McCullough’s Mailbag: Can Yankees bounce back? Could Ohtani hype hurt Dodgers?

PHOENIX — Greetings from the press room at Camelback Ranch, the spring home of the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Super Bowl has ended. The Kansas City Chiefs are inevitable. And baseball season is upon us. 

The Athletic has you covered as spring training kicks off in Arizona and Florida. Let’s take some questions from subscribers about various issues across the sport. 

Can the Yankees catch the Orioles this year? — Dennis and Emily W. 


And if you believe some of the leading projection systems, like PECOTA, it is the Orioles who need to catch the Yankees. Even the ZiPS system used by FanGraphs, which pegs Baltimore to win the American League East with 90 victories, places the Yankees tied for the next-most victories with Toronto at 88. It’s going to be a close race in the East, as always.

Baltimore looks like a formidable club for 2024. The Orioles benefited from an excellent bullpen and excellent fortune in one-run games last season, going 30-16 in those contests. The bullpen is likely to experience some regression, and the swap of injured closer Félix Bautista for Craig Kimbrel may not make for the smoothest transition. But their young stars are all a year older, Jackson Holliday is the best prospect in the sport, and they just added Corbin Burnes. It’s a good club.

There is a chance, though, that the Yankees are quite good as well. So much of their success relies upon the health of Aaron Judge and Juan Soto. If they can stay on the field, the duo is expected to mash. Gerrit Cole is coming off the best season of his career. The addition of Marcus Stroman should aid the rotation. The bullpen is a perennial success. You don’t have to squint to see how the Yankees could pull this off. My primary concern is the same as the year before and the year before and the year before and — you get the picture. The offense features a collection of injury-prone players who are all a year older.

Speaking of which …

Whenever I see proposed lineup configurations for the Yankees, perhaps 75 percent or more have Giancarlo Stanton hitting cleanup. To me, this is a dreadful scenario. He has not only not hit since halfway through the 2022 season, his strikeout rate is outrageously high. At best, I’d bat him sixth or seventh or, perhaps, not at all. The team cannot rely on a mythical “bounce-back.” How do you see this? — Michael B.

For what it’s worth, our intrepid beat writer Brendan Kuty was hitting Stanton sixth in one of his more recent roster projections.

I suspect, as Brian Cashman vocalized earlier this winter, that Stanton will just get hurt. This is not a character judgment, at least from my perspective. It just is what it is. Stanton has played more than 110 games in a season once since 2018. His physical limitations have chipped away at his effectiveness since the middle of 2022, as you mentioned. In adding Alex Verdugo and Trent Grisham the Yankees appear to have built up a stockpile of outfielders which may make the club less reliant on Stanton if he continues this downward trend. 

Is it possible for you to write a column and not mention the Dodgers? There are other teams in baseball you know. — Mark V. 

Mark, I have terrible news for you.

What do you think the chances are that the Shohei Ohtani circus and hype do more to hurt team chemistry on the Dodgers than his performance on the field will help? — Jason H. 

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Shohei Ohtani meets with the media in spring training. (Kyodo via AP Images)

My main man Ken Rosenthal touched on the practical issues created by all the attention surrounding Ohtani last week. 

I think multiple things can be true: 

• I think Shohei Ohtani should speak to the media more frequently than he did in 2023. He generally only spoke after he pitched, and there were lengthy stretches when he was not pitching. He went several months without talking last year, at a time when there were significant, basic questions about his health left unanswered, stuff like, “What kind of elbow surgery did you just have?” He doesn’t have to talk, of course. I just think it would be better if he did. There are a variety of reasons for this. The most important is that the media (people like me) function to provide information to the public (people like you). The more people like Ohtani talk to people like me, the more people like you know about Ohtani, who seems to be a person that people like you are interested in. The overwhelming majority of baseball players understand this paradigm and accommodate it. I live in New York. Aaron Judge speaks to reporters several times a week. Gerrit Cole is available all the time. If you walk into the Mets clubhouse, there is a good chance Francisco Lindor will be at his locker and free to talk. Edwin Díaz handled his miserable 2019 season with the same graciousness that he displayed during his excellent 2022 season. I do not believe that dealing with the media is a significant burden for players. Of course, I am biased. 

• Ohtani is, obviously, dealing with far greater attention than Judge or Cole or Lindor or pretty much any player in recent memory. It is reasonable for the Dodgers, as it was reasonable for the Angels, to build some sort of infrastructure so Ohtani is not inundated with daily requests. Ohtani has made pretty clear, through his deeds and words, that he values his privacy. The man treated the identity of his dog as a state secret. So it’s perfectly fine for his team to create guardrails. It would be my preference if those guardrails deposited Ohtani in front of people with microphones more than once a week. 

• I suspect this really won’t be an issue. There might be a few isolated incidents of teammates grumbling about “all these dang reporters” or something. There might be times when Ohtani ducks the media when other players would not. There might be an instance or two where a player snaps when asked to speak for the world’s most famous designated hitter. It’s a long season. Players get irritated by their teammates all the time. It rarely merits significant consideration. In general, I imagine Ohtani will contend for another MVP award while hitting 40 homers with an OPS somewhere between .900 and 1.000 as the Dodgers win the National League West yet again. That sort of production is significant enough to offset whatever inconvenience is created by his unique combination of fame and silence. 

Which player are you surprised is still not signed? — Briangretchen L.

I don’t have any real insight into Brandon Woodruff’s exact medicals or his financial demands this winter, but it has surprised me that one of the clubs with endless trunks of money (Mets, Dodgers, Yankees, Cubs, Giants, etc.) haven’t yet signed Woodruff to a two-year deal in hopes he can come back healthy for 2025.

Is it possible that, for once, Scott Boras is overplaying his hand? What’s the gap between reality and hubris when it comes to finding homes for Blake Snell, Jordan Montgomery, Matt Chapman and Cody Bellinger? Do you see much possibility that one or more of these guys have no home come the start of the regular season? — James T.

I tend not to bet against the folks at Boras Corp when it comes to extracting top dollar from owners. Yet it seems clear this winter that there exists a significant gap between the agency’s perceived value of this specific quartet and the industry’s shared wisdom on this collection of players. The market was stagnant for a good while this winter as teams waited for the prices to come down but Boras holds the line and usually wins for his clients.

I’m pretty curious to see how things play out. I suspect each man will sign by March, but we’re getting close to pillow-contract territory for all four. The plight of players like Kendrys Morales and Craig Kimbrel in the past decade demonstrated how challenging it can be for a player to adapt after waiting until later in the year to sign.

Should the Braves trade Max Fried so they can get a good return instead of losing him? — James M. 

No. I think they should keep Max Fried on their roster and try to win the World Series with him this autumn.

Andy, how long until an NL or AL Central team earns a bye and doesn’t have to play in the Wild Card Series? And who will it be? It seems to me that the new format exposes the mediocre brand of baseball played in the Central, and I genuinely can not imagine a Central team earning a two-seed in either league over the current coastal powerhouses. — Jacob N. 

Wow. This is a great question.

Given the hegemony of the Braves and the Dodgers, who are both set up to dominate at the very least for the next two to three seasons, it’s hard to see an NL Central club emerge as a top-two seed any time soon. The Brewers have the best chance. Keith Law recently rated the team’s farm system as the second-best in the sport. The club has continued to contend despite the departure of executive David Stearns. If Jackson Chourio, Jeferson Quero and Tyler Black all click, you can envision a core capable of competing with Atlanta and Los Angeles.

The path to a top seed is actually clearer in the American League, because the American League East may suffer from attrition and the Astros are facing a variety of crucial spending decisions in the next couple of years. The Twins and the Guardians appear locked in a perpetual struggle to see who can win 90 games. The Tigers have the best farm system but haven’t reached the postseason since 2014. The Royals and the White Sox are quite far away.

So I’ll take Milwaukee.

Do you think the PECOTA projections on the NL Central — St. Louis winning — are right? Was a bit surprised by that. — Amir A. 

I was not surprised to see St. Louis atop the PECOTA standings, despite how wretched last season went for the Cardinals. I’ll save my postseason picks until March, but I’m wavering between St. Louis and Milwaukee as my choice in the NL Central. As I hinted above, I’ll likely select the Crew. But we shall see.

The division is not particularly strong. Milwaukee has traded away its best player. The Cubs lack dynamic hitters. The Reds were feisty last year and merit monitoring. The Pirates are the Pirates. St. Louis still employs Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt, plus a bevy of intriguing younger players. Sonny Gray should help the rotation. I don’t think 88 wins is outside the realm of possibility.

Are we Padres fans heading for a big disappointment if we put our faith in their roster of young upcoming pitchers? I actually feel pretty good about the youngsters behind Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove and Michael King in 2024. — Adam R. 

It is hard to conjure up a more disappointing season for Padres fans than 2023, so you’ll probably be less despondent this year. I will be honest with you, Adam: I am bearish on San Diego’s pitching. Those three pitchers you mentioned are the only players on the roster with significant big-league experience. As for the other arms in the Juan Soto trade, Randy Vásquez profiles as a back-end starter and Jhony Brito might end up in the bullpen. There is some high-end hope in the pipeline, in the form of Dylan Lesko and Robby Snelling, but those fellows are still quite young. It may well be a rough year in San Diego.

Any talks about rethinking the playoff system or at least reducing the number of games back to 154? — L.M.

Only in Anthony Rendon’s dreams. 

I’ve been a fairly consistent critic of the expanded postseason, but I just cannot foresee a scenario where Major League Baseball turns down the opportunity for revenue that these extra rounds create. As for reducing the regular season: The owners would argue that the players should be paid less, which the union would view as a non-starter. 

Speaking of non-starters …

Is there a strategy to expedite the free agency processes? Could implementing specific deadlines or transaction freezes help streamline the process? — Akash C. 

Yes, those sorts of alterations would create more action in free agency and incentivize players to sign more quickly. But the union will always fight against checks on the open market. Consider that a receipt for, well, the entire history of labor relations in Major League Baseball. The union won’t agree to anything that makes it easier for the owners to suppress salaries, because the owners tend to be pretty good at that on their own. 

What’s your favorite stadium to watch a game? — Colin M. 

Tropicana Field is my favorite place to cover games. The design of the press box is ideal for our jobs. I suspect you are asking more about the best atmosphere, though, and I remain partial to Citizens Bank Park. That place rocks in October. Hopefully, if the team reaches the postseason again in 2024, the players can select a new anthem that isn’t a pale imitation of the original. 

How was Vietnam, Andy? Also, do you have a favorite spring training memory? — Al B. 

Vietnam, where I recently spent my honeymoon, was wonderful. Thank you for asking, Al. I strongly recommend visiting if you like pork, karsts or motorized scooters. It’s also given me a reason to revisit some of my favorite books. I’m working my way through “A Bright Shining Lie” right now, with “The Best and The Brightest” next in the queue.

I wrote about my favorite spring training memory a few years ago, after Ned Yost retired: 

During the spring of 2015, I developed a nagging pain in my left foot. I found myself limping all the time. There was no reasonable explanation. I wasn’t exercising that much. All I could think of was maybe I sprained it attending a Title Fight concert.

In Yost’s office one morning, the subject of my foot came up. This might sound silly, but you really do run out of stuff to talk about in the spring. Yost listened to my symptoms. His eyes bulged.

“Dude,” Yost said, “you’ve got the gout.”

That was ridiculous. Gout? They call it “the disease of kings,” because it’s supposedly caused by excessive beer, wine, red meat and shellfish. That made no sense, I told Yost. I don’t drink during spring training. It was possible I was eating too much Jack In The Box, but Arizona is land-locked and I wasn’t spending my evenings searching for lobster. It must have been the concert, I said.

“Oh, well, you didn’t tell me that you hurt yourself punk-rocking,” Yost said. That was what he said. “Punk-rocking.”

When spring training ended, I went to the doctor in Kansas City. The diagnosis was indisputable. I had the gout. I trudged into Yost’s office that afternoon with my foot aching and my tail between my legs.

“See? I was right,” Yost said. “You better not give me s—- about how I use my bullpen this year.”

By his own admission, Clayton Kershaw won’t pitch until “August-ish” or “July-ish,” which is OK with me. The man is a legend and we are lucky to have him. That said, could you fill in the gaps here a bit? Is Kershaw expected to be with the team at home or travel at all during his rehab? Could you talk a little about what his presence on the roster and in the clubhouse means to the Dodgers, especially with all the new faces this year? We know it means $10 million and more to the Dodgers, but could you dive a bit deeper there? — Daniel B. 

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Clayton Kershaw is on track to return midseason. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea / USA TODAY)

The Dodgers have granted Kershaw the space to conduct as much of his rehab as he wants at his home in Dallas. This was part of the team’s pitch to convince him to return to the team. “Most guys, it’s important to have them under the care of the training staff and be able to monitor their rehab progression,” president of baseball ops Andrew Friedman told me last week. “But with Clayton, it’s impossible to trust him more. Whether he is in Arizona, Texas or L.A., we know that it will be the exact same process.”

So Kershaw won’t report to spring training until March. For the first few months of the season, he plans to be with the team during homestands and return to Texas while the club travels. It’s hard to quantify what his presence means in the clubhouse. Throughout his career he has grappled with the concept of whether or not a starting pitcher, who only performs once every five days, can be a leader. He tends to lead more through the example of his daily regimen rather than through excessive rhetoric. He does not really function as a mentor for any of the club’s younger pitchers. Several years ago, the team tried to pair him up with Walker Buehler, and both pitchers quickly realized that was a silly idea.

At the same time, the younger Dodgers tend to revere Kershaw. They study his routine during the day. They monitor his bullpen sessions. They sit next to him in the dugout and watch how he observes the game. They treasure little lessons from activities as simple as playing catch with him. There has to be value in that. I’m just not sure how much.

Make no mistake: Shohei Ohtani has replaced Kershaw as the sun around which the franchise orbits. You could argue that the duo of Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman had supplanted Kershaw in that role in recent years. But now there is no question which individual player will chart the course of the franchise going forward. Keeping Kershaw around does permit the organization to retain some of its connective tissue; this coming season with be his 17th as a Dodger, more than any other pitcher in franchise history. He understands the history, both the bitter and the sweet, of Dodger baseball in the 21st century. That has value, too.

So … does the ending of your much-anticipated, upcoming biography of Clayton Kershaw change now that he has decided to return, or did you always have an ending in mind? Looking forward to the read, especially after reading the excerpt! — Tae K. 

Note to my editors: I did not pay this person to write this question.

But, yes, I do have a book coming out in May about Kershaw, and it does appear some folks are anticipating it.

As for the ending: Very early in the reporting process, back in 2022, I came up with an idea for how I wanted to end the book. When I write, it helps me to know where I’m trying to go, so I used that prospective conclusion as the destination while working through the book. In the writing business, we refer to the finish of a story as the “kicker.” With the way events unfolded, I think that kicker for the book ended up working quite well. But I guess you will have to read it in May to decide for yourself.

(Top photo of Yankees Anthony Rizzo, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Anthony Volpe: Elsa / Getty Images)

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