Ask any major or minor league baseball player and they will tell you Spring Training is far too long. But as the meaningless games drag on, stories around big league camps pop up and get the baseball world talking. As we not-so-patiently wait for Opening Day (which is now less than a week away), let’s take a look at the most intriguing storylines of this Spring.
- Matt Kemp Looks to be the Dodgers Opening Day Left Fielder
When the Dodgers swapped Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir, Brandon McCarthy, and Charlie Culberson in exchange for back Matt Kemp this winter, the purpose of the move was clear. This exchange had nothing to do with the Dodgers desire to acquire the aging left fielder who was tied with Jose Bautista as the worst outfielder in baseball with -0.5 WAR last season. Rather, the impetus for this deal was purely financial. Gonzalez, Kazmir, and McCarthy are all entering the final years of their contracts and will make a combined 51.6 million next season, while Kemp still has two years and 43.5 million dollars on his deal. By getting 51.6 million dollars off the books this season and taking on 21.75 million, the Dodgers are projected to have a payroll under the luxury tax, clearing them of repeat luxury tax offender status. By resetting the penalty, they will enter next offseason being able to freely spend on a historic class of free agents that includes Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, and potentially Clayton Kershaw (he has an opt-out) without the burden of a 50% overage tax.
Despite having no intention of actually rostering Matt Kemp when they acquired him, the 33-year-old outfielder had other plans. Kemp showed that he was serious about helping the Dodgers on the field by shedding nearly 40 pounds this offseason. The weight loss has shown up on the field as Kemp has posted a .866 OPS and has appeared much more agile on defense so far this Spring. If you gave truth serum to anybody in the Dodgers front office a month ago, they would have told you that if they had their druthers, they would prefer to trade Kemp, but with the season just a week away, it appears that Kemp has played himself into a starting role. Perhaps what is most impressive about Kemp’s triumphant return to the Dodgers starting lineup is that he beat out a number of other very qualified left fielders to secure the job. The crowded outfield competition included Andrew Toles, Enrique Hernandez, Trayce Thompson, and top prospect Alex Verdugo.
Not only does it appear as if Matt Kemp will get the nod in left field when the Dodgers host the Giants on Opening Day next Thursday, he also looks to be penciled into the three hole in the Dodgers lineup with Justin Turner sidelined for roughly six weeks. It appears being back in Los Angeles has re-energized Kemp, and there are reports out of camp that he has embraced the role of clubhouse leader. So there you have it, Matt Kemp is the Opening Day left fielder and three-hitter for the Dodgers. What year is it again?
2. Jon Lester is Bringing the Bounce Pass to Baseball:
Lester’s “yips” throwing to first base have been well documented. The ace left-hander has managed to have a very successful MLB career even though he literally cannot throw the ball to first base. In the past, he has worked around his inability to throw the ball to bases in a variety of ways, including throwing his entire glove to the base with the ball wrapped inside it and outrightly refusing to field comebackers, ceding responsibility to his third baseman or catcher any time the ball gets near him.
Despite his throwing woes, Lester returns every spring trying to find new ways to combat his yips, and this year he might have found his most creative solution yet. Lester is practicing what he is calling the “Jordan-to-Pippen” one-hop throw to first on comebackers, and thus far the results have left much to be desired. In a game against the D’Backs on March 11th, Lester induced a ground ball right back to him and tried the bounce pass. Here is a look at what happened.
Who knows if Lester will feel comfortable enough in regular season games to actually employ this unorthodox approach, but for now it is a fun storyline worth monitoring.
3. Tim Lincecum Could Be the Rangers Closer (Eventually):
If you told me that Tim Lincecum would get a closing opportunity before Greg Holland when this offseason began, I would have requested you take a drug test. Nonetheless, we are just six days away from the start of the regular season and the former two-time Cy Young award winner has a legitimate chance to earn save opportunities at some point in the coming season. To be clear, Lincecum will not start the season in the closer role. That honor will be bestowed upon funky left-hander Alex Claudio. However, with perhaps the thinnest bullpen in all of baseball, we could easily see the Rangers give Lincecum save opportunities before the season is over.
I know, Lincecum has appeared in just 24 games since the start of 2015 and none since 2016, when he had a 9.16 ERA in 38 1/3 innings for the Angels. These numbers may make the prospect of giving Lincecum these types of opportunities seem foolish on the surface. After working with Driveline Baseball for the past year, Lincecum has reemerged with a 93 mph fastball and legitimately impressed scouts with his physique and raw stuff during a showcase in Seattle last month. This could all end up being hogwash if Big Time Timmy Jim doesn’t show the signs of rejuvenation that were on display at the showcase, but hey, its Spring Training, and Spring Training is a time to dream.