Newly acquired Dodgers David Price and Mookie Betts Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Beanballs, Betts and 10 burning questions about spring training

Quiet offseason, eh? 

Between the ongoing "sign-gate" saga in Houston and jersey-swapping of several future Hall of Famers — and one potential Hall of Fame manager, Joe Maddon — this winter has set the stage for an unpredictable MLB season.  

With spring training games getting underway this weekend, a winter’s worth of anticipation finally gives way to on-field product. Is the five-tool prospect in your team’s farm system ready to play? Which division is full of pretenders? How is that free agent whale fitting into his new clubhouse? And will we ever stop hearing about the yellow, no good, cheatin’ ‘Stros? 

The next five weeks won’t decide the World Series, but one thing is certain: The MLB offseason hasn't been the focus of this much national attention in years. Whether the momentum continues may depend on how these 10 questions are answered. 

What does 2020 vengeance look like? 

New Astros manager Dusty Baker has already asked MLB to protect his players from retaliation, but can we really rely on commissioner Rob Manfred to police the situation? Players across the league seem as furious with the commissioner as they do with the Astros, and many pitchers will gladly accept a week’s suspension for their ounce of flesh. High heat is coming. 

The real question is when — and how often — Baker will put his stars at risk in spring training. You'll know things have taken a turn for the worse if beanballs start flying in late February.  

A broader wrinkle to watch is how this scandal changes baseball’s evolving opinion on self-policing. We can all agree that headhunting with fastballs is dangerous. But how will players and fans justify corporal punishment in light of the Astros' transgressions? Will position players take matters into their own hands? Aaron Judge can’t throw at Alex Bregman, but he sure can do his best Albert Belle impression on a wide turn around third base.

If any base-sliding fanatics are reading this, please get in touch. I’m willing to bet there will be an inordinate number of “cleats high” collisions this season at Minute Maid Park.

Nationals outfielder Juan Soto  Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Who's the favorite in the NL East? 

Washington morphed into the most dangerous team at the most dangerous time last postseason, but will the Nationals be able to build off that momentum now that All-MLB first-teamer Anthony Rendon has joined the Angels? The answer depends on the continued maturation of outfielder Juan Soto. As great as Soto (.282, 34 homers, 110 RBI in 2019) is, it remains to be seen if he can carry a team that has lost premier talent in each of the past two offseasons. 

Atlanta, meanwhile, has won two straight division titles only to lose in the NLDS both times. Is the third time a charm? Losing third baseman Josh Donaldson to the Twins hurts, but a lineup led by Ronald Acuna and Freddie Freeman will always be game. 

Meanwhile, don’t sleep on the Phillies and Mets. Washington, Atlanta, New York and Philadelphia all won at least one NL East title in the past decade (sorry, Marlins fans) — and with the talent in this division, that carousel will keep turning. With Didi Gregorius alongside Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto and Rhys Hoskins, the Phillies have a pennant-winning ceiling. And if all six of the Mets stud starting pitchers make it through spring training healthy, look for GM Brodie Van Wagenen to trade for an impact bat. 

Can Yankees stay healthy? 

Injuries to key players Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Luke Voit and Miguel Andujar killed manager Aaron Boone’s dreams of lineup consistency in 2019, and the absence of Dellin Betances was glaring in the ALCS loss to Houston. All told, the Yanks set an MLB record with 30 players spending time on the IL. And they still won 103 games!

To remedy his club’s injury woes, GM Brian Cashman fired the strength coach and hired Eric Cressey, a popular trainer who has worked with countless big leaguers, to oversee a new performance program. Will it work? The only thing holding New York back from overtaking Houston is a crowded training room. So far the Yankees' core position players —plus $324 million man, Gerrit Cole — are healthy, but No. 3 starter James Paxton and outfielder Aaron Hicks will begin the season on the IL.  

Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant  Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports

Are Kris Bryant and Nolan Arenado really up for grabs? 

How do two clubs so royally screw up relationships with their young, contract-controlled star players? After losing a service time grievance to the Cubs that dates to his rookie year, there’s almost zero chance Bryant signs a team-friendly extension with Chicago when he becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2022.  Cubs president of baseball ops Theo Epstein knows it, and no one as smart as the two-time miracle worker waits to be hung out to dry. He’ll trade Bryant — it’s just a matter of when. 

Comparatively, the brewing tension between Arenado and Rockies management — stemming from the club’s lack of urgency after losing 91 games — isn’t going away, with reports that the Cubs and Rockies have even discussed trading the stars for each other. Both players have franchise-altering potential, wherever they land. 

What do Maddon’s Angels look like? 

In 2015, Maddon’s arrival in Chicago breathed life into a frustrated organization desperate for change. His quirky theme days, creative lineups and supportive dad disposition cultivated a fresh culture and delivered the franchise’s first World Series title in 108 years. 

But as the young Cubs matured, Maddon’s methods wore thin. The club regressed, and Maddon bounced to Anaheim. But how will Mike Trout’s no-nonsense attitude mesh with Maddon? It’s difficult to imagine Trout and Anthony Rendon taking kindly to Maddon’s constant lineup tinkering, a habit the manager plans to continue with the Angels. One season removed from watching his Cubs experiment implode, will Maddon’s managerial style be embraced by a veteran squad that doesn’t need to be coddled?

Blue Jays shortstop Bo Bichette Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Is Bo Bichette a big-timer?

Last season, it was easy to see the promise of Bichette. Along with a .311/.358/.511 slash line, Bichette basically spent all 46 of his major league appearances breaking records. Bichette became the first MLB player to hit 10 extra-base hits in his first nine major league games and the only player to double in nine straight games. His 13 extra-base hits through his first 11 games were the most ever, two more than Ted Williams’ run as a rookie in 1939. 

When Vlad Guerrero Jr. took over the baseball world last spring, the only question was how long until Bichette and Cavan Biggio joined him as everyday starters in Toronto. Evidently that time is now, and the maturation of the Blue Jays "big three" could have AL wild-card ramifications. 

Can Luis Robert live up to hype? 

At some point over the past few years, Yoan Moncada, Michael Kopech and Eloy Jimenez have been beacons of hope for White Sox fans. Yet none arrived in Chicago as hyped as 22-year old Cuban defector Luis Robert. Hell, even Jimenez has called him “the next Mike Trout.”
Robert hit 30 home runs and stole 36 bases in the minors last season. He’s the type of talent that GM Rick Hahn believes can take the club from rebuild to win-now mode. So in January, the White Sox signed him to a six-year, $50 million deal before he ever saw a major league pitch. After adding Dallas Keuchel, Gio Gonzalez, Yasmani Grandal and Edwin Encarnacion, the South Siders will contend in the AL Central. If Robert is the real deal, that ceiling gets even higher. 

Reds starting pitcher Trevor Bauer  Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Are the Reds for real?

The last time the Cincinnati Reds looked this good entering spring training, Brandon Phillips, Orlando Cabrera and Scott Rolen shared an infield with Joey Votto. Ten years later, only one of those men is still regularly force-fed Skyline Chili. But after a slick winter that saw the Reds dole out $164 million guaranteed to Nick Castellanos, Mike Moustakas (to play second base), Wade Miley, Pedro Strop and Japanese outfielder Shogo Akiyama, Cincinnati is looking to win its first playoff series since 1995. With a full season of Trevor Bauer in the rotation, Cincy has a dangerous rotation and one intriguing team. 

Is Mookie Betts long for Hollywood?

When last season’s first-round playoff exit cemented a 31st consecutive titleless season, anxiety took over in Hollywood. If the Dodgers couldn’t win with this roster, would they ever? An then an offseason full of inactivity only amplified criticisms of president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman.  But then he traded for Betts and David Price, exhausting every possible resource to bring a title to L.A. The only question is whether Friedman can convince Betts to stick around. The Dodgers have the cash to meet his $400 million demands, and they’re one of the few major market clubs that still spends like it. But Friedman has never signed a free agent to a nine-figure deal. Is this a one-and-done season for Mookie in Dodger blue? And if so, could a team like the Padres sign him away in a move for NL West supremacy? 

Where do the Red Sox go from here? 

After trading Betts and Price (while paying for half of the latter’s salary) and letting Rick Porcello and Brock Holt walk in free agency, Red Sox management is dealing with the fury of millions of red-faced New Englanders. At first glance, it seems like Boston’s number-crunching front office has already folded on the season, but that might not be the case. According to FanGraphs, the 2020 Red Sox — who added Kevin Pillar, Jose Peraza and Alex Verdugo — project to have the same number of wins above replacement (27.5) as the 2019 team led by Betts. The pitching staff looks slightly worse (16.1 WAR vs. 16.5 in 2019), but Boston’s total projected WAR (43.7) is tied for fourth-best in the American League, behind the Astros (55.1), Yankees (50.5) and Twins (45.7). We’ll soon see if the human product matches those projections.

Matt Foley is a writer and editor based in South Norwalk, Connecticut. Growing up on Chicago’s South Side, Foley was, thankfully, raised a Cubs fan. His work has been featured in B/R Mag, SLAM, OZY and The New York Times. Think you can hit his changeup? Let him know on Twitter: @mattyfoles.

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