It’s officially baseball season again with MLB spring training games slated to begin Sunday in Florida and Arizona.
The start of a new season means seeing players like Francisco Lindor, Trevor Bauer and Nolan Arenado in their new uniforms and take a look at some of the best prospects in the game – and for those of us who have snow on the ground. a chance to think about the warmer months.
To celebrate the return of the sport, we asked our MLB experts to weigh up the players, teams, perspectives and topics they can’t wait for when they first take part in the MLB spring training action starting Sunday.
What do you look forward to most when the spring training games start this weekend?
David Schoenfield: Wait, let me see … OK, Saturday, March 6th: Padres at Dodgers for their first spring training meeting. Interestingly, they are only playing one game against each other. Do these two games mean something? No of course not. But they’ll whet our appetite for what’s to come: Fernando Tatis Jr. in action with his bold new contract, Yu Darvish and Blake Snell in those gorgeous brown Padres uniforms, Trevor Bauer in Dodger Blue, Clayton Kershaw trying to go back back. There are also a few players who need to check in here: Is Dinelson Lamet Healthy? How’s Cody Bellinger’s shoulder doing? Is Ha-Seong Kim the real deal? Is Kenley Jansen even closer to the Dodgers?
Bradford Doolittle: I’m just looking forward to the sights and sounds of baseball. And while the games themselves aren’t usually too addicting, I actually enjoy a spring show because it tends to have a lot of storytelling. I also like the optimism Homer Broadcasters are projecting at this time of year. Why not? Everyone is 0-0. I also like to see places that are warm because we are at that point one winter in Chicago that you can understand why George R. R. Martin came up with the entire “north of the wall” scenario when he lived here.
Joon Lee: I’m right there with Brad. I like the optimism of the spring training, where almost every single team feels like they have a chance to make an impact and get a berth after the season. Of course, for many teams that optimism could fade once we’re about six weeks into the season, but there is usually one who surprises out of the gate every year and a whirlwind of “are they real?” Headlines.
Jesse Rogers: After seeing the social distancing layout in Spring Parks, I’m keen to see how fans track home runs and foul balls. For example, at CoolToday Park, where the Atlanta Braves play in Florida, they have 18 squares of white chalk in the grass viewing area behind the left panel. Each group of fans may sit on the fields during the game, with a gap between the individual fields. So what happens if a home run is hit out there? Are you allowed to leave your field to find it in another? These are important questions that we will get answers to once the games start. Of course, foul balls are easy to spot with so few fans in the stands.
Alden Gonzalez: Nolan Arenado, who is suitable for the Cardinals and makes diving games on the third baseline to conjure up pictures of Scott Rolen. The weight of the Rockies’ mismanagement has weighed on Arenado since signing its extension in February 2019. It’ll be nice to see what he does with a breath of fresh air as he plays for fans who will quickly grow to adore him just like the people of Denver.
Which player will you be watching closest to the start of spring training?
Schönfield: I want to see if Jarred Kelenic hits .364 with six home runs this spring, forcing the Mariners to do the right thing: put one of their top 26 players on the major league list on opening day. Heck, he could be one of the top three players by now and he has only played 21 over class A games. “This should be an exciting time for baseball,” Kelenic told USA Today this week. “That’s what we’ve been waiting for. Now, the day before spring training, I have to take care of it.” I agree. Now tear it up, Jarred.
Doolittle: You have to be careful because it’s easy to be fooled by spring ideas, but I keep reading how Vladimir Guerrero Jr. got slim and is now better, stronger and faster. (That’s a “Six Million Dollar Man” reference for the old folks.) Or, in more baseball-centric springtime language, he’s in the best shape of his life. Anyway, I want to see what he looks like because despite all the off-season aggression the Blue Jays may have, their hopes for a higher level could still revolve around Vlad Jr. transforming into the star he is set to become .
Lee: I am very curious to see how Francisco Lindor adapts to the New York market. Some members of the Cleveland organization realized for several years that the size of their media market did not quite allow Lindor to maximize his potential as a massive face and ambassador for baseball. New Balance recently announced a signature sneaker for Lindor. That makes him the third baseball star to join Mike Trout with Nike and Bryce Harper with Under Armor for treatment. With the excitement surrounding the Mets after the team was sold to Steve Cohen, Lindor has the chance to become not just a face of New York City, but one of the most marketable baseball stars.
Rogers: I’ll give you two: Yoan Moncada and Jose Abreu from the White Sox. The former recently documented his 2020 trip after testing positive for COVID-19. He was often upset and made it around the bases once in the last season. He says he made a full recovery, but watching him this spring could tell the full story. Meanwhile, the reigning American League MVP recently tested positive himself. Although Abreu is asymptomatic, there is no way of knowing if the virus will affect him when he returns.
Gonzalez: Shohei Ohtani. Angels general manager Perry Minasian raved about his aggressive, data-driven offseason program during the off-season, and Angels manager Joe Maddon spent a lot of time this spring talking about how they’re essentially letting go of Ohtani and not failing him with artificial ones Limitations in 2021. This could be Ohtani’s last chance to prove he can throw and hit effectively, and there’s a case to be made last season – with no fans in the stands, no access to in-game Videos and only 60 games on the schedule – took a special toll on Ohtani, who came off the operation as a pitcher on Tommy John and was unable to get his typical pregame work as a batsman. I’m still hoping for the two-way sensation I saw in the first two months of 2018, weak as it may be.
Which player, who changed teams this winter, are you most looking forward to in his new uniform?
Schönfield: I don’t know if excited is the right word, but I will be closely monitoring the progress of Jameson Taillon and Corey Kluber for the Yankees. The rotation of the Yankees has a chance to stand out if, for example, they get 55 starts from this duo and maybe 15 more from Luis Severino when he returns from surgery on Tommy John. But they don’t just need to show that they are healthy – they need to get back to or approach their 2018 level of success.
Doolittle: Andrew Benintendi. His nosedive, both by direct performance and statcast skill indicators, is confusing. You hear he tried to do something with his swing to hit more Homer and it messed him up. Then you will hear that he has returned to his earlier approach and is healthy and ready to go. It seems like we can at least read something about where he’s going in spring. And let’s face it, I’ll be watching Royals Spring Games anyway. Bobby Witt Jr. and Asa Lacy are in the camp and I’m excited to see these two face off against competition from the big leagues.
Lee: Blake Snell. The Padres are one of the most exciting teams in the sport, but I’m particularly interested in seeing Snell emerge from the World Series drama. I am intrigued to see how the former Cy Young Award winner adapts to his new circumstances. Since Snell posted an ERA of 1.89 in 31 starts in 2018, he had an ERA of 4.29 in 23 starts in 2019 and an ERA of 3.24 in 11 starts in 2020. He is only 28 years old, so am I’m excited to see what kind of season he’s putting together after he leaves the organization that designed and developed him.
Rogers: Yu Darvish. Light. He is a comfort person. And just when he felt comfortable in his Chicago area, he had to start all over again. And for a World Series contender. No pressure. The good news for the Padres is that Darvish understands that when he began his tenure as a Cubs, he was in a clam and needs to connect to his teammates and the city a little quicker in San Diego. If his game stays the way it did in Chicago, the Padres have an ace. But that’s a big IF right now.
Gonzalez: The obvious answer is Francisco Lindor, who fascinates me no matter what uniform he wears. But I’m going to go a little under the radar and tell Ha-Seong Kim, the 25-year-old Korean infielder who fought .294 / .373 / .493 between the ages of 18 and 24. The Padres will have him hop around the infield, and if he conforms, Kim could play a vital role in their hopes of dethroning the Dodgers in the National League West. At the start of the New Year, Kim was full of personality in his introductory press conference. He said his goal was to be “the rookie of the year” and added through an interpreter that he picked the Padres “because they will be world champions this year”. I already like him.
Which team are you most looking forward to during spring training?
Schönfield: In the non-Padres / Dodgers section, I go with the Mets. I want to see Francisco Lindor with his new team, what Dominic Smith looks like after the .316 / .377 / .616 goal in 2020 and whether Pete Alonso can get started in spring practice to avoid the slow start he got last year (in both cases) spring training and in the restart of the season). Finally, let’s see how manager Luis Rojas puts his bullpen together. Rojas showed his inexperience with some of his moves last season.
Rogers: The Mets. Let’s see what influence Lindor can have on this team. Are they playing with a boast? Do you feel like despite the recent dominance of the Braves, they are the team to beat because of their victorious winter? The Lindor Effect could and should change everything we think about the Mets.
Doolittle: Besides the Royals … the Cubs I think, but mostly because I can’t wait to hear Boog Sciambi call the action. Chicago was America’s best city before Boog signed up, and now it’s even better. Are my personal prejudices showing up? And when you talk about Chicago and Tony LaRussa runs the White Sox, a team whose uniform he last put on when I was … younger, it’ll be surreal.
Lee: The White Sox. I’m really excited to see how this team develops with La Russa at the helm of one of the most exciting young squads in the sport. I’m curious to see what kind of season Luis Robert can put together in his second campaign and whether Michael Kopech can have an impact on the squad after his operation on Tommy John. Lance Lynn will complement the rotation in an interesting way. Throw in the other big names on the roster like Lucas Giolito, reigning MVP Jose Abreu, Eloy Jimenez, and Tim Anderson and you have a roster that is regularly on the MLB.TV rotation.
Gonzalez: It’s the Blue Jays for me. I want to see George Springer bond with his young new teammates. I want to see what a stripped down Vladimir Guerrero Jr. can do, especially on the third base. I want to see what jumps Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio and Nate Pearson made. I want to see Marcus Semien get to the second base. And I want to take a closer look at Austin Martin, number 5 under Vanderbilt, who has not yet made a professional record appearance.
Which young offspring should fans definitely see when they play with their MLB team this spring?
Schönfield: I’ll mention Andrew Vaughn of the White Sox. They moved him to third overall in 2019, and it’s noteworthy that they haven’t signed a DH this off-season – perhaps a sign they think he’s ready for the majors. Tony La Russa said Vaughn was “tied first” to open the season as the team’s DH. While he’s only had 55 pro-level games and hasn’t played above Class A, remember that La Russa once had a young thug named Albert Pujols who jumped from Class A to the majors.
Doolittle: Baseball America just released its list of the Top 40 Prospects it has rated as a BA over the 40 years of its existence. Two of them are currently prospects, and neither have made their regular MLB debuts of the season yet. They are also # 1 and # 2 prospects on Kiley McDaniel’s Top 100 list this year. And both will be in camp this spring before heading up to The Show, expected to be in 2021. One of them is Baltimore catcher Adley Rutschman. The other is Ray’s shortstop Wander Franco. This is your chance to see what the hype about these two is all about.
Lee: Hike! He’s been one of the most exciting prospects in years and he apparently has all the tools to be a superstar. Combined with Tampa Bay’s ability to develop his native talent, I’m excited to see if Franco can live up to the hype that has followed him over the past few years. Given that he’s been in the consciousness of potential dogs for so long, it’s easy to forget the guy is only 19 years old.
Rogers: Cristian Pache the Brave. He’ll have plenty of room to play with Marcell Ozuna in left field, and playing in midfield of a World Series competitor – as a rookie – comes with its own pressure. When Pache doesn’t make the team and doesn’t perform well, the Braves in the outfield look slightly in depth. Without Nick Markakis or Adam Duvall, you need Pache to be THAT guy. Besides, he can get it. These great defensive games are just as fun in spring as they are in the regular season.
Gonzalez: I’ll cheat a little and tell Gavin Lux, who is out of prospect status but hasn’t broken through to an loaded Dodgers team yet. This is his chance. The second base is right where Enrique Hernandez is gone and Chris Taylor expects him to jump around. The Dodgers don’t just like him – they see him as a future star. And he’s only going to be 23 for the whole season. Lux struggled to improve the mechanics of his swing early last year and the Dodgers didn’t want to wait on the way to a historically dominant season. The people on the team say he looks really good on the way to spring training. His performance in 2021 could affect what the team does long-term at Shortstop, where Corey Seager is a free agent at the end of the season.