Spring training exists at the peculiar intersection of completely meaningless and monumentally important. You can ignore pretty much every spring training statistic, the standings are worthless, and a vast majority of the players are just trying to get their timing and stay off the disabled list. On the other hand, we're treated to a real live baseball appetizer and a small number of critical decisions get made. Most of what you'll see this spring won't matter, but there are a few important questions to answer along the way and the next several weeks will sort them out.
Are the Blue Jays serious about second base?
As it stands right now, the Blue Jays have Ryan Goins penciled in at the keystone on Opening Day. You can never be absolutely sure about how a player's going to perform, but FanGraphs has him slated for a .240/.280/.336 line with average defense at second. Mix that together with a collection of Maicer Izturis, Munenori Kawasaki, and Chris Getz and the outlook for the position looks bleak.
This situation is interesting because the Blue Jays invested so much in their team before the 2013 season and that clubs remains largely intact heading into this year. They should be in for a rebound even without major upgrades, so a little boost at one of their positions could help move them over the hump into playoff contention. Even more interestingly, there are a wealth of second basemen available for the right price.
Stephen Drew is still hanging out there in qualifying offer purgatory and would be a nice fit if both sides were interested in a position change, but there are other options on the trade market as well. Brandon Phillips, Nick Franklin, Danny Espinosa, and Dan Uggla. None of those players jump off the page as difference makers, but when you consider that the Jays are looking at a replacement level second baseman, grabbing a league average player at the position could be a sizable upgrade. We know they've been looking around, but if they're going to make a move focused on the 2014 season, it should come in the next couple of weeks
Where should Nick Franklin have his mail forwarded?
The Blue Jays are just one of the teams interested in Nick Franklin, but the Mariners are fielding calls from all over the league about their displaced infielder. With Kyle Seager established at third and Robinson Cano coming west to take over second at Safeco, Franklin is left to battle with Brad Miller for a role as the team's shortstop, but most view Miller as the better player and doubt that Franklin can handle the position defensively. That leaves Franklin riding the bench or in another uniform.
The Rays and Mets have joined the Blue Jays in pursuit of Franklin and it seems as if a trade is coming sooner rather than later. Projections on Franklin vary, but many still like his chances to hit at the big league level. He struck out often in 2013, but walked at a decent clip and slugged 12 home runs in 412 plate appearances. It's obvious to see why he's expendable for the Mariners, but he's going to command a lot of attention as teams start to make decisions about the 2014 rosters.
Who will blink first on the qualifying offer?
Spring training games are underway and Kendrys Morales, Stephen Drew, and Ervin Santana still haven't found a club for the 2014 season. By now you understand the situation; team don't want to pay fair market value and give up a draft pick and the players aren't interested in lowering their demands to accommodate.
At some point in the near future, someone is going to blink. If Hiroki Kuroda goes down clutching his elbow, the Yankees will pony up for Santana. If J.J. Hardy takes a fastball off the wrist, the Orioles will push their chips in for Stephen Drew. But on the other hand, the trio might see established players staying healthy for another week and realize things might not break in their favor, causing them to accept the lower paying offers that are currently on the table.
The implications and future of the qualifying offer will be debated and carried into the regular season, but by the end of spring training we'll have a good idea of where the 2014 class falls. Whether it's the team or the players, someone is likely to panic.
What's Baltimore's plan for the bullpen?
When Grant Balfour failed his physical with the Orioles, it looked like a long shot that they would be able to find anyone of that caliber to step in and settle the back end of their bullpen on such short notice, and to this point, they haven't. It looks as if they'll go to battle with the selection of arms they have now, but it's not clear what, if any, roles their relievers will have.
They'll make use of Tommy Hunter, Darren O'Day, Brian Matusz, Suk-Min Yoon, T.J. McFarland, Ryan Webb, and company, but we don't know how the various responsibilities will be allocated. Hunter seems likely to get first crack at the ninth inning, but lefties eat him alive and Buck Showalter may not have the fortitude to run a closer by committee setup.
It could be Bud Norris getting the call, as well, with the addition of Ubaldo Jimenez to the rotation, but it's an open question for a team that has all of a sudden become interested in making a run at a playoff spot in 2014.
Can they stay healthy?
This is true of every professional athlete all of the time, but there will be a particular focus on a couple of key players over the next couple of weeks. Manny Machado is coming off a nasty leg injury, Matt Kemp is dealing with an busted ankle, and Grady Sizemore is dealing with a chronic case of being Grady Sizemore.
Machado's injury represents a threat to a hugely promising career, so the focus on his ability to return to the field will be significant and we'll get a chance to see how he's feeling as he patrols the hot corner during spring training contests. We almost never care about a player's results this time of year, but we'll focus heavily on how comfortable and mobile Machado appears.
The same is true for Kemp, who has developed a reputation as a fragile player in a crowded outfield. The insanity of his 2011 season pulls us in, but the big contract and high spending nature of his team makes it all the more interesting. He'll have a critical MRI on his ankle on Friday which should give us a sense about how long he'll be out.That said, seeing him in action would tell us quite a bit more.
Finally, Grady Sizemore's return and bout with all sorts of injuries will be one of the big questions in Red Sox camp this spring. Sizemore was signed as an insurance policy, but for many years, teams have needed policies to protect them against Sizemore's brittleness. He was a superstar when healthy, so finding out if he can stay on the field and compete in exhibition games is the first step on the long road back to prominence.
Over the next few weeks, beat writers will fill your timelines with velocity readings, small sample stats, and all sorts of "potential lineups," but the key questions are the legitimate positional battles, trade candidates, and health concerns. You can't read anything into what a player does or what a team says while they're stationed in Florida and Arizona, but if you want to find meaning before the Spring Equinox, focus on how healthy the players look and which ones are on the move.