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Spring training's burning questions

Pitchers and catchers report this week around the major leagues, and something else reports, too: questions. Here is a look at some of the burning questions as spring training gets under way in Florida to Arizona.

Who will fill out the Yankees' starting rotation?

CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes give the Yankees a dynamic 1-2 punch at the top, but it gets dicey after that. A.J. Burnett is back in the No. 3 hole, but it seems like the Yankees cross their fingers and hold their breath when he takes the mound. After Burnett, it gets even murkier. The Yankees have plenty of options who might fit in well at an old-timer's game. There's Bartolo Colon, who hasn't pitched in the majors since July 2009. There's former Cubs ace Mark Prior, who hasn't pitched in the bigs since August 2006. There's Sergio Mitre, who is 13-29 in this career. And there's 34-year-old Freddy Garcia, who won 12 games last season after winning five total in three injury-plagued seasons before that. The Yankees would love for rookie Ivan Nova to step up and fill one of the final two spots. If the back end of the rotation remains unsettled deep into March, the Yankees may have to go shopping.

Can Chipper Jones make a comeback?

One of the greatest Braves and switch-hitters of all time, Jones was headed for retirement last season when he tore his left ACL in August. Not wanting to go out that way, Jones rehabilitated the knee and hopes to be in the lineup on opening day. He has been taking batting practice since December and took ground balls Tuesday at spring training for the first time since the surgery. Taking grounders is the real test. Jones, 38, admits he is not 100 percent and says he still has trouble moving side to side.

Who will play rightfield for the Phillies?

Who cares? With their pitching staff, you or I might be able to play rightfield and the Phillies could win 100 games. But major-league rules require someone to be there, so who will replace Jayson Werth, who signed with the Nationals? Former Pasco High standout Domonic Brown, top, is considered one of the Phillies' top prospects and a future star who can run, field and hit for power and average. The other candidate is Ben Francisco, who batted .268 with six homers and 28 RBIs in 197 plate appearances last season. It's even possible the two could platoon, with Brown playing against righties and Francisco against lefties. But the Phillies will be certain Brown is ready before shoving him into the lineup.

Do the Phillies have any other concerns?

Closer Brad Lidge can be really good or really shaky. In his three seasons with the Phillies, Lidge has been mostly good. He was a perfect 48-for-48 in save opportunities (including playoffs) when the Phillies won the World Series in 2008. He saved 58 games in the past two seasons but blew 16 saves, including 11 in 2009. If he is on a good-year/bad-year run, then in 2011 he is due for a bad year. It wouldn't be bad for the Phillies to use the spring to see if they have a Plan B just in case.

What's up with the Twins' Joe Nathan and Justin Morneau?

It's stunning that the Twins made the postseason in 2010. Nathan, top left, their closer, missed the season because of elbow ligament replacement surgery ("Tommy John" surgery), and Morneau, the first baseman, missed the second half with postconcussion symptoms. Nathan, who averaged 41 saves a year for the Twins from 2004-09, looks on track to return. His fastball isn't quite at full speed, but he says he has no pain when he throws. Morneau was hitting .345 with 18 homers and 56 RBIs when he went down July 7 because of an inadvertent knee to the head during a slide into second base at Toronto. There is still plenty of uncertainty about his return. He is taking batting practice and fielding grounders, and reports are he is feeling okay. But Morneau remains a question until he gets into full-day workouts and games.

What's the story with the Red Sox?

All seems well in Beantown. New additions Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez have many believing the Red Sox are the team to beat in the American League. The worry coming into spring training is the health of second baseman and 2008 American League MVP Dustin Pedroia, and infielder Kevin Youkilis. Pedroia, coming off foot surgery, is in camp and says he is 100 percent. Youkilis appears recovered from surgery on his right thumb. The bigger concern for Youkilis this spring is moving from first base back to his old position, third, to replace Adrian Beltre, now with the Rangers.

What's going on with the AL champion Rangers?

Have you seen the video on YouTube with the little boy heartbroken that third baseman Michael Young, left, could be leaving the Rangers? The heart and soul of the Rangers is making noise that he wants out of Texas because the Rangers signed Adrian Beltre and want to make Young a full-time designated hitter. This move not only has upset fans, it has irritated the Rangers' clubhouse because Young is respected as a consummate professional. It's not certain the Rangers will deal Young, but if they do, the teams trying to get in on the sweepstakes could include the Marlins, Astros, White Sox, Angels and Mets.

Who are some of the rookies to keep an eye on?

The top prospect is the Nationals' Bryce Harper, last year's No. 1 overall draft pick. However, don't look for the catcher-turned-outfielder to play in the majors this season. He is considered a can't-miss star, but he's 18. Some of the kids who should be up in the majors this season include Giants first baseman Brandon Belt, a former University of Texas star who can hit for power and play a mean first base. A good spring will get him the starting spot at either first base or leftfield for the defending world champs.

Blue Jays pitcher Kyle Drabek, son of former Pirates ace Doug Drabek, could battle Rays pitcher Jeremy Hellickson for AL Rookie of the Year honors. Drabek looks a lot like the old man with his devastating curveball, but he has a better fastball than Dad did and is working on a changeup.

The Yankees still have Jorge Posada and signed catcher Russell Martin, but there's quite a buzz going on with catcher Jesus Montero. His bat is major-league ready, but his defense needs work. Still, some are wondering if a good spring could earn him a spot in the lineup.

Many assumed Desmond Jennings would replace Carl Crawford in leftfield for the Rays this season. But then Tampa Bay signed Johnny Damon, leading to the assumption that the Rays would like Jennings to have a little more seasoning in the minors. It will be interesting to see how much playing time Jennings gets this spring and what he does with it.

Finally, what is it with the Braves? Seems like every season they produce another rookie of the year candidate. This season it's first baseman Freddie Freeman. Projections have him someday being a Gold Glove winner who will hit around .300 with 25 homers and 100 RBIs. He's a player to watch this spring.

Spring training's burning questions 02/16/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 16, 2011 7:42am]
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