“Pitchers and catchers report” feels a little different this February relative to previous years for obvious reasons, but even in these strange times in which we live, Spring Training is a special time.
It begins, officially, with the first of the pitcher and catcher report dates today. So as players begin to infiltrate camps in Florida and Arizona, let’s assess the eight biggest storylines of the spring.
1. Game of adjustments
To the litany of health and safety measures that players, coaches, and staff had to abide by in the shortened 2020 season, we add a new code of conduct that includes contact tracing devices and a quasi-quarantine throughout Spring Training. Exhibition attendance will be limited, access restricted.
On the field, this spring is a time for National League pitchers to pick up a bat again with the expectation that the universal designated hitter rule will no longer apply (unless MLB and the MLB Players’ Association bring that issue back to the table prior to Opening Day). Florida teams will play a more regionalized schedule than in years past, and managers can agree to shorten exhibition games if nine innings are not deemed necessary.
So, like so much else in our world, Spring Training is going to look a lot different this year.
2. Stretched thin?
Injuries -- particularly pitching injuries -- are an unfortunate, unavoidable side effect of those good Spring Training vibes. But teams are bracing themselves for more than the usual number of iffy arms this spring, simply because of how the 2020 schedule became upended by the mid-spring shutdown and the mid-summer ramp-up.
Starters will be stretching out in preparation for a 162-game season on the heels of an unprecedented 60-game season (Astros lefty Framber Valdez’s 94 2/3 regular season and postseason innings were the most in MLB), and every team will have its own approach.
Those who successfully navigate this challenge and break camp at something resembling full strength will be that much better positioned for the regular season.
3. Too many arms?
No team appears better equipped to handle the above than the Dodgers, who extended their already deep assemblage of arms with the Trevor Bauer signing. And if health does cooperate, the defending World Series champs are going to have some difficult decisions to make.
Julio Urías, Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin all deserve the opportunity to start, but there’s only so much room at the inn. Does L.A. put any of those arms in the bullpen, or are May and Gonsolin now Triple-A bound after their strong rookie seasons? Does David Price get dealt? Does Bauer get his wish of starting every fourth day? (That last one seems pretty doubtful.)
4. New treasures along the Treasure Coast
There’s a lot of star power strolling into the Cardinals’ clubhouse in Jupiter, Fla., and the Mets’ clubhouse in Port St. Lucie. Nolan Arenado is the NL’s top player, by bWAR, over the last seven seasons. Francisco Lindor is MLB’s top shortstop, by bWAR, over the last six. It’s a big deal for even one player of this kind of caliber to be suiting up with a new squad, let alone two, and both Arenado and Lindor bring leadership along with their gloves and lumber.
Barring injury, the success of those blockbusters will obviously not be dictated by the Grapefruit League outcomes. But for the fan bases involved, those first images of Lindor and Arenado fielding ground balls and taking BP in their new unis will be a big thrill. And because of the regionalized Grapefruit League schedule, the Cards and Mets will face each other in six of their 24 games, so these two stars will see a lot of each other this March.
5. Meet the new boss
In a couple cases, the new boss is the same as the old boss. Alex Cora regains the reins of the Red Sox after a year in baseball exile, and the primary organizational goal will be getting the pitching, which now includes Garrett Richards in the rotation and Adam Ottavino in the bullpen, back on track.
And Terry Francona returns to the Tribe after missing the majority of 2020 -- including the AL Wild Card Series -- due to health issues. Francona is a familiar face in Goodyear, Ariz., but his Cleveland club looks a lot different (and younger) with Lindor, Carlos Carrasco and Carlos Santana gone. There are a lot of options to sort through at center field, shortstop and first base.
The only two legitimately new hires are in the AL Central. A.J. Hinch takes over an increasingly interesting Tigers team with rising rotation talent. But the biggest managerial story of the spring is in Glendale, Ariz., where 76-year-old Tony La Russa goes back to work with the White Sox nearly a decade after his “retirement” and seven years after his Hall of Fame induction. How will he mesh with the young and surging Sox?
6. The bounce-back bunch
Spring Training is a time for players returning from injury to get their groove back.
That’s what the Yankees are hoping for from new additions Corey Kluber, who threw just one inning last year due to a shoulder issue, and Jameson Taillon, who threw zero because of his recovery from Tommy John surgery. The Nationals hope the second year of Stephen Strasburg’s mega-extension goes a lot better than the first, when carpal tunnel surgery limited him to five innings. Astros slugger Yordan Alvarez is coming back from major knee surgery, Cardinals right-hander Miles Mikolas from forearm surgery, Braves righty Mike Soroka returns from an awful Achilles injury and new Blue Jays reliever Kirby Yates will be back from an elbow procedure.
But the comeback kid everybody’s rooting for is the O's Trey Mancini, who missed last season while undergoing chemotherapy for Stage 3 colon cancer and has been deemed ready to join the Orioles in Sarasota, Fla.
7. Youth will be served
The lack of a Minor League season in 2020 dramatically altered the developmental paths for many prospects. And obviously, service-time stipulations have been to known to affect timetables for player promotion. But there are plenty of highly touted young players who could find themselves on Opening Day rosters if they come through in camp.
Atlanta’s Cristian Pache (No. 12 overall prospect, per MLB Pipeline) could nail down the Braves’ center-field job after getting four at-bats in the 2020 regular season and showing some dazzling defense in the postseason. White Sox first baseman Andrew Vaughn (No. 14 overall) and his power bat could be employed in the DH role. Pirates third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes (No. 9), Cardinals outfielder Dylan Carlson (No. 13) and Twins outfielder Alex Kirilloff (No. 26) should all have a spot in Opening Day lineups.
Meanwhile, a bunch of pitchers from the Top 100 Prospects list are either penciled into roster spots or could claim one if injuries or performance dictate, including the Blue Jays’ Nate Pearson (No. 10 overall), the Tigers’ Casey Mize (No. 11) and Tarik Skubal (No. 24), the Marlins’ Sixto Sanchez (No. 15), the Rays’ Luis Patiño (No. 19), the Mariners’ Logan Gilbert (No. 33), the White Sox’s Michael Kopech (No. 39), the Astros’ Forrest Whitley (No. 41), the Phillies’ Spencer Howard (No. 42), the Indians’ Triston McKenzie (No. 51) and the Yankees’ Clarke Schmidt (No. 88).
8. Free agency isn’t over!
Let’s not forget that, as we write this, three members of our top 25 free agents list -- Jackie Bradley Jr., Jake Odorizzi and Taijuan Walker -- are still available. Same goes for Trevor Rosenthal, Rick Porcello, other pitching pickups and scores of role players or usable pieces (Yasiel Puig, anyone?).
So, clubs that do encounter injuries or unforeseen circumstances have options out there. And of course, the trade market could percolate again, particularly late in camp. That might not necessarily mean a Kris Bryant blockbuster is in the offing, but it does mean the transaction wire is still very much open for business.
And thankfully, so are Spring Training camps.