The top 10 storylines to watch in spring training

MLB insider Shi Davidi explains to Jeff Blair why he senses the Blue Jays are leaning towards Drew Storen as closer, and Roberto Osuna in more of a 4, 5 or 6 out set-up role.

Stay away from those sprinkler heads on practice fields. Be careful with those pitchers fielding practice drills. Spring training is getting under way and it’s time to remind everybody that from this point on until opening day nothing good can happen, only bad.

With that in mind, here are my top 10 storylines for spring training:

1. The Chicago Cubs: World Series favourites. Really. They’ve gone off at plus-400 according to Oddsharks.com and will be the most-watched team in spring training. Jason Heyward in centre field will be an area monitored particularly closely.

2. Rob Manfred’s big moment: The new commissioner sailed through his first year showing a deft political touch, but this is when he earns his money: in addition to ensuring the climate is good for a new collective bargaining agreement, he is also expected to rule soon on the domestic abuse cases of Aroldis Chapman and Jose Reyes. His powers in this area are all encompassing and these cases will establish some of the parameters with which he’ll be working. Ask Roger Goodell what a political minefield it is.

3. Mr. Baker goes to Washington: New manager Dusty Baker will fill the clubhouse with incense and John Lee Hooker and that should provide the wheel-spinning Nationals an emotional core and might mitigate some of their self-destructive tendencies. Unfortunately, it might be too late for this group.

4. The Bonds market: Barry Bonds is the new hitting coach for the Miami Marlins, who have banned facial hair as per new manager Don Mattingly. It’s a way to get back into the game’s good graces, but being a hitting coach hasn’t put Mark McGwire any closer to the Hall of Fame and it won’t for Bonds, either. Honestly? Don’t be surprised if Bonds doesn’t finish out the season.

5. Whose arm blows up?: Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated compiles a list of young pitchers whose increased workload in the previous season leaves them susceptible to arm injuries. The grand prize winners from last season are Lance McCullers (Houston Astros), Noah Syndergaard (New York Mets), Luis Severino (New York Yankees), Carlos Martinez (St. Louis Cardinals) and Tyler Duffey (Minnesota Twins). The Cubs, meanwhile, have already told Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta that he will be monitored closely during spring training. Including the playoffs, he threw almost 100 more innings than he did in 2014.

6. Can the Boston Red Sox screw this up?: They have a terrific farm system, a bright young core of position players and David Price and Craig Kimbrel, too. Yet Pablo Sandoval’s arrival carrying the fat of the land on Sunday was a reminder that drama is always around the corner with this group. And just think, Hanley Ramirez hasn’t even had to make a play at first base, yet!

7. Is Dave Roberts an artful Dodger?: The Los Angeles Dodgers have all the brightest kids in the school in the front office – including Our Own Alex Anthopoulos ™ – and all the money in the world plus Corey Seager and Joc Pederson and Julio Urias and the like knocking at the door along with Clayton Kershaw, and they’ve turned it over to a guy who has never managed a game in his life. What’s not to like?

8. Jose and Edwin try to get paid: Next winter’s free-agent class stinks, and the Toronto Blue Jays‘ Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion could be two of the biggest impact bats out there. Encarnacion has already set a deadline of opening day to get a deal done or he’ll walk at the end of the season. I almost believe that. Bautista has been more circumspect, because … well, of course he has. He’s Jose Bautista. New president Mark Shapiro says he’d like to negotiate with both of them during the spring, but few Blue Jays fans believe he can get one of them signed.

9. Welcome back: Among the injured players and pitchers who will be in the spotlight this spring include the Marlins’ Giancarlo Stanton, who was leading the majors with 27 home runs when he broke his left hamate bone on June 26, and rehabilitating pitchers Yu Darvish of the Texas Rangers and Homer Bailey of the Cincinnati Reds, the latter two of whom underwent Tommy John surgery last season and are expected back in May.

10. The San Francisco Giants: Your World Series champions! They won in 2010, 2012 and 2014. So all the previous stuff you read, and everything you will read and hear from now until the end of October and all the hopes and tears and … well, it won’t matter. Sorry.

QUIBBLES AND BITS

  • Getting a new spring training deal done with Dunedin was a legacy issue for former Blue Jays president Paul Beeston. It didn’t happen, and now his successor, Mark Shapiro, is carrying the ball. Shapiro’s initial inclination seemed to be to cast a wider net and seek out a new area for spring training, but since then the focus appears to have returned to Dunedin. For now. The Blue Jays missed out on a partnership with the Houston Astros for new digs in Palm Beach Gardens but now the Atlanta Braves are quietly going about laying the groundwork for a move to the East Coast from Orlando, including hiring a lobbyist to focus on Palm Beach County. The Braves had eyes on building a new facility in Pinellas County, but changed tack according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution when MLB made clear they didn’t want any competing regional issues that might interfere with funding for a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays. Dunedin is in the northern part of Pinellas County, so it will be interesting to see what if any impact this has on the Blue Jays’ plans.
  • Steven Stamkos’s season with the Tampa Bay Lightning has been shrouded by his contractual uncertainty, but let’s not doubt his place in the game: Stamkos reached the 300-goal mark Saturday at the age of 26 years, 13 days, and among all active players only Alexander Ovechkin did so sooner (25 years, 200 days.) Stamkos, incidentally, has 162 more goals than the next-closest player in his 2008 draft class (Jordan Eberle) and only Ovechkin has more goals than Stamkos since his debut.
  • Tony Phillips, who passed away last week at the age of 58, created the position of the “super-utility player:” six teams over 18 seasons, a minimum of 200 games started at five different positions, over 300 plate appearances in five different spots in the order and a .266 career average with 160 home runs and 177 stolen bases. Phillips, a first-round pick of the Montreal Expos in 1978, was traded to the San Diego Padres on Aug. 31, 1980, along with cash for first baseman Willie Montanez. He may also have defined under-rated: Phillips’ career WAR among position players with no All-Star Game selections is 50.8, miles ahead of runner-up Tim Salmon (40.5) and third-place Kirk Gibson (38.3).
  • THE ENDGAME

    John Herdman pulled off one of the finest coaching jobs in our country’s soccer history this weekend. In addition to getting the women’s national team through to Rio de Janeiro 2016 this weekend, he also managed to work in the next generation of players – including 16-year-old Deanne Rose – before losing 2-0 to the U.S. in the CONCACAF final, a game in which Christine Sinclair, Sophie Schmidt and Diana Matheson started on the bench and with first-choice keeper Erin McLeod out with an injury. Herdman is right to rue a missed opportunity – the U.S. was not sharp in the early stages – but after Canada’s performance in the women’s World Cup, where nobody but Sinclair was a threat to score and we all wondered whether the next generation of players was limited to Kadeisha Buchanan, Herdman seems to have at least unearthed the makings of a follow-up act to the bronze in London. Trotting out a version of the 2-4-4 – with two defenders in the back – was pretty cool, too.