Spring Training is here. If you're ranking sentences, that one is up there pretty high, probably just behind, "Because you are so good-looking, your pizza is free." Here are five key storylines in MLB this spring::: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::1. The lingering free-agent marketOur new normal means
Spring Training is here. If you're ranking sentences, that one is up there pretty high, probably just behind, "Because you are so good-looking, your pizza is free."
Here are five key storylines in MLB this spring:
:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::
1. The lingering free-agent market
Our new normal means the Hot Stove season bleeds into the spring season. The old model of December press conferences with jersey photo ops will always have its place in the game, but when a club is assembled for the first workouts and games and then gets a new addition, that's a whole different level of intrigue. Suddenly, the depth chart and projections take on a different look, and sometimes that means a new battle for one of those 25 precious Opening Day roster spots has officially broken out elsewhere on the roster.
A year ago, we saw Yu Darvish (Feb. 13), Eric Hosmer (Feb. 19), and J.D. Martinez (Feb. 26) all sign after camps opened, and this year we have Bryce Harper and Manny Machado still available, both of whom would change the entire complexion of a clubhouse. Whichever teams land these guys -- be it the Phillies, White Sox, Padres, Giants or somebody else -- will be fundamentally different ballclubs than they were the day before. Dallas Keuchel, Mike Moustakas, Craig Kimbrel and Marwin Gonzalez are among the other game-changers still out there in the open market, and tracking developments in their markets is actually preferable to grainy Twitter pictures of pitchers' fielding drills.
2. Top prospects on the cusp
One reason for the slow-moving free-agent market is the general willingness of teams to give at-bats and innings to younger players. So what will that mean for some of the game's most eye-popping prospects in 2019?
Vladimir Guerrero Jr., ranked No. 1 on MLB Pipeline's Top 100 Prospects list, probably won't crack the Blue Jays' Opening Day roster. The same can likely be said of No. 2 overall prospect Fernando Tatis Jr. of the Padres and No. 3 prospect Eloy Jiménez of the White Sox. But all three could be up before the end of April.
• Here are 20 impact rookies for 2019
Where it gets more immediately interesting is with the likes of Nationals outfielder Victor Robles (No. 4), Reds infielder/outfielder Nick Senzel (No. 6), Rockies infielder Brendan Rodgers (No. 10), A's lefty Jesus Luzardo (No. 12), Dodgers outfielder Alex Verdugo (No. 35), Mets first baseman Peter Alonso (No. 51) and Astros right-hander Josh James (No. 62), among other youngsters. Again, with players who have not yet made their debuts (Senzel, Rodgers, Luzardo and Alonso qualify here), a couple of weeks in the Minors at the start of the season can ensure the club an added year of contractual control. But all of these kids are legit talents vying for legit opportunity on teams that identify themselves as contenders.
3. Position battles
The exhibition season can serve to reinforce what team decision-makers expected all along, or it can present surprising stalwarts or, of course, plan-scrapping injuries. For now, a few unsettled spots that stand out (and this is only scratching the surface):
• The defending World Series champion Red Sox have to settle their catching pecking order, with Christian Vázquez, Blake Swihart and Sandy Leon all in the mix.
• Matt Kemp will try to do what he did with the Dodgers a year ago and squeeze his way into the Reds' crowded outfield composition.
• Speaking of crowded outfields, the Padres have six guys worthy of a roster spot in Wil Myers, Hunter Renfroe, Franchy Cordero, Franmil Reyes, Manuel Margot and Travis Jankowski.
• The Indians have a ton of opportunity in their corner-outfield spots, and Tyler Naquin, non-roster invitee Matt Joyce and trade acquisition Jordan Luplow are among the current candidates to seize it.
• The Yankees' left-field situation, where Brett Gardner is penciled in, could get interesting if Jacoby Ellsbury looks healthy after hip surgery or if Clint Frazier asserts himself in the wake of last year's concussion issues.
4. Stars on the mend
As usual, there are quite a few impact players who can serve as a sort of in-house upgrade if they prove to be past injury issues that affected them in '18. Consider:
• Darvish made just eight starts in the first year of his six-year, $126 million contract with the Cubs before elbow surgery, so his outings in the Cactus League will be monitored closely.
• Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager is progressing toward full baseball activity after elbow and hip surgeries.
• Dustin Pedroia played just three games last year because of continued knee issues, and it's an open question whether he'll be ready to rejoin the Red Sox.
• Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen and Yankees starter CC Sabathia are both coming off heart procedures.
• Shohei Ohtani won't be ready for Opening Day and won't pitch this season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. But he should be available to hit at some point this season, and his rehab timeline -- as well Albert Pujols' as he comes off knee surgery -- will be important for the Angels' lineup.
• The Astros' majestic middle infield of José Altuve and Carlos Correa was disrupted by Altuve's knee issues that required surgery and Correa's back issues, so their health will be a hot topic at Astros camp.
• Jimmy Nelson, newly recovered from shoulder surgery, could be a major rotation upgrade for the Brewers.
• Buster Posey had hip surgery in August and will be slowly eased into action in Giants camp.
• Leonys Martin is coming back from a life-threatening bacterial infection on an Indians team that needs all the lineup help it can get now that Francisco Lindor is on the shelf with a calf issue.
5. Potential extensions
The warm weather and 0-0 record has a way of helping everybody get along, and Spring Training has long proven an ideal time for player and team to come together on a long-term pact before the grind of the regular season sets in.
So maybe the Mets can work something out with reigning NL Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom, who won't be eligible for free agency until after the 2020 season. Perhaps the Nats pivot from Harper to Anthony Rendon (a free agent next winter). Could the Astros lock in Alex Bregman (a free agent after 2022) a year after extending Altuve? And hey, if Mike Trout is in an extension-signing mood (free agent after 2020), something tells us the Angels would listen.
But one situation stands out above all the others, and that's Nolan Arenado's pending free agency. Rockies owner Dick Monfort has expressed public optimism that a deal buying out Arenado's free-agent years is close, and, as my colleague Mark Feinsand wrote, that would shake up the industry in several meaningful ways.
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.