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    After an icy winter defined by a frigid free-agent market, spring training is nigh.

    Pitchers and catchers officially report to Florida and Arizona on Tuesday. Bats will crack, gloves will pop, grass will be freshly cut. 

    The 2018 exhibition season also features ample uncertainty. There are position battles, which we’ll discuss along with the usual injury and comeback narratives. More significantly, multiple top-shelf players are unemployed in mid-February. 

    As baseball returns at last, the following 15 questions will heat up the Cactus and Grapefruit League slates. 

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Baseball games are too long, according to MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred. To combat that, MLB proposed placing a runner on second base in the 10th inning of any extra-inning spring training game and capping spring games at 10 frames, according to Robert Blum of the Associated Press.

    For exhibition games, it makes sense. Spring training is about players getting their swings and release points in order and limbering up for the 162-game grind.

    But this proposalalong with other notions such as a pitch clock and limited mound visitsappears to be the latest salvo in MLB’s efforts to speed up the sport. 

    For now, Manfred is testing the waters in contests that don’t count. Whether it’s met with acceptance or opposition is another matter.  

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    The Cleveland Indians won 102 games in 2017, one season after they marched to Game 7 of the World Series. 

    During the offseason, however, they lost both first baseman Carlos Santana and outfielder Jay Bruce and added first baseman Yonder Alonso. That’s a push at best and a net loss at worst.

    The Indians have enough pitching to remain relevant, but they could use a boost on offense. Enter Michael Brantley.

    A two-time All-Star and top-three American League MVP finisher in 2014, Brantley underwent ankle surgery in October, the latest in a rash of injuries and procedures that have prevented him from staying on the field.

    At the age of 30, Brantley is far from over the hill. If he again succumbs to the disabled list, though, he’ll leave Cleveland’s outfield in a state of flux and lower the Tribe’s standing in the Junior Circuit hierarchy.

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    Michael Kopech can throw baseballs in excess of 100 mph. He posted a 2.88 ERA while striking out 11.5 batters per nine innings between Double-A and Triple-A last season.

    Despite that, he’ll likely begin the 2018 season in the minor leagues for the rebuilding Chicago White Sox because of baseball’s service-time rules.

    “For any team, whatever makes the most sense from a business standpoint and financially, that’s what they’re going to do,” Kopech said, per Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune

    However, Kopech could force the issue with an exemplary spring. His stuff speaks for itself, and he’s carved out a media niche as a supporting character in the Bravo reality series Don’t Be Tardy, which features his girlfriend, Brielle Biermann.

    “When I think of being on TV, I think of being on the mound,” Kopech said, per Sullivan.

    Soon, he should be doing both on the biggest stage. 

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Tim Lincecum hasn’t posted a sub-4.00 ERA since 2011. He hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2016, when he posted a 9.16 ERA in 38.1 ill-fated innings with the Los Angeles Angels.

    So, why should anyone care that the 33-year-old plans to have a showcase for MLB suitors on Feb. 15?

    For one, Lincecum is an eternally fascinating character. In addition, he’s been working out at Driveline Mechanics, a sports facility that specializes in helping pitchers add/regain velocity. In December, Driveline’s Kyle Boddy tweeted a picture of Lincecum looking ripped and ready.

    This could be pure smoke and mirrors. The list of hurlers who’ve returned from prolonged mediocrity and a full-season sabbatical and enjoyed success in their mid-30s is short.

    That said, the fact that Lincecum and Driveline are holding this showcase now says a lot, as Grant Brisbee of McCovey Chronicles pointed out: “They wouldn’t watch him throw 85 mph fastball after 85 mph fastball and say, eh, guess we have no choice but to have a showcase. There’s strategy with this timing, and it has me very, very intrigued.”

    We concur.

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    The Los Angeles Dodgers have a surplus of options in the outfield and a shortage of answers.

    Center fielder Chris Taylor broke out last season, but the 27-year-old has to prove it wasn’t a fluke. Joc Pederson boasts eye-opening power, yet he hit .212 with 11 homers in 2017. Right fielder Yasiel Puig hasn’t created enough separation from his distracting antics to be viewed as a safe bet.

    After that, it’s a mix of untested youngsters (Trayce Thompson, Alex Verdugo), journeymen (Kike Hernandez, Andrew Toles) and flickering former stars (Matt Kemp).

    A strong combination could emerge for the defending NL champs, or they could be forced to seek reinforcements. 

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    The New York Mets’ once-vaunted starting rotation crumbled into a smoldering pile of injuries and underperformance in 2017. If it could go wrong, it did.

    In 2018, the Mets are pinning their hopes on a return to health and effectiveness from flame-throwing Norse god Noah Syndergaard, lefty Steven Matz, righty Zack Wheeler and enigmatic former Dark Knight Matt Harvey.

    “Definitely, everybody’s excited,” staff ace Jacob deGrom, one of the few bright spots in the Mets rotation last season, said Friday, per Peter Botte of the New York Daily News. “We’re all here early and that just shows the commitment of what these guys are working for.”

    Optimism is everywhere and best-shape-of-his-life stories abound in spring. Given their patchy pitcher-health track record, the Mets and new manager Mickey Callaway will have to prove it through the Grapefruit League and beyond.  

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Heading into the winter, the Kansas City Royals appeared destined for a rebuild. Instead, they’ve mostly treaded water, watching center fielder Lorenzo Cain sign with the Milwaukee Brewers and re-upping shortstop Alcides Escobar.

    Now, it appears Kansas City could be in on first baseman Eric Hosmer and third baseman Mike Moustakas, two other members of the team’s 2015 championship core who remain on the market.

    “Eric Hosmer is an All-Star, a Gold Glove winner, Silver Slugger winner, World Champion, and we all recognize that,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said, per Mick Shaffer of KSHB.com. “Moose is a terrific player as well, and we’re not going to close the door on that.”

    Handing untold millions to Hosmer and/or Moustakas rather than trying to free up payroll and look to the future would be a roll of the dice for K.C. Hosmer, in particular, is seeking a deal in excess of seven years, per MLB Network’s Jon Morosi.

    That said, the American League Central is relatively weak, and bringing back a pair of fan favorites would play well with the Kansas City base. 

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Speaking of best-shape-of-his-life narratives, a pair of future Hall of Famers will try to make late-career bounce-backs in 2018.

    Albert Pujols could cede playing time to two-way Japanese star Shohei Ohtani (more on him shortly) unless Pujols can capably man first base. The Angels want to get Ohtani at-bats as the designated hitter when he’s not on the mound.

    “He’s looking a lot lighter,” Angels GM Billy Eppler said of Pujols, per Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times. “I saw him moving around, taking ground balls, hitting as well. He looks really good.”

    No one expects the 38-year-old to morph back into an MVP contender, but the Halos undoubtedly hope he can improve upon last year’s dismal .241/.286/.386 slash line. They owe him $114 million through 2021, after all.

    Elsewhere, 34-year-old Detroit Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera is trying to rebound after posting career lows in average (.249) and OPS (.728).

    Slow-motion workout videos (via Cabrera’s Twitter feed) don’t equal results on the field, but given his talent and track record, Cabrera perhaps could regain his form for the rebuilding Tigers and become an enticing trade chip.

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    Tim Warner/Getty Images

    The defending champion Houston Astros are loaded across the lineup. They added right-hander Gerrit Cole this winter in a trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates, bolstering an already stout starting rotation. 

    Other than left-handed relief depth, they have few if any weaknesses. 

    However, only two teams have managed to repeat as World Series winners since 1979the Toronto Blue Jays (1992-1993) and the New York Yankees (1998-2000). 

    Repeating takes a rare combination of ability, focus and luck. The Astros are equipped for the task, but it will be instructive to monitor their mindset this spring and see how that translates into a season in which they’ll go from upstarts to alpha dogs. 

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    The New York Yankees outfield presents a good problem, but it’s a problem nonetheless.

    New York acquired Giancarlo Stanton, the reigning NL MVP. They can rotate Stanton and his slugging doppelganger, Aaron Judge, between DH and right field.

    That leaves two outfield spots open. Aaron Hicks figures to assume regular center field duties, which means veterans Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury will fight for playing time in left field. And we haven’t even mentioned touted youngster Clint Frazier.

    Trades and injuries can simplify the picture, but for now, New York has serious sorting to do between the commencement of spring training and Opening Day.

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    The Bryce Harper free-agent aircraft has officially hit the runway. 

    Barring a hugely unexpected contract extension with the Washington Nationals between now and the end of the 2018 season, Harper will hit the open market next winter and land a ludicrous payday.

    A contract year should give Harper plenty of motivation in and of itself. But if this is his final go-round with the Nats, it’s also his last chance to get the only MLB franchise he’s ever known past the division series and deep into October.

    While the 2015 NL MVP is undoubtedly gazing ahead to the untold riches that await him, a brash competitor like Harper will want his D.C. swan song to end in champagne and confetti.

    Stay tuned.

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The Boston Red Sox need power after finishing last in the Junior Circuit in home runs.

    J.D. Martinez needs a job.

    It should be a match made in dinger-crushing heaven, and it still could be. Martinez and the Red Sox have been linked all winter. That said, Martinez recently indicated he’s “fed up” with the Boston stalemate, per Ken Rosenthal of MLB Network. 

    Another club such as the Arizona Diamondbacks, Martinez’s last employer, could swoop in. ESPN.com’s David Schoenfield speculated the Yankees might get involved, though that seems unlikely given New York’s crowded outfield/DH mix and desire to stay under the luxury tax.

    Ultimately, Boston is likely to blink first and hand Martinez an offer he deems acceptable. But this high-stakes saga could stretch well into spring. 

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    The Chicago Cubs made a bold move when they inked right-hander Yu Darvish to a six-year, $126 million pact, per Rosenthal. Now, we wait to see if the bold move pays off.

    Darvish is a four-time All-Star who has averaged 11 strikeouts per nine innings over the course of his big league career. He missed the 2015 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, but the 31-year-old’s average fastball velocity ticked upward last season (94.7 mph) compared to his career average (94 mph).

    At the same time, Darvish left a sour impression at the end of 2017 with a pair of disastrous outings in the World Series for the Dodgers, including an ugly Game 7 loss.

    Maybe it was the result of pitch tipping. Perhaps it was an anomalous blip. The Cubs must be banking on the latter.

    Darvish won’t erase concerns with a great spring, nor will he confirm them with a lousy one. But it sure would be nice for Chicago if he came out slinging in the Cactus League.

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Speaking of free-agent aces, Jake Arrieta has yet to find a home. The Darvish signing would seem to slam the door on a reunion with the Cubs. He still has multiple other possible landing spots, but at the moment, the 2015 NL Cy Young Award winner is dangling in limbo.

    MLB.com’s Jim Duquette name-dropped the Philadelphia Phillies as a possible suitor. The Brewers could use a top-of-the-rotation arm after aggressively revamping their outfield. The Texas Rangers need more pitching, and Arrieta attended high school in the Lone Star State.

    Darvish’s deal ought to clarify the market for Arrieta, who is also 31 and is a plausible ace. That said, the right-hander has seen his ERA climb and velocity diminish from his Cy Young peak, so a pact in excess of five years may be unrealistic. 

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    Masterpress/Getty Images

    After all of the speculation and build-up, we’re about to watch Shohei Ohtani face MLB competition. Get your popcorn ready.

    Will the “Japanese Babe Ruth” live up to the hype? Can he excel as both an ace and a slugger? We won’t get definitive answers in spring training. Plenty of eye-popping exhibition showings have wilted under the glare of the 162-game grind, and many awful springs have preceded gaudy regular-season stats.

    Make no mistake, however: The eyes of two nations will be on Ohtani as he takes his hacks and tosses his pitches in Tempe.  

    “We’re talking about a 23-year-old who has to adjust to the culture, to Major League Baseball, and to his teammates,” Angels vice president of communications Tim Mead said, per Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times

    We’re also talking about the most anticipated ballplayer to make the jump across the Pacific since Ichiro. 

            

    All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Reference. 



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