Five to Watch: Guys we're wondering about
Peavy's health, Feliz's return to bullpen among issues to follow
It's the ground floor of wonderment, the natural entrance point for thoughts deep and shallow about the upcoming season. With Spring Training wrapping up and Opening Day standing less than a week away, it's only fitting to begin thinking about potential storylines in Major League Baseball, home to some of the most compelling characters in all of sports.
Every team has its own story, and digging deeper, every clubhouse seems to have four or five players who are facing a crossroads of some type or another. How will they handle it, and will they emerge on the other side with some resolution?
Fans of all ages and localities want to know whether Justin Morneau will return healthy from his bout with a concussion, and they want to know whether formerly prominent pitchers like Brandon Webb and Erik Bedard will ever be able to return to their best. People wonder about rookies, and who will be able to take the biggest leaps forward in development.
All of these answers are dangled just out of reach at this point, but they make for a compelling conversation among baseball fans. And the best part is that after a winter's worth of wondering, all the revelations are on the near horizon.
Counting down to Thursday's Opening Day, MLB.com is identifying "Five to Watch" in various categories -- from big prospects looking to crack the roster to those with big question marks who are looking to get their acts together.
Here are five players who we're wondering about -- for various reasons -- heading into the upcoming season.
Neftali Feliz, CL, Rangers
Even the Rangers were wondering what to do with this guy, and the hard-throwing right-hander's role wasn't set until the last week of camp. After deliberating for much of the Cactus League slate, Texas decided Thursday that Feliz would spend another season as the team's closer, and that any effort to move him into the starting rotation would have to wait for next year.
And in the long run, that makes perfect sense. Feliz, who was the American League's Rookie of the Year last season, already ranks as a dominant closer and would likely need time to transition into the rotation. The 22-year-old ranked third in the league with 40 saves in 2010, and Tampa Bay (51) was the only AL team with more saves than Texas (46).
The Rangers loom large as the favorite in the AL West, which takes away some of their incentive for making a seismic change in their bullpen. In this case, the move is about keeping Feliz comfortable and leaving the wondering for another season.
"That's exactly what I told him," said Texas manager Ron Washington. "Right now, for our organization, we're better off with him in the bullpen. We haven't closed the door on him being a starter. We're just not ready yet."
Craig Kimbrel, RP, Braves
If the Rangers are trying to maximize their closer's effectiveness, the Braves are trying to harness their young reliever's outsized potential. Kimbrel, a 22-year-old former third-round pick, had an incredible run through the league last season, when he racked up eye-popping numbers in both strikeouts (40) and walks (16) in 20 2/3 innings over 21 appearances.
Kimbrel had been that same type of feast-or-famine pitcher in the Minor Leagues, notching 242 strikeouts and 95 walks in 151 innings as a prospect. Now, though, the Braves believe his apprenticeship is done. Atlanta is betting that Kimbrel can be dominant even if he is occasionally wild, and the youngster will serve as the team's co-closer in the early going.
Will Kimbrel be able to handle it? Will he ultimately recede into the background or seize the job in earnest from Jonny Venters? Atlanta's hoping it is the latter case, and it can call his postseason performance -- 13 batters faced, seven strikeouts -- as a supporting witness. And if Venters also thrives, then the Braves have a great problem on their hands.
"In a perfect world, you'd like to name one guy," said Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez. "But I can't sit here and tell you May 15 is going to be the day, or June 20. Maybe we'll go the whole way with it. It's not a bad thing. It really isn't."
Jake Peavy, SP, White Sox
Somewhere, Peavy took a wrong turn. The two-time All-Star and former National League Cy Young Award winner has been slowed by injuries over the past few seasons, erasing a hard-fought reputation for durability. Peavy hasn't made 20 starts since 2008, and he hasn't thrown 200 innings since '07, when he led the NL in wins, strikeouts and ERA.
Virtually all of his success came in the NL, and the White Sox are still waiting to see that version of Peavy. The right-hander, who was acquired by Chicago in 2009, dealt with a strained ankle tendon in that campaign. That injury may have led to a mechanical issue that ultimately resulted in an even worse ailment -- a detached back muscle -- last season.
Chicago, at this point, doesn't really know what it will get from Peavy. Manager Ozzie Guillen said Thursday that he doesn't expect the 30-year-old to be ready to start the season, but that's more out of a case of caution than anything else. Guillen said that Peavy means too much to the team to risk further aggravating his injury, and that he won't pitch until he's healthy.
"Like I said from the first day of Spring Training -- since January at SoxFest -- we have to be really careful," he said. "We are going to go little by little, because this man is very valuable to the White Sox for this year. I don't care about next year. I might not even be here next year. I worry about this year. He's very valuable for us if we want to continue to get what we want to get."
Michael Young, UT, Rangers
Michael Young, utility man. Doesn't really look right, does it? Young, for one, would agree with that assessment. The former second baseman, shortstop and third baseman has been progressively moved off those starting positions in recent seasons due to increased roster depth for the Rangers more than for any drop-off in his own high standard of play.
And Young, the team's all-time hits leader, decided that he didn't want to move again. The six-time All-Star (2004-09) requested a trade as opposed to becoming a part-time player. And Texas, which had rewarded him with a lucrative contract, was never able to get a palatable offer in return.
Now, Texas has a productive player without a position. Second base is manned by Ian Kinsler, and shortstop has been capably handled by youngster Elvis Andrus. Third base is the home of free-agent acquisition Adrian Beltre, and the Rangers expect to see Mitch Moreland and Mike Napoli eat up some of the at-bats at both first base and designated hitter.
So where does that leave Young? At this point, having buried the hatchet with general manager Jon Daniels, Young is resigned to working as hard as he can to carve out more playing time. How will that happen? He might be wondering, too.
"It's tough," Young said recently. "It's almost impossible to play a position at the highest level if you don't work on it every day. As you bounce around, your attention to a position gets bounced around, too. But I will be able to play it."
Tampa Bay's closer
Who will it be? At this early point, your guess is as good as Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon's. The Rays got incredible relief pitching from Joaquin Benoit and Rafael Soriano last year, en route to their second AL East title in the past three seasons, but both veteran arms left the team in the winter for lucrative free-agent contracts elsewhere.
Now, the Rays find themselves trying to figure out who will get the final three outs of any given game. Joel Peralta and Kyle Farnsworth will split save opportunities at the beginning of the season, and Jake McGee and Juan Cruz could also get some chances in the ninth inning. Over time, though, the Rays will likely revert to riding the hot hand.
"I don't know how this is going to shake [out]," Maddon said earlier in Tampa Bay's Spring Training camp. "I really don't. I'm not kidding. I don't know. We'll just play it out and see where we are at the end of camp."
Other notable names to wonder about: Morneau, Webb, Bedard, Royals Opening Day starter Luke Hochevar, Yankees starter Ivan Nova, Mets left fielder Jason Bay.
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.