Spring training questions: Los Angeles Angels

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Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be looking at a few of the questions facing each team this spring.
1. Will Maicer Izturis beat out Howie Kendrick at second base or Brandon Wood at third base?
Izturis finished last season as the starting second baseman against right-handers, and the Angels made a commitment to him last month, giving him a three-year, $10 million deal that bought out his first two seasons of free agency. Still, that doesn’t necessarily make him a starter. Kendrick hit .358/.391/.558 in 165 at-bats during the second half of last season, and the 26-year-old is clearly worthy of another opportunity to play regularly. Wood is out of options, so it’s now or never for the former top prospect. Odds are that Izturis will end up with 400 at-bats, but the Angels should go ahead and try the guys with more upside first.
2. Can Brian Fuentes hold off newcomers Fernando Rodney and reemerge as a quality closer?
Fuentes led the majors with 48 saves last season, but he also blew seven chances, took five losses and posted his worst ERA (3.93) and WHIP (1.40) since 2004. After the All-Star break, he gave up 13 runs and posted a 12/15 K/BB ratio in 24 1/3 innings. Wanting to shore up the pen, the Angels gave Rodney a two-year, $11 million contract over the winter. Rodney had worse marks in ERA (4.40) and WHIP (1.47) than Fuentes last season, but he managed to convert 37 of his 38 save chances for the Tigers. If Fuentes gets off to a rough start at all, the Angels might want to have the two switch roles. Rodney is no better of a pitcher than Fuentes, but he may play better in the ninth. Plus, if Fuentes isn’t locked into the closer’s role, manager Mike Scioscia can do a better job of playing matchups with him.
3. With Chone Figgins gone to Seattle, will the Angels get quality OBPs from the top of the order?
The guess was that the first two spots in the order would be divided between Erick Aybar, Izturis and Kendrick this year. However, Scioscia is again talking about using Bobby Abreu there. It worked out very well last year — he scored 36 runs and drove in 40 in his 50 games as a No. 2 hitter — but Scioscia still preferred him batting third. As things stand now, the Angels could be looking at the following lineup:
SS Aybar
RF Abreu
CF Torii Hunter
DH Hideki Matsui
1B Kendry Morales
LF Juan Rivera
2B Kendrick
C Mike Napoli/Jeff Mathis
3B Wood
When Izturis starts against right-handers — something that figures to happen a lot — it’s possible he’ll lead off, with Aybar getting dropped to the ninth spot.
Hitting Abreu second clearly is the best strategy for the Angels. If Abreu bats third, that means either Morales or Matsui would hit sixth and there’s no reason for either to be down that low. The Angels will be just fine if they get a .350 OBP from Aybar and Izturis in the leadoff spot and then Abreu’s .370-.390. We’ll just have to wait and see if Scioscia sticks to the plan this time.

Video: Nelson Cruz hits second-longest home run of 2016

ANAHEIM, CA - SEPTEMBER 14:  Nelson Cruz #23 of the Seattle Mariners celebrates his solo homerun with Daniel Vogelbach #20 of the Seattle Mariners to take a 2-1 lead over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim during the seventh inning at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on September 14, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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There’s certainly never a bad time to hit a home run, but when you get the opportunity to crush a triple-deck, 493-foot shot off of Tyler Duffey, you should take it. With the Mariners down 2-0 to the Twins in the fourth inning, Cruz hammered a fastball to deep left field for his 39th long ball of the season — and the second-longest home run hit in 2016, to boot.

It doesn’t hurt that the Mariners are 1.5 games back of a playoff spot, although they’ll have to oust the Blue Jays, Orioles, or Tigers to get a wild card. They’ve gone 3-3 in the last week, dropping two consecutive series to the Astros and Blue Jays and taking their series opener against Minnesota 10-1 on Friday night.

Cruz, for his part, entered Saturday’s game with a .299/.337/.610 batting line and six home runs in September. According to ESPN.com’s Home Run Tracker, Cruz sits behind Edwin Encarnacion and Mike Napoli with 13 “no-doubt” home runs in 2016, third-most among major league sluggers. It’s safe to say he can add Saturday’s moonshot to that list.

Marlins’ outfielder and undisputed home run king Giancarlo Stanton remains untouched at the top of the Statcast leaderboard with a 504-ft. home run, and it’s difficult to envision any slugger reaching beyond that before the end of the season. Even so, Cruz won’t need to clear 500 feet to extend an impressive hitting record. One more home run will put the 36-year-old at 40 on the year, making 2016 his third consecutive season with at least 40 homers, and his second such season doing so in Seattle.

Report: John Farrell won’t rule out a postseason return for Pablo Sandoval

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - APRIL 11:  Pablo Sandoval #48 of the Boston Red Sox looks on from the dugout before the Red Sox home opener against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park on April 11, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Orioles defeat the Red Sox 9-7.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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It’s been a strange season for Red Sox’ third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who lost his starting role in spring training, went 0-for-6 in three regular season appearances, and underwent season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder in May. That was the last the Red Sox were supposed to hear about Sandoval until spring 2017, when he was expected to rejoin the team after a lengthy rehab stint in Florida.

On Saturday, manager John Farrell was telling a different story. Per MLB.com’s Sam Blum, Farrell hinted that Sandoval could return to the team as soon as October, albeit in a very limited capacity.

At the time of the surgery, it was all looking at the start of next Spring Training,” Farrell said. “We’re not getting too far ahead of ourselves here, but at the same time, we compliment him for the work he’s put in, the way he’s responded to the rehab, the way he’s worked himself into better condition. We’re staying open-minded.

If the 30-year-old does return in 2016, don’t expect him to look like the three-home run hitter of the 2012 World Series. Should the Red Sox lose another player to injury, Sandoval might be called on as a backup option, but he’s unlikely to see substantial playing time under any other circumstances. Despite making two appearances at DH in the instructional league, Sandoval has not started at third base since undergoing surgery, though Farrell noted that a return to third base would be the next logical step in his recovery process.

Sandoval has yet to hit his stride within the Red Sox’ organization after hitting career-worst numbers in 2015. According to FanGraphs, his Offensive Runs Above Average (Off) plummeted to -20.2, contributing approximately two wins fewer than the average offensive player in 2015. (The Diamondbacks’ Chris Owings held the lowest Off mark in 2015, with -26.3 runs below average.) Sandoval has not appeared in a postseason race since the Giants’ championship run in 2014.

Heading into Saturday evening, the Red Sox could clinch their spot in the postseason with a win over the Rays and an Orioles’ loss.