Each club's key takeaway from Spring Training
Spring Training games are over for 2020 due to the national emergency created by the coronavirus pandemic. There are, however, still takeaways to be gained from the games that did happen this spring. Here is a storyline for each club that can tell us what teams may be focusing on in the future, after baseball’s delayed return.
The Blue Jays will look significantly different, with a stronger pitching foundation in place this season, but Nate Pearson will be the main attraction before he even arrives in Toronto. The club’s No. 1 prospect (No. 8 in MLB) allowed one run over seven innings with 11 strikeouts this spring and, while results in February and March can’t be given too much weight, the big right-hander was baffling some Major League hitters with his triple-digit heat and strong secondary pitches, particularly his slider and changeup. Toronto’s rotation overhaul has been viewed through the lens of reliability, with Matt Shoemaker, Tanner Roark and Chase Anderson profiling as steady inning-eaters, but if you pair Pearson with Hyun-Jin Ryu at the top of the rotation over the next four seasons, suddenly the Blue Jays have an opportunity to raise their ceiling, not just their floor. Vladimir Guerrero Jr’s hype train from 2019 will be difficult to match, but Pearson will come close.
Besides the good vibes brought on by Chris Davis’ hot start, Orioles camp was mostly about getting glimpses of the future. Half of the club’s Top 30 prospects, per MLB Pipeline, spent at least some of the spring in Sarasota, from top prospect Adley Rutschman to soon-to-arrive Ryan Mountcastle (No. 4) and Keegan Akin (No. 11) to the upstart Bruce Zimmermann (No. 28) and others. The Grapefruit League wasn’t always kind to all of them, but from Yusniel Diaz’s five-tool skillset to Mountcastle’s light-tower power to Rutschman’s already-polished receiving skills and more, several made memorable impressions. The likes of Austin Hays and Hunter Harvey eased their way into what should be starting roles once the season opens. Akin, Zimmermann, Dean Kremer and several others could be in Baltimore by late summer. For a franchise focused on the future, its first fresh wave of talent is on the way. That was the theme of spring, as well.
The Rays' front office felt comfortable not making any key offseason additions to a pitching staff that finished first in the American League with a 3.65 ERA. While that’s risky, due to how volatile staffs are on a year-to-year basis, the pitching staff showed exactly why the front office was so confident through the first four weeks of Spring Training. Despite Blake Snell receiving a cortisone shot, the Tampa Bay rotation was sharp over the last few weeks. Ryan Yarbrough and Yonny Chirinos -- who are both trying to make a case to become full-time starters -- both shined in their starts, with Chirinos entering camp 15 pounds lighter and topping out at 96 mph. Charlie Morton and Tyler Glasnow picked up where they left off in ‘19, and Snell feels healthy, despite having to miss a start. But while the rotation looked poised to be one of the best in the AL, the bullpen looked just as filthy. Nick Anderson, Diego Castillo and Chaz Roe were lights out, while Oliver Drake, Colin Poche, Pete Fairbanks and Andrew Kittredge also showed consistency. Then there’s José Alvarado, who looks primed to have a bounceback season in ‘20, giving the Rays yet another flamethrower out of the bullpen.
For the Red Sox to hang in the race early in the season without ailing ace Chris Sale, they would need the 1-2 tandem of Eduardo Rodriguez and Nathan Eovaldi to be strong. if not dominant. If their Grapefruit League performances were any indication, that might actually be realistic and not a pipe dream. Rodríguez is 26 and coming off the best season (19-6, 3.81 ERA, 213 strikeouts) of his career and is at the age where he can still get better. In three Spring Training starts, he had a 1.64 ERA and an eye-popping 20 strikeouts and just two walks over 11 innings. Eovaldi was a much bigger question mark coming into the season than E-Rod because he was injured and inconsistent last season. But Eovaldi has come in healthy and looking much like the pitcher who dominated in the ‘18 postseason. Eovaldi didn’t give up a run in his three Grapefruit League appearances, walking one and striking out 12 over eight innings.
After setting a Major League record by having 30 players serve 39 stints on the injured list, the Yankees appeared primed for a repeat early this spring, losing Aaron Judge, James Paxton, Luis Severino and Giancarlo Stanton for extended periods. General manager Brian Cashman had ruled Judge (fractured right rib) and Stanton (right calf strain) out for Opening Day, but with that date pushed back by at least two weeks, it now seems likely that the Bombers will have both of their slugging outfielders in the lineup when the season begins. Paxton has resumed playing catch and believes he could be ready to pitch in Major League games sometime in the middle of May.
While there were guys like Franmil Reyes or Shane Bieber who caught plenty of attention during the team’s stint in Arizona, it’s the future of the Tribe’s bullpen that made the lasting impression. In 2019, the Indians’ relief corps collectively averaged the slowest fastball velocity among all 30 teams, but in camp, the team got a glimpse of three hard-throwing hurlers who could all make an impact in 2020. James Karinchak showed improvement with his fastball command and combining that upper 90s heater and his lethal curveball with Emmanuel Clase’s triple-digit cutter, once he’s healthy, could be a deadly combination. While most expected to see those two this year, many weren’t expecting non-roster invitee Anthony Gose to excel the way he did in his six spring outings. The outfielder-turned-pitcher touched 100 mph on the radar gun and also caught his coaching staff’s attention with his breaking ball, striking out nine in 5 2/3 frames. The lefty may not make the Opening Day roster, but he’s quickly established himself as an option at some point during the year.
The Royals knew one area they had to improve dramatically going into 2020: The bullpen. In 2019, only one team had a worse bullpen (Baltimore), so if the Royals are to make a jump in 2020, it has to start with the relief corps. So far, so good. Free-agent signings Trevor Rosenthal and Greg Holland were superb in spring. Rosenthal, hitting 99-102 mph on the radar gun, was not touched for a run in five spring outings. Holland was 3-0 with a 4.50 ERA, though that ERA ballooned after one shaky outing. And right-hander Josh Staumont, who also can hit 102 mph, had 10 strikeouts in six innings and did not allow a run. The back end of the bullpen -- Ian Kennedy (30 saves), Scott Barlow and Tim Hill -- was solid down the stretch last year. Add Rosenthal, Holland and Staumont, and the Royals could be much better in the ‘pen in 2020.
While the performance of top prospects, like Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal, was a big reason for encouragement about the Tigers’ future, the key takeaway for the present is that Miguel Cabrera is looking healthy and swinging the bat well. It doesn’t necessarily mean his chronic knee issues are behind him, but his 10-for-29 (.345) performance with three home runs in 12 games -- one homer to the opposite field, one to straightaway center and another crushed to deep left-center -- was a reflection of his return to his old swing, now that he can generate some power off his back leg again. If he can keep that swing going to all fields and take it into the regular season, the Tigers will have a potent run producer again -- maybe not at the 30-homer pace of his prime years, but a 15- to 20-homer season could be realistic.
The broad expectation is that the Twins -- seemingly in all-in mode after their offseason acquisitions of Josh Donaldson, Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda and others -- are poised to enter the 2020 campaign as one of the favorites to emerge from the field in the AL. This spring showed that the future is just as bright -- if not brighter. The youngest generation of big league arms -- Randy Dobnak, Zack Littell and Cody Stashak, among them -- was nothing short of spectacular in Grapefruit League play, while the next generation of power arms like Jhoan Duran, Dakota Chalmers and Edwar Colina showed promising glimpses of their fiery fastballs and quality offspeed stuff. Oh, and don’t forget the impressive showings from the organization’s “big three” prospects. Royce Lewis (No. 1) overcame a slow start to flex his power stroke late in camp, while No. 2 Alex Kirilloff (1.264 OPS) and No. 3 Trevor Larnach (1.175 OPS) ran laps around the competition from start to finish. This spring served as one of many indications that this organization should have the makings of a strong contender for years to come.
They have been written about. They have been talked about. But after watching them playing together over one month in Arizona, there’s no question the White Sox have developed a talented young core ready to win as soon as this 2020 season. Luis Robert exhibited signs of five-tool talent during Cactus League action, finishing 10-for-30 with two doubles, one triple, one home run and three stolen bases. He is joined by Yoán Moncada, who had a 2019 season worthy of MVP consideration, defending AL batting champion Tim Anderson and slugging left fielder Eloy Jiménez. Even young players such as catcher Zack Collins and first baseman Andrew Vaughn, who won’t open the season with the team, showed during this stretch they aren’t far off from significant big league contributions. And general manager Rick Hahn has done a good job locking down this core, including a five-year, $16 million deal for left-handed reliever Aaron Bummer and a five-year, $70 million deal for Moncada reached during Spring Training.
The Angels kept it loose under new manager Joe Maddon and the pitching was better than expected. Angels starters pitched well and new pitching coach Mickey Callaway preached throwing strikes and getting ahead of hitters. But right-hander Griffin Canning sustained an elbow injury, which hurts their depth. There’s a chance he could be back in May, but the Angels will know more by early April. This team should score a lot of runs, but pitching remains the key as they aim for their first postseason berth since 2014.
After losing Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton and Gerrit Cole in the last two offseasons -- and despite adding Zack Greinke at the Trade Deadline last year -- the Astros’ lack of starting pitching depth is a concern. That became especially true when ace Justin Verlander experienced a lat strain on March 9, an injury that, at the time, put his status for Opening Day in doubt. Even now that Verlander has more time to heal with the start of the season being delayed, the Astros are relying on Lance McCullers Jr., who missed all of last year coming off Tommy John surgery, and José Urquidy, who burst on the scene last year and capped his season with five scoreless innings in Game 4 of the World Series. Beyond that, the rest of the rotation has huge question marks. Can Josh James keep his mechanics in check? Will Austin Pruitt benefit from a move to Houston? Can Framber Valdéz throw strikes? If ever there was a time for their top prospect, pitcher Forrest Whitley (No. 19 overall by MLB Pipeline), to get it together, this is it.
While the A’s have been known to strike fear into their opponents due to a potent offense the past couple of seasons, it’s Oakland’s starting rotation that has the club believing it will get over the Wild Card hump and make a deep playoff run in 2020. A’s No. 1 prospect Jesus Luzardo has looked spectacular this spring as he is poised to make his anticipated move to the starting rotation. Frankie Montas and Mike Fiers appear to be in a battle over who starts Opening Day as each right-hander came into camp looking sharp. Sean Manaea continues to improve his slider after getting tips from Randy Johnson and A’s No. 3 prospect A.J. Puk will now have more time to heal from a mild shoulder injury as he’s expected to join fellow electric lefty Luzardo in the rotation. Should the A’s get over the heartbreak of back-to-back Wild Card Game losses, it will likely come on the backs of strong contributions from their starting staff.
Seattle’s youth movement is definitely underway and, not surprisingly, it figures to come with both highs and lows. First baseman Evan White and right fielder Kyle Lewis, two rookies destined for starting roles, have had solid camps. Rookie starting pitchers Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn also have looked sharp, along with a handful of promising young relievers. But second baseman Shed Long Jr. is off to a slow start and the entire lineup has largely struggled, with the Mariners 14th out of 15 teams in Cactus League scoring. The team’s top two prospects -- outfielders Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez -- provided plenty of early buzz and figure to eventually be impact players, but the 19-year-old Rodriguez went just 2-for-13 with six strikeouts before being reassigned to Minor League camp. Kelenic, 20, slumped after a quick start, batting .231 with one homer in 26 at-bats in 13 spring games.
The Rangers have had no issues with their projected five starters. Corey Kluber has shown no ill effects from his 2019 injuries and seems confident he has cleaned up whatever delivery issues he was experiencing last year. Kyle Gibson looks strong and over his long ordeal with ulcerative colitis. Mike Minor had a hamstring issue that cleared up quickly, Jordan Lyles is focused on adding a changeup and Lance Lynn doesn’t like letting cheeky No. 1 Draft picks get the better of him. It’s a good camp for a rotation when the two biggest mysteries are who will start the season opener and who will start the home opener at the new Globe Life Field.
While much of the camp’s focus centered on when Austin Riley might be ready to become the starting third baseman, the biggest concern many evaluators had was the rotation. The decision to delay the start of the regular season might benefit the Braves, who may now spend a much more significant portion of the schedule with Cole Hamels in the rotation. Hamels has not yet been cleared to resume his throwing exercises. But if his left shoulder remains healthy, there is a chance he could be activated during the second half of May. The rotation could also benefit from the seemingly rejuvenated Félix Hernández, who was fashioning one of Spring Training’s best comeback stories. But the key will be Mike Soroka’s bid to remain a Cy Young Award candidate and Mike Foltynewicz’s renewed attempt to possibly become one.
A month may be a small sample size, but the Marlins saw enough to believe the future looks bright for baseball in South Florida. That’s because many of their top prospects lived up to the hype in Spring Training. They are now knocking on the door to become big league regulars. Outfielder Monte Harrison (No. 9) and right-hander Nick Neidert (No. 10) were still in big league camp, when Spring Training was suspended, and if they don’t make the Opening Day (whenever that is) roster, they will start off at Triple-A Wichita. Camp also was a chance for the organization to get a close look at prospects -- Jazz Chisholm (shortstop), Jesús Sánchez (outfielder), Lewin Díaz (first base) and right-hander Edward Cabrera. Each of these prospects are on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 list, and they each could earn their way into the big leagues at some point in 2020.
Now that the Mets feature one of baseball’s deepest lineups and a much-improved bullpen, it’s almost easy to forget that this is a team perennially built around starting pitching. The early weeks of Spring Training provided a reminder. In his final start of the Grapefruit League season, Jacob deGrom hit 99 mph on the radar gun as he lowered his ERA to 1.29. He’ll start Opening Day, whenever that might be. Noah Syndergaard and Marcus Stroman also enjoyed fine Grapefruit League showings, while the three starters purportedly fighting for jobs -- Rick Porcello, Steven Matz and Michael Wacha -- all posted sub-3.00 ERAs. When it comes time for new manager Luis Rojas to choose his starting five, he’s going to have a difficult decision to make.
The Nationals are operating under the pressure of defending their title in 2020 with an air of dissatisfaction. How so? Juan Soto is still just trying to make the team, and was outwardly discontent after he hit his first Grapefruit League homer. The pitching staff is eager to compete, but knows it needs to ease into intensity after a prolonged fall. Many members of the club plan to stay in Florida to remain in playing shape after the spring slate was cut short. With several additions and a one key subtraction -- Anthony Rendon -- the Nationals are keeping themselves fueled to repeat by any means necessary.
The Phillies signed Zack Wheeler and Didi Gregorius over the offseason, but perhaps the biggest reasons for optimism in camp were manager Joe Girardi and pitching coach Bryan Price. If you read any Phillies stories this spring then there is no doubt you know how excited Phillies pitchers are to be working with Girardi and Price. Girardi, because he is known to run a good bullpen, which was a source of frustration for Phillies relievers the last two seasons. Price, because Phillies starters believe they have a pitching coach who can help them make adjustments and work with each of their strengths.
Brewers Spring Training was shaping into a story about depth, a test of the theory that GM David Stearns and manager Craig Counsell could answer the departures of prime free agents Yasmani Grandal and Mike Moustakas with a “strength and numbers” approach to the position-player group. But that changed suddenly to a focus on one superstar, Christian Yelich, who inked a nine-year contract in the first week of March that could keep him in a Brewers uniform through 2029. It was a record-setting commitment for the franchise, which will face the challenge of building a championship-caliber roster around Yelich once his salary jumps in 2022. For now, the sides can celebrate the fact that the team’s most popular player is staying put.
From refined swings to the usage of technology, many parts of the Cardinals’ offense have led to a positive outlook over the bulk of Spring Training. Top prospect Dylan Carlson is knocking on the door of the big leagues, and veteran Matt Carpenter has said he’s felt better at the plate in the first month of spring than he did most of last season. But the biggest takeaway comes from the Cardinals’ strength: Pitching. Even with Miles Mikolas recovering from a right flexor tendon strain (the season delay could help his timeline), the Cardinals are loaded with pitching. From Daniel Ponce de Leon to Austin Gomber to Carlos Martínez to new Korean left-hander Kwang-Hyun Kim, the Cardinals have, not just depth, but quality of depth that has shown this spring. If these pitchers can stay in shape during this shutdown, the coaching staff will have a tough decision on what the rotation -- and the bullpen -- will look like come the start of the season.
New manager David Ross said over the offseason that he hoped players would experience some “shock” over the changes in Spring Training. Already, Ross has indeed put his stamp on the team. Early in camp, Ross declared Kris Bryant the new leadoff man, shaking up the top of the lineup. The manager made a statement by saying Yu Darvish or Kyle Hendricks would be his pick as the Opening Day starter (whenever that day arrives), rather than veteran Jon Lester, Ross’ friend and former batterymate. The daily workouts have been very businesslike, with only some pre-workout pop-a-shot basketball to keep things loose, on occasion. And the bulk of the roster battles (second base, bullpen, center field and bench roles) remain unsettled. Out of the chute, Ross has operated like a seasoned manager, not one who is just learning the ropes.
Things really are different. New general manager Ben Cherington set out to create a “player-centered” culture, and the Pirates have responded well to it. They’ve also taken well to first-time manager Derek Shelton’s more laid-back approach, focusing on intentional work over early-morning eyewash. Perhaps the biggest difference was on the pitching side, where pitching coach Oscar Marin and bullpen coach Justin Meccage worked to implement a more data-driven, individualized program. There were smaller changes visible throughout camp -- more technology in use, analytics staff in uniform, fewer motivational messages posted around the clubhouse. Whether any of that will translate into more success on the field remains to be seen, and Cherington has been clear that the Pirates are building “toward” a winning team at some point. But the early returns led to a largely positive, optimistic atmosphere this spring.
Although they never got a chance to roll out their Opening Day-type lineup with all of their regulars, the Reds’ revamped offense showed some life and it’s a good sign for their chances to contend. Shogo Akiyama has been as-advertised with his skills of putting the ball into play and getting on base -- which will be crucial to creating run-scoring chances during the season. Mike Moustakas missed nearly a week on paternity leave, but hit a couple of home runs and has fit into the clubhouse. Nick Castellanos missed a week, also, because of illness. Meanwhile, the club was optimistic about third baseman Eugenio Suárez being able to fully return from the right shoulder surgery he had in January. Same goes for center fielder Nick Senzel, who was limited to DH duty as he also works back from September right shoulder surgery. And even though he was batting .095 before the stoppage of play, Joey Votto was tied for the MLB lead in walks and said he was starting to feel like himself again at the plate and making good swings.
The 2019 season may just be a starting point rather than a high-water mark for Ketel Marte, who hit .329 with 32 homers and finished fourth in the NL MVP voting. Marte homered in his first spring at-bat and continued to rake after that. When baseball operations were halted, Marte was hitting .375/.444/.625. While it’s true that spring numbers can often mislead, Marte has been hitting the ball hard, while showing his trademark confidence.
“I hit 32 last year so it doesn’t surprise me,” he said with a smile when asked about his first spring homer.
At this point, another big season from Marte would not surprise anyone around the D-backs, and that’s good news for them because he is the engine that makes their offense go.
The Dodgers came into Spring Training with a fully loaded roster after the acquisitions of Mookie Betts and David Price. They pause with little changed, which is a good thing. Aside from temporary injuries to outfielder Joc Pederson and young pitcher Dustin May, they are healthy, especially shortstop Corey Seager, which is news in Spring Training. They enjoy placement in a division with no apparent challenger. The batting order is relentless, the starting rotation potentially dominating and the bullpen showing signs of improvement with Kenley Jansen on the Driveline bandwagon. It’s unclear if top prospect Gavin Lux will be given the starting second-base job, as he was last September, or if catcher Will Smith has solved his late-season offensive dip, but management is confident it has the depth to continue winning regardless.
Non-roster invitee Darin Ruf emerged as the biggest revelation of the spring for the Giants, hitting .429 (12-for-28) with nine extra-base hits, including three home runs, over 14 Cactus League games. Ruf, 33, hasn't played in the Majors since 2016, as he spent the past three seasons in the Korean Baseball Organization, where he crushed a total of 86 home runs for the Samsung Lions. The Giants will have to determine whether Ruf's performance is more than a small-sample mirage, but if they believe his power will play in the big leagues, he could end up snagging a spot on the Opening Day roster as an outfielder or backup first baseman.
The future of the Padres’ rotation is bright. Chris Paddack appears poised to take the next step forward. Dinelson Lamet seemed downright unhittable at times; he worked nine innings over three starts and allowed just four baserunners while striking out 11. Garrett Richards and Zach Davies offer solid veteran options, as well. But behind that group, MacKenzie Gore and Luis Patiño are nearing their breakthrough. Results-wise, the two top prospects endured an up-and down camp. But their stuff plays against big league hitters, and the Padres came away as encouraged as ever. When the season resumes, it’s still probably a battle between Cal Quantrill and Joey Lucchesi for the No. 5 spot. But it won’t be long before Gore and Patiño join the fray.
“Man, it’s going to be exciting,” Paddack said last week. “Obviously you don’t look ahead too far. You take it one year at a time. But it’s hard to not think about those moments two, three years from now, thinking about what the rotation might look like.”
Kyle Freeland looks as if he’ll be Kyle Freeland again. The left-hander finished fourth in the National League Cy Young Award race in 2018, and finished fourth in the NL in ERA at 2.85. Last year was polar opposite -- 3-11 and a 6.73 ERA with two trips to the injured list and one to Triple-A Albuquerque. But toward the end, Freeland revamped his motion -- cutting out intentional hitches that he had used to disturb hitters’ timing -- and his final appearances were positive signs. This spring, he made two starts. Although they were spaced out because of a back strain that occurred toward the end of his first appearance, the results were better. Freeland being himself and righty Antonio Senzatela showing maturing offspeed pitches -- with German Márquez and Jon Gray pitching well, also -- served as signs the rotation could rebound.