Posted February 13, 2014

Spring training preview: American League East

AL East, Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays, Toronto Blue Jays
Xander Bogaerts, Red Sox

Xander Bogaerts should have a big role for the defending world champions in 2014. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

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.

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