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Spring Training Isn’t Totally Useless

While there’s not much to be gleaned from two months of exhibition baseball, there are some questions worth asking as pitchers and catchers and position players continue to report

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

Spring training is great for people who take time off of work and go to Arizona and Florida on purpose and for people who are so desperate for the return of baseball that they’re willing to watch minor leaguers play it at half speed. It’s not as good for gathering information; we won’t actually know anything until a couple of months into the season, so sweeping statements based on exhibition games are foolish.

But February and March aren’t a total information vacuum. Pitchers are trying out new breaking balls, various players have gained or lost weight, and we get a first look at players who changed teams in their new uniforms. So what can we learn? Here are 14 questions that the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues might be able to shed some light on.

1. How is Garrett Richards’s elbow?

The Angels right-hander came into 2016 sporting a devastating new changeup to go with his 96 mph fastball, heralding a potential watershed moment that could turn him into a Cy Young contender.

That lasted about a month, as Richards tore his UCL in early May. But instead of going straight to Tommy John surgery, Richards opted to try stem cell therapy in an attempt to cut the 12-to-18-month recovery time in half. Richards, who’s since scrapped the changeup, pitched instructional league innings in October, started throwing the first week of January, and will face live big league competition once exhibition games start. The big question is how he’ll hold up over a full season, but in Cactus League action we can at least see what the stuff looks like. The answer could determine the course of the AL West, which should have four teams — Houston, Texas, Seattle, and Los Angeles of Anaheim — with at least an outside shot at the playoffs.

2. How much more swole can Noah Syndergaard get before he starts having trouble buying shirts?

Syndergaard’s put on 17 pounds of muscle this offseason, which just seems greedy. Soon he’s going to be a danger to Yoenis Céspedes’s horses the way Lennie from Of Mice and Men was a danger to mice.

3. Speaking of Céspedes’s horses, how happy does he look in this article about his ranch? Do you think all ballplayers look that happy in the offseason?

Yo looks more at home in that cowboy hat than I’ve ever been in any garment. He is contagiously happy. He looks so happy that he makes me sad that I’m not that happy.

4. Why is this Mariners cap the best cap in baseball?

This year’s crop of new spring training hats is strong in general, but I spend my nights dreaming about this Mariners hat like it’s a long-lost lover from my youth. Part of the appeal is the trident M, which relies on a combination of mascot-based symbol and team name that isn’t available to every team; you can’t really make a sock look like a B, you know? But the teal bill is so bright and cheerful, too. Maybe having every pro sports team use red, black, and the same two boring shades of blue isn’t a good idea.

5. Who should be on the short list for Carlos Correa of 2017?

One of the coolest things about the absurd rookie classes of the past few years is how so many 21-year-olds have just wrecked house right off the proverbial bat. Spring training numbers themselves probably won’t tell us that much. Remember how Jackie Bradley Jr. destroyed the Grapefruit League in 2013, then took three years to learn how to hit in the regular season? But we can see which rookies look unexpectedly comfortable at the plate or find themselves showered with praise from coaches and opponents. Some, like Chicago’s Yoan Moncada and Atlanta’s Dansby Swanson, we’ve seen already, while others, like Philadelphia’s J.P. Crawford and Pittsburgh’s Austin Meadows, are yet to make their debuts after struggling in Triple-A last season.

The best candidate is Andrew Benintendi, who’s still rookie-eligible after forcing his way into Boston’s lineup for last season’s playoffs and is currently on a two-year-long hot streak that dates back to his sophomore year at Arkansas. PECOTA, the projection system from Baseball Prospectus, has the 22-year-old slated for 4.3 WARP, tops among left fielders and sixth among outfielders overall. That’s aggressive for a rookie nobody had heard of two years ago, but Benintendi can rake and is athletic enough to play center field for a team that doesn’t have Bradley and Mookie Betts, so the sky really is the limit.

6. How are Aaron Nola and Vince Velasquez holding up?

The Phillies started to turn the page in their rebuild last season, as years of high draft picks and big trade returns for Cole Hamels and Ken Giles began to bear fruit. But it’s still not clear how much of the next good Phillies rotation is in the fold right now. Twenty-six-year-old right-hander Jerad Eickhoff was rock-solid last year, with a 113 ERA+ in 197.1 innings, but his colleagues still have questions to answer.

Nola, the no. 7 overall pick in 2014, was wildly inconsistent last year before an elbow injury shut him down for the season’s last two months. You can see the impact of Nola’s fatigue in his numbers: In his first 12 starts, he got through six innings 11 times and posted a 2.65 ERA. In his last eight starts, he got through six innings once and posted an ERA of 9.82. We’ll find out fairly soon if rest will get Nola’s command and stuff back to where they were a year ago, but he still needs to prove he can hold up for 200 innings a season.

Velasquez was a little more up-and-down than Nola, and the Phillies limited him to 24 starts and 131 innings during his first full year as a big league starter. This time around, Velasquez is not only out to make all 33 starts, he’s working on his curveball more after relying on his fastball and changeup for most of 2016. His season high for curveballs in a game came last April, when he struck out 16 Padres.

7. What wacky camp-counselor act does Joe Maddon have up his sleeve this year?

Maddon’s got enough weird T-shirts and catchy slogans to put Hot Topic out of business, though far be it from me to question the motivational techniques of a manager who just led his team to 103 wins and a World Series title. I’m just not sure how you top that. Then again, we’re talking about a man who once brought a snake into a workplace.

Just remember: It’s all fun and games until your 20-foot python eats Willson Contreras.

8. Can we give R.A. Dickey and Bartolo Colón a reality show?

The Braves are going to be at least a little interesting this year, if only because Swanson’s first full season in the majors will be worth watching. But with the next good Braves team still a couple of years off, Atlanta has chosen two venerable elders to sacrifice to the God of Somebody’s Gotta Pitch Those Innings in 2017: Colón and Dickey, the two oldest pitchers in baseball. Talk about having late life on your fastball.

If Last Vegas can make $130 million, there has to be some Hollywood interest in a road-trip movie starring Colón and Dickey.

9. How is Torey Lovullo doing?

Despite several managers ending the 2016 season on the hot seat, only three teams made a change this past offseason. The Rockies and White Sox hired the experienced Bud Black and Rick Renteria, respectively, while new Diamondbacks GM Mike Hazen brought first-time manager Lovullo with him from Boston. Lovullo was mentioned in conjunction with just about every managerial opening over the past three or four years, has 10 years’ experience as a minor league coach and manager, and six more as an assistant to John Farrell in Toronto and Boston, including 48 games as interim manager of the Red Sox in 2015, while Farrell was treated for lymphoma.

So while he’s not the kind of total neophyte who was in style, say, five years ago, Lovullo has never run his own club before, and Arizona is a challenging club at that. Hazen was around to hire Lovullo only because ownership took a moment off from its war with local government to remove the frequently embarrassing and retrograde Tony La Russa–Dave Stewart axis from power. Hazen then sent Jean Segura to Seattle for Taijuan Walker and Ketel Marté during the offseason. So Lovullo has to put his stamp on a team that’s reinvented itself completely over the past six months, and the next few weeks will set the tone for his entire season.

10. How will the Marlins’ rumored sale change the on-field product in the short term?

Don Mattingly is already letting his players grow facial hair again. Anarchy reigns. It’s like the Sack of Rome down there.

Jeffrey Loria is so checked out he’s reportedly already lined up his next job.

This is great. Frank McCourt, probably the only owner of the past decade who’s worse than Loria, already bought up Ligue 1 club Olympique de Marseille. I say we make France a graveyard for disgraced MLB owners as revenge for the French saddling us with Nebraska 214 years ago.

However, the Kushner family, evidently aware that it might seem improper for Loria to accept a job in the Trump administration immediately after completing a billion-dollar business deal with the family of the president’s son-in-law, is having second thoughts.

I say they should go ahead and buy the team anyway. If billionaires across the country are going to have their hands in the till, the least they can do in return is get rid of Loria.

11. What the hell happened to Matt Wieters?

It’s unbelievable that Wieters is still a free agent halfway through February. While not every team needs an average 30-year-old catcher, a couple of teams need one badly. Colorado, for instance, just had its best season since 2010 and supplemented a talented core of position players by spending big on Ian Desmond this offseason. But the plan is to start Tony Wolters, God Save Us All, at catcher. (That’s his full legal name.)

Or how about the Nationals, who saw what life without Wilson Ramos was like when they sailed into the playoffs on the U.S.S. José Lobaton last October and were treated to their third NLDS loss in three attempts. They don’t have a ton of time before Max Scherzer gets old and Anthony Rendon hits free agency, so they’ve got every incentive to pay Wieters big on a short-term deal.

We’ve seen free agents saddled with compensation picks stay out on the market well into the season, but Wieters didn’t get a qualifying offer, so there’s no incentive to wait. Pay the man, someone.

12. Can we ever trust Dallas Keuchel again?

13. Who’s the most boring team in baseball?

Usually, it’s either the Brewers or the Padres, two teams whose Eastbay-catalog-template uniforms seemed to create a malaise that spread to the club itself. But now, they’ve both got interesting general managers (Jeff Luhnow protégé David Stearns in Milwaukee and the controversial A.J. Preller in San Diego) who have started to collect interesting young players: Orlando Arcia in Milwaukee and Manuel Margot and Hunter Renfroe in San Diego.

The early favorite is Oakland, the only team in the AL West without a realistic shot to make the playoffs, with a collection of uninspiring cast-offs and reclamation projects. If the A’s trade Sonny Gray, things could get grim really quickly. My sleeper pick, however, is the Tigers, who have many interesting individual players, but collectively look like they’re going to be nailed to .500 for the next couple of years, with neither the payroll flexibility nor the prospects to put them back in contention with the Indians.

14. What shape is Pablo Sandoval in? And what does it say about us?

Every spring the flowers bloom, the leaves return to the trees, and American sports media personalities devote thousands of hours to one topic: Is Pablo Sandoval fat, and, if so, how bad should he feel about himself?

You know what? Let Pablo be fat. He batted only seven times last season and the Red Sox won the division anyway, and since then they’ve added Benintendi (on a full-time basis) and Chris Sale. The Red Sox knew he was fat when they gave him a five-year, $95 million contract two years ago, so it seems disingenuous to blame Sandoval for remaining fat now. Frankly, I don’t want our ballplayers to all look like superheroes. Syndergaard scares the shit out of me because normal people don’t look like that. I don’t know when we started to want baseball players to look like they could beat a Hyundai in tug-of-war, but it’s weird.

Normal people look like Pablo Sandoval, who, to hear some people tell it, hasn’t seen his own feet since rookie ball, but still has three rings, a World Series MVP, two All-Star appearances, and a career OPS+ 16 points higher than Brett Lawrie, who looks like he’s auditioning for Riff in a punk-rock adaptation of West Side Story that’s set in Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson’s rumpus room.

Let Panda eat, and maybe he’ll let it eat.