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5 spring training stories to watch in the National League

Pitchers and catchers emerged from their burrow and didn't see their shadow, and that mean the baseball season will start in six weeks. What should we look for until then?

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

If we were being honest about spring training stories to watch, the actual stories and hypothetical questions would look something like this:

Will Kevan Staphly do enough to supplant Palo Flung as the club's ninth outfielder on the depth chart?

Could be. If Staphly does enough in the 327 innings he'll get this spring after the actual major leaguers leave the game, he'll be in line for a call up if there's an outbreak of food poisoning and/or something else wrong with at least five of the outfielders in front of him.

Ah, but that's no fun. We need to look at the stories that we'll force ourselves to pay attention to as the season gets closer and closer. The stories about the actual major leaguers and the teams that employ them. What should be we looking for?

The Mets' defense

The Mets can pitch. They have the best rotation in baseball, and only the Cubs come close. Their previously maligned lineup is secretly deeper than you think. All that's left is the baserunning, which shouldn't be so bad, and the fielding, which ahhhhhhhhhhh.

Michael Conforto is the only Mets fielder with the potential to be above average, and he might be the only fielder with the potential to be average, even. David Wright put up superficially good defensive numbers, but watching him field in the postseason was an uncomfortable affair, not unlike what it was like to watch Ryan Zimmerman before he was moved off the position.

Now we get to see them in action. And maybe they won't be half-bad, collectively. Just like every unathletic Triple-A hitter with a .400 on-base percentage was the solution to every team's lineup woes in the Moneyball mad early 2000s, it's possible that we're paying far too much attention to defense right now. But as the season draws nearer and regulars get more time, take a moment to watch a few innings of Mets baseball and see if they're going to be the strikeout-or-bust team it looks like they'll be.

Jose Fernandez and Giancarlo Stanton being healthy

No team is tethered to their stars quite like this. A Marlins team without Fernandez and Stanton might be the most uninteresting team in professional sports, at least if you don't count front office drama. A Marlins team with Fernandez and Stanton is a must-watch team every fifth day, and a heckuva spectacle the other four days. That's just from the perspective of a fan, but it tracks with the wins and losses, too.

And, uh, the Marlins have just a wee bit invested in these two. Stanton is the franchise icon, and the plan is to pay him $300 million, so that eventually there will be a statue of him outside of Marlins Park. It will be made from chunks of real Stanton, and it will stand atop a gyrating magenta octopus, but it will be there to prove that the Marlins have history. The kind of consistent, reliable, normal history that almost every other franchise gets to enjoy. That doesn't happen if he's more Bob Horner than Babe Ruth.

Fernandez probably isn't going to be around that long, so the Marlins have an interest in making sure he's the best durned Jose Fernandez he can be, so that they can exchange him for younger, cheaper Jose Fernandezes.

And while the Marlins have long-term concerns for both, they have short-term designs on winning. It's not an unrealistic dream, even if they aren't going to top a lot of preseason predictions. Both Stanton and Fernandez having award-worthy seasons would go a long way toward those contending hopes.

Who starts in the Cardinals outfield?

The Cardinals missed on Jason Heyward, and the spent the rest of the offseason playing half-hearted footsie with almost every other outfielder on the free agent market. They stood pat, though, which would be worrisome for most teams.

Of course, these are the Cardinals, and the only real risk for them is if a fly gets into their outfielder development machine and turns their newest young outfielder into some horrible human-fly hybrid. The fly man would hit .290 with good patience and power for three years. If they can avoid that, they still have a plethora of outfielders to choose from, and it's often overlooked that Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk and Tommy Pham were all excellent last year. Pham had the lowest adjusted OPS at 122, and all of them were worth at least a win in limited action.

Do the Cardinals go with Piscotty in right and Grichuk in center and keep it simple? Or does Pham's late development and superior defense in left make the team more flexible with their starting rotation than they're letting on? All of them are right-handed hitters, so there's no strict platoon arrangement to work out, other than getting Brandon Moss at-bats somewhere in here, too.

Whatever. You know Rafael Ortega is going to hit .290 and steal 40 bases for them somehow. This probably isn't something to watch in spring training -- it's something to shake your fist at in November.

Figuring out the Dodgers' five starters

Considering the Dodgers have 32 different GMs in the front office, it's possible that they're considering a 32-man rotation. More likely, they'll stick with five, though, and that leads to mystery and intrigue. The starting pitchers on retainer are:

  • Clayton Kershaw
  • Scott Kazmir
  • Brett Anderson
  • Kenta Maeda
  • Hyun-jin Ryu
  • Alex Wood
  • Mike Bolsinger
  • Zach Lee
  • Frankie Montas
  • Julio Urias
  • Brandon Beachy

Kershaw and Kazmir are in, of course, as is Anderson. But while they're not paying Maeda and Ryu to be in the bullpen, there are reasons to be skeptical of both of them. In a market where Ian Kennedy got $70 million and cost his new team a first-round pick, Maeda's elbow made other teams hide in an elevator shaft when he was looking for a big contract. He signed one of the team-friendliest deals we've seen in years, which doesn't happen without serious, serious, serious health concerns. And Ryu hasn't thrown a pitch since 2014.

At this point, you should cock your head quizzically at the idea that Kazmir and Anderson are two of the rock-solid paragons of health in the rotation.

So, it will be a spring training filled with health updates and crossed fingers, but it's not like the Dodgers lack for options. Ryu is the only one who is a confirmed risk for Opening Day, whereas Maeda's health is all market-based speculation, so it's possible that the answer is simple more Alex Wood until Ryu is ready. And it's worth noting that Wood has spent most of his professional career being excellent at his job.

The Dodgers will probably be fine, but it will still be interesting to see the exact permutation they'll need to use when it's time to play real games.

How will Angel Pagan react to a quasi-demotion?

Angel Pagan has been a center fielder and a leadoff hitter since joining the Giants. He was a very good one for a while, helping them win a championship in 2012 with his defense and timely hitting. Last year, though, was an abomination, with Pagan clearly not healthy enough to play the position capably, and it took the Giants several months to figure out that rest and rehab was better than hoping the problem would fix itself.

Now Pagan is a left fielder and possibly a No. 8 hitter entering his free agent season. It's possible that Bruce Bochy will want a switch-hitter at the top of the lineup for whatever reason, but based on 2015 stats, 2016 projections, age, and common sense, Pagan is clearly the eighth-best hitter in any Giants lineup you can make. So, the spring training story is interesting on two fronts:

  1. How does Pagan react to left field from a defensive standpoint?
  2. How does Pagan react to his new role, considering he's a prideful, confident professional baseball player used to something completely different?

Neither one has to be a problem. It's possible that the likeliest outcome is that everything works out A-OK and everyone's giddy about the whole arrangement. But the Giants aren't used to a lot of grumbling, and this is the biggest clubhouse risk they've taken since removing Sergio Romo from his closer's role. That move worked out, both on and off the field. This one is worth watching.