Blue Jays fans aren’t alone in wanting to see what super prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. can do at the major league level.
Bryce Harper and Manny Machado remain unsigned. As pitchers and catchers begin reporting this week to Arizona and Florida, that remains the big story across the majors, an ugly blot on what otherwise is a cheerful time of the year: The return of baseball.
Still, there are many other spring stories to watch. Here is one for each team …
Boston Red Sox: Chris Sale‘s shoulder. Sale clearly wasn’t 100 percent at the end of last season, when his velocity was down in the postseason and Alex Cora skipped over him to start David Price on short rest in Game 5 of the World Series. Sale did pitch the final inning of that game (and struck out the side), so maybe all he needed was an offseason of rest. He is entering his walk year, as well, which adds to the intrigue.
Level of excitement: 5. Yes, 108 wins and a World Series title will keep the fans enthused — even if Boston is a football city now.
New York Yankees: Troy Tulowitzki. Can he still play? Does it even matter, considering the Yankees signed DJ LeMahieu and can slide Gleyber Torres over to shortstop and play LeMahieu at second until Didi Gregorius returns? Any value Tulo will provide is basically a bonus, but if he can play, it gives the Yankees more roster flexibility with LeMahieu playing multiple positions.
Level of excitement: 5. Yes, Yankees fans wanted Manny Machado or Bryce Harper. They still have Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Torres, Miguel Andujar, the best bullpen in the game and a rotation that added James Paxton and J.A. Happ (for an entire season) on top of Luis Severino and Masahiro Tanaka.
Tampa Bay Rays: Austin Meadows. The Rays are one of the most fascinating organizations, all the way down to the back fields, where superstud Wander Franco is a must-see. In big league camp, the roster is incredibly deep but lacks a big star on the offensive side of the ball (although keep an eye on Tommy Pham, who tore it up after coming over from St. Louis). Meadows, acquired from the Pirates last summer, has always been a top prospect despite numerous injuries. Maybe it all comes together for him in Tampa.
Level of excitement: 5. Go watch this team, Rays fans!
Toronto Blue Jays: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. He might be the story of spring training, as the wunderkind man-child (he doesn’t turn 20 until March 16) gears up for his first big league season. Of course, the Jays will hold him down in the minors for 10 days to work on his defense, but Vladdy will immediately start impaling baseballs when he arrives in Toronto.
Baltimore Orioles: The new regime. There is a new general manager in Mike Elias, a Maryland native who comes over from the Astros. The new manager is former Cubs bench coach Brandon Hyde. Unfortunately, most of the players from a 115-loss team are the same.
Level of excitement: 0. In this division, they might lose 115 again.
Cleveland Indians: All the outfielders. Obviously, the big story just broke on Friday with Francisco Lindor‘s calf injury, but since he apparently will now miss most or all of spring training, let’s turn to the outfield — which, to put in nicely, is a mess. FanGraphs projects in the Indians 29th in left field WAR, 23rd in center field and 27th in right field. The plan is to mix and match, but the Indians really have to hope somebody like Jordan Luplow or rookie Oscar Mercado surprises in camp and proves better than the projections.
Level of excitement: 3. The Indians have the rotation to carry the team to a playoff spot in a weak division, but there isn’t a lot of margin for injuries. The inability to address the outfield or bullpen — while cutting costs — has left Indians fans frustrated despite three straight division titles.
Minnesota Twins: Byron Buxton … and Miguel Sano. They were worth a combined 7.7 WAR in 2017, and the Twins won 85 games and a wild-card berth. They were worth a combined minus-0.8 WAR in 2018, and the Twins dropped to 78-84. They need both to be healthy in 2019 after battling injuries.
Level of excitement: 3. The Twins haven’t been completely idle; they signed Nelson Cruz and Jonathan Schoop to no-risk, one-year deals. The Twins, however, still sit about $30 million below last year’s payroll and $91 million below the luxury tax threshold with no long-term payroll commitments. They could have played in the Harper/Machado market — or the second tier — and elected not to do so.
Detroit Tigers: Miguel Cabrera. Miggy was actually reasonably productive last year — .299/.395/.448 — before he ruptured his biceps after 38 games and missed the rest of the season. He had back problems the season before. Even if he’s not peak Miggy any more, the Tigers need a healthy Miggy.
Chicago White Sox: Eloy Jimenez. After hitting .337/.384/.577 with two home runs across two levels of the minors, Jimenez is ready for the South Side. He has power without striking out much, which will make him an impact hitter from the get-go.
Level of excitement: 2. The White Sox should be better — it would help if Yoan Moncada figures things out at the plate — but this goes up only if the White Sox do actually land Machado after trading for his brother-in-law Yonder Alonso and signing buddy Jon Jay.
Kansas City Royals: Kyle Zimmer. Yes, we’re digging deep here, but remember Zimmer? He was the fifth overall pick back in the 2012 draft, but he couldn’t stay healthy and never reached the majors. The Royals designated him for assignment last spring, re-signed him to a minor league deal and sent him to the Driveline baseball facility outside Seattle. He spent the entire season there, returned to the Royals throwing 94 to 97 mph and now is back on the 40-man roster.
Level of excitement: 2. That’s a story to root for, but the Royals are still coming off a 104-loss season.
Houston Astros: The rookie starters. The Astros signed Wade Miley and will move Collin McHugh back to the rotation, but keep an eye on Forrest Whitley and Josh James to also support Verlander and Gerrit Cole. Whitley is Keith Law’s top pitching prospect and should be ready to make an impact after a couple months in Triple-A. We last saw the hard-throwing James pitching out of the bullpen in the postseason (where he cracked 100 mph), and he could win a job out of spring training. Behind those two, you also have Framber Valdez and Cionel Perez.
Level of excitement: 5. We could have mentioned Carlos Correa after his injury-plagued 2018. He was sort of a forgotten dude last year, and you know he is motivated to rebound.
Oakland Athletics: Jesus Luzardo. The 21-year-old lefty cruised through three levels of the minors last season to become one of the top pitching prospects in the game. If he can make an impact, maybe Oakland’s rotation won’t be as bad as everyone thinks.
Level of excitement: 3. I mean … the A’s improved 22 games and attendance went up only 1,200 fans a game to 1,573,616 overall. Which isn’t nothing, but the A’s have drawn 2 million just once 2005. The offseason has been a typical slew of low-budget maneuvers. Hey, it worked last year.
Seattle Mariners: Prospects! It’s the last call for Felix Hernandez and, at least for a few weeks, Ichiro Suzuki, but if there’s something to watch in spring training, it’s the kids the Mariners acquired in the offseason: Justus Sheffield, J.P. Crawford, Justin Dunn, Erik Swanson, Shed Long (with Jarred Kelenic in minor league camp), plus Japanese lefty Yusei Kikuchi. If everything goes right, Kikuchi, Sheffield, Dunn and Swanson will all be in the rotation after the All-Star break. Or maybe that means everything has gone wrong.
Level of excitement: 2. Mariners fans weren’t exactly high-fiving each other about Jerry Dipoto trading all his best players (except Mitch Haniger), but the smart understood the reasoning. Make those King Felix nights count; they might be winding down.
Los Angeles Angels: Shohei Ohtani‘s rehab. All we know at this point: He won’t pitch in 2019, and he won’t be ready for Opening Day. Beyond that, let’s hope for a quick return and 500 plate appearances as designated hitter.
Level of excitement: 3. You can certainly argue the Angels would have been better off bringing in a star player — imagine a left side of the infield with Machado and Andrelton Simmons — rather than the piecemeal approach with Matt Harvey, Trevor Cahill, Cody Allen, etc.
Texas Rangers: May your health be with you. The Rangers are taking chances on Drew Smyly (missed the past two seasons), Edinson Volquez (missed last year) and Shelby Miller (16 innings last year). They also signed Lance Lynn. So, this could be a really good rotation if you’re replaying a 2015 sim league.
Level of excitement: 2. Who are the Cowboys going to draft?
Atlanta Braves: Ronald Acuna Jr. The Braves signed Josh Donaldson, brought back Brian McCann, and all the young starting pitchers — both those already in the majors and those close to getting there — will be compelling, but in an offseason when the Braves declined to swing for the fences, it’s all about Acuna. He immediately became one of the most compelling players in the game as a rookie, and after his monster second half — he was third in the majors in OPS — there’s one question: Can he be MVP?
Level of excitement: 5. Imagine if they had actually signed Harper or traded for J.T. Realmuto, like they should have done.
Washington Nationals: Life without Bryce … life with Juan. With a return to D.C. looking unlikely for Harper, the Nationals certainly didn’t shy away from otherwise improving their roster: $140 million for Patrick Corbin; replacing the dead weight at catcher with Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki; signing Anibal Sanchez and Brian Dozier; and adding bullpen pieces in Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough. Mostly though, I just want to see Juan Soto hit.
Level of excitement: 4. It’s not an election year and the Nationals look good on paper, but there will be some post-Bryce malaise. Win the division and Harper will be yesterday’s news.
Level of excitement: 4. Philly’s a tough crowd, and the fans want Machado or Harper.
New York Mets: All the new faces. The Robinson Cano–Edwin Diaz trade was viewed with mixed emotions from many Mets fans, who apparently viewed Jarred Kelenic as the next Mickey Mantle or something. The Mets also signed Jed Lowrie and Wilson Ramos and acquired Keon Broxton. They’re deeper than last year (although another starting pitcher would have been nice) and certainly more interesting.
Level of excitement: 4. New GM Brodie Van Wagenen oozes confidence, and some of it is actually rubbing off on Mets fans.
Miami Marlins: Probably not Neil Walker. In 2017, this train wreck of a franchise had a lineup featuring the 2017 NL MVP, the 2018 NL MVP, plus Realmuto, Marcell Ozuna, Dee Gordon and Justin Bour. Now they have … umm, Austin Dean, JT Riddle and Peter O’Brien. Not to pick on one player here, but take O’Brien. He apparently is the starting first baseman (although it could end up being Walker or Garrett Cooper), is 28 years old, and while he had an .838 OPS in 74 PAs with the Marlins in 2018, he hit .216 in the minors. He hit .191 in the minors the season before. His strikeout rate during those two seasons was 34 percent — in the minors. It’s going be another long season (although to be fair, the rotation could be almost be respectable if everything falls right).
Level of excitement: Negative one million.
Milwaukee Brewers: Jimmy Nelson‘s health. Lots of things going on here, from the battle at second base to Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes potentially moving from the bullpen to the rotation to Christian Yelich‘s MVP encore. But all eyes will be on Nelson, the team’s best starter in 2017 who missed all of 2018 after injuring his shoulder running the bases late in 2017. He recently tweeted, “I’m in the best place I’ve been in over the past 17 months” and that he has never been more excited for spring training.
Level of excitement: 5. They were one win from the World Series last season, and the most underrated baseball city in the country is ready for a big summer.
Chicago Cubs: Yu Darvish‘s health. The Cubs lost the NL Central tiebreaker game to the Brewers, and there’s little doubt that with a healthy Darvish they wouldn’t have been in that game in the first place. Darvish suffered a stress reaction in his elbow and made just eight starts, but he already is throwing bullpens in Arizona and said he feels good after a recent 45-pitch session.
Level of excitement: 3. Four straight playoff trips and an average of 97 wins per season, yet 2016 feels so long ago to a crabby group of Cubs fans.
St. Louis Cardinals: Where will Alex Reyes fit? Yes, the Paul Goldschmidt trade should provide a nice boost, and Andrew Miller — assuming he can avoid the injured list — will strengthen the bullpen. But it will be curious to see how the onetime uber-prospect looks after missing almost all of two seasons. Even if Reyes starts the season in relief, he has the potential to be the team’s No. 1 starter come the playoffs.
Level of excitement: 5. After missing the playoffs three seasons in a row, nothing short of a division title will be enough for Cardinals Nation.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Trevor Williams‘ sinker. In his second full season, Williams finished 14-10 with a 3.11 ERA, including a remarkable run over his final 13 starts, when he posted a 1.29 ERA and had eight scoreless outings. He doesn’t throw hard or rack up the strikeouts, so we’ll see if he can repeat his soft-contact success story. If so, maybe the Pirates have a chance of surprising.
Level of excitement: 1. I get the feeling that no fan base is more ticked off these days than Pittsburgh’s — and with good reason after ownership did nothing (again) following an 82-win season while watching other teams in the NL make moves. Attendance was down almost 500,000 in 2018 even though the team was better, and it might decline again. There are ramifications to keeping your money locked up in a bank vault instead of spending it on talent.
Cincinnati Reds: Yasiel Puig and his new friends. Unlike the Pirates, the Red have had enough with losing, they and made a bunch of “win-now” moves, most notably acquiring Puig, Alex Wood and Matt Kemp‘s contract from the Dodgers. Top prospect Nick Senzel should be ready to make an impact as well. All eyes, however, will be on Puig. There’s hardly a bigger contrast in cities than L.A. and Cincinnati, and how he adapts and performs — will he sulk or play with a chip on his shoulder? — will be a story to watch all season.
Level of excitement: 3. For the first time in five years, Reds fans are cautiously optimistic, but they know it’s a tough division.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Corey Seager and Julio Urias. I know, this is two things, but they’re both important! Seager’s return from Tommy John surgery is obviously one of the biggest stories in spring training. But I’m fascinated to see if Urias is ready to make a major impact; remember, before his shoulder surgery in 2017, he was arguably the best pitching prospect in baseball. He returned at the end of 2018 and the Dodgers put him on their playoff roster, even though he had pitched only four innings in the regular season. He is still just 22 and could be one of those many rotation pieces for the Dodgers.
Level of excitement: 4. It should be a 5, but Dodgers fans are doing a lot of whining about not signing Harper.
Colorado Rockies: Garrett Hampson. I’m a big fan of Hampson, the speedy infielder who hit .311 across two levels of the minors while swiping 36 bases in 41 attempts. He also has played a few games in center, and with Charlie Blackmon moving to left, Hampson certainly will get some time in the outfield. Frankly, I’d like to see him out there and Ryan McMahon at second (holding down the fort until Brendan Rodgers is ready) and whole lot less of Ian Desmond.
Level of excitement: 4. There are some frayed nerves waiting to see if Nolan Arenado will sign an extension, but after two straight wild-card seasons, Rockies fans should be pumped for 2019.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Who is Merrill Kelly? The D-backs are hoping to pull off a coup with Kelly, similar to what the Cardinals did last year when they plucked Miles Mikolas out of Japan. Kelly, a former Rays farmhand, spent the past four seasons pitching in Korea, and he will get a crack at replacing Patrick Corbin in the rotation.
Level of excitement: 2. The franchise icon is gone. Corbin is gone. A.J. Pollock signed with a division rival. I’d say this will affect attendance, but the Diamondbacks seem to draw 2 million to 2.2 million no matter how good or bad the team plays.
San Francisco Giants: Buster Posey‘s hip. The six-time All-Star is expected to be ready for Opening Day after hip surgery in August. Posey’s power was sapped last season because he couldn’t explode through the zone with his swing, so the hope is he returns healthy and hitting .300 again. Even when he was last healthy in 2017, Posey started just 96 games at catcher and 30 at first base, so he’s likely going to split even more time between the two positions.
Level of excitement: 2. The Giants are old and bad, and their farm system is weak. But Scottsdale in March is still a great place to go.
San Diego Padres: All the kids. Unfortunately, it has been an offseason of a lot of talk and no action for the Padres. They’ve been in on Harper and Machado and inquired about Realmuto, but their biggest move was signing Garrett Richards, who might not even pitch in 2019 as he recovers from Tommy John surgery. Still, the Padres should have one of the most intriguing camps because of their top-rated farm system (and Fernando Tatis Jr. in particular), plus already-in-the-majors youngsters such as Franmil Reyes and Franchy Cordero.
Level of excitement: 3. The enthusiasm has been tempered a bit by the lack of a big move, but the Padres are rightfully the most hopeful they’ve been in years.