1 dark horse candidate to make each Opening Day roster

February 26th, 2024

From seasoned veterans to up-and-coming young players, Spring Training provides an opportunity for everyone to shine. While only 26 players per club will crack the Opening Day roster when all is said and done, those who stand out during the spring often find themselves rewarded.

With the help of each club's MLB.com beat writer, here is each team’s dark horse to snag a spot on the Major League roster come Opening Day.

American League East

Blue Jays: 3B/RF
Barger is part of a crowded, complicated group of position player depth in camp. There are higher-ranked prospects, like No. 2 Orelvis Martinez, but Martinez is strictly an infielder who focuses on second base. Barger’s ability to play some right field puts him closer to being “an injury away” than so many other players competing for jobs. It’s still likely that Barger opens in Triple-A, but his pathway to reps in right field is important, especially if his power bat clicks again after a down year. He’s focusing on lifting the ball more in 2024, which is a fine start. -- Keegan Matheson

Orioles: OF
Even though Stowers made his first career Opening Day roster last season, the 26-year-old qualifies as a dark horse this year. He went 2-for-30 for the O’s last April and May, then never got back up to the big leagues. His Minor League campaign featured both a right shoulder injury and a fractured nose. Now, he’s among a group of six outfielders battling for either one or two roster spots, and the bunch includes both Colton Cowser (MLB Pipeline’s No. 19 overall prospect) and Heston Kjerstad (No. 32). It’s stiff competition, but Stowers has impressed early in camp, especially with his left-on-left at-bats during live batting practice. -- Jake Rill

Rays: OF/2B
With the recent addition of infielder/outfielder Amed Rosario, the competitions in Rays camp have taken on a different shape. If right-handed-hitting DH/outfielder Harold Ramírez isn’t traded before Opening Day, and everyone else stays healthy, the Rays will have a handful of candidates for their final two position-player spots. Presumably, one will go to either infielder Curtis Mead or outfielder Jonny DeLuca, both right-handed hitters. The other could go to lefty-hitting Jonathan Aranda, who has little left to prove in Triple-A, or perhaps Palacios, who upped his offensive game after joining the Cardinals last season and could back up at second base or around the outfield. -- Adam Berry

Red Sox: INF/OF
After getting 453 at-bats as a rookie in 2021 and 353 more during a challenging ‘22 season, Dalbec fell off the map last season, taking just 53 at-bats for Boston and spending most of the season in Triple-A. With Justin Turner having departed via free agency, there now seems to be a path for Dalbec to crack the Opening Day roster as a right-handed bat who can play corner infield and corner outfield. Dalbec has obvious raw power, and the Red Sox hope he can get back to hitting Major League pitching like he did down the stretch in ‘21. -- Ian Browne

Yankees: RHP
Burdi has drawn high praise in camp after some electric live-batting practice and bullpen sessions, with manager Aaron Boone raving that the right-hander's stuff is "as good as it gets." In one mound assignment, Burdi gassed the likes of DJ LeMahieu, Anthony Volpe and Giancarlo Stanton with his mix of a high-90s fastball, slider and changeup. Having previously pitched in the Majors with the Pirates and Cubs, Burdi's biggest hurdle has been remaining healthy. He has rebounded from two Tommy John surgeries and a procedure to address thoracic outlet syndrome. -- Bryan Hoch

AL Central

Guardians: RHP
Let’s assume the Guardians will carry eight relievers on their Opening Day roster. Six of those spots are all but locked in. Emmanuel Clase, Scott Barlow, Trevor Stephan, Sam Hentges, Eli Morgan and Nick Sandlin will return. That leaves two vacancies to fill. Xzavion Curry and Carlos Carrasco will likely battle for a long-relief role. And the final opening could be Smith’s depending how his (and James Karinchak’s) spring goes. Smith was excellent in relief in Double-A Akron last year and ran into a little more trouble when he transitioned to Triple-A, but his 95 strikeouts in 62 2/3 innings on the year show there’s a lot to like about the 24-year-old righty. -- Mandy Bell

Royals: LHP
Veneziano went from Double-A to Triple-A before throwing two innings in the Majors last season, and that small taste has him eager for more. The Royals’ No. 16 prospect is being built up as a starter and has the tools to start in the Majors, but if the team needs a multi-inning reliever, Veneziano is an intriguing name to include. With a lively fastball, good slider and lower-slot delivery, he gives a different look to hitters from the left side. The bullpen competition is deep this year, and Veneziano might be on the outside looking in. But if the Royals suffer any injuries and Veneziano has a good spring, he could be an option early on in the season. -- Anne Rogers

Tigers: SS/OF
The Tigers acquired Leonard at last year's Trade Deadline after the Dodgers designated their former prospect for assignment to open a 40-man roster spot. He hit .302 with eight homers, 31 RBIs and a .905 OPS in just 40 games at Triple-A Toledo down the stretch, catching Detroit's attention. Still just 23, his quick, high-impact right-handed bat, energetic play and positional versatility -- particularly shortstop and center field -- provide an intriguing fit for Detroit's roster if he has a breakout spring. -- Jason Beck

Twins: UTIL
It still looks like the Twins could add a right-handed outfielder to their mix before Opening Day -- but in the absence of such a move, there’s a good deal of uncertainty as to who could fill the 13th and final position player slot on the roster. Without an addition, Martin is probably competing with Trevor Larnach and José Miranda for that last slot, and although he hasn’t played in the Majors, his right-handed bat and positional flexibility could make him as good of a candidate as any -- especially since he can back up center field. -- Do-Hyoung Park

White Sox: RHP
Pitching coach Ethan Katz recently asked veteran outfielder Andrew Benintendi to name the best guy he had faced this spring during White Sox workouts, and Leasure’s name popped up. The right-hander was acquired with Nick Nastrini from the Dodgers at the last Trade Deadline as part of the deal for Lance Lynn and Joe Kelly and is viewed by some as the team’s closer of the future. Featuring a high-velocity fastball with nice carry to go with a wipeout slider and a curve he worked on this offseason, Leasure could be a camp surprise. -- Scott Merkin

AL West

Angels: INF
The Angels have one bench spot open, and it’s a competition between Michael Stefanic, Kyren Paris and Adrianza. Adrianza, an 11-year veteran, has the advantage of being able to handle shortstop and is familiar with manager Ron Washington from their time in Atlanta together from 2021-23. But Adrianza was limited to just five games last year before undergoing shoulder surgery, so he’s going to have to prove he can be healthy and productive this spring. -- Rhett Bollinger

Astros: OF/IF
The Astros acquired the left-handed-hitting Cabbage last month in a trade with the Angels, giving them another option to compete for a bench spot with Jon Singleton and Grae Kessinger, among others. Cabbage brings versatility and speed, with the Astros hoping he can tap into some of the power from the left side of the plate that he showed in the Minors last year. Cabbage hit .306/.379/.596 (.975 OPS) with 30 homers, 89 RBIs, 25 doubles and 32 stolen bases in 107 games with Triple-A Salt Lake in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. If he can cut down on his strikeouts, his versatility, power and left-handed bat could make him a weapon off the bench. -- Brian McTaggart

Athletics: INF
Hernaiz – ranked Oakland’s No. 9 prospect by MLB Pipeline – was in strong consideration for a callup last September, ultimately finishing 2023 hitting .321/.386/.456 with nine homers, 32 doubles, four triples and 71 RBIs in a combined 131 games at Double-A and Triple-A. Though primarily a shortstop, he enters big league camp expected to get plenty of reps at third base, a spot that was a black hole for the A’s last season as six players combined to hit .192 with a .556 OPS and 10 home runs in 618 plate appearances. If Hernaiz puts together a strong Cactus League, he has a good chance to make the Opening Day roster. -- Martín Gallegos

Mariners: OF
Trammell is on the outside looking in among a crowded corner outfield that includes roster locks Mitch Haniger and Luke Raley, with two other bench spots open. He's essentially going up against Dominic Canzone, to whom the Mariners want to give an opportunity, and Sam Haggerty, who has a skill set more conducive for a bench role. The one factor that could impact Trammell against the other two is that he's out of Minor League options and would likely be claimed elsewhere if DFA'd. -- Daniel Kramer

Rangers: LHP
The veteran left-hander signed a Minor League deal with the Rangers this offseason after almost three years of nonstop rehabbing between the Royals, Dodgers and Rangers organizations. Last year, he split his time between Double-A Frisco and Triple-A Round Rock as he continued rehabbing his arm. He pitched in 28 games between the two levels before pitching for the Cangrejeros de Santurce in the Puerto Rican Winter League this offseason. He built up as a starter in Puerto Rico but could be either a starter or reliever for the Rangers if he makes the big league club. General manager Chris Young said the idea is to continue building him up and evaluate the club's biggest needs as the competition in the rotation and bullpen continues throughout camp. -- Kennedi Landry

National League East

Braves: OF
Wall played nearly nine Minor League seasons before finally making his MLB debut last year. But he’s certainly an interesting candidate for Atlanta’s Opening Day roster. The outfielder’s speed earned him a postseason roster spot after he totaled just 13 at-bats last year. If the Braves choose to carry just one backup infielder, there’s a strong chance they could begin the season with Wall primarily serving as just a pinch-running option. -- Mark Bowman

Marlins: LHP
Manager Skip Schumaker and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. believe Miami's No. 25 prospect could be this season's breakout reliever like Andrew Nardi was in 2023. Simpson, who has yet to make his MLB debut, needs to trust his fastball, which would complement his 60-grade curveball (on the 20-80 scale). With A.J. Puk building to be a starter and Steven Okert traded to Minnesota, there's an opening for another southpaw in the bullpen. -- Christina De Nicola

Mets: 1B/DH and
Shortly after the official start of camp, the Mets signed Voit and Choi to Minor League deals with designs on having them compete for jobs. In a perfect world for the organization, Mark Vientos will rake this spring and run with the starting DH gig. But if Vientos doesn’t, or if veteran DJ Stewart struggles as much in Grapefruit League play as he did in September, the Mets could choose to carry Voit (a right-handed hitter) or Choi (a lefty) over one of those two. -- Anthony DiComo

Nationals: RHP
The Nationals signed Law to a Minor League deal with an invite to Spring Training on Thursday, three months after he was non-tendered by the Reds. Law, 33, could bring value to Washington’s pitching staff with seven years of big league experience and the ability to pitch one-plus innings out of the bullpen. Last season, he went 4-6 with a 3.60 ERA in 54 appearances, including three starts and two saves, across 55 innings. -- Jessica Camerato

Phillies: RHP
Bellatti was a mainstay in the Phillies’ 2022 bullpen before struggling last season and spending most of the year in Triple-A. The Phillies outrighted him off the 40-man roster earlier this month to make room for reliever Michael Rucker. So, Bellatti will not only have to pitch well this spring; he will have to pitch well enough for the Phillies to believe they need to clear a spot for him on the 40-man roster. -- Todd Zolecki

NL Central

Brewers: INF/OF
The non-roster invite is an appealing candidate and could prove to be an interesting option as camp progresses because he can play every position on the infield and in the outfield. He is expected to see some action at first base but will get plenty of looks at third base as well. The 28-year-old signed a Minor League deal with the Brewers on Jan. 31. -- Adam McCalvy

Cardinals: RHP
After recording the third-fewest strikeouts in all of baseball among their relievers in 2023, the Cardinals aggressively sought out swing-and-miss while fortifying their bullpen. The marquee additions were 2021 AL All-Star Andrew Kittredge and 2023 Yankees standout Keynan Middleton. O’Brien, who was acquired in a November trade with the Mariners for cash considerations, was the first addition, and he mostly flew below the radar because of his limited MLB experience (15 games). The 29-year-old struck out 13 batters in 8 1/3 MLB innings with the Mariners in 2023 and fanned 86 batters in 55 innings in Triple-A. O’Brien flashed a sweeper with 21 inches of horizontal break and a fastball that has touched 98 mph this spring. He could make the Cards roster with his ability to get strikeouts out of the bullpen. -- John Denton

Cubs: OF
The Cubs have reached an agreement to re-sign star center fielder Cody Bellinger, putting him between left fielder Ian Happ and right fielder Seiya Suzuki. Behind them, the Cubs have complementary pieces to consider. Much of the focus is on top prospect and elite defender Pete Crow-Armstrong, but don’t forget about Canario. The 23-year-old prospect (acquired from the Giants as part of the Kris Bryant trade in 2021) launched 37 homers with 97 RBIs across three levels in ‘22. Last year, he returned from serious left ankle and left shoulder injuries and hit .294 with a .647 slugging percentage in his brief taste of the Majors (17 at-bats). There is a scenario in which Canario makes the Opening Day roster as a backup piece for all three outfield spots, especially to face lefty pitching. -- Jordan Bastian

Pirates: OF
The Pirates have an open right field competition this spring, and while there are a couple candidates already on the 40 man roster – namely Joshua Palacios, Edward Olivares and the recently reacquired Canaan Smith-Njigba – McKinney had a taste of success with the Yankees last season after making some swing changes. Olivares posted an .857 OPS against left-handers last year, which makes for a solid half of a platoon. McKinney, Palacios and Smith-Njigba are all lefties; McKinney’s .349 xwOBA and 89.4 mph exit velocity against right-handers in 2023 are arguably the most enticing of the group. -- Alex Stumpf

Reds: UT
Signed to a Minor League contract shortly before camp opened as a non-roster player, the Cincinnati native and two-time All-Star Harrison wanted to play for his hometown team for the first time. The Reds have a stacked infield, however, with several young players. But Harrison is capable of playing every position on the field except catcher, and that versatility along with his veteran leadership skills give him a lane where he could make the team out of camp. His deal includes a March 21 opt-out date if he is not added to the big league roster. -- Mark Sheldon

NL West

D-backs: RHP
The centerpiece in the Zack Greinke deal from 2019, Martin is coming off surgery to repair a lat tendon behind his right shoulder, an injury that cost him the entire 2023 season. Before getting injured last spring, the D-backs were looking at him in a relief role and felt he was on the verge of putting it all together. Instead he suffered the injury during a spring game. The team may take it slow with Martin this spring, which could make it hard for him to be part of the Opening Day roster, but he’s definitely someone to keep an eye on. -- Steve Gilbert

Dodgers: RHP
Stone is one of the top pitching prospects in baseball, so it’s hard to call him a dark horse, but that should give you an indicator of the talent level at Dodgers camp this spring. But the right-hander has a chance to win a spot in the rotation out of camp with Walker Buehler starting the season on the injured list. Stone will battle it out with Emmet Sheehan, Ryan Yarbrough and Landon Knack and has a realistic chance to get starts in April. -- Juan Toribio

Giants: RHP
The Giants are hoping Keaton Winn’s bout with right elbow soreness is mild, but if he ends up being sidelined longer than expected, the club could wind up needing another starter to join Logan Webb, Kyle Harrison, Jordan Hicks and Tristan Beck in the Opening Day rotation. That could open the door for someone like Black, who is ranked the club’s No. 9 prospect and logged a 3.71 ERA in 29 starts between Double-A Richmond and Triple-A Sacramento in 2023. -- Maria Guardado

Padres: OF
Marsee is a lefty-hitting outfielder. The Padres need lefty hitters, and they need outfielders. So it stands to reason that the reigning Arizona Fall League MVP -- and the team’s No. 13-ranked prospect according to MLB Pipeline -- would have a chance to win a roster spot. Among the numerous candidates for playing time in the outfield, Marsee is one of only a handful capable of playing center field. The Padres are still looking to add to their outfield mix either via trade or free agency. But for now, the righty-hitting José Azocar is the only center fielder on the 40-man roster, and a platoon between Azocar and Marsee seems possible. -- AJ Cassavell

Rockies: RHP
Vodnik joined the Rockies in a trade with the Braves and was called up for six appearances last season. He averaged 97.1 mph with his fastball, displayed a plus (above Major League average) changeup and made progress with a slider that he somewhat pocketed while with the Braves but brought back with the Rockies’ encouragement. Vodnik is competing with multiple pitchers who saw big league time last year and some intriguing non-roster candidates -- John Curtiss and Chance Adams among them. Still, the power mix makes him a legitimate candidate. -- Thomas Harding