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Monday, January 13, 2014
Fourteen questions before spring training

By David Schoenfield

It's one month to the official start date of spring training (the Dodgers and Diamondbacks will start a week earlier due to their opening two games in Australia). It has been quiet the past few weeks as everybody waits for Masahiro Tanaka to sign. But the quiet means there are still many questions to consider over the next month. Here are 14:

1. Can the Dodgers afford both Clayton Kershaw and Masahiro Tanaka?

Clayton Kershaw
Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw led the majors with a 1.83 ERA last season.
Well, I suppose they could considering the Dodgers seem to have enough money to fill all the swimming pools in Malibu. But let's say Kershaw eventually signs a $300 million contract and Tanaka goes for $120 million. Throw in the $102 million still owed Zack Greinke and you would be talking over $500 million just for three pitchers -- on top of the $129 million owed Matt Kemp and $110 million owed Adrian Gonzalez. They're three great pitchers, but they're still pitchers with all the inherent injury risks that pitchers have. But unless Kershaw gets done in the next week, the Dodgers have a decision to make before the Jan. 24 deadline to sign Tanaka: All-in on both or just one?

2. Will the Yankees look to make a move at third base?

At this point, I doubt it. Their options include Kelly Johnson, Scott Sizemore (just signed to a minor league deal), Eduardo Nunez and minor league vet Dean Anna, a left-handed bat who hit .331/.410/.482 for Triple-A Tucson (a Padres affiliate). The free-agent options are down to Placido Polanco and Michael Young, not exactly inspiring options. The Yankees probably will roll the dice with the guys they have and focus on signing Tanaka and making some additions to the bullpen rather than trading for somebody like Chase Headley.

3. Will the Rangers try to replace Derek Holland?

Holland injured his knee tripping over his dog at home and will miss at least half the season. The good news for the Rangers is that the pitching staff was the strength of the team in 2013. While closer Joe Nathan departed as a free agent, there is still plenty of depth in the bullpen, plus Matt Harrison should return after back surgery limited him to two starts. Without Holland, the rotation shapes up as Yu Darvish, Harrison, Martin Perez, Alexi Ogando and Nick Tepesch. That still looks like an above-average rotation if Harrison is healthy, but there aren't solid backup options, so the Rangers could still go after one of the remaining free-agent starters. They've already lost their first-round pick for signing Shin-Soo Choo, so signing Ubaldo Jimenez or Ervin Santana means they'd surrender only a second-rounder. It's not money the Rangers planned on spending, but they're desperate to get back into the postseason.

4. Are the Mariners done?

I find it hard to believe the Mariners are quitting after signing Robinson Cano and the injury gambles on Corey Hart, Logan Morrison and Franklin Gutierrez. According to Baseball-Reference.com, the Mariners' estimated payroll right now for 2014 is $81.6 million -- less than last year's $84.9 million. Where can they upgrade? Well, how about offense, rotation and bullpen? The Mariners were 12th in the American League in runs scored, and while Cano is about a 50-run upgrade over the production the Mariners got from their second basemen in 2013, Hart and Morrison essentially replace Kendrys Morales and Raul Ibanez. The rotation behind Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma would be Erasmo Ramirez and rookies Taijuan Walker and James Paxton. The bullpen had a 4.58 ERA, better than only the Astros. The Mariners are undoubtedly in on Tanaka but if they don't get him, another starting pitcher has to be a priority. And don't be surprised if Morales ends up back in Seattle.

5. Is Gaby Sanchez really the Pirates' regular first baseman?

Gaby Sanchez
Gaby Sanchez batted .254 with just seven home runs in 136 games for the Pirates in 2013.
I hope not. As the Pirates wait on A.J. Burnett's retirement decision, the biggest issue the club faces isn't replacing Burnett but getting more offense from first base. Sanchez is a platoon bat at best. He's hit .234/.306/.368 against right-handers the past three seasons; that's barely acceptable for a shortstop let alone a first baseman. They signed minor league veteran Chris McGuiness, who played briefly with the Rangers in 2013, but he hit .246 with 11 home runs in 362 at-bats in Triple-A. Morales is out there, but the Pirates don't want to surrender their first-round pick to sign him. They could try minor league slugger Andrew Lambo (32 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A) there. Ike Davis remains a trade rumor. But right now first base looks like a nightmare for a team that needs to score more runs.

6. Where does Stephen Drew land?

You'd think there would be more interest in a solid defensive shortstop who hit .253/.333/.443 -- that's a .777 OPS and only two teams (the Rockies and Dodgers) received a higher OPS from their shortstops in 2013. Only 12 teams even topped .700. So why is Drew still out there? He could be asking for too much; he does have an injury history; most teams are set at shortstop, even if it's a young, glove-first guy like Alcides Escobar in Kansas City, Pedro Florimon in Minnesota or Adeiny Hechavarria in Miami. The obvious fit for Drew would seem to be the Yankees, but they seem content to rely on some guy who played in only 17 games a season ago, hit .190 and turns 40 in June.

7. Where does Ubaldo Jimenez land?

As with Santana, Bronson Arroyo and Matt Garza, it's a waiting game until after Tanaka signs. Bottom line: Teams are clearly reluctant to pay big money and surrender a first-round pick for Jimenez (That signals a return to Cleveland or signing with a team whose first-round pick is protected -- Seattle or Toronto being the best bets).

8. Are the Indians really moving Carlos Santana to third base?

A couple of position switches paid huge dividends last year, most notably the Cardinals moving Matt Carpenter to second base. Indians third basemen hit 20 home runs, but batted just .218 with a .274 OBP. With the emergence of Yan Gomes behind the plate and not wanting to bet once again on Lonnie Chisenhall, Santana has been playing third base in winter ball. Catchers have moved to third base before -- Joe Torre, Todd Zeile -- so it isn't unprecedented, plus Santana played some third base early in his minor league career. The Indians understandably don't want to turn Santana into a full-time DH at his age, but that's always an option if he doesn't take to third base.

9. Are the Royals done?

The Royals have made some solid moves to upgrade an offense that ranked 11th in the AL in runs -- they signed Omar Infante to play second base, acquired Norichika Aoki to play right field, and picked up Danny Valencia to platoon with Mike Moustakas at third base. None of those were sexy moves like their rumored quest for Carlos Beltran, but all should help the team score more runs. But will it be enough? The Royals won 85 games thanks to their run prevention -- they allowed the fewest runs in the AL -- but they're expecting Jason Vargas to replace Ervin Santana and Danny Duffy and Wade Davis/Yordano Ventura to step in the fourth and fifth spots. James Shields is a solid No. 1, but Jeremy Guthrie and Vargas don't seem to fit as a playoff threesome. While there are rumors of Santana returning to Kansas City, that seems unlikely considering the team's payroll is already an estimated $11 million higher than last year. It seems to me that any increase in runs will be canceled out by an increase in runs allowed unless a young guy -- Eric Hosmer, Ventura? -- takes a big leap forward.

10. So who signs Santana?

Ervin Santana
Ervin Santana posted a career best 3.24 ERA while making 32 starts for the Royals last season.
Santana is a fly ball pitcher so he's a good fit for the Mariners or Angels, a bad fit for the White Sox, Rangers or Blue Jays. But how about Arizona? The Diamondbacks are reportedly interested in Tanaka, but it seems unlikely they'd win that bidding war. Santana would give Arizona a needed workhorse to slot in behind Patrick Corbin and Wade Miley.

11. Which team has had the best offseason?

Until we know where Tanaka lands, this question is still open. I like what the White Sox have done, acquiring Adam Eaton and Matt Davidson from the Diamondbacks, two young guys who should step into the starting lineup, and signing high-upside Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu. But how about the Angels? They traded the powerful but overrated Mark Trumbo to get Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs, two pitchers who should help shore up their rotation. They traded a spare part in Peter Bourjos for David Freese (the Angels were 29th in home runs from third basemen with eight last season). They signed a valuable bullpen arm in Joe Smith. The biggest questions remain Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, but the Angels look better on paper. (Of course, they looked better on paper the past two years …)

12. Which is the biggest hole still to be filled?

Besides first base in Pittsburgh? Among potential contending teams, here are five:

1. Second base in Toronto. The Blue Jays received the worst production from second base in the majors last year at .216/.258/.297. Rookie Ryan Goins has a plus glove, but doesn't bring much with the bat. Maybe veteran Maicer Izturis bounces back.

2. Designated hitter in Baltimore. If David Lough is penciled in as the regular left fielder, that pushes Nolan Reimold into a DH battle with Henry Urrutia. Reimold can't stay healthy although Urrutia, to be fair, has some potential. The 27-year-old (in February) Cuban did hit .365 in Double-A and .316 in Triple-A with nine home runs in 314 at-bats. In 58 PAs with the Orioles, however, he had no extra-base hits and no walks. We'll see. Morales is a good fit if the Orioles are willing to punt their first-round draft pick.

3. Closer in Tampa Bay. This looks like a spring training battle between Heath Bell, Jake McGee and Joel Peralta. Grant Balfour and Fernando Rodney are still free agents, but don't expect the Rays to pony up the cash. (The Orioles still need a closer after backing out of a deal with Balfour, but for now they'll let Tommy Hunter and Darren O'Day duke it out. Likewise in Texas with Neftali Feliz, Joakim Soria and Tanner Scheppers.)

4. Yankees fourth/fifth starters. Once you get past CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova, it's wide open: David Phelps, Michael Pineda (good luck after missing two full seasons), Adam Warren and Vidal Nuno. Thus the interest in not just Tanaka, but other starters. Don't be surprised if Bronson Arroyo ends up here.

5. Phillies rotation. Wait, the Phillies are contenders?

13. Will anybody get traded before spring training?

It's the same names that we've been talking about: David Price, Andre Ethier, Nick Franklin. But you don't usually see trades between now and the start of spring training. So I'd bet that Price remains in Tampa … which I think is the right move for the Rays. Yes, this is the perpetual cycle they have to stay in to remain cost efficient, but at the same time their chances of winning the World Series are going to be much higher with Price in their rotation than with any trade they make.

14. Which team wins the World Series?

The Cardinals look strongest on paper, although their lack of power could prove to be an issue. The Red Sox bring just about everybody back, but will be relying on three young players -- Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Will Middlebrooks -- to provide offense. The Tigers are trying something new: defense. The Rangers brought in Choo and Prince Fielder. The Nationals should be stronger after last year's disappointment. If the Dodgers land Tanaka, they may head into the season as the preseason favorite.

But there will be a team that will come out of nowhere, the Red Sox or Pirates of 2013. The magic of the unknown still exists in baseball. In a month, it all begins. I can't wait.