Pity the ballclub that relies too heavily on spring training to evaluate its roster.
No, most teams have a strong idea what their regular season club will look like when pitchers and catchers report to Florida and Arizona; getting loose and avoiding disaster doesn’t make for a great marketing pitch, but it’s at least a realistic one.
Still, there are a few nagging issues that could gain greater clarity under spring’s high skies, and many of those involve a few of Major League Baseball’s most prosperous clubs. A look at five questions that the next six weeks of spring training should answer:
Braves: A smooth turn at shortstop?
They’re so good at turning over key positions, spending money wisely and making the right bets on young players and trade targets alike. With that track record in mind, the Atlanta Braves have earned the benefit of the doubt in setting free shortstop Dansby Swanson and targeting first-year player Vaughn Grissom to replace him.
Oh, one of these days GM Alex Anthopoulos’s fearlessness in letting high-priced veterans leave – and setting Freddie Freeman and Swanson loose in consecutive years is bold – but you can’t argue with results. And right now, Atlanta’s riding a wave of five consecutive NL East titles.
But Swanson was the quarterback for all of them, before signing a $177 million deal to join the Chicago Cubs. Grissom is an absolutely capable and potentially dynamic replacement who got his feet wet in 2022 when he started 40 games, 39 at second base for injured Ozzie Albies, and posted a .353 on-base percentage and 121 adjusted OPS.
He’ll also hit spring training after a winter at Camp Washington.
Grissom made several pilgrimages to the New Orleans home of coach Ron Washington, 70, who imparted his infield wizardry in concentrated doses. ‘That’s probably one of the most valuable pieces I have in my life right now, being able to bounce stuff off him,’ Grissom said last month at a fan event.
If it pays off, the Braves will have a daunting middle of the diamond locked in for three upcoming seasons: Catcher Sean Murphy, Grissom and Albies at short and second and reigning Rookie of the Year Michael Harris II patrolling center field.
This spring should tell us how close that is to reality.
Dodgers: Too much turnover?
They could have paid Trea Turner, given Cody Bellinger one more chance, retained Justin Turner at a reasonable rate, lived the good life of a 111-win team bringing most of its squad back.
But the Dodgers are choosing to do this the hard way.
Oh, we’re not writing off the near-perennial NL West champions. In fact, letting the stalwarts mentioned above walk away might make this more interesting. It’s just that the spring training jumble ahead could also seem simpler than jumping on the 710 to the 91 to the 110 to the 105 to get around a jackknifed big rig on the 405.
Let’s see: Trayce Thompson should be the center fielder, unless he doesn’t hit enough and they need Chris Taylor out there, but then again Taylor may be needed at second if rookie Miguel Vargas falters, or maybe third if Max Muncy’s defense gives them pause. David Peralta should get most of the at-bats in left, but he’s also 35, and Jason Heyward is 33 and hasn’t had a better than league average OPS in a full season in 2016 but now might get at-bats in center since Mookie Betts is locked into right field.
Whew. (And then there’s the pitching).
Not unlike Anthopoulos, Dodgers baseball guru Andrew Friedman has earned significant benefit of the doubt. There’s almost certainly a winning, perhaps dominant combination in the group he’s acquired (and oh yeah, Freeman and Betts still work here).
It’s just that the lazy days of March at Camelback Ranch will have a little more edge to them. And that’s not a bad thing.
White Sox: New voice, new vibes?
Meanwhile, across the complex, a new managerial era will dawn with little fanfare – which could be exactly what the Chicago White Sox need.
Tony La Russa’s first days were spent explaining away a DUI arrest that surfaced after Chicago hired him, at 76, to manage once again. The credibility deficit was always there, particularly after a division-winning season gave way to an uneven mess in 2022 that included La Russa issuing a pair of intentional walks in a two-strike count.
La Russa eventually retired due to health reasons, and the hiring of longtime Royals bench coach Pedro Grifol barely caused a ripple.
That’s fine. The AL Central remains eminently winnable, so long as a few matters fall into place.
Andrew Vaughn will need to carry much of Jose Abreu’s load at first base. Andrew Benintendi will need to show that a modest $75 million outlay that nonetheless was the largest free agent contract in club history was worth it.
And the club may have to pivot quickly if MLB’s domestic-violence investigation of new starter Mike Clevinger justifies a lengthy suspension.
Closer Liam Hendriks is also out as he battles non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a blow to both bullpen and clubhouse.
It is a relatively full spring load for a manager to take on. But the White Sox also shouldn’t have to worry about a manager causing ripples rather than calming them.
Red Sox: Smooth Sale-ing?
GM Chaim Bloom has shed franchise players in two of his three off-seasons, trading Mookie Betts in 2020 and then seeing cornerstone shortstop Xander Bogaerts leave with little resistance in December. Yet Bloom has proven once that he can produce a pennant-winning club taking an unexpected path.
Minus Bogaerts, the Red Sox will need a village to make up the difference. That effort might start with Chris Sale.
The 2018 postseason hero has not been in the Opening Day rotation since 2019, with Tommy John surgery and a host of ailments (his 2022 season ended after breaking his wrist in a biking mishap) limiting him to 11 starts the past three seasons. Bogaerts’ departure and Trevor Story’s elbow surgery will leave a gaping offensive void and a domino effect defensively (Kiké Hernandez to short, Adam Duvall to center, Adalberto Mondesi to second base) and greatly change the club’s identity.
It would help if they can pitch, and have a bona fide ace to follow.
Sale is backed by a bevy of starters – Corey Kluber, Nick Pivetta, James Paxton – who are mid-rotation types at this stage of their career, with Garrett Whitlock holding the promise of some upside. The assembled bullpen – Kenley Jansen joins old Dodgers pal Justin Turner in Boston – can be pretty good.
But it’s Sale who has the best career strikeouts per nine innings (11.1) and strikeout-walk ratios (5.33) among starters baseball history. He’d be a daunting sight on the Fenway Park mound come Opening Day against the Orioles, though the Red Sox have a more modest goal until then.
Yankees: Short timer at shortstop?
It’s true: There’s only so much sense getting wrapped up in spring training performances and outcomes because things can change dozens of times, starting only moments after the lights come on in the regular season.
So it really doesn’t matter who wins the Yankees’ starting shortstop job – but how the trio of incumbent Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Oswald Peraza and super prospect Anthony Volpe come out of spring training will be fascinating to watch.
By season’s end, Yankee fans had seen enough of Kiner-Falefa, who brought a steadiness to the job that grew into more of a liability when his 84 OPS plus was paired with diminishing defensive performance; he was benched for four of the Yankees’ nine postseason games. Peraza touched the big leagues by September, started Game 2 of the ALCS and is likely the second baseman of the future.
It is Volpe who is ranked No. 14 among all prospects by Baseball America, who profiles as a future All-Star, who is the main reason owner Hal Steinbrenner bided his time as a half-dozen franchise shortstops came on and went off the market the past two winters. Everyone from Steinbrenner down to the dugout down to Lou from Staten Island, first-time, long-time, would be thrilled if he won the job out of camp.
More likely, it will be Peraza. In a pinch, it will be Kiner-Falefa.
Either way, fret not. It will make for compelling March competition – but everything is subject to change.