Marcus SemienJoe Camporeale/USA TODAY SportsThe A's Marcus Semien has handled both the bat and glove well during the spring.
MESA, Ariz. -- If general managers had their way, this is the week in which players would be bubble-wrapped, carefully tied down among packing noodles in moving vans and driven slowly to the site of the season opener. This is the knock-on-wood home stretch of spring training, the somewhat needless days of the exhibition season when GMs are in constant search of some lucky surface to bang their knuckles on as they consider the relative health of their teams. It has not worked out that way for the Red Sox, who are in the ominous process of gathering information on the elbow of catcher Christian Vazquez. The Rangers lost Yu Darvish for the season earlier in the spring, and that’s an absence hard to mitigate. Some teams have developed more holes than answers this spring. But for the following five clubs, this has been a spring training in which answers have been found. So far, anyway. Knock on wood. 1. Oakland Athletics Rival evaluators have walked away from this spring impressed by Oakland’s depth, which was restored with another round of reconstruction by general manager Billy Beane (who turned 53 Sunday).
Javier BaezMark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsJavier Baez has drawn rave reviews this spring, particularly from new manager Joe Maddon.
MESA, Ariz. -- The Cubs’ Javier Baez lurched away from second base here the other day in taking a wide lead in the first inning of an exhibition against the Angels, and the instant the grounder was hit toward the shortstop hole, Baez broke for third base. A mistake, according to conventional wisdom, because there was nobody out. Angels shortstop Erick Aybar gloved the ball and flipped the ball toward third baseman Taylor Featherston, who quick-tagged Baez as he slid into third base. The umpire called Baez out from his position in foul territory, but when he saw the ball had trickled onto the ground, the call was changed. Baez would’ve been out if Featherston hadn’t dropped the ball. But here’s the thing: Replay showed that Baez beat the throw and should’ve been called safe even if Featherston hadn’t dropped the ball. In this case, Baez’s baserunning instincts -- which new manager Joe Maddon had raved about in conversation a couple of weeks ago -- had paid off, creating an opportunity that few other players could generate, and moments later, Baez slid across the plate with the Cubs’ first run of the game. Baez’s rate of strikeouts as a hitter is what draws the most notice, because it is historic. He went to the plate 229 times in 52 games last year and whiffed in 95 at-bats, hitting .169. The 22-year-old second baseman has 16 strikeouts in 44 at-bats this spring, with three walks. But there is so much else about Baez that Maddon has fallen in love with, which is why he’s still in big league camp, still competing for the second-base job, still talked about as a player with a high ceiling.

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Taijuan WalkerJoe Camporeale/USA TODAY SportsThe Mariners' Taijuan Walker, just 22 years old, has fired 18 scoreless innings this spring.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Managers, coaches, scouts and general managers like watching a catcher who can throw missiles to second base. They enjoy seeing a young power hitter go through a good round of batting practice, clubbing the ball over distant fences, especially to the opposite field. They'll always say nice things about a middle infielder with great hands. But nothing draws a crowd of evaluators like a young pitcher who throws the stitches off a baseball, whizzing fastballs and/or spinning breaking balls. It's not only about the pitcher's glove-popping ability, about watching how helpless the hitter looks, but also about what that talent could mean. As Madison Bumgarner so clearly demonstrated last October, one great young pitcher can change everything about a team, about what's possible. This is why three dynamic young starters probably generated a lot of conversation Wednesday among the evaluators who were lucky enough to see them in person, with word quickly rippling through the industry. lastnameFirst, there's Taijuan Walker of the Seattle Mariners, who still has not allowed a run in spring training.

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More 2015 breakthrough candidates 

March, 24, 2015
Mar 24
Matt Harvey and Eddie RosarioGetty ImagesMatt Harvey and Eddie Rosario are two players who have impressed their teams this spring.
Following Monday's chapter of under-the-radar stories, here's another round: New York Mets Matt Harvey is a star worthy of a Chris Smith piece in New York magazine, so maybe he's not really under the radar. But an evaluator walked away from Harvey's performance Sunday thinking that right now, even before Harvey makes his regular-season return from Tommy John surgery, he is already among the best pitchers in baseball based on the repertoire he has displayed this spring. Somehow, in talking about how great Harvey was before he got hurt, we seemed to have missed just how great he is right now. "That's as good as you can be," the evaluator said. "You can't throw better than he is throwing. That's Hall of Fame stuff." We have learned through experience to reflexively lower our expectations when a pitcher is coming back from reconstructive elbow surgery because there is usually a transition period as the player recovers his refined skills. There typically are struggles as the pitcher relearns the art of throwing strikes. But in Harvey's case, it appears he has already recovered what he was in 2013.

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Under-the-radar spring breakthroughs 

March, 23, 2015
Mar 23
Chris DavisPerna/Baltimore/Getty ImagesAfter hitting .196 in 2014, Chris Davis is back with his old hitting coach and looks improved.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Alex Rodriguez got a lot of the attention early in spring training, and Kris Bryant is dominating the headlines now. But camps are filled with stories of players emerging, evolving, surprising. Here are some of the under-the-radar developments for a number of other teams

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A.J. BurnettAP Photo/Kathy WillensOne thing MLB can do to improve the pace of the play is cut back on the catcher trips to the mound.
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- A couple of interesting side notes heard while making the rounds in camps this spring: 1. As Major League Baseball searches for ways to speed up the pace of play, a technological implementation could create a way for the sport to seamlessly bypass the laborious process of exchanging signs. This currently can be an issue when a runner reaches second base, especially in the later innings. The pitcher looks to the catcher, who makes a hand gesture to indicate what sequence of signs he'll refer to. The pitcher then steps off and glances back at the runner, who is trying to discern what the pitch will be so he can relay that information to the batter. The catcher then strolls out to the mound so he can verbally convey -- talking with his glove over his mouth -- the signs to the pitcher, as well as the shortstop and/or second baseman, who also want to know what's happening. After the plate umpire walks out to tell the pitcher and everybody else to hurry up, and after the catcher returns to his position, he'll squat down and glance toward the dugout, where his manager will flash a series of signs that the catcher will then relay to the infielders before giving more signs to the pitcher. And if there's any confusion, the catcher will visit the mound again. A rival evaluator estimated that Jose Molina, the former Rays catcher, would average about 11 visits to the mound during the course of a game. This assessment was not meant as a criticism of Molina; rather, it's an example of how detailed catchers, pitchers and managers have become about signs, sometimes slowing games dramatically.

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Andrew McCutchen and Felix Hernandez Getty ImagesIs this the year for the Pittsburgh Pirates or Seattle Mariners?
An evaluator expertly defined the folly of preseason predictions the other day without really meaning to, as he reminisced about how the 2014 season played out. "If somebody told you last March," he posited, "that the [San Francisco] Giants would finish the season with Travis Ishikawa in left field, Gregor Blanco in center field, Joe Panik at second base and with Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum out of the mix for any meaningful roles, what would you have said?"

You probably would have assumed that the Giants finished fourth or fifth in the NL West, at the end of a disastrous season. You probably would have assumed that Bruce Bochy and his players would spend October lounging on their couches or fishing piers, or, in the case of Hunter Pence, weighing a climb of Mount Everest as he rolled on a scooter. There's no way you would've envisioned that Madison Bumgarner would hog-tie the playoffs and World Series and throw more than twice as many innings than any other pitcher in the postseason.

This is a roundabout way of arguing, again, that March forecasts are pretty useless, as the circumstances that shape any predictions now are bound to change within 24 hours or so, much like the weather.

The guesses of reporters about how the season will play out are probably significantly less reliable than the Farmer's Almanac forecasts for the year ahead, because the Almanac editors only have to choose from a small range of variables: sunshine, clouds, rain, snow, sleet. Baseball reporters, on the other hand, have to choose among 30 teams.

But boy, predictions are fun.

Here is who I believe will win the World Series, along with divisional and wild-card predictions:

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Kris BryantAP Photo/Rick ScuteriKris Bryant has been caught in the middle of a debate between his agent and Cubs management.
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Kris Bryant has a reputation for heightened maturity, and perhaps the best sign of it came Wednesday, when he was asked to respond to the comments made by Scott Boras, his agent. Because it appears the Cubs will leave Bryant in the minor leagues to start the season and thereby back up Bryant's free agency by one full year, from 2020 to 2021, Boras essentially accused the team's ownership of not caring about winning. This is an interesting interpretation of a franchise that just hired one of the baseball's most expensive managers and committed $155 million to lure an ace in Jon Lester, and should be translated as strategic rhetoric, just like the Cubs' assertion that Bryant could use some more time in the minors. Like Republicans and Democrats bickering philosophically over the budget, there is a lot of posturing in play in Boras v. Cubs ownership, which will be confirmed the next time Boras represents a major free agent and calls the Cubs to weigh their interest. But when reporters approached Bryant on Thursday, he did not play dumb, and he did not hide behind Boras. From Jesse Rogers' piece:
"Scott works for me," Bryant said Wednesday morning. "He does a great job. It's nice to have a bulldog working for you rather than a poodle. He definitely sticks up for his players and wants the best for them."
And later in the piece:
Bryant says he's trying to limit the distractions and there's nothing he wants to do more than "bring a World Series to Chicago" but the issue of him making the team keeps coming up. With Boras' involvement, it's become a national story. Bryant doesn't seem to mind. "He's the best that's ever been in this game," Bryant stated. "He's kind of polarizing. Some guys don't like him but as a player you have to love him. He's there fighting for you every day. He wants the best for you. It's not just for him. He's a great family man. I can call him at any time of the night and ask a question. He's there to answer it. That's the type of guy you want on your side."
Bryant took ownership, rightly, because he controls the conversation.

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Bruce BochyBrad Mills/USA TODAY SportsSpring games don't count, but Bruce Bochy's Giants have just four wins in 17 exhibition games.
TAMPA -- This is the time in spring training when you start evaluating results, Toronto Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos mentioned here Tuesday evening while perched on the visitors bench as some of the Blue Jays passed through the dugout before an exhibition game against the Yankees. Rosters have been pared down to a manageable level, regulars are starting to play daily and are getting at least three plate appearances, and for those who are trying to win a last spot on a roster, a terrible outing could be decisive as staffers look for reasons to separate candidates. These exhibitions don't actually count, but now they sort of do, as barometers of play, and it's notable that the first manager to really set off alarms about his team's spring performance is neither the Washington Nationals' Matt Williams, whose team is viewed as a candidate to run away from the field in the NL East, nor the Philadelphia Phillies' Ryne Sandberg, who runs his team amid low expectations. Even before the Giants have received championship rings for the third time in five seasons, San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy expressed some concern about his team's play, as John Shea writes. Said Bochy: "We're not even close to being ready." Here's more from Shea's piece:
The defending champs are 4-12-1 in the Cactus League with two wins in their past 13 games. Their ERA is 6.00, highest in the majors. Their .235 batting average and 18 errors rank near the bottom of the baseball pack. "It's that time where we all better start playing a little better," Bochy said. "I know it's spring training, but this is as tough a stretch as I've seen even in the spring. All facets of the game, we're not doing anything very well right now. Pitching, swinging the bats, defense. "So hopefully this day off will give them a chance to wash off these first couple of weeks, and they can come back and start picking it up in all areas." The Giants are off Wednesday. "We're just not swinging the bats with authority at all. We're not hitting any balls on the barrel," Bochy said. "It's really time of possession. These long innings really drain the guys on defense. You're not throwing strikes, it gets sloppy."
The Dodgers won 94 games last season, and while questions hover over the quality of their bullpen, the general perception is that they will be much better defensively, with more depth. The Padres also have improved thanks to a massive roster makeover, although to what degree remains to be seen. Maybe Bochy's words will serve as the first warning to his players of the long road ahead, that the accomplishments of 2014 are over.

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Clay Buchholz and  Justin MastersonGetty ImagesBoston pitchers Clay Buchholz and Justin Masterson haven't exactly quieted the doubters this spring.
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- These are the dog days of spring training, when Opening Day is about three weeks away and the position players are mostly ready to go but now must wait on the starting pitchers to build enough stamina. The bus rides are starting to wear on everyone in this time of March, and some players are dealing with the malady commonly known as the dead-arm phase. Orioles manager Buck Showalter sat in the visiting manager's office at the Phillies' complex here and remarked about how much more time all teams have to put into spring training. The spring marathon is only half over. It's too soon to take anything at face value, because there is still time for improvement, still time for adjustments and quite frankly, at this stage of spring training, there is the growing need for the adrenaline that accompanies games that count. But rival evaluators who serve in various roles are beginning to plant some red flags over the Red Sox rotation, wondering if there is going to be enough. At the very least, they are asking about the depth behind the Boston rotation -- which could be needed, and has a chance to be pretty good. Scouts talked about seeing Clay Buchholz throw 87-89 mph in his most recent start; what they did not see was that he was more in the 90-93 mph range in his previous starts. Justin Masterson struggled to keep the ball down in his start against the Phillies on Sunday, and when Wade Miley followed him to the mound, he had trouble too; rival evaluators noted a lack of command and were surprised by how flat his stuff seemed. Then, on Monday, Joe Kelly walked off the mound with an injury, as Gordon Edes reports. What does it all mean? Maybe nothing, at this stage of spring. Or maybe something. The rotation equation figures to be fragile for the Red Sox because they don't have a top-of-the-rotation horse or two; in some ways, the Boston rotation will be like one of those eight-man crews that row boats up and down the Charles: It might be only as good as its weakest man. The Boston rotation can work, but it'll be important for all of the parts to be functional.

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A modern custom that needs to change 

March, 15, 2015
Mar 15
Scott KazmirAP Photo/LM OteroAre his teammates congratulating Scott Kazmir because he pitched well? We can't tell anymore.
Baseball has a problem, and it needs to be fixed. Like, today.

An edict from new commissioner Rob Manfred would be perfect, but probably too much to ask for. A collective effort from managers such as Terry Francona would be nice, but holding out hope for that is unrealistic. Maybe the best chance would be for players to start self-policing.

This is not about pace-of-play rules, or shattered maple bats, and OK, I'll admit it, this is really not that big of a deal. But for someone who watches thousands of games a year, this is an issue that sticks out to me like a pimple on the forehead of the game. Every time I see this happen, I feel like a neat freak staring at a crumpled napkin in the middle of the kitchen floor. An unwritten rule has apparently taken over the sanity of everyone in dugouts across America.

Can we please stop with the high-fiving and handshakes for the pitcher who gets removed from the game after getting lit up?

I saw it again the other day at a Cubs-Angels game. Sean Newcomb is a fine, young left-handed pitcher, 21 years old and the pride of the University of Hartford, and I'm sure he has a fine career ahead of him, with his easy delivery and good velocity.

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Can Garrett Richards keep it up? 

March, 14, 2015
Mar 14
Garrett RichardsRich Gagnon/Getty ImagesGarrett Richards has faced a long road back from a gruesome knee injury last season.

MESA, Ariz. -- A calm had taken root within Garrett Richards by the time he got back to his Boston hotel room on Aug. 20, after he collapsed near first base in Fenway Park, his left knee wrecked. He had been told in the trainer's room what he already knew while lying on the field, and the shock of it all began wearing off.

"I had kind of gotten over the fact that my knee had just exploded, I was probably going to have surgery and the season was over," Richards recalled, "and I was going to spend my entire offseason getting better."

A quorum of teammates stopped by his hotel room that night, and Richards -- who been among the most dominant pitchers of 2014 before his freak injury -- heard the first of the waves of advice he has received in the days that have followed. Jason Grilli, a reliever pushing 40 years old, had hurt his knee in a similar manner, and through the emotion he felt about his friend's trauma, he mapped out the road ahead for Richards. "You're going to go through some ups and downs," Grilli told Richards. "You're going to have to work. You will get back on the field. You've just got to go through it. You've just got to battle through it."

Angels manager Mike Scioscia visited Richards' hotel room, as well, focusing on the future in what he said to Richards, that he would recover and come back. "I don't know if he heard exactly every word, but he heard the theme. He knew how much he meant to us. A lot of players went up to see him that night to let him know that what happened was awful, and that we just go on."

Richards said, "It helped me kind of get through the night. A lot of guys came through [the room]. You don't really know how much your teammates love you and appreciate you until you go through something like that. It made me feel like I have a great group of guys around me."

Richards had absorbed counsel before.

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Kris BryantGregg Forwerck/Getty ImagesKris Bryant could make a three-week wait for his services feel like an eon in Wrigleyville.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Some thoughts that emerged while watching part of Will Ferrell’s traveling baseball show here Thursday:

1. In the inning that Ferrell replaced Mike Trout as the Angels’ center fielder, Cubs superstar prospect Kris Bryant hit a home run off Matt Lindstrom -- but this was not merely a home run. This was a ridiculous shot that seemed to invade Earth’s magnetic field briefly before (perhaps) burning up on its way back down. It was the first of two home runs from Bryant, who hit 43 homers among 78 extra-base hits in 138 games in the minor leagues last season.

He is destined to be the Cubs’ version of Giancarlo Stanton, which is why the team’s fans are already clamoring for the baseball operations department to forgo the strategic manipulation of service time and make sure he is in the Opening Day lineup.

None of the Cubs officials can really discuss this out loud, but here’s what the team’s choice comes down to: Would they trade

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Alex Cobb and Tyson RossAP ImagesAlex Cobb and Tyson Ross could likely be dealt for a king's ransom if their teams chose to trade them.
PHOENIX -- Starting pitchers keep going down like a kindergarten class passing around a flu bug, with injuries driving White Sox ace Chris Sale, Yu Darvish, Cliff Lee, Gavin Floyd, Marcus Stroman, Mike Minor and others into MRI tubes, leaving teams scrambling for alternatives.

"Besides Cole Hamels," a highly ranked executive asked pointedly the other day, "have you heard of any starting pitchers who are available?"

Well …

There's …

Ummm …

Yes, you could call Mike Rizzo, the general manager of the Nationals and the world's deepest rotation, and you could ask him about Jordan Zimmermann or Doug Fister, who are both eligible for free agency in the fall, or maybe discuss the idea of swapping for Gio Gonzalez, who is under contract for the next two seasons for $23 million total, with team options following in 2017 and 2018. Rizzo has said he's willing to listen to any proposals, which is his polite way of saying he'd be open to replicating the Louisiana Purchase if somebody wants to offer up their farm system.

But the usual sources of starting pitching options have dried up, because many of the teams that might be among the worst in their respective divisions are focused on winning, for one reason or another. The Cubs might not make the playoffs this year, but with the addition of Jon Lester, they are intent on taking a step forward and making progress. The Astros reigned as MLB's worst team for years and don't appear ready to take a serious run for a playoff spot yet, but sources say there is more pressure to win from owner Jim Crane than ever before.

The Brewers led the NL Central for much of last season, so there's no reason to think they're ready to package any more of their pitching, especially since they've already swapped Yovani Gallardo. The Rockies have moved in a new direction, which presumably does not entail new GM Jeff Bridich immediately dumping some of the starting pitching he and the organization desperately need. The Twins paid handsomely to make their rotation better, signing Phil Hughes and Ricky Nolasco last winter and Ervin Santana this winter; they're trying to become relevant again in the AL Central.

So no, there aren't a lot of starting pitchers available for trade, and there probably won't be before the season begins.

The conditions are actually ripe for some developing team to take a relatively young starting pitcher into the market in the months ahead and get a big payoff.

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VottoAP Photo/Al BehrmanJoey Votto and the Cincinnati Reds face St. Louis and Pittsburgh in nine of their first 12 games.
Last week we ranked the difficulty of the American League schedules in the early part of the season, with the Houston Astros having the toughest and the Baltimore Orioles having the smoothest path into mid-May.

Today we give you the National League rankings. In the years since we started doing this, I cannot recall a team with a better opportunity to break away to a strong start than what the Washington Nationals have in 2015.

From most difficult to the easiest:

1. Cincinnati Reds

Early-season games against teams that finished over .500 last year: 27 of their first 39 games.
Home/away: Nineteen of their first 39 are at home.
Noteworthy: They seem to be one of the teams on the contender bubble going into the season, and they will be tested immediately, opening with nine of their first 12 games against the Cardinals (six) and Pirates (three).

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