Spring training preview: American League East
This week, Cliff Corcoran, Jay Jaffe and Joe Lemire will break down what to watch in each team’s camp as part of SI.com’s spring training preview by looking at the Big Question, Big Position Battle and Big Prospect for all 30 clubs. Teams are listed by their order of finish from 2013. Note: The Big Prospect is a player who will be in major league camp but has not yet debuted in the major leagues.
Boston Red Sox
The Big Question: Are Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. ready to assume spots in the lineup?
Through a variety of circumstances, the defending world champions got significant looks at their top two prospects last year. After an impressive spring showing, Bradley opened the season as the starting leftfielder, with Jonny Gomes and Daniel Nava sharing DH duty until David Ortiz had fully recovered from his heel woes, and he returned to lend a hand in September once rosters expanded. Bogaerts arrived in late August after impressive age-20 showings at both Double A and Triple A and a crash course at third base consisting of just 10 games at Pawtucket. As the postseason wore on, he took an increasing share of the hot corner duties from Will Middlebrooks.
With Jacoby Ellsbury now a Yankee and Stephen Drew still a free agent, the Sox have penciled in both Bradley and Bogaerts to start, though neither is guaranteed to do so. The going-on-24-year-old Bradley has the centerfield job to lose, but Boston brought in veteran Grady Sizemore for a look as well, both in hopes that he can remain healthy enough to play in the majors for the first time since 2011 and that he can give the team an alternative in case it decides that Bradley, who hit just .189/.280/.337 in 107 plate appearances with the Sox, needs more seasoning. As for the 21-year-old Bogaerts, he’s being prepped exclusively as a shortstop, but so long as Drew — whose market has been drastically reduced by Boston’s qualifying offer — remains unsigned, the threat of a return lingers.
In the end, the Red Sox should be just fine with the two newcomers, who rank second (Bogaerts) and 23rd (Bradley) on Baseball Prospectus’ Top 101 Prospects list. However, you can expect both to be under a microscope until late spring, when manager John Farrell and/or general manager Ben Cherington decree that they’ve seen enough that the kids merit spots in the Opening Day lineup.
The Big Battle: Leftfield
Last year, Boston got excellent work out of righty Jonny Gomes (.247/.344/.426 with 13 homers), switch-hitter Daniel Nava (.303/.385/.445 with 12 homers) and lefty Mike Carp (.296/.362/.523 with nine homers). That trio made 65, 56 and 31 starts, respectively, in leftfield while also spending enough time at other positions to combine for 1,145 plate appearances — nearly the equivalent of two full-time players. Yet when the postseason rolled around, Farrell largely shelved the mix-and-match approach and gave Gomes the bulk of the duty. He started five games apiece in the six-game ALCS and World Series, and while he went just 7-for-42 overall, his three-run homer in Game 4 against the Cardinals was the turning point of the series; the Sox never trailed after that.
It remains to be seen how Farrell divvies up the playing time in 2014, particularly if Sizemore proves healthy enough to make the roster as well (admittedly, a longshot). Gomes is the most likely starter against lefties and Nava against righties, with Carp likely the odd man out unless injuries arise, requiring Nava to play elsewhere.
The Big Prospect: Blake Swihart, catcher, and Christian Vazquez, catcher
Despite Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s 2013 breakout and relatively affordable price tag (three years and $21 million, from the Marlins), the Sox let him walk and inked A.J. Pierzynski via a one-year deal because the organization is so deep at catcher. The 24-year-old Vazquez, a 2008 draft pick from Puerto Rico, is the one closer to the majors and on the 40-man roster. He hit .289/.376/.395 at Double A Portland, drawing raves for his patience at the plate as well as his work behind it, including his handling of the pitching staff and “off-the-charts ridiculous” pop times (to quote Baseball Prospectus 2014), which led to him nabbing 47 percent of would-be base thieves, his third year out of four above 40 percent. He figures to spend most of the year at Triple A Pawtucket.
The going-on-22-year-old Swihart, a 2011 first-round pick out of a New Mexico high school who received a non-roster invitation to spring training, draws even more enthusiasm from talent evaluators, for he has the potential to be that rare breed: the legitimate two-way catcher. After spending last year at High A Salem, hitting .298/.366/.428 and stifling potential base stealers at a 42 percent clip, the switch-hitter comes into 2014 ranked 56th on ESPN’s Keith Law’s Top 100 Prospects list, and 73rd on Baseball Prospectus’ Top 101 Prospects list. He gets positive reviews for his athleticism, accurate throwing, gap power and mature approach at the plate as well as a high baseball IQ. He’s likely to spend the year at Double A Portland.
Tampa Bay Rays
The Big Question: Can David Price retain his Cy Young form?
At the outset of the offseason, it appeared highly likely that the Rays would trade Price given his rising salary (now $14 million) and proximity to free agency (following the 2015 season). While the free agent market’s lack of high-end options figured to steer teams to explore dealing for the 28-year-old lefty, the Hot Stove rumors involving Price didn’t generate much heat, and as pitchers and catchers report, he’s still with Tampa Bay.
The Rays will have plenty of other opportunities to trade Price, but in the meantime, he’s their ace, and they need him to live up to that billing, both to help them contend and to maximize their return in a potential trade. After winning the AL Cy Young award in 2012, Price got off to a rocky start in 2013 (5.24 ERA over his first nine starts) before going on the disabled list for six weeks due to a triceps strain. When he returned, he pitched like the guy in the catalog, posting a 2.53 ERA and 7.8 strikeout-to-walk ratio; in his first seven starts back, he struck out 40 and walked one (!) over a 57 1/3 inning stretch. Trading him won’t be painless, but if he can continue pitching like that, he’ll leave the franchise in the best possible shape — and set himself up for a huge payday.
The Big Battle: Catcher
Last year, Tampa Bay got solid work out of Jose Molina and Jose Lobaton, who split the starting catcher job almost right down the middle. The switch-hitting Lobaton, now 29, was the better hitter of the two, batting .249/.320/.394 with seven homers but throwing out just 14 percent of would-be base thieves. The righty-swinging Molina, now 38, hit just .233/.290/.304, but he thwarted 29 percent of stolen base attempts and remained an elite pitch-framer; via Baseball Propsecuts, his work at stealing strikes was an MLB-best 33 runs above average.
Shortly after re-signing Molina to a two-year, $4.5 million contract, the Rays traded for Ryan Hanigan via a three-way deal with the Reds and Diamondbacks, then signed him to a three-year, $10.75 million extension. Though he owns a career .359 on-base percentage, the 33-year-old righty struggled mightily at the plate while battling oblique and wrist injuries in 2013 (.198/.306/.261), though he was 13 runs above average in the framing department himself.
Odds are that the Rays will trade Lobaton, a Super Two who’s making just $950,000, before the start of the season, but you can expect them to wait as long as possible before they do so lest spring training injuries shake up the landscape. If they don’t, it remains to be seen how manager Joe Maddon will configure things.
[Update: So much for waiting as long as possible. Shortly after this story was published, the Rays sent Lobaton and two minor leaguers to the Nationals in exchange for pitching prospects Nathan Karns, a 26-year-old righty who spent most of 2013 in Double A.]
The Big Prospect: Hak-Ju Lee, shortstop
Due to graduations and decreased success in the draft, the Rays’ minor league system isn’t what it used to be, which isn’t to say that they don’t have pitchers on the verge of helping the team — namely Jake Odorizzi, Alex Colome and Enny Romero.
In terms of position players, their top prospect is Lee, a 23-year-old shortstop from South Korea whom the team acquired from the Cubs in the Matt Garza deal back in January 2011. An ace defender with a strong arm and soft hands, he offers a line-drive swing and a good approach at the plate, though he’s lacking in the power department. After hitting .261/.336/.360 at Double A Montgomery in 2012, Lee entered the year ranked between 75th and 90th on the Baseball Prospectus, Baseball America and ESPN prospect lists, but 15 games into his season at Triple A Durham, he tore ligaments in his left knee in a collision at second base, knocking him out for the year.
The Rays have $5 million options on shortstop Yunel Escobar for the next two seasons, but they’re no doubt anxious to see whether Lee has recovered his plus-plus speed and lateral quickness; if so, he could become a contributor later in 2014 and give the team another trade chip in the process.
New York Yankees
The Big Question: Can Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira regain form?
Last year, the Yankees were so wracked with injuries that they never fielded a lineup that featured both their intended first baseman and shortstop. The left ankle that Jeter broke in the 2012 ALCS required surgery and delayed his 2013 debut until July 11. He wound up making three more trips to the disabled list for a variety of leg injuries (including further trouble with the ankle). Coming off a 216-hit season — his highest total of the millennium — in 2012 he was limited to just 17 games and an anemic .190/.288/.254 line in 2013.
As Jeter heads into 2014 — which he announced on Wednesday would be his final season — there’s no shortage of concern about the toll that his injuries have taken on his 39-year-old body, particularly since defense has never been his strong suit. If his range is even more limited than before, he could spend a fair share of time at DH while glove wizard Brendan Ryan plays shortstop.
As for Teixeira, he injured his right wrist during preparations for the World Baseball Classic and was eventually diagnosed with a partially torn tendon sheath. He hit .151/.270/.340 in just 15 games before undergoing season-ending surgery on July 1. What’s particularly troubling with regards to the 33-year-old switch-hitter (34 on April 11) is that his production has been slowly tailing off since he helped New York win a championship in 2009, his first season with the team. He hit a combined .249/.337/.486 in 2011 and ’12, dropping from 39 homers in the former season to 24 in the latter, during which he missed 30 late-season games due to a calf strain.
Nearly seven months after surgery, Teixeira reports no pain in his wrist but recently conceded that it might be a year before it feels normal, and that he expects to deal with tightness. Even with the additions of Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran to the lineup, the Yankees have to hope that those concerns are overstated, because they need Teixeira to reclaim his status as a middle-of-the-lineup threat.
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.