What to watch as spring training hits home stretch


SportsPulse: Now that Bryce Harper and Manny Machado have signed we can finally look ahead to actual baseball. Here are the storylines that will define the MLB in 2019.

Somehow, baseball’s never-ending off-season has just two weeks remaining.

Through the grim and punishing free-agency period – which now never ends – to the overlong ritual of spring training – which does, in fact, have an expiration date – most of the game’s business has been resolved.

But jobs and contracts and even rules remain unresolved, even as the spring carnivals in Florida and Arizona prepare to pack up and head for colder climes.

Some issues are more pressing than others. Here are a few that bear watching – or not – as pitchers stretch out and everyone gets a little stir crazy for real baseball:

Whither Craig Kimbrel?

Not hard to blame Kimbrel – whose ERA and save percentage are superior to Mariano Rivera’s – for shooting a little higher than the record sums Kenley Jansen ($80 million) and Aroldis Chapman ($86 million) received after the 2016 season.

After all, relievers are still somewhat valued in this marketplace – even if closers specifically don’t hold the influence they once did – and Kimbrel’s overall body of work is overwhelming.

Not enough, apparently, to brush aside concerns of a second-half swoon in 2018. So where now?

Well, follow the competition.

It makes far too much sense for Kimbrel to land with one of the big guns in the NL East – be it the big banks in Philly and Washington or the loaded but incomplete (and cost-conscious) Braves.

All could use him. All seem loathe to tip their hand.

Nationals closer Sean Doolittle told the Washington Post he’d gladly vacate the closer role for Kimbrel. The club promptly went out and signed lefty specialist Tony Sipp.

The Braves? Well, the CEO of their parent company spent part of a Monday presentation at an investor conference bemoaning the fact their division rivals – gasp! – are aiming to win.

“We actually have the unfortunate prospects of being in the National League East where there is a lot of capital being spent, a lot of money being spent for players,” Liberty CEO Greg Maffei said, per the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “(It’s) definitely the arms race. I think the Atlanta management knows they have capacity to do more and are looking for the right deal.”

Yet the Braves’ opening-day payroll is estimated at $118 million, same as last year, and $4 million less than their 90-game losers of 2017. Meanwhile, the Nationals payroll will again top $200 million and the Philles are now north of $160 million. For now, the Braves seem impervious to payroll shaming.

As for Philly, maybe it’s time to get stupid again. Tempting Kimbrel with a shorter-term deal with a record annual value for a reliever – like, say two years and $40 million – would keep their long-term books clean and their present-day commitments relatively sane. And create a two-year mini-window after which they could reload, when Jake Arrieta, J.T. Realmuto and David Robertson become free agents.

Dollar deadline

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Opening Day won’t yet be an inning old when reigning Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom and Anthony Rendon face each other in Washington.  

One, both or neither of them could be sitting atop a fortune to last several generations.

The first pitch of the season is often a symbolic or even hard deadline for players to finalize contract extensions with their club. For Rendon, the Washington Nationals’ third baseman, it’s likely the former. He told reporters last month that he’d prefer contract extensions with the club “don’t get more in-depth during the season,” but there’s no line in the sand. Rendon will be paid $18.8 million in his final year before free agency, and while he may not match the eight-year, $260 million commitment Nolan Arenado received from the Colorado Rockies, that pact at least gave Rendon and agent Scott Boras a ceiling with which to work.

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Rendon has indicated a desire to stay and willingness to overrule Boras’ frequent desire to take pending free agents to the market. That should create a mutual motivation: While there doesn’t appear to be widespread heartbreak among Nationals fans following Bryce Harper’s departure, locking up Rendon would solidify both the lineup and the franchise’s long-term outlook.

DeGrom’s case is far different: He’s two years from free agency, his former agent is now his GM, and unlike the Nationals, the Mets’ recent history of massive multiyear commitments does not run deep.

And deGrom’s opening-day deadline for a deal, set last month, appears firm.

“I would like to be seen as a future part of this organization,” deGrom said after his most recent spring-training start. “We have till the end of spring, so yeah, I’m still optimistic.”

The stakes are considerably high for all parties: deGrom, to earn compensation commensurate with his dominance and not sell his market value short. Brodie Van Wagenen, to prove he can deftly shift from agent to GM even when dealing with a former client. And perhaps most notably, the Wilpon family, which despite Van Wagenen’s winter aggression still aren’t keeping up with smaller-market clubs in the payroll department.

Roster ramifications

With Vlad Guerrero Jr. sidelined into next month with an oblique strain and Eloy Jimenez already optioned to the minor leagues, the Mets find themselves at the center of another issue: Service-time suppression.

First baseman Pete Alonso now holds the title of most talented player likely to get shipped to the minors so his team can harvest a seventh year before free agency. Dom Smith has played well this spring, but with infielders Todd Frazier and Jed Lowrie both likely to start the season on the injured list, a case can be made to carry Alonso, too.

He’s hardly played his way to Class AAA Syracuse – Alonso is hitting .371 this spring. It may not matter.

Spring slumps

Worried about your favorite star’s ugly March performance? Fretting that Bryce Harper may not get so much as a hit in his Grapefruit League stint after signing late with the Phillies?

Just. Don’t.

Let’s remind you that J.D. Martinez also signed late, in 2018. And hit exactly zero home runs in 49 spring plate appearances.

He hit 43 in the regular season.

Close out of the GameCast. Try, if you can, to ignore the stats.

The ones that matter will be here soon enough.

Follow Lacques on Twitter: @GabeLacques


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