Spring training preview: National League Central
Then, in 2013, Biogenesis and a nerve problem in his righthand combined to limit Braun to 61 games and nine home runs. He was effectively wiped him off the major league map by mid-June, after which he spent a month on the disabled list, then played in just four more games before accepting a 65-game suspension for performance-enhancing drug use.
Braun’s suspension, and, one would hope, his PED use are now behind him, but he has many bridges to mend with his teammates, coaches and the fans. It remains to be seen if he’ll have to do so with or without lingering effects from that nerve problem. The Brewers still owe him $127 million over the next seven seasons, so he’s not going anywhere, and if he can return to even 90 percent of the player he was, time and his bat will ultimately heal those wounds. However, if Ryan Braun the 30-something rightfielder can’t recapture the glory of the 20-something leftfielder, those will be a long, bitter seven years. They start now.
The Big Battle: First base
Much like the Pirates’ rightfield situation, the Brewers have a battle at first base because of their failure to adequately fill the position over the winter. Having lost Corey Hart to the Mariners, the Brewers have thus far settled for inviting Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay to camp to compete with incumbent Juan Francisco and minor league products Sean Halton, Hunter Morris and Jason Rogers.
Reynolds is the favorite heading into camp, but he has seen his power decline in each of the last two seasons, resulting in a miserable .220/.306/.393 line last year. His lack of a platoon split could actually work against him given the fact that a platoon might be the best solution here. To that end, Overbay (who occupied this position for Milwaukee in 2004 and ’05 and is now 37), Francisco and Morris (who hit 24 home runs in the Triple A Pacific Coast League last year) are lefties, while Reynolds, Halton and Rogers (who hit 22 home runs in Double A last year) are righties. As with the Pirates, the potential for a late signing or trade is significant; Kendrys Morales would fit the former category and the Mets’ Ike Davis the latter.
The Big Prospect: Mitch Haniger, outfielder
Haniger was taken with the compensation pick Milwaukee got in the 2012 draft after losing Prince Fielder to the Tigers (number 38 overall). He projects as a corner outfielder with some pop, but the 23-year-old college product has yet to make the jump to Double A and hit just 11 home runs in 543 at-bats in his full-season debut last year split between A ball and High A. Haniger’s not a bad prospect, but he doesn’t project as a star, and his inclusion here is a good indication of just how weak the Brewers’ system is.
The Big Question: Can Rick Renteria make a difference with Starlin Castro?
Prior to 2013, the Cubs’ issues with shortstop Starlin Castro were that he wasn’t improving enough from year to year and that his mind tended to wander during games. Last year, however, Castro seemed to check out completely. His battling line collapsed to .245/.284/.347, his gains in the field the previous season evaporated and his mental lapses continued unabated.
It’s impossible to know if Castro’s already shaky concentration was further eroded by the ongoing lawsuit that froze the bulk of his salary in Dominican bank accounts, but it was clear that manager Dale Sveum was not getting through to an extremely talented young player to whom the organization had made a seven-year, $60 million commitment the previous August.
It thus doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the team’s new manager is a former middle infielder of Latin descent. Whether or not Rick Renteria can succeed with Castro where Svuem failed will have as much to do with Castro as Renteria, of course, but with slugging shortstop prospect Javier Baez in ascendance, the team appears to have an increased sense of urgency regarding Castro’s elusive maturity.
The Big Battle: Third base
Incumbent third baseman Luis Valbuena’s days manning the hot corner for Chicago are numbered. Kris Bryant, the team’s top pick in the 2013 draft, is a 200-ton locomotive bearing down on the position and three others — former Rangers prospects Mike Olt and Christian Villanueva and Baez, who could move off shortstop to accommodate Castro — are all ahead of him on the minor league ladder.
This spring, Olt will serve as Valbuena’s primary competition for the job, which might be good news for the place-holding incumbent given that Olt struggled with blurred vision last year, resulting in his worst professional season. However, Olt told CSN Chicago’s Patrick Mooney that he feels as though those problems are “in the past now.” If that’s the case, and Olt goes back to being the beast who hit .288/.398/.579 with 28 home runs in Double A in 2012, third base could be his in short order, in which case things could get very interesting on the left side of the Cubs’ infield in 2015.
The Big Prospect: Javier Baez, shortstop; Kris Bryant, third base
All Baez did in his age-20 season was hit .282/.341/.578 with 37 home runs (including four in one game), 111 RBIs and 20 stolen bases (at an 83 percent success rate) in 130 games split between High A and Double A. He’s a monster, the fourth-best prospect in baseball according to Baseball Prospectus, and could reach the majors by the end of the coming season, forcing a decision about his position conflict with Castro.
Bryant was drafted out of the University of San Diego with the second overall pick in the 2013 draft and hit .336/.390/.688 over 146 at-bats in his professional debut, topping out at High A. He then led the hitting-friendly Arizona Fall League with six home runs and a .727 slugging percentage. Like Baez, the 6-foot-5 Bryant has monstrous power, but he has yet to make that all-important jump to Double A, something he’s expected to do at the start of the regular season. If he makes that transition smoothly, a major league debut before the end of the year is a distinct possibility.