Spring training begins Tuesday as pitchers and catchers report to their respective camps in the Grapefruit (Florida) and Cactus (Arizona) leagues.
This year fans in Palm Beach County get a double play of spring fun as the number of teams training here jumps from two (Marlins and Cardinals) to four with the addition of the Astros and Nationals at the new Ballpark of the Palm Beaches on Haverhill Road just south of 45th Street.
We take a look at five pressing questions for each team:
The Marlins were in the race for the second wild-card spot for much of last season before injuries (including a groin injury that derailed another season for right fielder Giancarlo Stanton) and inconsistency did them in. Then came the stunning news that ace pitcher and fan favorite Jose Fernandez had been killed in an early-morning boating accident on September 25.
Last week brought the news that owner Jeffrey Loria has a deal in place (but not finalized) to sell the team to a group that includes the father-in-law of Ivanka Trump.
Who will fill Jose Fernandez’s spot as the ace of the staff?
The short answer is no one. There is not a pitcher in the organization who can match Fernandez’s mix of talent and charisma, but in returnees Wei-Yin Chen, Adam Conley and Tom Koehler at least the club has three reliable veterans who, baring injury, they can hand the ball to three out of every five games. Free-agent signees Edison Volquez and Jeff Locke will eat up innings. Beyond that, the lose of Fernandez leaves a hole that won’t be filled for a long time, physically or psychologically.
What type of season can be expected from Giancarlo Stanton?
Since joining the Marlins in 2010, the oft-injured slugger has missed an average of 44 games (about a month and a half) per season. Last year he played 119 games, one above his average. When healthy, Stanton’s tape-measure home runs make even the Marlins ESPN-buzzworthy. In 2016 Stanton went through a slump in May and June where he was on of the worst hitters in baseball, but he did finish with 27 home runs. But with Stanton there is always the question of when will he be sidelined again. So, expect about 30 home runs, some of them out-of-this-world bombs, a lot of strikeouts and just enjoy it while it lasts.
Will changing hitting coaches make a difference?
The Marlins’ one-year experiment with Barry Bonds is over after finishing fourth in the league in team batting average (.263) but 27th in runs scored (655). Team executives and manager Don Mattingly believe Mike Pagliarulo will bring a more detailed plan to helping hitters prepare and, perhaps more importantly, adjust during games. The club is also increasing its use of analytics and video, something Pagliarulo — who has never been a major league hitting coach — has extensive knowledge of after running his own international scouting company for a decade and working as a scout for the Angels.
Which player from the Marlins’ thin farm system might fans see at Marlins Park this season?
Last year the Miami Herald reported that a source with the Marlins said hard-throwing right-hander Luis Castillo could one day win 20 games in the majors. The converted reliever went 8-6 combined in Class A Jupiter and Class AA Jacksonville with a 2.26 ERA.
Will Jeffrey Loria really sell the franchise?
Boy, do Marlins fans hope so. Fans of the Washington Redskins and New York Knicks will fight us on this one, but Loria may well be the most hated owner in sports. The day he officially gives up control of the franchise will be a happy one in South Florida.
One season, they were one game away from beating the eventual World Series champs in the ALDS. The next they were third in their own division and out of the playoffs entirely.
In 2015, manager A.J. Hinch led the Houston Astros — a team of young and exciting no-names — to a wild-card berth.
Yet, despite just a two-game regression record-wise, 2016 was a different story.
So what will 2017 bring as the Astros invade West Palm Beach?
Will the real Dallas Keuchel please stand up?
Two years ago, the long-bearded lefty won the Cy Young, going 20-8 with a 2.48 ERA. Last season, he struggled to a 9-12 mark as the pitching staff backslid toward mediocrity. If the now-29-year-old can get anywhere near his 2015 stuff, it will go a long way toward getting Houston back into postseason contention.
Can they score runs?
Despite a glut of youth and pop at the top of the lineup — batting champ Jose Altuve, shortstop Carlos Correa and right fielder George Springer are all 27 or under — the Astros offense was middle of the pack in most categories last season. Bringing in veterans Brian McCann, Josh Reddick and Carlos Beltran should add power and depth.
Whither the back end of the rotation?
After Keuchel and Collin McHugh (32-17 over the last two years), questions persist: can 23-year-old fireballer Lance McCullers stay healthy? Aside from veteran Mike Fiers, who can they rely on as an innings-eater among Joseph Musgrove, Charlie Morton, Michael Feliz and Chris Devenski?
What will they get out of first base?
Usually a run-producing position, the Astros didn’t get a whole lot of offensive oomph from their first basemen in 2016. And with Luis Valbuena out of the picture, that job likely will fall to some combination of Marwin Gonzalez and Cuban Yulieski Gurriel.
Will the youth movement continue?
More than a dozen Astros made their MLB debuts in 2016. Some were excellent (Devenski), while some were less so (Tyler White and A.J. Reed). But Hinch has the challenge of building continuity and winning games while still hoping these rooks can contribute and live up to their potential.
The Cardinals sat out the 2016 postseason after they were eliminated from playoff contention on the last day of the regular season.
St. Louis finished 86-76 and 17 1/2 games behind the Chicago Cubs in the National League Central. While the Cubs went on to win the World Series, the Cardinals failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
What has the club done to close the gap with the Cubs? Club executives decided against a major shakeup despite a second-place finish in the NL Central. General manager John Mozeliak focused on pitching and defense in the offseason, while also adding athleticism. New additions include center fielder Dexter Fowler and left-handed pitcher Brett Cecil.
What is expected of rookie pitcher Alex Reyes? The right-hander is considered the organization’s top prospect, and demonstrated his potential at the end of the 2016 season. Reyes went 4-1 with a 1.57 ERA in 12 appearances, and ended the season as a member of the starting rotation. He’ll come into spring training with the opportunity to keep a starting job.
Could pitchers Adam Wainwright and Trevor Rosenthal have bounce-back seasons? Wainwright struggled in 2016 after returning from an Achilles injury. He went 13-9, and posted the highest ERA (4.62) of his career. Still, he is expected to play a key role in the rotation. Rosenthal, who dealt with arm injuries last season, lost his job as the team’s closer. He’ll have a role in 2016, though it has yet to be defined.
Have defensive deficiencies been addressed? The club worked to address defensive holes during the winter, including bringing in Fowler to fortify the outfield. The club also expects to play Kolten Wong regularly at second base, and hopes that 26-year-old shortstop Aledmys Diaz will improve with more experience.
What will the rotation look like? Projected starters are: 1. Adam Wainwright; 2. Carlos Martinez; 3. Lance Lynn; 4. Michael Wacha; 5. Alex Reyes. All are right-handers.
Washington will once again enter the season as a favorite to make the postseason and challenge the Cubs for the National League crown. But is time running out on the Nationals to live up to their reputation of a title-worthy club? The top of the rotation is another year older, some key veterans are on the back-end of their careers and Bryce Harper becomes a free agent after next season.
Will Bryce Harper rebound from his post-MVP slump?
Despite a down season last year, Harper remains one of the most exciting young players in baseball. The 2015 National League Most Valuable Player is still only 24 years old and has already hit 121 home runs in 657 Major League games. And his hair is always perfect.
Can Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg keep striking out so many batters?
There will be no shortage of punchouts at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches this season. Last year’s Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer leads the way after striking out 284 batters last year. Behind him is two-time All Star Stephen Strasburg, who missed time due to injury but still struck out 183 batters in 147 2/3 innings last year.
Can local star Trea Turner be just as impressive in his sophomore season?
Turner, expected to play primarily center field this season, returns home this spring. The Park Vista alumnus and 2016 National League Rookie of the Year runner-up had a stellar first season in the majors, hitting .342 with 13 homers. But where he excelled most was on the basepaths. One of the fastest players in the league, he stole 33 bases last year while getting caught six times.
Will Adam Eaton make as big of an impact as the Nationals hope?
The Nationals made a splash during the offseason, trading top pitching prospect Lucas Giolito to the White Sox for Eaton. Eaton finished his final season with the White Sox by hitting .284 with 14 home runs and 14 steals while playing stellar outfield defense.
Who will win the first Palm Beach County Presidents Race?
Several teams around the league have some version of mascot races. In Washington, they race presidents. Larger-than-life versions of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft run around the field. Lincoln is the current leader with 253 victories.