Tuesday, March 3, 2015

What to watch for in today's game action

Today isn't the Opening Day that baseball fans pine for all winter, but it is an opening day of sorts.
Though teams already have been playing intrasquad games and exhibitions against college teams, they now will begin squaring off with each other. Today brings five such matchups, with the Grapefruit League getting underway in Florida and the Cactus League opening in Arizona.
Today's slate features a rematch of October's American League Division Series between the Orioles and Tigers, as well as a regional rivalry between the A's and the World Series-champion Giants. Meanwhile, the Yankees will take on the Phillies, the Pirates will battle the Blue Jays and the Indians will face the Reds.
Here are eight things to watch for in today's action:
1. MadBum back at it: SF@OAK
The last pitch Madison Bumgarner threw in a game was a fastball that Royals catcher Salvador Perez popped up into foul territory down the third-base line at Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium. Pablo Sandoval made the catch, and the Giants secured their third World Series championship in five seasons with a 4-3 victory in Game 7. It took a herculean effort from Bumgarner to make that happen, with the left-hander's five scoreless relief innings giving him a 0.43 ERA over 21 frames in the Series to lock up MVP honors.
Bumgarner is scheduled to throw only one inning as today's starter against the A's in Mesa, Ariz. (3:05 p.m. ET, MLB Gameday Audio), but it will be interesting to see how the 25-year-old workhorse looks after tossing 270 innings between last year's regular season and postseason.
"I'm looking forward to getting out there, facing some hitters and getting back into competition at game speed, playing baseball," Bumgarner said on Saturday. "But right now, it's just about making sure you're ready to compete whenever the season starts."
2. Martin faces old friends: PIT@TOR
Russell Martin's stay in Pittsburgh lasted only two seasons, but it was memorable. The veteran catcher brought his experience, leadership and well-rounded game to an organization that hadn't tasted the postseason since 1992, and the Bucs secured two playoff berths during his tenure. But Martin's success took him out of Pittsburgh's price range, and the Canadian signed a five-year, $82 million deal with the Blue Jays.
"He impacted this organization all over the place," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "I called him when he signed with the Jays, but his mailbox was full so I couldn't leave a message, so I texted him. We wish him well. He has a great opportunity with a good team close to home. We'll root for him from afar."
Martin is expected to be in the lineup today in Dunedin, Fla. (1:07 p.m. ET,MLB.TV), along with another major offseason acquisition, third baseman Josh Donaldson. Both will have to play big roles for Toronto to snap its own postseason drought, which extends back to its win in the 1993 World Series.
3. Kang begins transition: PIT@TOR
How infielder Jung-Ho Kang's numbers translate from the Korea Baseball Organization to the Major Leagues is one of the more interesting questions of the season. Kang, who batted .356 with 40 homers in the hitter-friendly KBO in 2014, made believers of the Pirates, who paid posting fee of about $5 million before signing Kang to a relatively modest four-year, $11 million deal that includes a club option for '19.
Kang might not have a set position this season -- he could see time at second, third and short -- but if his bat comes as advertised, the Bucs certainly will find a way to keep him in the lineup. Today, he'll play shortstop and bat sixth and could face an interesting test against Blue Jays starter Aaron Sanchez, a 22-year-old with an average fastball of about 97 mph. Kang got his feet wet during Monday's intrasquad game, grounding out in his only at-bat.
"That's when I realized, 'Game on,'" Kang said. "It helped a lot to get to play, to get a feel for it,"
4. The new-look A's: SF@OAK
When the A's come to bat against Bumgarner and the Giants, they will do so with a lineup that bears little resemblance to the one that carried last year's team to 88 wins and a trip to the American League Wild Card Game. And that's not just because of the usual mixing and matching that goes on during Spring Training.
The Nos. 2-5 slots in Oakland's batting order all will be filled with key newcomers, part of general manager Billy Beane's latest radical roster shuffling, which included the losses of Donaldson, pitchers Jon Lester and Jeff Samardzija, and first baseman/outfielder Brandon Moss. Promising 24-year-old Marcus Semien (acquired in the Samardzija deal) will start at shortstop, versatile two-time All-Star Ben Zobrist (acquired from the Rays) will man second base, veteran Billy Butler (signed to a three-year deal) will play first, and talented but injury-prone Brett Lawrie (acquired in the Donaldson deal) will take third.
5. Rebounding Reds? CLE@CIN
First baseman Joey Votto isn't scheduled to be in the lineup for the Reds when they take on the Indians in Goodyear, Ariz. (3:05 p.m. ET, MLB.TV), but he isn't the only Reds player looking to turn the page on 2014. Cincinnati certainly will need more from its core players after falling to 76-86 last season and finishing fourth in the National League Central.
Center fielder Billy Hamilton, batting leadoff today, could give the offense a huge lift by raising his .292 on-base percentage, allowing him to unleash his top-of-the-line speed (56 steals). Right fielder Jay Bruce, batting sixth, could do the same by returning to his 30-homer form of the previous three seasons following a year marred by a left-knee knee injury.
"One-hundred percent, non-issue," Bruce said of the knee over the weekend. "There's nothing more to say about it."
6. Cespedes tries on his stripes: BAL@DET
OK, so he did participate in the Tigers' exhibition against Florida Southern on Monday, but today's tilt against the Orioles in Lakeland, Fla. (1:05 p.m. ET, MLB.com Gameday Audio), should be a more festive debut for outfielder Yoenis Cespedes. The slugger was a big part of Detroit's offseason maneuvering, with the club acquiring him from the Red Sox as part of a deal for starter Rick Porcello.
Though he expressed a willingness on Monday to discuss an extension, Cespedes is in the final year of his current deal so he might have only one season to make his mark with the Tigers. He is expected to be a force in a lineup that will aim to help the team weather the loss of ace Max Scherzer and make a run at a fifth straight AL Central title.
7. Ubaldo's comeback bid: BAL@DET
One year after signing a four-year, $50 million contract with the Orioles, right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez is among the six pitchers vying for five rotation spots as he starts the Grapefruit League opener against the Tigers.
The 31-year-old went 6-9 with a 4.81 ERA last season, walking 5.5 batters per nine innings and pitching himself out of the club's postseason plans. Still, Jimenez has bounced back from a rough season before -- with the Indians in 2013 -- and he worked over the winter to simplify his delivery. His first test will be a Detroit lineup that includes regulars such as Cespedes and Ian Kinsler.
"Last year was tough," Jimenez said last week. "This is the beginning of 2015, and I'm excited to be part of the first game."
8. A more productive Howard? NYY@PHI
There haven't been many positives of late for Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard, who hit .223 with a .690 OPS last season, then turned 35 in November. But despite numerous trade rumors, Philadelphia hasn't dealt the former NL MVP, who has at least two years and $60 million remaining on his contract, including a 2017 buyout.
So for now, Howard remains with the only organization he has known. A more productive beginning to '15 at least could pave the way for a trade and a fresh start, and manager Ryne Sandberg suggested last week that Howard came to camp in better shape. He is scheduled to bat cleanup against the Yankees and starter Adam Warren in Clearwater, Fla. (1:05 p.m. ET, MLB.TV).

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