Seventeen days until Opening Day and counting quickly. While many questions have been answered, several interesting ones have arisen as well. We'll address the three that most followers felt were the most important first because at least two that have developed since camp opened have the potential of being those "franchise-shaping" types.
1.) Has Julio Teheran's time finally come, and can he "hold down the fort" until Brandon Beachy's healthy?
We always need to be careful about how much weight we put on spring numbers. That said, I don't feel I'm going out on a limb when I say it absolutely is his time and Brandon can take all the time he needs to make sure he's ready. I'm not talking June - he's got until around July 31st to be ready to go. Brandon doesn't need to rush anything, he just needs to be able to give the team 5-6 competitive innings come the non-waiver trade deadline so Frank Wren can move Paul Maholm for a prospect or two. While Julio's numbers have been impressive (14 IP, 1.29 ERA, 0.57 WHIP, 2 earned runs on 4 hits allowed, .087 Batting Average Against, and an 18/4 K/BB Ratio), it's more about the things you just "see" when watching his starts - how he's carried himself and gone about his work that tells the tale. He faced a Tigers lineup with Austin Jackson, Victor Martinez, Prince Fielder, Alex Avila, and Jhonny Peralta last Thursday and allowed 3 hits (none for extra bases) in 4 IP with 5 Ks. He followed that up by no-hitting a weaker Cardinals lineup for 5 innings two days ago. What the typical box score numbers don't reflect that really speaks volumes is the fact that he's only needed 189 pitches to get through his 14 IP, and 157 of those have been for strikes. He's not nibbling, not wasting pitches, trusting his stuff and just attacking hitters. Not only is he "ready", we may be about to see the Julio Teheran everyone expected two years ago.
2.) Can Andrelton Simmons adjust and be "the straw that stirs the drink" in the leadoff spot?
While most of his ABs have come in WBC games for the Dutch entry, Simmons will be just fine at the top of this lineup. Through 27 ABs, his line is .370/.400/.704/1.104 with 3 2Bs and 2 HRs amongst his 10 hits, all from the leadoff spot. For all the reservations many have about the tournament, delivering clutch hits (his 2 run bomb tied their last contest in the 8th inning, sparking their surprising elimination of Cuba) while playing in what many foreign players see as their true World Series has to have his confidence at its highest point ever.
3.) How bad will including Martin Prado in the deal to land Justin Upton hurt, and can some mixture of Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson keep 3B from becoming a "black hole"?
While the OBPs are the expected relatively low numbers for each - .324 for Johnson, .316 for Francisco - they're more than acceptable when you consider Fredi hasn't been using them as a strict platoon, rotating their starts regardless of who the opposing SP is every day. Both players are slugging .500 or better, and they've combined for 3 2Bs, 4 HRs, and 16 RBIs in 72 ABs. That should translate to 25+ 2Bs and 20-25 HRs from the 8 hole. Almost as importantly, both guys have played solid defense (particularly Francisco) - Johnson has made the only 3 errors the platoon has been charged with in 143 innings.
The SPs other than Hudson have picked up right where they left off last season, and while Huddy's struggled a little bit early, March has typically always been more about getting his work in and getting his pitch count up - the numbers on the back of his baseball card have always spoken for themselves, and you know what you'll get from him as long as he's healthy. Eric O'Flaherty and Jordan Walden have been brought along slowly since they were a little nicked up early, but with the extended camp that comes along every WBC year they should be fine. Jonny Venters struggled with his control last night, but he wasn't used as he normally will be - he came in to retire one batter with 2 outs in the 5th inning after Medlen took a liner off his arm, then was sent back out after sitting down. He's got plenty of time left to get that nasty power sinker grooved before anything counts.
This leads us to the two very interesting questions I have for the future. They're not in need of resolution just yet, but they could prove to be serious game changers.
1.) How will the organization choose to handle Tim Hudson beyond 2013, and how does that shape the rotation moving forward?
People consistently underrate Tim Hudson. While he's not the prototypical "Ace" with a big fastball and wipeout breaking ball and high K rate, he's Huddy and his contributions reach much further. He's as consistently good as ANY SP in the game. No stage is too big for him, no lineup's too "stacked" regardless of how many lefties they put in the box against him. Quite possibly the most important thing about him is that when other SPs begin running out of gas later in the year when the innings start to pile up, a bit of fatigue often appears to make his sinker even more effective. However, his deal is up following this season, and there's still a glut of MLB-ready SPs in the organization behind him even after shipping Randall Delgado away. Sean Gilmartin is Mike Minor-Lite, and Alex Wood can be pushed at will if the organization decides to replace Huddy with Beachy and still have a second southpaw in the rotation to replace Maholm. J. R. Graham is the "real deal", and could likely leapfrog both of them and force Wren and Fredi to only utilize one LHSP in the rotation sooner rather than later. While it's true that you can never have enough pitching, the only question I feel is worthy of concern is whether Medlen, Minor, or Beachy are ready to assume Huddy's role as the leader of the staff that you can run out there against another team's "Ace" 3 times in a playoff series if needed. I think we'll find out that they are (at least Meds and Minor) by the All-Star Break this year and that Tim's offered a position with the organization to help the young guys if he'd like to stick around, but that the money to extend his playing days will be better spent on extensions for the younger crew.
And, the biggest and most controversial question...
2.) What in the world do you do with Brian McCann, especially if he hits like we expect him to come mid-April?
This year was supposed to mark the transition from "Chipper's team" to "Brian's team". Mac has been steadily assuming the clubhouse leader role more and more over the last 2-3 seasons. He's a "hometown hero", and was always seen as the pretty obvious choice as the new "face" of the organization. Unfortunately as a 30 year old Catcher with a body beginning to slowly break down, it's tough to pay him the money a bat like his commands when you can't play him anywhere else defensively and there's no DH in the NL. Again, I hate putting much stock in spring numbers, but when they're combined with the reviews he's gotten thus far, I'm beginning to believe that the future is "El Oso Blanco" and that future is upon us. I (among many) will be watching closely tonight while Evan Gattis is behind the plate with Minor pitching. Fredi's consistently been quoted as being much more impressed with his defense than he expected, and Eddie Perez has said since day one that he's up to the challenge of being a starter at the MLB level. Recent rumors have surfaced that the Rangers came calling about Mac before the team exercised his option for this year, but FW wasn't interested at that time. What's different now? There are TWO Uptons in the OF to go with Heyward, Freeman, and Simmons, and Gattis' defense seems to be winning over the opinions that matter. If it were up to me, I'd send Evan down to Gwinnett to start the year with the understanding that the only thing I'm interested in him doing is continuing to get better defensively. $12+ million/year would be awfully tough for me to swallow for McCann going forward, and I've consistently been one of his biggest supporters. My hope is that the "perfect case scenario" plays out - Mac comes back on fire for a month, Jon Daniels is still interested because he has the flexibility of giving Mac regular days off as their DH, and FW can convince him to part with our perfect fit (and the guy they simply can't find a place in their lineup for) and swaps Mac straight up for Mike Olt.
It may very well be a pipe dream, but a 2014 and beyond lineup consisting of ...Simmons, Heyward, J-Up, Freeman, Olt, B. J. Upton, Gattis, and Uggla will absolutely cause lots of sleepless nights for opposing GMs, Managers, Pitching Coaches, and Pitchers, and would leave Frank Wren with LOTS of financial flexibility for the foreseeable future.