Spring Training to deliver plenty of answers
Results might matter less, but much to learn when camps open
In John Lackey's first Spring Training with the Red Sox in 2010, he was almost unhittable, posting a 1.35 ERA and walking only one batter in 20 innings. Then the $82.5 million man posted a 5.26 ERA in his first two years with Boston, and now he'll spend 2012 recovering from Tommy John surgery.
That same spring, in 19 Cactus League games for the Padres, Adrian Gonzalez was awful, batting just .204 and never going deep. Then, when things got real, he proceeded to hit .298, blast 31 homers, drive in 101 runs and finish fourth in the National League Most Valuable Player voting -- his stat line made Boston covet him as its new first baseman the following offseason.
The lesson: Don't put too much weight on statistics during Spring Training, a time when pitchers work on new stuff, hitters tweak mechanics, lifelong Minor Leaguers get ample playing time and numbers hardly matter.
That said, there are plenty of other things we can pick up from the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues. With only days remaining until all camps are under way, here's the most important of what we might come away with this spring.
Whether Bryce Harper and Mike Trout will be Major League starting outfielders on Opening Day
Logic would tell you otherwise. Both aren't even old enough to legally drink, both could use more Minor League seasoning and both don't have a clear opening on their Major League clubs.
But Harper and Trout have made names for themselves by defying logic, reaching skill levels that don't really correlate with their respective ages.
Fact is, the Nationals and Angels are contenders, teams that have put themselves in position to win now. If Harper and Trout blow up this spring -- in much of the way Jason Heyward did for the Braves in 2010 -- can they really justify sending down their young outfielders?
How Yu Darvish and Yoenis Cespedes will fare against the best in the world
Finally, after all the hype and wonder and speculation, we will see just how well Darvish and Cespedes do vs. Major League talent. They may be new to the big leagues, but both are in their mid-20s, have extensive professional baseball experience and are about as polished as a first-year big leaguer comes.
The best part about their situations: They'll play right away.
Darvish, who cost the Rangers about $110 million if you include the posting fee to his former team, is considered by many to be better than any of his recent Japanese predecessors, thanks to an aggressive fastball. Though he may be a little bit more raw than Darvish, Cespedes, who surprisingly accepted a four-year, $36 million contract from the Athletics, projects to be a five-tool outfielder.
Whether Miguel Cabrera and Mark Trumbo are third basemen, and whether Hanley Ramirez wants to be one
The races in the NL East, American League Central and AL West will be greatly influenced by how these three experiments work. The Marlins, Tigers and Angels all added high-priced free agents to positions that didn't really need addressing, and now, in hopes of adding a lot more offense without sacrificing too much defense, they've asked the previous fixtures at those positions to switch spots.
For Cabrera and Trumbo, two less-mobile first basemen who should struggle at a position that requires quick feet and rapid reflexes, the concerns center on ability. For Ramirez, an athletic shortstop who has the natural ability to play just about anywhere, it's mainly about desire.
Whether Joe Mauer and Buster Posey are still everyday catchers
It was only one year ago when Mauer was coming off another MVP-type season for the Twins and Posey was coming off leading the Giants to World Series glory as a rookie. Now, we're pondering whether Mauer or Posey should even stay behind the plate.
Mauer was limited to 82 games and three homers last year because of a long list of injuries, most prominently something called bilateral leg weakness. Posey's season ended after 45 games on May 25, when a home-plate collision with the Marlins' Scott Cousins shattered his ankle.
More than anything, the Twins and Giants need to do whatever possible to keep their franchise players on the field. But the values of Mauer and Posey are maximized by bringing a unique brand of offense to the position that has led to the injuries that have kept them off the field.
Irony sure can be cruel sometimes.
How Daniel Bard, Neftali Feliz, Chris Sale and Aroldis Chapman go from being late-inning relievers to starting pitchers
Feliz hasn't done started since he was in Triple-A three years ago, Bard hasn't done it since being in Class A in 2007, Sale has never done it in the big leagues and Chapman has barely done it in America.
Now, the Red Sox, Rangers, White Sox and Reds, respectively, are counting on valuable back-end bullpen pieces to stretch themselves out and utilize their electric arms for at least 100 more innings beginning this season.
Aaron Crow could attempt to do the same for the Royals.
Who gets traded?
We could see plenty of deals this spring. If A.J. Burnett isn't dealt to the Pirates by the end of the week, that could be one. Then there's Bobby Abreu, with whom the Angels would like to part ways if they save a reasonable amount of his remaining $9 million salary. And John Lannan, who's basically left without a spot now that Edwin Jackson has joined the Nationals' rotation.
Other names to watch: Jeff Niemann, Joe Blanton, Gavin Floyd, Kyle McClellan and Trumbo. Perhaps even names like Jair Jurrjens, James Shields and B.J. Upton will resurface.
How Tommy Hanson, Josh Johnson, Jurrjens, Johan Santana, Stephen Strasburg and Adam Wainwright bounce back from arm troubles
Wainwright and Strasburg are each coming off Tommy John surgery -- a procedure with an immensely good track record. But Johnson (who made only nine starts), Hanson (who missed the last two months) and Santana (who last pitched on Sept. 2, 2010) are recovering from shoulder woes, which are always scariest for pitchers.
How three AL East teams round out their rotations
In Spring Training, almost everybody has the fifth spot in the rotation up for grabs. Even if a team goes in with someone set in its mind, it likes to at least portray it as an open competition to give incentive to the other pitchers in camp. That aside, though, the rotation battles in New York, Boston and Tampa Bay are extra compelling.
The Yankees have a front four of CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda, Ivan Nova and Hiroki Kuroda, then have a former promising prospect in Phil Hughes and a cagy veteran in Freddy Garcia battling for the fifth spot (assuming Burnett is dealt). The Red Sox still have a great trio in Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz, but a ragtag group hoping to round out the rotation -- Bard, Alfredo Aceves, Aaron Cook, Vicente Padilla and Carlos Silva, among others. The Rays have five capable starters in David Price, Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, Niemann and Wade Davis, but need to find a spot for Matt Moore.
How Albert Pujols, C.J. Wilson, Prince Fielder, Jose Reyes and Jonathan Papelbon look in new uniforms
Because really, that's the best part about Spring Training -- the new stuff. Free agency may have dampened player loyalty, but if one positive can be taken away from that, it's the excitement of seeing so many new faces in camp.
This offseason, Pujols and Wilson agreed to join the Angels on one fateful day in December, Reyes topped the laundry list of players reeled in by the uncharacteristically aggressive Marlins, Papelbon signed for record money with the Phillies and Fielder shocked the baseball world by going home to the Tigers.
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.