14 Grapefruit questions to ponder this spring

With pitchers and catchers reporting to various locales in Florida and Arizona this week, here are 14 open-ended questions to ponder involving the Grapefruit League teams (one per club):

National League

Braves (94-68, NL East)

Can Chris Johnson or Juan Francisco lock down the third-base job before camp ends?

At Astros’ camp last March, Johnson cracked five homers, batted .310 and posted an absurd OPS of 1.085. But once the regular season began, he suffered for a full month before belting his first homer (two dingers on May 2).

In turn, Juan Francisco has never had a golden chance to shine with the big club in any spring training. He has essentially been trying to shed the label of a “4-A player” — someone who can rake Triple-A pitching … but might never evolve into a consistent hitter in the majors.

The scoop: Johnson (15 HR, 76 RBI, .281 batting with Houston and Arizona last year) likely has the inside track to starting opening day for the Braves, but he’s probably not established enough to clinch anything before April Fools’ Day. Within that rationale, he wouldn’t play his way out of the running by then, either.

Nationals (98-64, NL East)


Is it strange that Gio Gonzalez has suddenly decided to play in the World Baseball Classic?

Yes.

As a late addition to Team USA’s rotation, Gonzalez (21-8, 2.89 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 207 Ks last year) helps his home country by occupying the fourth and final starting slot for WBC prelims.

He also buys a little time to avoid the crush of Washington’s spring training-based media, who’ll surely have questions involving Gio’s alleged association with Biogenesis, an anti-aging clinic that’s the central focus of baseball’s latest performance-enhancing drug scandal.

From a competition standpoint, though, perhaps Gonzalez is looking to swap out the monotony of spring training for the passion and excitement of an international tournament. After all, he had a deflating 5.85 ERA and 1.65 WHIP in 20 spring innings last year.

Cardinals (88-74, NL Central)

Will Shelby Miller and Trevor Rosenthal clinch rotation spots with productive springs?

At this point, it’s hard to say.

Last week, MLB Network prospects guru Jonathan Mayo said that one prominent scout tabbed Rosenthal (3.53 ERA in the minors) as the best right-handed power arm in the minors. Bar none.

Regarding Miller (1.32 ERA in 13.2 MLB innings last season), his sustained breakthrough could be just two months away — especially if the Cardinals don’t re-sign Kyle Lohse, or strike a deal to replace Chris Carpenter (likely to miss the entire year to injury).

Of course, St. Louis execs may not be feeling pressure to assign major roles to both rookies. Jake Westbrook (13-11, 3.97 ERA) and Jaime Garcia (7-7, 3.92) have been respectable placeholders for a pennant-contending club.

Phillies (81-81, NL East)


Who will win the everyday job in left field — Domonic Brown or Darin Ruf?

There are two ways to view Ruf’s progress in the minors: The optimist would celebrate his 32 doubles, 38 homers, 104 RBI and .317 batting average against Double-A pitching last season. They might also note that Ruf is Philly’s lone premium hitting prospect with a career batting average above .300.

The pessimist would point out that most dynamic power hitters are playing in the majors at age 25 … instead of schooling pitchers two, three or four years younger in Double-A ball.

Regarding Brown, he’s been knocking on the door of MLB prominence for some time, often drawing praise as the Phillies’ next great outfielder. But for me, the one enduring image of his career occurred in spring training a few years ago, when Brown fouled off seven or eight pitches from Tigers ace Justin Verlander — before launching a fastball over the right-field fence in Clearwater (Philly’s Florida home).

If Philly hadn’t inked Delmon Young to a contract a few weeks ago, Ruf and Brown would probably be corner outfielders on opening day. But that lone vacancy now goes to the batter with limited minor-league options, contract-wise.

The guess: Brown.

Pirates (79-83, NL Central)


Who will be Pittsburgh’s No. 4 and 5 starters?

The more rewarding questions may ultimately be, Who will be Pittsburgh’s No. 4 and 5 starters on June 1?

It’s hard to find a Pirates fan who isn’t starving for success in 2013, especially after the club squandered a 14-games-above-.500 advantage last July. By extension, it’ll be extremely difficult for team officials to deny big-league promotions to Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon — two of baseball’s best pitching prospects — sometime after Memorial Day.

Pittsburgh’s official depth chart currently lists Jeff Locke and Jeff Karstens as the No. 4 and 5 starters heading into spring training. Locke (10-5, 2.48 ERA at Triple-A last year) has toiled in the minors for seven seasons and Karstens (5-4, 3.97 ERA) has demonstrated some MLB proficiency in recent years.

However, neither hurler can match the physical tools of either Cole (2.80 ERA and 136/45 K-BB last year) or Taillon (Baseball America‘s No. 15 prospect in 2012). Along with outfielders Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte, they’re the cornerstones of a franchise that’s slowly building a long-lasting contender.

Mets (74-88, NL East)

Should the Mets stash star catching prospect Travis d’Arnaud until late May?

On one hand, d’Arnaud (37 homers, 130 RBI, .940 OPS in the minors for 2011/12) has been one of baseball’s most vaunted prospects of the last two years. And with the Mets, he’ll seemingly have a clear path to a starting role very soon (no disrespect to John Buck or Anthony Recker).

But the Mets are also smart enough to know that delaying d’Arnaud’s major-league “clock” until Memorial Day represents good business for the 2018 and ’19 seasons. In essence, why expedite a potential star’s status on a club that’s seemingly a lock for fourth place in the NL East?

Marlins (69-93, NL East)


Does Miami have enough MLB-ready pitching to fill all five rotation slots?

Honestly? No.

After Ricky Nolasco (12-13, 4.49 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 125/47 K-BB), the Marlins have a collection of flawed or unpolished assets competing for the other slots on Miami’s staff, with Jacob Turner, Henderson Alvarez, Nate Eovaldi and Wade LeBlanc likely having inroads to the four positions.

But aside from Alvarez (9-14, 4.85 ERA last year), neither Turner, Eovaldi nor LeBlanc seem ready for 30-plus starts in the majors.

On a weird note, it’ll be interesting to chronicle the successes and failures of Miami and Houston this season — two rebuilding franchises with paltry payrolls under $30 million.

The good news for Marlins fans: Barring injury, the club is slated to enjoy a significant infusion of pitching studs in the next 15 months, starting with Jose Fernandez (14-1, 1.75 ERA, 0.93 WHIP in the minors last year), Justin Nicolino and Andrew Heaney.

Astros (55-107, switching to AL West)


Will Bud Norris get traded before opening day?

The following statements are hardly bold predictions: For their first season in the Junior Circuit, the Astros will undoubtedly finish last in the highly competitive AL West. And frankly, they’ll be lucky to replicate last year’s 55 victories.

This is the fallout of fielding a developmental roster that’s more suited for Triple-A ball than the major leagues, as evidenced by Houston’s $14.6 million payroll for 2013 — an extremely low number that a large handful of MLB veterans could single-handedly surpass.

As part of the ongoing purge, the Astros might also be in the mood to deal Norris (7-13, 4.65 ERA, 165 Ks last season) before his arbitration years fully kick in. They’ll be in full rebuilding mode for the next two seasons, if not longer, and Norris might be the club’s closest thing to a coveted trade commodity.

American League

Yankees (95-67, AL East)

Which Ivan Nova will show up in Tampa — the 2011 whiz or 2012 flame-out?

Of his 28 starts from a year ago, Nova allowed at least five earned runs a staggering nine times. If he pitched for any other team, even the talent-strapped Rockies, Nova (16-4, 3.70 ERA in 2011) would have been sent down to the minors — with little chance of returning before October.

But for New York fans and fantasy geeks, there are a few silver linings: The Yankees generate strong run support for their starters, and Nova fanned at least five hitters 18 times last season. Also, he unexpectedly reduced his walks by one — despite five more innings (than 2011).

Looking for some 2013 clues? Two years ago, Nova had a 1.80 ERA and 0.75 WHIP in 20 spring training innings. In 2012, his Grapefruit numbers ballooned to the following: 8.06 ERA, 1.52 WHIP and an opponents’ batting average of .352 over 22.1 innings.

Tigers (88-74, AL Central)


Will Bruce Rondon lock up Detroit’s closing vacancy by the end of camp?

Spring training doesn’t help rookie closers for one simple reason: It’s impossible to simulate the 9th-inning intensity and pressure of a regular-season tilt in Boston, New York, Anaheim or Texas … when you’re pitching the fourth inning of a Grapefruit or Cactus snoozer in mid-March.

Especially when a slew of inactive players are leisurely jogging in center field during “crunch time.”

Bottom line: Rondon (1.53 ERA, 29 saves in minor league ball last year) might be the Tigers’ next great reliever, but until he gets regular opportunities to shine or fail during the regular season, he’ll be just another promising talent with a live-wire arm.

Blue Jays (73-89, AL East)


Is Toronto the East’s prohibitive favorite, regardless of what happens in March?

For this season at least, it’s fair to condemn the Marlins for engineering a head-scratching blockbuster trade in December, shipping Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle and Emilio Bonfiacio to the Blue Jays for a bevy of down-the-road prospects.

But let’s focus on the Toronto angle. When pairing Reyes, Bonifacio, Johnson and Buehrle with productive assets like R.A. Dickey, Brandon Morrow, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Ricky Romero, Brett Lawrie, Colby Rasmus, Rajai Davis, Adam Lind, Casey Janssen and Melky Cabrera, the Blue Jays have the best combination of depth and talent among the AL East teams.

Which brings us back to the above question. No one should expect the Blue Jays to hit the ground running in spring training, since most veterans need time to ease into the rigors of playing every day. But Toronto certainly has the right mix, on paper, to explode out of the gate — especially with nine of its first 12 games against Cleveland, Boston and Kansas City.

Orioles (93-69, AL East)

Will Dylan Budy be on Baltimore’s opening-day roster?

From a talent standpoint, the 20-year-old Bundy belongs on a major league roster on April 1. From a financial perspective, though, it makes sense for the Orioles to delay the service time of a potential superstar — before Baltimore fans start missing him too much.

Bundy dominated hitters at three minor-league levels last year, going 9-3 with a 2.08 ERA, 0.92 WHIP and 119/28 K-BB ratio. Digging deeper, he didn’t surrender a single earned run in his first 30 pro innings (spanning eight games), while posting a Cliff Lee-esque K-BB ratio of 40/2.

Rays (90-72, AL East)


Is Tampa Bay one big bat away from contending for a title?

Hmmm. Maybe not.

With a rotation that features the reigning American League Cy Young (David Price), two can’t-miss pitchers (Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson), one solid righty (Jeff Niemann) and a steady stream of 25-and-under prospects (Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Alex Cobb, Taylor Guerrieri, Mike Montgomery), the Rays should have a default setting of 78 victories before the offense registers its first homer or steal.

Throw in a stellar bullpen of Jake McGee, Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta and closer Fernando Rodney (0.60 ERA, 48 saves last year) … and Tampa Bay should only require a middle-of-the-pack offense to reach 88 victories. Seriously.

With Ryan Roberts (19 homers/18 steals with Arizona in 2011) at second base, Yunel Escobar at shortstop and uber-prospect Wil Myers on schedule to arrive in the outfield sometime around Memorial Day, that might be enough to boost Tampa Bay to 94-plus wins.

There’s a reason why Myers (along with Odorizzi) was the centerpiece of the James Shields blockbuster trade in the offseason. He could be ready for an Evan Longoria-type breakout as a rookie. (Longo had 27 homers and 85 RBI in 2008.) 

Twins (66-96, AL Central)


Does Vance Worley have the goods to be Minnesota’s ace out of camp?

Uh, yeah.

With Philly last year, Worley sported a 5-4 record and sub-3.00 ERA right up until July 3, despite getting only 41 runs of support from the offense over three months. And in 2011, Worley’s first full campaign in the bigs, he sparkled as Philly’s No. 5 starter: 11-3, 3.01 ERA, 1.23 WHIP and 119/46 K-BB ratio.

When matched up against the Twins’ current lot of starters, I value Worley’s short-term ceiling over that of Kevin Correia, Liam Hendriks, Cole De Vries or Scott Diamond, who’s battling some elbow issues heading into camp.

The biggest threat to Worley’s No. 1 candidacy? Kyle Gibson, a onetime lights-out prospect who has fully recovered from Tommy John surgery (September 2011).