The Cactus League’s future seemed as bright as could be after it set a record for attendance in 2005, but shadows hang over the 12-team league this year.
The World Baseball Classic will claim a number of top players from every roster and six WBC games will be played over four days at Chase Field and Scottsdale Stadium. One would assume interest in exhibition spring training contests would lag with actual baseball featuring the best players in the sport being played within a few miles of Cactus League parks.
Throw in the presence of the increasingly enigmatic Barry Bonds and there are plenty of burning questions surrounding the Cactus League this spring. We’ve identified 10 of them and attempted to provide some hints as to the answers.
10 2006 CACTUS QUESTIONS LEAGUE SPRING TRAINING BASEBALL
1 Is Barry Bonds healthy (and clean) enough to resume his chase of Hank Aaron’s home run record?
Bonds announced in January that he would not be participating in the World Baseball Classic in order to limit strain on the right knee that had undergone three surgeries in the previous seven months. Immediately, some began to speculate that he pulled out of the tournament to avoid the Olympic-style drug testing that is considered much stricter than the testing used by Major League Baseball.
Whether it’s the knee or the tests, the San Francisco Giants ought to worry. If Bonds’ knee is so delicate that the prospect of playing seven or eight games as a designated hitter gives him pause, how is he supposed to hold up over a 162-game schedule during which he will have to play in the outfield? And if it’s drug testing that will hold Bonds out of the Classic, how long can the use of such drugs be hidden?
Either way, the 48 home runs Bonds needs to pass Aaron for baseball’s career home run record seem like anything but a sure thing.
2 How will the World Baseball Classic affect the Cactus League?
When Major League Baseball decided to hold two of the four pools of the inaugural World Baseball Classic in Florida and Arizona, spring training officials had to be wondering how the games would affect their bottom lines. Each Major League team was expected to lose players to national team rosters, diluting the product on spring training fields. Plus, the fact that there will be actual baseball being played within miles of spring training sites had to cause some anxiety.
But according to advance ticket sales, it seems the two entities will be able to coexist. Officials from both the Cactus and Grapefruit leagues report that ticket sales are on pace with last year when both leagues set attendance records. The belief is that fans will still enjoy sunny afternoons cheering on their favorite major league teams then head over to the larger venues to catch out the international competitions in the evenings.
3 Will Jim Thome provide the world champion White Sox with the offense they need to repeat?
The Chicago White Sox won the 2005 World Series with dominant pitching and just enough offense to get by. Most of the pitching staff that posted a 2.55 earned run average in last year’s postseason returns, and the White Sox traded for former Phillies first baseman Jim Thome in the hope that his bat can provide some pop to the designated hitter spot.
The move away from Frank Thomas, the franchise’s career leader in several offensive categories, and to Thome is a gamble. Thome played just 59 games last year due to back and elbow problems.
But if the 35-year-old slugger is able to return to the form that led the Phillies to sign him for a six-year, $36.5 million deal in 2003, the move could land the White Sox back in the World Series.
4 Where does Horizon High graduate Brandon Wood figure into the Angels’ plans?
The most glaring hole for the Los Angeles Angels is at designated hitter. However, Angels general manager Bill Stoneman has said that he won’t even discuss trades involving Wood, the franchise’s top minor league prospect, even if it meant the Angels could land a slugger like Manny Ramirez of the Red Sox.
Wood and No. 2 prospect Howie Kendrick are considered the Angels’ middle infielders of the future. Wood set an Arizona Fall League record with 14 home runs last season, and Kendrick is no slouch at the plate either. Kendrick, 22, is expected by many to see playing time with the Angels this summer. Could Wood, who turns 21 today, be far behind?
5 Can the rebuilt Padres defend their National League West title?
The San Diego Padres outlasted the rest of the “NL Worst” to win their first division title since 1998 with just 82 wins. But instead of building upon their championship roster, the Padres decided to tear down their team and rebuild it from scratch. Second baseman Mark Loretta and starting pitchers Adam Eaton and Pedro Astacio were among the more than a dozen players the Padres either traded or allowed to leave through free agency.
Half of the lineup could be changed from last season with third baseman Vinny Castilla, outfielder Mike Cameron, catcher Mike Piazza (above) and second baseman Mark Bellhorn all new to the team. The NL West is unlikely to be much better this season than last, so if the new Padres are able to get on track early, they could pose a challenge to the Dodgers and Giants.
6 Is Kerry Wood healthy enough to contribute for the Cubs?
Wood has never lived up the the hype that has surrounded him since being drafted with the fourth overall pick in 1995 and winning National League rookie of the year honors in 1998. It’s not his talent that has held him back, but his inability to stay healthy. He experienced his best season in 2003 when he went 14-11 with a 3.20 ERA and appeared in his only All-Star game. However, he has spent at least two months on the disabled list in each of the two seasons since.
Even if he is ready to pitch after undergoing right shoulder surgery (and reportedly he is), where does he fit in to the Cubs’ plans? Wood wants to return to the starting rotation, but some observers feel he should pitch out of the bullpen to prevent wear and tear on his arm.
7 Is Prince Fielder ready to help the Brewers like his dad did the Tigers?
Former Diamondback Lyle Overbay put together the two best seasons of his career playing first base for the Milwaukee Brewers the past two summers. But with Fielder, the 21-year-old son of three-time All-Star Cecil, apparently ready to step in at first, Overbay was expendable.
Fielder, who is slated to bat fifth in the Brewers’ lineup, is considered a below-average defensive player and, like his father, his weight has been an issue in the past. But boy can he mash the ball. Fielder batted .291 with 28 home runs and 86 RBIs in 103 games with Triple-A Nashville last season. He’ll need to homer 19 times and drive in 72 runs to equal Overbay’s output from a year ago and the Brewers think he could do it as a rookie.
8 Can the Rangers find enough pitching to go with their high-powered offense?
The Texas Rangers led the major leagues with 260 home runs last year and still finished four games below .500. The reason was their pitching and that could be the reason again this year that the team clubs the ball at will and still loses.
The Rangers tried to address their lack of pitching in the offseason by pursuing, but ultimately failing to land, Jarrod Washburn, Matt Morris, Roger Clemens, Josh Beckett, Barry Zito and Miguel Batista. Instead they ended up signing Indians free agent Kevin Millwood and trading for Adam Eaton and Vincente Padilla. If Millwood is able to fill the ace role vacated by Kenny Rogers and Eaton and Padilla successfully recover from last season’s minor injuries, the Rangers could contend in the AL West.
9 Was the Royals’ rare spending spree worth it?
On the same day in December, Kansas City signed four veteran free agents — starting pitcher Scott Elarton, second baseman Mark Grudzielanek, first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz and backup catcher Paul Bako. Those signings came on the heels of the acquisitions of starting pitcher Mark Redman and reliever Elmer Dessens and were followed up by the signing of outfielder Reggie Sanders. Hey, when you lose 210 games in two years, you’re going to shake things up a bit.
The Royals aren’t going to be competing with the White Sox anytime soon. But with Redman and Elarton leading the rotation, the team is far from a lock to hit triple digits in losses again.
10 Will Adrian Beltre bounce back for the Mariners?
National League fans remember Beltre as the Dodgers’ ultra-talented third baseman who finally transformed his potential into a monster season in 2004. American League observers view the same player as a one-year wonder who parlayed his one big season into a huge free agent contact with Seattle and proceeded to stink up the place.
In his final year with the Dodgers, Beltre had a .334 batting average with 48 home runs and 121 RBIs. In his first year with the Mariners, Beltre hit .255 with 19 home runs and 87 RBIs. Beltre, who turns 27 next month, reported to camp 12 pounds lighter than last season. Combine that with a year of AL competition under his belt and there’s reason to believe Beltre will bounce back.