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Stoneman Douglas honored as spring games begin today

Special caps worn, signed, and auctioned, with proceeds going to victims fund
MLB.com @castrovince

Players will take the field in a game designed to be diversion. In most years, the exhibition openers at Major League Baseball's Spring Training camps would qualify as just that -- a welcomed respite from the troubles of the world. But not in this country, and not in this moment of mourning.

What happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School this month has left many a soul shaken and searching. To pretend something as silly as a sport should go on without acknowledgment of what's on our minds and in our hearts would be a fool's errand.

Players will take the field in a game designed to be diversion. In most years, the exhibition openers at Major League Baseball's Spring Training camps would qualify as just that -- a welcomed respite from the troubles of the world. But not in this country, and not in this moment of mourning.

What happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School this month has left many a soul shaken and searching. To pretend something as silly as a sport should go on without acknowledgment of what's on our minds and in our hearts would be a fool's errand.

So every MLB team with a spring tilt on the Grapefruit and Cactus League schedules Friday will wear black caps with the maroon "SD" of Stoneman Douglas, where 17 people -- including 14 students and three staff members -- were killed in a mass shooting on Feb. 14. They'll honor the victims and support the survivors via action and auction, a small but necessary salute at a time when it's important to remember the good we can accomplish together.

Tweet from @TMacBrighton: Today we will wear these STONEMAN DOUGLAS caps to honor the victims of last week's tragedy. Please keep an eye out for the auction which will benefit victims and families. #ParklandStrong pic.twitter.com/yMHUJGF0p3

Much of the baseball world was watching when Stoneman Douglas alum and Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo returned to the school where the baseball field bears his name and gave an emotional address in which he reminded the people of Parkland, Fla., that "the entire country is grieving with you."

Now, Rizzo's peers will provide a visual reminder of the same.

"I think it's awesome, I think it's cool," Rizzo said. "Obviously, it's deeper ties for me than the rest of the league, but it's really neat that Major League Baseball is recognizing what happened in the country."

Video: Rizzo speaks at vigil for Parkland victims

It began with the Marlins, who both reside and train less than an hour from Parkland, requesting permission from the Commissioner's Office to wear the caps. The idea soon spread -- as good ideas tend to do -- to all 30 clubs. So every active team and umpiring crew will wear the caps pregame Friday (the Royals and Rangers are off, so will instead don the hats on Saturday) and have the option of wearing them in-game. The caps will then be signed and auctioned off to raise money for the Broward Education Foundation, which will benefit the official Stoneman Douglas Victims' Fund.

Rockies prospect Colton Welker, another Stoneman Douglas alum, is still in shock of the events that transpired. He's happy to help any way he can, even from 2,000 miles away.

Video: Marjory Stoneman Douglas HS alum Welker on tragedy

"I was taken aback when I heard about [the cap initiative]," said Welker, who will be in uniform tomorrow. "It's going to be beautiful for the people to think of [the school] in a positive way instead of dwelling on the past."

Rizzo, whose Cubs play a 3:05 p.m. ET game at Maryvale Baseball Park against the Brewers, will be the most significant participant in the honor.

"If he's in the lineup, it would be that much more special to wear the caps," said Brewers starter Brent Suter. "He does so much for baseball. It would be big-time emotion."

Video: Martinez talks moment of silence for Parkland victims

And the emotion will extend to Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium in Jupiter, Fla., a mere 50 miles from the school. For their 1:05 p.m. ET game, the Marlins and Cardinals will also wear "MSD" patches over their hearts on their jerseys. Marlins outfielder Lewis Brinson, who played at Coral Springs High School -- just five miles from Stoneman Douglas -- will proudly wear the hat and letters of his high school rival.

"I'm honored to wear something like that to represent what happened," Brinson said. "I'm sure my coach and everybody that played with me will be all right for this cause. Obviously, it was a tragic day in Parkland that day. I'd be happy to wear their shirt, whatever we need to do. I'll wear the shirt under the jersey if they'll let us. Just to represent them that day, it will be special."

Mets reliever Anthony Swarzak, who grew up in Broward County, and whose sister and cousins are graduates of Stoneman Douglas, is especially eager to show his support.

"Man, I think that's great," he said. "I think it's going to be a cool thing for the school and for the kids, not just those involved with baseball, just to see that the league is really thinking about them and what they've been through. I hope that they realize that they're not in this alone. That everybody really is reaching out and here for them for any kind of support and anything that they need."

Baseball's show of support may not solve the big-picture issues being discussed in the wake of the Stoneman Douglas shooting, but just because a gesture is small doesn't mean it won't be a step in a positive direction. As we've seen, the school has many students demonstrating incredible poise, strength and unity in the wake of this life-altering experience.

"I think it's definitely important to wear this hat, just to show that we care," Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong said. "We're not living on our pedestals, being professional athletes. We know what's going on in the world."

In the aftermath, many issues will be debated, and baseball may seem insignificant in times like this. But there's no ignoring what happened at Parkland. Not even at the park.

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns, listen to his podcasts and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.

Stanton's Yanks debut tops opening spring slate

MLB.com

The months of waiting are finally over -- there are 15 Major League Baseball games on Friday.

They're "only" Spring Training games, of course, but there'll be plenty to watch for when almost every team takes the field for their Cactus and Grapefruit League openers.

The months of waiting are finally over -- there are 15 Major League Baseball games on Friday.

They're "only" Spring Training games, of course, but there'll be plenty to watch for when almost every team takes the field for their Cactus and Grapefruit League openers.

Watch 11 games Friday on MLB.TV

That goes especially for the big names playing their first games in new uniforms. The biggest: Reigning National League Most Valuable Player Award winner Giancarlo Stanton, who is set to put his immense power on display for the first time in pinstripes.

Stanton, traded from the Marlins to the Yankees in exchange for Starlin Castro and prospects Jorge Guzman and shortstop Jose Devers this offseason, will take the field for his first Spring Training game as a member of the Bronx Bombers on Friday vs. the Tigers. First pitch is scheduled for 1:05 p.m ET at George M. Steinbrenner Field.

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

Stanton won't be the only big name in a new jersey. Some of his former star Marlins teammates will also be in action with their new squads. Christian Yelich is slated to debut for the Brewers against the Cubs (3:05 p.m. ET), and Dee Gordon will get his first action in center field for the Mariners when they take on the Padres (3:10 p.m. ET).

Gordon has been working on learning the new position since his trade to Seattle in December, but Friday will be the speedster's first game as an outfielder.

All teams in action Friday will be wearing special Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School baseball caps before the game to honor the victims of the tragic shooting that killed 17 -- 14 students and three staff members -- at the Parkland, Fla., school on Feb. 14. Teams will also be allowed to wear the caps during their games.

Video: Granderson on Marjory Stoneman Douglas memorial caps

The effort that started with a few Grapefruit League teams requesting to wear the caps quickly spread throughout the Majors, and soon, all 30 clubs had decided to participate in the tribute. Many will also be signing and auctioning off the caps following the games to raise money for the Broward Education Foundation, which will benefit the official Stoneman Douglas Victims' Fund.

Here is what else to watch for in baseball throughout the day:

Defending champs debut: Nationals at Astros, 1:05 p.m. ET

The World Series-champion Astros are set out to reclaim their spot atop the baseball world, and their quest to do so begins with Friday's Grapefruit League opener vs. the Nationals. The contest is available for viewing on MLB Network.

Video: Bregman on World Series parade and the offseason

Regulars Jake Marisnick, Alex Bregman and Evan Gattis will be in the lineup for Houston opposite Washington left-hander Tommy Milone, who is looking to turn around his career with the club that drafted him back in 2008.

Cards pitching prospects debut: Cardinals at Marlins, 1:05 p.m. ET

The starting pitcher for the Cardinals' Spring Training opener will definitely be one worth watching -- Jack Flaherty, the club's No. 2 prospect per MLB Pipeline. The 22-year-old right-hander is the No. 38 prospect in the Majors entering the 2018 season, with only Alex Reyes ahead of him in the St. Louis farm system.

Video: Top Prospects: Jack Flaherty, RHP, Cardinals

The hurler who will finish the game for the Cards is also noteworthy in his own right: Cardinals No. 7 prospect Jordan Hicks, a flame-throwing 21-year-old righty who could be a future closer in St. Louis. He'll bookend the game with Flaherty -- Flaherty is scheduled to pitch the first two innings and Hicks the last two.

Meet the Mets: Braves at Mets, 1:10 p.m. ET

All eyes will be on new Mets manager Mickey Callaway when he calls the shots for his first game in blue and orange. The Mets have a veteran clubhouse, so their opener in Port St. Lucie, Fla., will be nothing new for most of the players, but it's a different story for the rookie skipper. 

There will be a few new faces on the field, too. Todd Frazier and Adrian Gonzalez are both scheduled to make their Mets debuts after New York signed them as free agents this offseason.

Video: Frazier talks the Mets' talent and staying healthy

Also, be sure to watch Zack Wheeler on the mound and Brandon Nimmo at the top of the order. Wheeler's spring will be an audition for a rotation spot, and Nimmo could see significant time in the leadoff spot this season.

Giant debut on deck for Cutch: Brewers (SS) at Giants, 3:05 p.m. ET

Offseason acquisition Andrew McCutchen is slated to start in right field when the Giants open their Cactus League slate against Milwaukee. Hunter Pence, who is set to shift to left field with the addition of McCutchen, is also expected to be in the starting lineup when San Francisco faces a split squad of Brewers.

Video: Giants welcome new additions to team

Ty Blach, a favorite to claim one of the two vacancies in San Francisco's starting rotation, will lead the parade of available pitchers for the Giants, while right-hander Aaron Wilkerson will get the call for Milwaukee.

Oliver Macklin is a reporter for MLB.com based in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter at @basebollie.

David Adler is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @_dadler.

Take a tour around the league on Photo Day with a look at familiar faces in new uniforms

The first weeks of Spring Training offer a fun annual tradition in baseball known as Photo Day. Some of the best pictures to look at are players who changed teams -- donning their new uniforms and looking swanky. The offseason brought a number of changes, but it's especially intriguing to see these 15 players with their new clubs.

Venters hoping to make historic comeback

Former Braves All-Star trying to become first pitcher to come back from 3 Tommy John surgeries
MLB.com @castrovince

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- They pulled out the jersey recently. Its resplendent red lettering and 2011 All-Star insignia are reminders of a day when the left sleeve was wrapped around an arm that was one of the most dominant relief weapons in the big leagues.

Little Wyatt Venters put the jersey on and flashed a proud smile as it hung ludicrously loose from his 6-year-old body. And that, his father will tell you, is the kind of moment that testifies to what this keep-driving-until-the-wheels-fall-off journey through four elbow surgeries, including three Tommy Johns, is all about.

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- They pulled out the jersey recently. Its resplendent red lettering and 2011 All-Star insignia are reminders of a day when the left sleeve was wrapped around an arm that was one of the most dominant relief weapons in the big leagues.

Little Wyatt Venters put the jersey on and flashed a proud smile as it hung ludicrously loose from his 6-year-old body. And that, his father will tell you, is the kind of moment that testifies to what this keep-driving-until-the-wheels-fall-off journey through four elbow surgeries, including three Tommy Johns, is all about.

As we sit here, on a hot Florida morning with the sky so blue and all that epic Spring Training optimism in the air, it has been 1,963 days since Jonny Venters last pitched in the big leagues. His most recent appearance came in the 2012 National League Wild Card Game, which doubled as Chipper Jones' final game. And Jones is now headed into the Hall of Fame this summer.

Rays' Spring Training information

That's how long it's been.

But here we sit outside the Tampa Bay Rays' clubhouse, and here's Venters, in big league gear, in a big league camp, and he's telling you that his elbow doesn't hurt. And it's enough to make you believe, because there is no easier player to root for in the game right now, especially when you think about what Venters' return would mean for Wyatt and for his little brother Walker.

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

"One was little and I think one was in my wife's stomach the last time I pitched in the big leagues," Venters says with a smile. "They're 6 and 4 [years old] now. They both play baseball and are starting to understand it and what I do. One of the coolest things would be to see my boys when I'm in a big league stadium atmosphere. That would be pretty special."

There was a time when what Venters did on the mound was special. He was unhittable in the eighth, the left-handed complement to Craig Kimbrel.

Now, though, the soon-to-be 33-year-old has a chance to be a different sort of special. It's unprecedented for a three-time Tommy John recipient to make it back to the big leagues, as Venters is trying to do. But Venters is also a veteran of a fourth procedure -- a sort-of "half-Tommy John" -- that itself is also extremely unusual. And that procedure might be the one that keeps his long-burning dream of getting back to the bigs alive.

"It's been a long road," his wife, Viviana, says. "It almost doesn't seem real."

Video: 2011 ASG: Venters gets first two outs of the seventh

From anonymous to unhittable
Venters' unusual medical history begins the way, unfortunately, so many pitchers' medical histories do -- with a torn ulnar collateral ligament.

For Venters, it happened in Class A with the Braves, in late 2005. At that point, Venters was 20 years old -- just your ordinary, obscure 30th-round Draft pick out of high school (Lake Brantley High School in Altamonte Springs, Fla.) trying to pitch his way onto the radar. Tommy John surgery was an upsetting proposition but not a daunting one. Hundreds of pitchers have it, and hundreds return to a level at or nearing their norm. It was a bump in the road, not a dead end.

"It was tough, just the time of being that young and being away from the game for a year," Venters says now. "But physically, it was easier, because I was younger."

Venters came back in 2007 and eventually converted full time to reliever as he worked his way up Atlanta's Minor League system. And from the time he was summoned to the big leagues on April 17, 2010, he was a force of nature. Or rather, a freak of nature, because you just don't see many left-handers throwing 96-mph sinkers and pairing them with baffling breaking balls.

Video: ATL@LAD: Venters strikes out the side in the eighth

During the next two seasons, Venters compiled a 1.89 ERA. He struck out 27 percent of the batters he faced. Those who managed to get ahold of Venters' sinker put it on the ground 78 percent of the time. Those who had the audacity to swing at his slider swung right through it 33 percent of the time.

Want a testimonial to Venters' talent? Here's a pretty good one.

"I hated facing Venters," Giancarlo Stanton says. "He was nasty."

This is a good time to remind you that Stanton, who went 1-for-7 with three punchouts in his career off Venters, is right-handed.

So Venters was matchup hell for everybody, and his star aligned perfectly with that of righty Kimbrel, who came of age as the Braves' closer not long after his May 2010 callup, and fellow lefty Eric O'Flaherty, an Atlanta waiver claim gone right. The trio became so inextricably linked in the minds of fans (and opponents) that they came to be known as "O'Ventbrel" -- a nickname that wasn't exactly overflowing with originality but was appropriately as truncated as the innings in which they pitched.

"I say it all the time, when people refer back to that stretch of a couple years in Atlanta," Kimbrel says, "it made my job easier having those two guys in front of me, because those two guys were so nasty and so efficient. If we got to the seventh with a one-, two-, three-run lead, it was going to stay there until the ninth."

Video: Venters, Kimbrel on impressive run from 2010-2012

For Venters, the apex of the ascension was that 2011 NL All-Star nod, which came via the vote of his peers. It was a high compliment and quite an accomplishment for a non-closer, and it was deceptively easy to assume that, for Venters, it was only the beginning.

That is, until the soreness set in.

Out of the limelight, under the knife
Across the 2010 and '11 seasons and postseasons, Venters' 176 1/3 innings pitched were second among relievers only to Tyler Clippard (179 1/3). And for a time in his rookie year, he had the bad habit of throwing 50 pitches in his warmups, until teammate Billy Wagner talked him out of that.

In other words, Venters liked to throw. You combine all that usage with a ligament six years past its installment date, and what happened in 2012 seems obvious, in retrospect. The throbbing in Venters' left elbow would hound him after outings and didn't go away after a disabled-list stint. His numbers suffered, and he figured the feeling in his ailing arm was one he'd just have to get used to. It wasn't until the following spring of '13, when Venters took the mound in a Grapefruit League game in Lakeland, Fla., and felt a similar sensation to the one that had first put him on the shelf back in '05, that he knew what had happened.

That was Tommy John No. 2.

"I think because my first one was successful, when I had my second, I didn't worry about it not working," Venters says. "That probably worked against me. Because once I started throwing after the second one, I probably threw too much, too hard, just because that's kind of what I did the first time, and it had worked. But I was older, and it was the second surgery and I probably just didn't go at it like I should have.

"That second one was a struggle the whole time."

Video: ATL@HOU: Venters fans three in scoreless eighth

Venters missed all of 2013 and began '14 on the 60-day DL. It took him until August of that year -- 15 months, post-operation -- to proceed to so much as a live batting practice session. And just seven pitches into that session, the all-too-familiar feeling returned.

Accompanied by Viviana, Venters visited Dr. James Andrews. After reading the MRI, the doctor spent some time alone in a hallway, trying to find the right words to relay that Venters would need yet another surgery. When he did deliver the news, Viviana, who had wanted to stay strong for her husband, couldn't help but break down in tears.

"I probably should have just stayed home," she says now. "That one was pretty hard."

That was Tommy John No. 3.

How many pitchers have made it back to the big leagues after their third Tommy John? Technically, none. Though Jose Rijo and Jason Isringhausen are often cited to have had at least three Tommy Johns apiece, Jon Roegele's oft-cited Tommy John database does not recognize either pitcher as a three-time recipient of the surgery, because, for each guy, at least one of the surgeries addressed a flexor tendon tear, not a UCL tear.

Practicing at Daddy's work today!

A post shared by Viviana Venters (@vivianamventers) on

Venters has the dismal distinction of being the only guy on the list thrice. When he went under the knife that third time, he promised himself it would be the last, whether it worked or not.

It did not.

The half-Tommy John
The Braves released Venters at the end of 2014, but the Rays, knowing good left-handed relief is hard to find, signed him to a two-year deal that would give him the time he needed the recover. The goal was to have Venters back in the big leagues by the end of '16, and, for one fleeting moment in the summer of '16, it appeared possible. On June 4 of that year, Venters finally took the mound in a professional setting -- a Class A game in the Florida State League pitting the Charlotte Stone Crabs against the Tampa Tarpons. He worked a scoreless inning and got the fastball up to 94 mph.

It was a long, long way from 2012 and a long, long way from the big leagues. But it was progress.

"I was nervous. I was excited," Venters says. "It ended quick, though."

Video: NYY@ATL: Venters strikes out two in scoreless ninth

Venters was just five appearances into his rehab stint when he blew out the elbow yet again.

Surely, this had to be the final setback.

"I thought I was pretty much done," Venters says.

Beyond that whole "definition of insanity" thing is the physical reality the body can only handle so many elbow reconstructions. It is an invasive procedure that requires drilling into the bone, and doctors fear a fourth surgery involving a by-now weakened bone can cause a dangerous break.

But as unlucky as he was, Venters was fortunate in the sense that his ligament graph had, according to an evaluation from Dr. Neal ElAttrache, survived this latest injury unscathed. The way Dr. ElAttrache explains it, a person is born with a ligament layer and a tendon layer in his or her elbow, with separate stresses and strains of those two layers. For Tommy John recipients, the two layers scar together, meaning stress and strain of one layer affects the other. But in Venters' elbow, the doctor was able to clearly see that the tendon had split underneath the attachment site to the bone.

"I told him that if I could anchor some suture into the existing graph and then sew up the tendon scarred to that ligament and do it with minimal invasion to the bone," ElAttrache says, "I thought I could do this and prevent any catastrophic complications that can happen after third-time redos."

This was the most encouraging news Venters had heard in years. The procedure, which ElAttrache had previously performed on big league pitcher Shawn Kelly, wouldn't require as long a recovery time as Tommy John, and Venters had the support of his family -- and, importantly, the Rays -- to move forward.

"If you have nothing to lose, why not try again?" Viviana says. "If you can't, you can't. You come home. But the reward is so much greater than the risk of just trying. So why not?"

One last chance
So that's how we got here, to Charlotte Sports Park, where a left-hander wearing No. 49 throws his bullpen sessions and plays catch with the use of an elbow that, for the moment at least, is a source of possibility and not pain.

"It's way too soon to declare victory on this," ElAttrache says. "But he's having no pain, and he feels really good. So it's functioning every bit the way I hoped it would at this point. I know how much he wants it, and I'm just sort of living and dying with him with this."

Video: BAL@ATL: Venters tosses scoreless ninth vs. Orioles

Venters pitched 23 2/3 innings during four different Minor League levels last year, striking out 29 batters, allowing six runs and showing glimpses of the stuff he once had. He doesn't throw as hard as he once did. Venters doesn't throw as often as he once did. But he's throwing, and his confidence in his ability to get back in a big league game is growing.

"You can see the dedication with which he's gone after this," Rays vice president of baseball operations Chaim Bloom says. "And also what he does for other players around him. Every single person who comes in contact with Jonny ends up rooting for him, and he has a wonderful, positive effect on everybody around him. That makes it really easy to want to keep trying with somebody, even through some adversity."

There's an adage in baseball that as long as you are left-handed and breathing, you will always find a job. Venters is taking that notion to an unusual extreme, but he's got people in his corner across the industry.

"It sounds like he's getting pretty close," Kimbrel says. "That's exciting, as a friend and as a [former] teammate, to see him getting back in the league. It had to have been a full-family effort. I'm hoping the best for him, because I know the kind of guy he is and the kind of teammate he is."

His biggest fans! So proud of how far he has come!

A post shared by Viviana Venters (@vivianamventers) on

The recovery from three surgeries since his last big league appearance has given Venters and his family profound perspective on what it would mean to get back.

Wyatt and Walker don't yet totally grasp the distinction between the Minor Leagues and the Major Leagues (Walker recently told his dad, "I really hope you get to play for the Stone Crabs again!"), but Viviana, who gave birth to the couple's third child, daughter Evie Grace, mere weeks ago, is already vowing to bring the newly expanded family from its Gwinnett County, Ga., home to wherever the clan has to go to see Jonny pitch, should that magic moment arrive.

"This time around, we're not going to take anything for granted," Viviana says. "We'll try to travel as much as we can and take it all in, because you just never know when it's going to end. Looking back, man, we were so lucky to even get that opportunity that most people never get. I want to make sure the boys see how far he's come."

It would be the greatest comeback story in baseball this year. Thanks to that recent foray into the souvenir stash, Jonny Venters knows what it's like to see his young son wearing a Major League jersey. Soon, if the elbow allows and if all the hard work and patience is rewarded, young Wyatt might get to see his dad do the same.

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns, listen to his podcasts and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.

Tampa Bay Rays, Jonny Venters

Dark-horse roster candidates for all 30 teams

MLB.com @_dadler

With the first Spring Training games being played this week, there are sure to be players who emerge with breakout performances to win an Opening Day roster spot.

There are bound to be surprises as the roster battles shake out. But while Spring Training is still in its early days, MLB.com is taking a crack at predicting just which players will be on the team come the end of camp.

With the first Spring Training games being played this week, there are sure to be players who emerge with breakout performances to win an Opening Day roster spot.

There are bound to be surprises as the roster battles shake out. But while Spring Training is still in its early days, MLB.com is taking a crack at predicting just which players will be on the team come the end of camp.

Here are dark-horse candidates to make the Opening Day roster from all 30 clubs.

American League East

Red Sox: Boston's roster will be hard to crack after the recent signings of J.D. Martinez and Eduardo Nunez, but players like Marco Hernandez could still earn a spot with the defending American League East champs. More >

Yankees: Like their archrivals, the Yankees have a loaded roster, but that doesn't mean a dark horse or two, like Tyler Austin or Tyler Wade, couldn't end up on the team. More >

Rays: The Rays have made a slew of moves this offseason, and it's created the potential for some interesting candidates to crack the roster -- including young guns like Willy Adames. More >

Video: Top Prospects: Willy Adames, SS, Rays

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

Blue Jays: Toronto's chief dark-horse candidates this spring are relievers looking for a bullpen role. But there is also Ezequiel Carrera, who is trying to prove he doesn't deserve to be squeezed out of the outfield rotation. More >

Orioles: Pay attention to the O's Spring Training opener -- the guy starting it, Mike Wright Jr., just might make the team. And he's not the only one who could get a spot on a starting rotation that needs to improve. More >

AL Central

Indians: The Indians' dark-horse roster candidates are an exciting bunch featuring one of the game's top prospects in Francisco Mejia, plus a recent breakout rookie, a veteran hoping for a rebound and a Tribe cult hero. More >

Video: Francona on catching situation, Mejia's development

Twins: Minnesota has roster spots open in a few areas -- the fifth starter, the bullpen, backup catcher, bat off the bench -- and the players to fill them could be a youngster like Zack Granite or someone with more experience. More >

Royals: The rebuilding Royals will have a wide-open camp this spring. Two of their chief dark-horse candidates are former first-round Draft picks, Hunter Dozier and Kyle Zimmer, who could finally make a big league impact. More >

White Sox: The White Sox have a loaded farm system. Will elite prospects like Michael Kopech be with the big league club when Spring Training ends? Or will less-heralded prospects or veteran competitors like Hector Santiago end up making the team? More >

Tigers: Even though the Tigers are rebuilding, their roster won't be filled with all prospects, leaving players like Alexi Amarista and Jim Adduci as dark-horse candidates to win a spot. More >

AL West

Astros: The World Series champs' roster is about as loaded as they come, but Houston still has some bats that could end up on the team in a reserve role if they have a strong spring, like Tyler White or A.J. Reed. More >

Angels: Just two years ago, Chris Carter was his league's home-run champion. Now, he's a dark-horse candidate looking to make the Angels' roster, and he's not the only one. More >

Mariners: Ryon Healy's surgery to remove a bone spur from his hand on Valentine's Day has opened the door for dark horses like Mike Ford and Matt Hague to make the Mariners' roster in the corner infield. More >

Rangers: The Rangers need to fill out their pitching staff and have a number of dark-horse candidates who could fit the bill. They'll also be taking a long look at Rule 5 Draft pick Carlos Tocci. More >

A's: Every A's fan wants to see A.J. Puk. Could the top pitching prospect force their hand with a dominant spring? More >

Video: Puk on second Spring Training, working on mechanics

National League East

Nationals: Top prospect Victor Robles gave Nats fans a taste of what he could do last year, and this time, he just might be in the big leagues to start the season. More >

Marlins: All the Marlins' trades this winter mean a whole lot of roster spots are up for grabs, and they might want to see talented prospects like Zac Gallen and Braxton Lee on the field. More >

Braves: The Braves' trio of dark-horse roster candidates is led by veteran left-hander Scott Kazmir, who could be a steadying influence on a young team -- but the other two are youngsters themselves. More >

Mets: The Mets' additions of veterans during the offseason closed some of their potentially open spots, but players like Dominic Smith might still play their way onto the Opening Day roster. More >

Video: Dominic Smith makes impact with Mets in 2017

Phillies: Will the Phillies find a hidden gem in Spring Training? Their dark-horse roster candidates this year include a waiver claim (Zac Curtis), an impressive Minor Leaguer (Tom Eshelman) and a longtime Major League stalwart trying to make a comeback (Francisco Rodriguez). More >

NL Central

Cubs: The Cubs' deep and talented roster doesn't have any holes at the top, but the defending NL Central champs would be happy if a backup catcher like Victor Caratini, an extra outfielder or a bullpen arm emerged during camp. More >

Brewers: As the Brewers try to push their way into the playoffs in 2018, they could turn to a pitcher like Taylor Williams and his electric arm to help fill out their roster. More >

Cardinals: The Cardinals struck gold last year when Jose Martinez mashed his way onto the roster, and they just might have another diamond in the rough like Conner Greene or Adolis Garcia. More >

Pirates: The Pirates are trying to fill out their outfield and their bullpen, and they have a ton of candidates to slot in. Will dark horses like Jordan Luplow or Jordan Milbrath emerge to take the spots? More >

Reds: Nick Senzel would have to have an exceptional spring to break camp on the Major League roster. But he's one of the top prospects in baseball for a reason. More >

Video: Senzel on taking reps at short during Spring Training

NL West

Dodgers: The Dodgers' roster has all the makings of a powerhouse team, as usual. It'll be hard to crack their roster, but familiar faces like Trayce Thompson and Adam Liberatore just might do it. More >

D-backs: New key acquisitions Jarrod Dyson and Steven Souza Jr. will take up two D-backs roster spots, but dark-horse candidates like John Ryan Murphy and Neftali Feliz could make the team, too. More >

Rockies: As the Rockies look to make the playoffs again in a strong division, reliever Zac Rosscup and hitters Jordan Patterson and Noel Cuevas are among the dark-horse candidates to make the roster and help them do it. More >

Padres: The Padres have spring competitions all over the roster, and the dark-horse candidates to take the spots are an intriguing mix of up-and-comers, like Franchy Cordero, and throwbacks, like Tyson Ross. More >

Video: TEX@CLE: Ross tosses six solid frames

Giants: The Giants' front lines have filled in thanks to their big-ticket offseason acquisitions. But they have plenty of qualified candidates for reserve roles, like Andrew Suarez and Jarrett Parker, and Spring Training will decide the winners. More >

David Adler is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @_dadler.

Marlins pay tribute to Stoneman Douglas

MLB.com @JoeFrisaro

JUPITER, Fla. -- The Marlins took the field on Friday sporting a new look while being united in a common cause.

Each of the 68 players in camp wore a black cap with a maroon "SD" on it and an MSD Strong T-shirt, paying tribute to victims of the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14. All 30 MLB clubs wore similar caps.

JUPITER, Fla. -- The Marlins took the field on Friday sporting a new look while being united in a common cause.

Each of the 68 players in camp wore a black cap with a maroon "SD" on it and an MSD Strong T-shirt, paying tribute to victims of the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14. All 30 MLB clubs wore similar caps.

Video: MLB on Parkland tragedy, plans to honor victims

"It's not just touching one community, it's touching everybody," Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. "It's a good feeling to be able to do something. There's really no words that can help, but when you know other people are thinking about you and you're not alone, it is a nice gesture on the part of the league."

Parkland is about a 30-minute drive from the Marlins' Spring Training home at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium.

"We're going to show our support out on the field, and use our brand to support South Florida and the people in Parkland," shortstop Miguel Rojas said. "I've been living in Miami now close to three years, and I feel part of this community. It's important for us to be supportive of those families and those people. Because I have a son now, and I know at some point he's going to go to school."

For their Grapefruit League opener against the Cardinals, the Marlins also wore a special tribute patch on their jerseys.

"After that happened, this is the least we can do is to show our support," Rojas said. "It's going to be really important for us to show our support. It's really important for us to wear those jerseys and those hats. We're going to wear it with a lot of pride. To the community and South Florida, we're trying to show our support."

Video: Mattingly discusses honoring Parkland victims

Outfielder Lewis Brinson is a Coral Springs, Fla., resident, and Stoneman Douglas was his rival high school.

On Friday, he proudly wore the Stoneman Douglas cap and colors.

"I'm honored to wear something like that to represent what happened," Brinson said. "Obviously, it's for a tragic cause, but it's the least we can do for the community -- to represent them, and for them to know we have their back, and to symbolize that."

Joe Frisaro has covered the Marlins for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @JoeFrisaro and listen to his podcast.

Miami Marlins

Red Sox still examining Martinez's physical

Special to MLB.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The official announcement of power hitter J.D. Martinez, and his much-needed bat for the middle of Boston's lineup, will have to wait at least another day.

After the 30-year-old free agent reportedly agreed to terms on a $110 million, five-year contract on Monday, he was seen walking into JetBlue Park just before 8 a.m. ET on Wednesday for his physical.

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The official announcement of power hitter J.D. Martinez, and his much-needed bat for the middle of Boston's lineup, will have to wait at least another day.

After the 30-year-old free agent reportedly agreed to terms on a $110 million, five-year contract on Monday, he was seen walking into JetBlue Park just before 8 a.m. ET on Wednesday for his physical.

Red Sox Spring Training: Info | Tickets | Schedule

A Red Sox spokesperson said that there would be no announcement Thursday because the club was still doing due diligence on Martinez's physical. The club is hopeful to make the deal official on Friday.

In the clubhouse, it looked like the spot for his locker was ready -- there was an empty one in between those of Dustin Pedroia and Hanley Ramirez.

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

Left-handed pitcher David Price, Martinez's former teammate in Detroit, was gushing over the work the power hitter puts in each day.

"Him and Victor [Martinez] would hit all day long," Price recalled. "Victor was the DH and J.D. was right field. They'd get to the field early, hit in the cage and go out for BP. Then when BP was over, they'd go back to the cage and be in the cage again before the game.

"He takes a lot of swings. He's always working ... turned himself into a really good hitter."

Martinez wields the type of pure power bat the Red Sox missed so much in 2017 -- David Ortiz's first year in retirement. He belted 45 homers last year in just 432 at-bats.

His hard work has paid off after he was released by the Houston Astros in 2014. In the 520 games since Houston let him go, he has produced a line of .300/.362/.574 with 128 homers and 350 RBIs.

Boston's move to get Martinez was dictated by both finishing last in the American League with just 168 homers last season, and seeing the rival Yankees acquire Major League home run king Giancarlo Stanton in a trade from the Miami Marlins during the offseason.

"We're all excited to be able to add a hitter like that, especially in this division with the Yankees making a move themselves," Price said.

It's likely ramped up the rivalry, too.

Video: Benintendi talks Martinez's arrival to Red Sox camp

"I just know both teams are going to be really good," outfielder Mookie Betts said. "It seems like the rivalry is going to be like a slugfest on both sides."

Price also felt like Martinez will fit in fine into Boston's high-volume atmosphere of media coverage of the team.

"Yeah, he's got my vote. He's different than me," the lefty said. "We didn't talk anything about baseball. Me and J.D. have continued to be friends ever since we were teammates in Detroit. We've always continued to check in on each other."

And Price even offered some advice for his friend.

"Go play baseball. Go be yourself," he said. "Go be the hitter you've been since, I think, it was 2014 when he had that breakout season in Detroit. He's a great dude, he's quiet and is going to go about his business and he's going to hit a lot of homers for us."

Ken Powtak is a contributor to MLB.com who covered the Red Sox on Wednesday.

Boston Red Sox, J.D. Martinez

Top Rays prospect faces elbow surgery

Rays righty will get 2nd opinion but expects to undergo Tommy John
MLB.com @wwchastain

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Rays top prospect Brent Honeywell has a torn ulnar collateral ligament, and Tommy John surgery has been recommended.

Honeywell threw batting practice on Thursday, but he had to leave after experiencing pain in his right forearm.

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Rays top prospect Brent Honeywell has a torn ulnar collateral ligament, and Tommy John surgery has been recommended.

Honeywell threw batting practice on Thursday, but he had to leave after experiencing pain in his right forearm.

"It's a disappointment," Honeywell said. "... I knew what I had to do to make the club. Some unfortunate things happen. I'll bounce back from it. Looking forward to helping the club whenever I get back, whenever that might be."

According to MLB Pipeline, Honeywell is MLB's No. 12 prospect.

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

"It's very unfortunate," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "You feel for him more than anything -- not necessarily for us, even though it is a loss -- a guy we all had high hopes for and will continue to have high hopes for.

"I talked to him briefly yesterday. He's going to be fine. He's young. He'll bounce back. He'll work really hard to get back quick and follow what the doctors and trainers give him and make the most of it."

Honeywell noted that he shares a common belief among pitchers that Tommy John surgery is inevitable.

"I think people don't understand that," Honeywell said. "It's either going to go or it's not. It was one pitch. It was the first pitch to [Wilson] Ramos, and I felt it pop.

"... It's like my dad said, 'That's the nature of the beast.' We sign up to be pitchers. Bad things happen every now and then. There's a couple of things that you can prevent, but I don't think this is one of them. It's either going to go or it's not, the way I look at it."

Honeywell didn't need anybody to tell him what had transpired.

"Right when it happened, I knew what it was," he said.

Adding frustration to the situation was the way Honeywell was throwing the ball when the injury occurred.

"What I was throwing out there yesterday was some powerful stuff," Honeywell said. "And that's the most powerful I've been in seven pitches my whole career right there. That's what frustrates me the most."

Honeywell spent Thursday afternoon at the office of team orthopedic Koco Eaton, who confirmed Honeywell's suspicion. Though he recommended Tommy John surgery, he told Honeywell he should get a second opinion. Honeywell plans to get the second opinion, even though he's already made up his mind to have the surgery.

Honeywell said he's not exactly sure when that surgery will take place, but he added, "I want to get the show on the road. I don't want to be waiting around. I want to get it done. I want to be ready to go as quick as possible."

Due to the many off-days early in the season, the Rays plan to use a four-man rotation in April. Included in that rotation are Chris Archer, Blake Snell, Jake Faria and Nathan Eovaldi. They will expand to five pitchers in May, which could have been the starting point for Honeywell's Major League career. That won't happen now, but Cash said Honeywell has already made his mark within the organization.

"You can look at it a couple of different ways," Cash said. "I'm looking at it he's checked off a lot of boxes in his development in the last two years. It could be better now than earlier or even later once he got to the big leagues. He might not see it that way, but for what he's accomplished the last two years, he should get healthy and pick up where he left off [once he returns]."

Bill Chastain has covered the Rays for MLB.com since 2004.

Tampa Bay Rays, Brent Honeywell

Ohtani preps for Saturday debut with long HR

Two-way phenom to face Brewers in first appearance, live on MLB.TV
MLB.com @mi_guardado

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Japanese two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani will make his highly anticipated Cactus League debut on the mound Saturday at 1:10 p.m. MT, when the Angels host the Brewers at Tempe Diablo Stadium (watch live on MLB.TV). Ohtani is expected to start and pitch around two innings, marking his first career game in a Major League environment.

"I feel like this will be a big step forward for me and my career in the Majors Leagues," Ohtani said via interpreter Ippei Mizuhara on Thursday. "I'm really happy at this point. This is going to be my first start in the States, so I'm pretty sure a lot of things aren't going to go my way, but that's OK. I just need to find what I need to adjust."

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Japanese two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani will make his highly anticipated Cactus League debut on the mound Saturday at 1:10 p.m. MT, when the Angels host the Brewers at Tempe Diablo Stadium (watch live on MLB.TV). Ohtani is expected to start and pitch around two innings, marking his first career game in a Major League environment.

"I feel like this will be a big step forward for me and my career in the Majors Leagues," Ohtani said via interpreter Ippei Mizuhara on Thursday. "I'm really happy at this point. This is going to be my first start in the States, so I'm pretty sure a lot of things aren't going to go my way, but that's OK. I just need to find what I need to adjust."

While Spring Training games tend to be inconsequential affairs this early in camp, Saturday's matchup will undoubtedly generate far more buzz given the fascination with Ohtani, who is seeking to become the Majors' first two-way star since Babe Ruth. A horde of media, mostly from Japan, has been intensely tracking Ohtani's every move this spring, and the 23-year-old's start will be broadcast live in his home country, where first pitch will be at 5:10 a.m. on Sunday.

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

Because he signed a Minor League deal with the Angels in December, Ohtani is technically in camp as a non-roster invitee, though he is a virtual lock to make the club's Opening Day roster. Ohtani, for his part, feels he still needs to prove that he belongs in the Angels' rotation.

Angels Spring Training info | Tickets

"Results do matter to me," Ohtani said. "I've said in the past that I need to prove that I need to earn a spot in the rotation. I just need to see where I'm at and take each step."

Video: Ohtani discusses throwing live batting practice

Ohtani threw a bullpen session on Thursday in preparation for his upcoming start and also took batting practice for the first time at Tempe Diablo Stadium. The left-handed slugger put on quite the show during his hitting session, launching a home run over the batter's eye and drawing cheers from teammates and fans alike. For perspective, the center-field wall at Tempe Diablo Stadium is 420 feet from home plate, and the batter's eye stands 30 feet high.

Ohtani followed up with another monster shot, crushing a homer over the scoreboard in right field. Ohtani, who is known for his humility, said afterward that the wind was carrying in his favor.

Video: Trout discusses riding in a golf cart with Ohtani

"Of course, the wind was another factor," Ohtani said. "I am starting to see the ball and hit the ball a little better. I'm just enjoying fooling around with my teammates. I'm just having fun out there right now."

Ohtani will not bat in a game on Saturday and Sunday, so the earliest he could make his debut in the Angels' lineup would be Monday.

Maria Guardado covers the Angels for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Los Angeles Angels, Shohei Ohtani

Tebow time: Former QB still has eyes set on MLB

MLB.com @MikeLupica

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- This was not long before Tim Tebow went outside for batting practice and hit a ball to a storage-shed roof, or perhaps Fort Pierce.

For now, Tebow is in a side room off the Mets' clubhouse, a 30-year old Minor Leaguer in big league camp, a guy who once was one of the greatest college football players of all time, a former NFL quarterback and, oh by the way, still one of the most famous athletes on the planet. High profile, even in the low Minors.

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- This was not long before Tim Tebow went outside for batting practice and hit a ball to a storage-shed roof, or perhaps Fort Pierce.

For now, Tebow is in a side room off the Mets' clubhouse, a 30-year old Minor Leaguer in big league camp, a guy who once was one of the greatest college football players of all time, a former NFL quarterback and, oh by the way, still one of the most famous athletes on the planet. High profile, even in the low Minors.

It was supposed to be a big publicity stunt -- the Mets signing Tebow, giving him this chance. But he is still here, grinding away, persistent in the thought that this crazy story ends up with him at Citi Field someday, after a full year of bus rides from one Minor League town to the next.

If this has just been some kind of celebrity hustle on Tebow's part, an effort to keep himself in the spotlight, you have to say he made it pretty hard for the spotlight to follow him around.

Tweet from @AnthonyDiComo: Your daily Tim Tebow update: He just hit the roof of a storage shed beyond the right-center field fence during BP. His power is legitimate. pic.twitter.com/vlmMLWE5D7

I asked Tebow on Thursday morning what the longest bus ride was.

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

"Columbia, S.C., [where he began his season with the Class A Fireflies] to Lakewood, N.J.," Tebow said. "Thirteen hours. Or maybe it was closer to 15. Two stops."

Tebow grinned.

"Then, there were the nights in places like Lexington [Ky.], when it would be a 3 1/2-hour festival on their version of the jumbotron of the worst interceptions I ever threw," Tebow said. "That was always fun."

Tebow is the most famous Minor League baseball player since Michael Jordan played for the Birmingham Barons 20 years ago. And by the way? Mets general manager Sandy Alderson was running the A's when Jordan was about to go to Birmingham, the Double-A affiliate of the White Sox. Alderson said Thursday that before that happened, he called David Falk, Jordan's agent, and offered Jordan a spot with the A's.

"Obviously, [Tebow] isn't that," Alderson said. "These are different people and different stories. But my thinking at the time on Michael went something like this: 'Why the heck not? What if he could actually do it?'"

Jordan gave up baseball after one season in Birmingham. Tebow, who hit .226 with eight home runs and 52 RBIs for Columbia and Class A Advanced Port St. Lucie, is still here, in big league camp, likely on his way to Double-A Binghamton this season.

I asked Tebow if he ever asked himself what he was doing when he was on the road from South Carolina to New Jersey.

"Oh, sure, those thoughts creep in," Tebow said. "And then, you know, you've got to be mentally tough and spiritually tough. Being physically tough, that's actually the easiest part of it for me. But then I adjust back to the reason I'm on the bus, and the reason I'm doing this. That's because I love it, because I'm passionate about it.

Video: Tim Tebow looks back at the 2017 season

"It's why I pride myself on being one of the first ones here in the morning, and one of the last ones to leave. From the start, I've focused on the process, and not what I want the end result to be, which means playing in the big leagues someday."

Tebow is a big brand. A huge brand. He runs a foundation that does good, important and kind work all around the world. Tebow has written one bestselling book and is working on another. He has 4.75 million Twitter followers. He really is the most famous .226 hitter on the planet.

But Tebow does not quit. He still thinks he can outwork everybody. Of course, this is still a crazy long shot for Tebow. But why would anybody not root for it to somehow pay off? Why would anybody think him taking this shot, still dreaming his dreams, but willing to fail, isn't cool?

"I know people want to put a timetable on this," Tebow said, his Spring Training day about to begin, a baseball about to be hit out of sight. "But I don't. I honestly feel as if I'm getting better. I still love the process."

Video: Tebow hits walk-off homer for St. Lucie Mets

I asked Tebow if he looks back now and wishes he had focused on baseball as a kid instead of football.

"I could never say that," Tebow said. "Even though [former Florida football coach] Urban [Meyer] did have more than a few conversations about me playing baseball. But the football experience for me was such a blessing. It gave me such an incredible platform to do the things I've been able to do off the field."

"Look," Alderson said, "this is a guy who's hosted more than 200 proms around the world for kids with special needs. So obviously, we've realized from the start that this wasn't just another Minor League ballplayer. But what I have seen from him as a ballplayer is a quality individual, once great at another sport, who's now great at the commitment to trying to succeed in this sport."

The Mets' GM paused, then said, "This whole thing is genuine with Tim Tebow. Maybe people have a difficult time processing that because they've become too conditioned to people in this world not being genuine."

Alderson said that Tebow isn't taking someone else's spot in big league camp. He says that obviously the track for Tebow, fast or otherwise, is going to be different because he is now 30 years old, and will turn 31 in August.

When I asked Tebow how he sees himself as a better hitter than he was a year ago, he said, "I feel as if I have a freer and more athletic swing than I did. I have a better understanding of technique, even though I understand that the variables will change as the pressure and level of competition rise. The main goal for me is that when I do make an effective change in my swing, I lock it in and am able to take it into games with me."

The Mets' Grapefruit League season starts on Friday, when they host the Braves at 1:10 p.m. ET. Tebow, a former big football star, will get the chance to show he belongs. And then, he will likely be on his way to Double-A.

"I can handle the buses," Tebow said.

Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com. He also writes for the New York Daily News.

New York Mets, Tim Tebow

Bregman, Astros to begin title defense on MLB Network

Gattis, Marisnick also in line to play; Astros working on baserunning; McCann not taking BP
MLB.com @brianmctaggart

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Alex Bregman, Evan Gattis and Jake Marisnick will be the only regulars in the starting lineup for the Astros in Friday's 12:05 p.m. CT Grapefruit League opener against the Nats at FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. Bregman will play shortstop, Gattis will be the designated hitter and Marisnick will be in center field. The game will be available live on MLB.TV and MLB Network.

Astros manager A.J. Hinch said Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa will play for the first time on Saturday against the Braves, George Springer will play on Sunday against the Cardinals and Josh Reddick will make his spring debut Monday in one of the split-squad games.

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Alex Bregman, Evan Gattis and Jake Marisnick will be the only regulars in the starting lineup for the Astros in Friday's 12:05 p.m. CT Grapefruit League opener against the Nats at FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. Bregman will play shortstop, Gattis will be the designated hitter and Marisnick will be in center field. The game will be available live on MLB.TV and MLB Network.

Astros manager A.J. Hinch said Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa will play for the first time on Saturday against the Braves, George Springer will play on Sunday against the Cardinals and Josh Reddick will make his spring debut Monday in one of the split-squad games.

Astros Spring Training information

"It's all over the map, based on how we want to map out the next five days," he said.

The Astros have a split-squad Monday -- against the Mets in West Palm Beach and the Marlins in Jupiter -- so everyone will get to play.

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

"We're looking for volunteers to play a couple of positions in the second half of the game on Monday," Hinch joked.

Right-hander Rogelio Armenteros is scheduled to start Friday, with Mike Hauschild, Matt Ramsey, Reymin Guduan and Buddy Boshers among those scheduled to pitch as well. Tommy Milone will start for the Nationals, who will be the visiting team.

Baserunning fundamentals a key

One of the few areas Houston would like to improve next season is on the bases. The Astros ran into too many outs last year, which is partly a product of the club being aggressive and partly from having so many baserunners.

Still, Hinch said his players could improve their primary and secondary leads off the base and their overall baserunning fundamentals.

"We're a dangerous baserunning team, when it comes to how many athletes we have and how many extra bases we can take, and if you're into the numbers, we take as many bases as anyone," he said. "We also run into a few outs and that's a little bit of a give and take. Not every out you run into is misery, yet we love every time we can take extra base -- first to third, first to home or second to home, or the stolen bases.

"If we can put pressure on teams and alter the plan for the pitcher, it's advantage hitter. We've got a good hitter going up to bat every time. It's part of our culture and part of our strength. We just need to tighten it up a little bit."

McCann not taking BP

Veteran catcher Brian McCann won't face live pitching until he makes his Grapefruit League debut this weekend. McCann said Thursday he hasn't taken live batting practice (against his own team's pitchers) for about a decade, after getting plunked by a few pitches during live BP earlier in his career.

"I got hit back in the day and I haven't hit live BP in probably 10 years," said McCann, whose beard is graying. "We have so much time down here that you get plenty of at-bats, plenty of pitches. I'm not standing in there."

As he prepares to catch another full season at 34 years old, McCann says he's feels healthy.

"You use this time to get your body under you, get your legs going. A.J. does an amazing job with us and letting us into our schedules so we can get going -- not at our own pace, but you know what you need to do before your first game."

Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.

Houston Astros, Alex Bregman, Brian McCann

George Clooney once tried out for the Reds but just could not hit a curveball

George Clooney was the most recent guest on David Letterman's new Netflix show "My Next Guest Needs No Introduction." Along with talking about his movies, his ever-enduring (YOU MAKE US LOOK SO BAD, GEORGE) good looks and his amazing wife Amal -- the Oscar winner, of course, talked about baseball. Weirdly enough, Clooney once tried out for the Reds in 1977. Yes, the Big Red Machine Reds.

Female umpire works plate during Tigers win

Jen Pawol is one of two women umpiring in pro ball
MLB.com @MannyOnMLB

One of two women umpiring in professional baseball was behind home plate for the Tigers' 6-1 exhibition victory over Florida Southern University in Lakeland, Fla., on Thursday.

Jen Pawol worked a game involving a Major League team for the first time in her career, which has spanned 11 years, most recently in the Short Season Class A New York-Penn League last year.