Will Red Sox stick with Panda? Will CC head to 'pen? Do Dodgers have enough healthy arms?
By Richard Justice
We're on final approach, friends. Ten days until Opening Day. Ten questions. Here goes:
1. Do the Red Sox stay the course with Pablo Sandoval at third base when they have another option?
Travis Shaw is a better player, both offensively and defensively. On the other hand, Sandoval still has four years and around $75 million remaining on his contact. No team faces a tougher decision in these final days. Best guess is that the Red Sox play it out, hope Sandoval gets himself into playable shape (though he's day to day with lower back stiffness) and that positive reinforcement from the front office gets him in the right frame of mind. But after finishing last in the American League East three of the past four years, the Red Sox will not allow another season to get away from them.
2. Would the Yankees really send CC Sabathia to the bullpen?
Unlikely. Sabathia had a 2.86 ERA over the final two months of last season, which probably counts for more than a few spring starts. Ivan Nova and Bryan Mitchell have pitched better than Sabathia this spring, and they may ultimately end up in the rotation. At least for now, look for the Yankees to find out if last season's renaissance was the real deal. But the difficulty of the decision emphasizes the optimism the Yanks feel about their rotation depth.
3. When are the Astros going to decide on a first baseman?
Tyler White, a 33rd-round Draft choice in 2013, has made that decision for them. He hit at every level of the Minors and is hitting .371 this spring. White has beaten out top prospect A.J. Reed and former top prospect Jon Singleton even if the Astros haven't said so. Houston had high hopes that Singleton finally would grab his latest opportunity, but he has had a tough spring. Reed remains the organization's top prospect, but because he has played just 53 games above Class A ball, there was a reluctance to feed him too much too soon.
4. Are the Twins getting nervous about Byron Buxton's lack of offensive production?
In a word, no. Young players do not come with timetables or guarantees. Even though Buxton is hitting .235 this spring and .209 in 138 Major League plate appearances, the Twins are convinced he's going to be a special player, perhaps a cornerstone-type player. In the things that can be measured -- bat speed, quickness -- Buxton is off the charts. He's also 22 years old. Minnesota hopes Buxton contributes this season. The Twins know he will eventually contribute.
5. Have Pirates general manager Neal Huntington and pitching coach Ray Searage worked their magic again?
Seems so. Huntington scooped up right-hander Juan Nicasio after he was non-tendered by the Dodgers. In five seasons -- four with the Rockies, one with the Dodgers -- he has a 4.88 ERA. The Pirates signed Nicasio for $3 million, thinking he could swing between the bullpen and middle relief. In a three-way competition with Ryan Vogelsong and Jeff Locke for the fourth and fifth rotation spots, Nicasio hasn't allowed a run in 15 innings and has 21 strikeouts. He has tweaked his slider to the point that it's a plus pitch, which makes his fastball even better.
6. Did the Rays sacrifice defense for offense with this offseason's changes?
Yes. In fact, the Rays said so. They were unwilling to waste another year of good pitching because they couldn't score enough runs. So Tampa Bay made some trades that probably will set its defense back. This spring, the Rays lead the Majors with a 3.23 ERA, but they've also made 26 errors and allowed 19 unearned runs, the second most in the Majors. On the other hand, Tampa Bay leads the Grapefruit League with 59 doubles and is fourth with a .277 team batting average.
7. Have the Giants seen enough of Matt Cain to be convinced he's the Cain of 2012?
Cain has a 12.15 spring ERA, but he was set back by treatment for a cyst in his pitching arm. Even though the results aren't there, the Giants still think if he's healthy, he can be a quality starter. Whether Cain can be what he once was is another issue. For now, the discussion is whether to allow him more time to build arm strength or open the season in the rotation. Chris Heston remains a reasonable option.
All things being equal, Floyd would be the guy. He has had a solid spring, and inserting him into the rotation would allow Sanchez to pitch out of the bullpen, where his 95-mph fastball plays well. Here's the rub: Sanchez has been vocal about wanting to start, and even the Blue Jays believe that's where he'll ultimately end up. And if this really has been a spring competition, Sanchez has won it, compiling a 1.35 ERA (to Floyd's 2.19). These things normally work themselves out, and in this case, both guys could end up in the rotation at some point. For now, it's a tough call for manager John Gibbons.
9. Do the Dodgers even have five healthy starting pitchers?
10. Are the Orioles more hopeful about their rotation?
Yes, things have improved since a tough start. Chris Tillman is going to have a nice bounce-back season and feels good about his last couple of starts. Ubaldo Jimenez, Yovani Gallardo and Miguel Gonzalez are getting their innings in even if the results have been distressing at times. Kevin Gausman's cranky shoulder remains the primary concern. Buck Showalter can maneuver around Gausman's scheduled turns for a few weeks, but he might be the key to the O's making a run.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.