of BA and ESPN Top 100 prospect lists, but his season was a bit of a disappointment both on and off the field. He began the year out of shape, was busted for a DUI in April, and went through a deep slump in May. After hitting .261/.327/.350 with three homers and 15 steals at High A Tampa, he went just 11-for-72 at Double A Trenton, his likely destination to start 2014.
While his stock as a prospect has slipped, Williams is an outstanding athlete who has the raw tools to be a first-division player, but he needs to be more selective at the plate, and to solve some mechanical issues that limit the impact of his contact. If it all comes together, he should develop into a high-average player with good on-base skills, gap power and significant defensive value, though with Ellsbury and Brett Gardner on hand, his destination may not be in the Yankees’ outfield; as a potential trade chip for a team with a beaten-down system, he needs to rebound.
The Big Question: How soon until Manny Machado is in game shape?
In his first full major league season, the 20-year-old Machado hit a solid .283/.314/.432 and played dazzling defense, earning All-Star honors, a Gold Glove and a Fielding Bible Award. The only thing that took the shine off his 6.5-WAR season was the grisly left knee injury that he suffered on Sept. 23, in the 156th game of the season. Machado underwent surgery to repair his torn medial patellofemoral ligament on Oct. 23. At the time, the recovery period was estimated at six months, meaning that he wouldn’t be ready for Opening Day.
As of Feb. 1, Machado was reportedly on track to beat that timetable, ahead of schedule by more than a month. He’s been cleared to start easing into baseball activities such as taking groundballs and hitting, but he essentially needs to relearn how to run, reworking his stride and his mechanics in order to minimize the risk of future injury. Manager Buck Showalter has said that Machado would need to be playing exhibitions by mid-March in order to be in the lineup on Opening Day, March 31. While there’s reason for optimism at the moment, setbacks are a possibility as the intensity of his workouts increase. It’s not just the Orioles who are keeping their fingers crossed that he’s back ASAP, it’s anyone who appreciates plays like this.
The Big Battle: Second base
Brian Roberts is now in pinstripes, but given how much time he missed over the past four years, it rates as something of a surprise that Baltimore didn’t have another player ready to take over the keystone. Instead, it has got a rather motley assortment of options.
From the 40-man roster, there’s Ryan Flaherty, a 27-year-old righty who hit just .224/.293/.390 in 271 plate appearances for the O’s last year, which at least represented an improvement on his 2012 stint. There’s also Jemile Weeks, who was acquired from Oakland in the Jim Johnson deal. The younger brother of the Brewers’ Rickie Weeks is a 27-year-old switch-hitter who hit .303/.340/.421 for the A’s in 2011, but cratered to .221/.305/.304 the following year, and spent all but eight games back at Triple A Sacramento in 2013, where he hit an unremarkable .271/.376/.369.
And then there are the non-roster invitees, including 29-year-old utilityman Alexi Casilla, who has made a career out of disappointment; his .214/.268/.295 in 125 PA for Baltimore last year wasn’t even up to his meager post-2008 standards with the bat. Alex Gonzalez, who turns 37 next week, is fresh off a .177/.203/.230 line in 118 PA for the Brewers last year. Cord Phelps and Ivan DeJesus Jr. are former prospects who can only aspire to the Quad-A tag now. By definition, somebody’s going to win this job battle. The best hope might be…
The Big Prospect: Jonathan Schoop, infielder
With Kevin Gausman no longer a rookie and Dylan Bundy still recovering from June 2013 Tommy John surgery, Schoop is the top prospect who will be on display in Orioles camp. The 22-year-old Curaçao native, who ranks 82nd on BP’s prospect list and 86th on ESPN’s, began the 2013 season playing alongside Bogaerts and Andrelton Simmons on the Netherlands World Baseball Classic team, but endured a rough season, missing two months due to a stress fracture in his back and hitting just .256/.301/.396 in 289 PA at Triple A. Including his stints in the WBC and the Arizona Fall League — not to mention the five games he played for Baltimore after Machado got hurt — he saw action with a total of six different teams in 2013.
At 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, Schoop is a big boy who has the potential for significant power, but he’s had trouble finding consistency at the plate since his A-ball stint back in 2011. Defensively, he’s outgrown shortstop, and with Machado blocking the way at third base, second base is where his future lies. He’s athletic, with good hands and a strong arm, and while it would be great if he could claim the starting second base job out of camp, realistically he needs more time in the minors to improve his footwork in the field and hone his approach at the plate.
Toronto Blue Jays
The Big Question: Can R.A. Dickey rebound?
Dickey was traded to the Blue Jays in December 2012, just weeks after he had won the NL Cy Young award, and was something of a disappointment in Toronto — though hardly the only one amid a lost season. Hampered by back soreness that served to remind of his advancing age, the knuckleballer never really found a groove; he was knocked around for a 5.18 ERA over the season’s first two months, and while he posted a 3.72 mark thereafter, he was particularly prone to the longball.
In all, Dickey made 34 starts and threw 224 2/3 innings but finished with a 4.21 ERA (97 ERA+); his home run rate shot up from 0.9 per nine in 2012 to 1.4 per nine, while his strikeout rate sagged from 8.9 per nine to 7.1, and his walk rate moved in the wrong direction as well.
The good news is that Dickey recovered some of his lost velocity later in the year. Now that he’s getting expensive via the two-year, $25 million extension to which the Blue Jays signed him, the 39-year-old will be expected to step up. He’ll need to if the Jays are to have any kind of chance of keeping their window of opportunity open, and the best indication for that may be how hard he’s throwing his “angry knuckler” by the end of spring training.
The Big Battle: Fifth starter
Toronto doesn’t really have any significant position battles in store so long as it considers Ryan Goins the starting second baseman. That means the focus here shifts to the back of their rotation, behind Dickey, Mark Buehrle, J.A. Happ and Brandon Morrow. Barring a significant free agent addition — and while we’ve heard all winter that Toronto would be players for Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez, or another name-brand starter, no deal has materialized — there’s the potential for a serious cattle-call here, particularly given how many starters the injury-plagued team has cycled through in recent years.
Ricky Romero, owed $15.6 million through 2015, is by far the biggest name of the bunch, but injuries and mechanical woes have turned him into a shell of his former self. He managed just 7 1/3 innings at the major league level and was tagged for a 5.78 ERA with 5.0 walks per nine in 113 2/3 innings at Triple A Buffalo. From last year’s bunch, righties Esmil Rogers (4.77 ERA in 137 2/3 innings over 20 starts and 24 relief appearances) and Todd Redmond (4.32 ERA in 77 innings over 14 starts and three relief appearances) are the semi-incumbents. Former prospect Kyle Drabek, who threw 45 2/3 innings at four stops in his return from June 2012 Tommy John surgery (his second) is a contender, as is fellow 2012 TJer Drew Hutchison.
Hope springs eternal when it comes to Dustin McGowan, whose 25 2/3 innings for Toronto were the most he’s thrown in the majors since 2008, three shoulder surgeries ago. Lefty prospect Sean Nolin who put up a 2.77 ERA with 9.5 strikeouts per nine in 20 starts at Double A New Hampshire and Triple A Buffalo but got chased in the second inning in his lone major league start, could be ready. Speaking of prospects…
The Big Prospect: Marcus Stroman, starting pitcher
The one to keep an eye on in the fifth-starter battle is the Blue Jays’ 2012 first-round pick out of Duke University (number 22 overall). Though he’s listed at just 5-foot-9 and could be shorter, the 22-year-old righty has the arsenal to make him a legitimate prospect (27th on BP’s list, 58th on ESPN’s, and expected to be on Baseball America‘s forthcoming list as well). Stroman offers a 92-95 mph fastball, outstanding cutter and slider and a changeup that should develop into a plus pitch as well. His lack of height means that he can struggle to get a downward plane, which will leave him fly ball- and homer-prone, but his excellent command should mitigate that. He spent all of 2013 at Double A, whiffing 10.4 per nine while walking 2.2 en route to a 3.30 ERA. If he’s not ready for the majors yet, he’s very close.