Spring Training has begun not just with the sun shining on placid parks, like usual, but also with a furious flurry of movement. We’ve seen players hustle to report after the lockout was lifted, and we’ve seen teams making a multitude of overdue signings and swaps at the onset of Hot Stove 2.0.
Though the pace of pacts is not likely to slow anytime real soon, at some point this Spring Training will be like all those before it -- oriented not around the transaction wire but around the process of preparing for the season.
With that in mind, here is one guy from each team who we’ll be keeping a close eye on. Whether it’s a star returning from an injury or a young prospect aiming for his first job in the big leagues, these are the most interesting players in every camp.
Blue Jays: Nate Pearson, RHP
Two years ago, before the COVID-19 shutdown, Pearson was the talk of the Grapefruit League, seemingly on the cusp of impacting the Toronto rotation in a big way. But injuries have clouded Pearson’s picture (he has a 5.18 ERA in 33 innings). And with the acquisitions of José Berríos, Kevin Gausman and Yusei Kikuchi since last July, as well as the instant success of Alek Manoah, Pearson has been left in the rotation rearview for now. Newly healthy, can he assume an important spot in the bullpen? Does an injury open a rotation spot for him? Or does Toronto’s former top prospect become trade bait?
Orioles: Adley Rutschman, C
He’s the No. 1 prospect in the game, per MLB Pipeline, and he’s in his third big league Spring Training camp. Regardless of whether Rutschman cracks the O’s Opening Day roster, his performance -- as well as that of right-hander and No. 8 overall prospect Grayson Rodriguez -- this spring will give us a window into how soon the O’s can be expected to turn the corner.
Rays: Josh Lowe, OF
Lowe, the Rays’ No. 4 prospect, slashed .291/.398/.535 at Triple-A Durham last year and could be ready for a regular spot in the Rays’ outfield. But first, the Rays would have to clear a spot for him. It’s no secret that the names of veterans Kevin Kiermaier and Austin Meadows have come up in trade talk. A strong spring from Lowe could force the issue, or a trade could happen earlier in camp that puts him in the limelight.
Red Sox: Jackie Bradley Jr., OF
Remember nine years ago, when Bradley had such a sensational spring that it seemed reasonable to rename JetBlue Park “JBJ Park”? Now, he’s back in the building as a nearly 32-year-old veteran looking to reclaim his career after an outright terrible year in Milwaukee (.163/.236/.261). If Bradley can assert himself in center or right field this spring, it would sure go a long way toward solving the Red Sox’s roster puzzle in which Kiké Hernández rotates between second base and center and Hunter Renfroe’s departure (in the Bradley swap) looms large.
Yankees: Luis Severino, RHP
Don’t let the Yanks’ new-look infield after a blockbuster trade distract you from the Severino storyline, because he is as important to this team’s title hopes as anybody. He’s made just seven appearances in the big leagues since 2018, when he finished ninth in the AL Cy Young Award voting. But he comes to camp healthy after Tommy John surgery and a lat injury, and, after a stint in the bullpen at the end of 2021, there’s a rotation spot with his name on it, should he deliver this spring. The Yankees need health and reliability beyond Gerrit Cole.
Guardians: Shane Bieber, RHP
The Biebs made just 14 starts last season before succumbing to a shoulder strain. He returned for two outings just before season’s end, but this camp is an important one as Bieber tries to stretch back out toward an ace-type workload while proving his stuff can play as well as it did in his transcendent AL Cy Young season in 2020. The Guardians’ contention hopes are as rooted in Bieber as anybody.
Royals: Bobby Witt Jr., SS
Witt, MLB Pipeline’s No. 3 overall prospect, put on a show last spring, but, given that he only had 37 professional games to his name at that point, it wasn’t enough to compel the Royals to roster him. He wound up slashing .290/.361/.575 with 33 home runs and 29 stolen bases at Double-A Northwest Arkansas and Triple-A Omaha. Now, Witt appears to have a more earnest opportunity to secure a spot in the Royals’ infield, perhaps most realistically at third base.
Tigers: Spencer Torkelson, 1B
Miguel Cabrera is becoming more and more of a DH anyway, but when he said he’s willing to cede first base to Torkelson because of the potential lineup help he’d provide, it was a window into just how ready the Tigers perceive MLB Pipeline’s No. 4 overall prospect to be. Both Torkelson and outfielder Riley Greene (the No. 7 overall prospect) have the potential to drastically reshape a lineup that added Javier Báez in the offseason, but first they have to use the Grapefruit League season to cement their standing.
Twins: Jose Miranda, INF
Hopefully Lin-Manuel Miranda’s power-hitting cousin doesn’t throw away his shot now that the Twins have traded away the left side of their infield in that big swap with the Yankees. Then again, it’s not entirely in his hands, because another move or moves could be in the offing. But Miranda, a native of Puerto Rico who was the organization’s Minor League Player of the Year and is ranked seventh in their system by MLB Pipeline, enters camp with a real opportunity to vie for at-bats, and that sure beats “Waiting on a Miracle.”
White Sox: Michael Kopech, RHP
The Sox let Carlos Rodón walk after his ascendant 2021 in part because Kopech, who pitched primarily out of the ‘pen last year, is ready to assume a spot in the rotation. Because the former top prospect missed 2019 after Tommy John, opted out of the 2020 season and pitched only 69 1/3 innings in 2021, his workload will be limited this year. But it will be exciting to see him get stretched back out on a team with serious World Series aspirations.
Angels: Noah Syndergaard, RHP
“Did the Angels do enough to improve their pitching staff?” has become an annual spring storyline. Nobody will have a larger role in answering it this spring and season than Thor, who signed a one-year $21 million contract and hopes to re-assert himself as one of the game’s top starters after missing virtually all of the past two seasons because of Tommy John and recovery setbacks. It will be fascinating to see how his stuff looks after he ditched his breaking pitches in his brief return to the Mets last year.
Astros: Justin Verlander, RHP
Verlander’s return is obviously interesting for what it means to the Astros, whose hopes of remaining AL elite could very much be intertwined with his ability to reclaim his old form. But it’s also an interesting test case for the modern Tommy John surgery. If Verlander can successfully bounce back at age 39 and with nearly 3,000 regular-season innings to his name, it would appear anything is possible.
A’s: Brent Honeywell Jr., RHP
The dramatic reshaping of the A’s began with the trade of Chris Bassitt to the Mets, creating more opportunity in their rotation. Oakland’s acquisition last November of Honeywell, a 26-year-old screwballer who not long ago was considered one of the game’s top pitching prospects is intriguing. Honeywell has battled injuries and pitched briefly in the bigs early last season before settling into a swing role at Triple-A. But Honeywell is out of options, so the A’s will give him every chance to lock down a role.
Mariners: Eugenio Suárez, 3B
Suárez is eye-catching not just as a high-profile trade acquisition and bounceback candidate but also because of his new hairdo. Assuming the M’s don’t move him in a subsequent deal (and with Jerry Dipoto, one can never be sure), he could assume the everyday role left behind by the retired Kyle Seager. Or he could be pushed by Abraham Toro. As recently as 2019, Suárez was an NL MVP candidate, but, beset by a shoulder injury that required surgery, his performance waned. He made changes in his approach late last season.
Rangers: Willie Calhoun, OF/DH
Viewed as the key piece acquired by the Rangers in their 2017 trade of Yu Darvish, Calhoun has been an injury riddled bust in the big leagues so far (.715 OPS, -1.4 WAR). Still, Texas tendered him a contract over the winter, so at 27 years old, he has another shot to prove his health and his bat can cooperate on a team that still doesn’t have anything set in left field or at DH just yet.
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
Braves: Marcell Ozuna, OF
Ozuna served a 20-game suspension MLB’s domestic violence policy and publicly apologized for the incident that led to his arrest last May. That suspension came on top of the poor performance and injury that had marred his second season in Atlanta after a Silver Slugger season in 2020. The World Series champs obviously found ways to replace the expected production from Ozuna last year. But the return of the NL DH role, in which Ozuna thrived in 2020, presents a massive opportunity for a guy who is going to face a lot of scorn and scrutiny moving forward.
Marlins: Jesús Luzardo, LHP
It was stunning last July when Luzardo, formerly one of the top pitching prospects in baseball, was acquired by the Fish in exchange for only a couple of months of control of Starling Marte. But in 12 starts down the stretch with Miami, Luzardo’s rough 2021 season did not get back on track (6.44). Still, he’s only 24 years old, and he has an opportunity to nail down a spot in an intriguing young rotation.
Mets: Jacob deGrom, RHP
A bout with elbow inflammation cut short what could have possibly been a historic 2021 season for the great deGrom. He says he’s back to normal now, and a “normal” deGrom, paired with a “normal” Max Scherzer, has the potential to put the Mets in NL pennant position. But first, before we start printing playoff tickets, deGrom has to definitively prove the elbow issue is behind him.
Nationals: Stephen Strasburg, RHP
Speaking of a star pitcher trying to put an injury behind him, Strasburg has made just seven starts over the last two seasons and was shut down last year after surgery to address a circulatory issue. So his every step this spring will be watched closely. Any hope the Nats have of returning to contention in 2022 is in large measure tied to Strasburg’s ability to return to his 2019 form.
Phillies: Alec Bohm, 3B
The dreaded sophomore slump got the best of Bohm last year (.274/.305/.342 slash) after he finished second in the NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2020 (.338/.400/.481). But he’s in good hands working with respected hitting coach Kevin Long, who will try to get him to shorten his swing this spring. If we see the seeds of a Bohm bounceback, that’s a big plus for the Phils.
Brewers: Keston Hiura, 1B
Once considered one of the more talented hitting prospects in the game, Hiura has looked lost at the plate the last two seasons, fruitlessly chasing power while racking up strikeouts. This is another team that changed hitting coaches, bringing in Ozzie Timmons and Connor Dawson, and perhaps Hiura will benefit from new eyes and ears. This will be an important spring for Hiura, who will get some innings in the outfield, to demonstrate his viability in a lineup that needs a boost.
Cardinals: Nolan Gorman, 2B/3B
The Cards need left-handed thump in their lineup. They can look for it externally, but they might have it internally in the form of their No. 1 prospect. The NL DH is an avenue for Gorman to crack the Opening Day roster, or the Cards can shuffle their infield plans to accommodate him at second base. A natural third baseman, Gorman is still acclimating to second.
Cubs: Nick Madrigal, 2B
Recently cleared to return from surgery to repair a serious right hamstring injury, Madrigal gets his first chance to suit up for the club that acquired him at last year’s Trade Deadline. He hasn’t appeared in a game since last June 9. But if he proves to be healthy, his low-strikeout approach at the plate will be a welcomed sight for this lineup.
Pirates: Oneil Cruz, SS
This is a can’t-miss prospect … in that you can’t miss him on the field. After all, he’s 6-foot-7. But with a dynamic mix of speed and power, Cruz might be a can’t-miss prospect in another sense. After crushing his first home run in an impressive two-game sample in the big leagues at the tail end of last season, Cruz will vie for an Opening Day spot with the Buccos.
Reds: Hunter Greene, RHP
Reds manager David Bell has already proclaimed Greene to be ready for the rotation, which of course has availability in the wake of the Sonny Gray trade. The second overall pick in the 2017 Draft, Greene overcame Tommy John and the lost 2020 Minor League season to put together an encouraging 2021 in which he posted a 3.72 ERA and struck out 139 batters in 106 1/3 innings between Double-A and Triple-A last year. Now we’ll see how ready the kid with the high-octane fastball really is.
D-backs: Daulton Varsho, CF
This is just your everyday, standard catcher-turned-center fielder. Varsho will still likely see some time behind the dish this season, but he enters camp as the favorite for the starting center field job now that Ketel Marte is probably shifting back to second base full-time. To retain that role, Varsho will have to fend off outfielder Alek Thomas, the organization’s No. 3 prospect.
Dodgers: Gavin Lux, 2B
The departure of Corey Seager -- as well as the arrival of the NL DH -- means this could be Lux’s time to shine in the Dodgers’ everyday lineup. Though he has not yet lived up to the enormous expectations heaped upon him, Lux is only 24, and his plate discipline and contact skills should serve him well. A strong spring could reignite the infatuation with Lux that seems to have dissipated the last couple of years.
Giants: Joey Bart, C
The transition from Buster Posey to Bart was much more abrupt than most of us envisioned, but here we are. It’s a tall order replacing a legend like Posey, but at least Bart has experience to draw on, having made 111 trips to the plate in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season after Posey opted out. It goes without saying this spring will be an important one for Bart, who spent the majority of 2021 in Triple-A, as he acclimates to the pitching staff and tries to demonstrate his power profile at the plate.
Padres: Mike Clevinger, RHP
The rehab process after a second Tommy John surgery, which Clevinger had in November 2020, is delicate. The lockout prohibited the Padres from monitoring Clevinger’s progress for several months, and the shortened spring does him no favors. So it will be interesting to see if Clevinger, who was considered a huge pickup for the Padres at the 2020 Trade Deadline, can be ready in time for the Opening Day rotation.
Rockies: Brendan Rodgers, 2B
A former top prospect, Rodgers was having a terrific camp last year before suffering a hamstring injury that stalled his start to the season. He wound up having a solid showing in his first extended sample at the big-league level in 2021 (.284/.328/.470 slash in 102 games), but the Rox are excited to see what the 25-year-old Rodgers can do with an uninterrupted spring and season.