With the necessary caveat that the numbers mean absolutely nothing, Spring Training is nevertheless a fascinating time for player evaluation.
My friend Will Leitch recently wrote about one guy from every team who brings excitement to camp. But here we’re going to look at 30 guys who are flat-out interesting, be it because they’re vying for a job, coming back from an absence or trying to maintain some recent momentum.
AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST
Blue Jays: Nate Pearson, RHP
Pearson was the talk of the Grapefruit League one year ago, prior to the shutdown. He wound up making his debut in 2020 but had his season interrupted by a flexor strain. The Blue Jays have a wild card rotation with the likes of Robbie Ray, Tanner Roark and Steven Matz in tow. But if Pearson is throwing strikes this spring, it improves the outlook considerably.
Orioles: Trey Mancini, OF
Last year was strange for all players, but nobody went through more than Mancini. He missed the season while undergoing 12 chemotherapy treatments for Stage 3 colon cancer. Thankfully, he’s been declared cancer-free and can now resume his role as the Orioles’ best player and, possibly, biggest trade chip.
Rays: Francisco Mejía, C
Understandably, the focus has been more on what the Rays gave up in the Blake Snell trade than what they got back. But Mejía is a former blue-chip prospect whose future at catcher is unclear and whose supposedly high-ceiling switch-hit tool has translated to only a .225/.282/.386 slash line in 362 plate appearances over the last four seasons. What can he do with a new opportunity on a new team?
Red Sox: Jarren Duran, OF
Boston still has stars on its roster and made some effort to improve this winter, but there is still a feeling of transition around this team, and Duran, its No. 8 prospect per MLB Pipeline, has a clear path to the bigs this season on a team that has not (as of this writing) addressed the Jackie Bradley Jr. vacancy in center field. Here is his chance to make an impression on Alex Cora and Co.
Yankees: Gleyber Torres, SS
In bringing back DJ LeMahieu, the Yankees recommitted to Torres as their everyday shortstop, despite his 2020 troubles. Torres reported to last year’s Summer Camp out of shape and dealt with a leg injury and a big statistical slide. He and catcher Gary Sanchez (who could just as easily occupy this spot) have to begin rewarding the Yanks’ patience.
Indians: Amed Rosario, SS
This spring could go any number of ways for Rosario. He could be the shortstop replacement for Francisco Lindor, the star for whom he was dealt from the Mets. He could cede short to fellow Lindor trade acquisition Andrés Giménez and move to the outfield. He could find himself in a super utility role. Or, for all we know, he could be traded for the second time in the span of a few months.
Royals: Adalberto Mondesi, SS
This was one of the worst-performing regulars in MLB through August last season, with a .440 OPS in his first 37 games. But from Sept. 4 onward, Mondesi had a .376/.424/.706 slash with a 2.0 FanGraphs WAR that was the best of any position player. Spring Training won’t really tell us which Mondesi shows up, but at least we’ll get an early feel for his health and whiff percentage.
Tigers: Renato Núñez, 1B
The 26-year-old is just two years removed from a 31-homer season with the Orioles, and the Tigers were thrilled to get him on a Minor League deal. They don’t have a great or obvious answer at first base if Núñez doesn’t pan out, so they’d love to see a strong performance from him in camp.
Twins: Alex Kirilloff, OF
Thrust onto the postseason roster because of a Josh Donaldson injury, Kirilloff has the unusual distinction of notching his first big league hit prior to his first big league regular-season game. Now he has a chance to nail down the left-field job after Eddie Rosario was sent packing.
White Sox: Andrew Vaughn, 1B
The Sox did not re-sign veteran Edwin Encarnacíon and instead might be prepared to hand their DH duties to Vaughn, the third overall Draft pick in 2019 who has played just 55 games at the professional level (none above A-ball). No pressure, young man!
Angels: Shohei Ohtani, RHP/DH
The two-way player experiment worked until it didn’t, and when it worked (early 2018) was a long time ago in baseball terms. Ohtani has been deemed fully healthy after Tommy John surgery and last year’s elbow/forearm strain, but can he throw strikes and rekindle the enthusiasm for his unique role in MLB?
Astros: Myles Straw, OF
The Astros have a George Springer-sized hole to fill in center field, and Straw probably has the best opportunity to earn that assignment. Straw would be a defensive upgrade, and he brings elite speed to the equation. The Astros don’t need him to hit like Springer, but they do need more than the .244 on-base percentage he posted in 86 plate appearances in 2020. Otherwise, it could be the last Straw (sorry).
Athletics: A.J. Puk, LHP
Like the A’s rotation in general, Puk has a high ceiling. But between Tommy John surgery in 2018 and a nagging shoulder issue that required surgery in '20, he’s had trouble posting up. He’ll likely begin '21 in the bullpen, but Spring Training will be a window into his overall health and outlook.
Rangers: Mike Foltynewicz, RHP
The 29-year-old was a down-ballot Cy Young vote recipient in 2018, but he struggled the following year and the Braves gave up on him after just one start in '20. He went unclaimed on waivers. Nevertheless, the Rangers believed in him enough to give him a Major League contract. So, let’s see where Folty’s fastball is at and what he has left.
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
Marlins: Jazz Chisholm, 2B/SS
Are the Marlins going to play Jazz? That’s the question at second base. Chisholm is the organization’s No. 4 prospect and is considered Miami's shortstop of the future. He got a starting assignment in Game 3 of the NL Division Series last year. Here's his chance to earn an everyday job.
Mets: Noah Syndergaard, RHP
He won’t be ready for Opening Day following Tommy John surgery last March. But Thor is already throwing bullpen sessions, and he’s one of the game’s more magnetic talents. His progress will attract a lot of attention, particularly with free agency looming at year’s end.
Nationals: Stephen Strasburg, RHP
OK, he was our pick for “most exciting” player in Nats camp, too. But the question is worth repeating: Is the 32-year-old Strasburg ready to turn the page after a forgettable 2020? He had surgery to alleviate carpal tunnel syndrome in his throwing hand -- a condition that limited him to just five innings last year. The Nats went to great lengths to extend their window this winter, and to say they need the Strasburg of old is an understatement.
Phillies: Matt Moore, LHP
A Phillies team in dire need of pitching depth has brought Moore back to the States after his 2020 season with Fukuoka of the Japan Pacific League, where he posted a 2.65 ERA and 98 strikeouts against 26 walks in 85 innings. On prospects lists, Moore was once ranked alongside the likes of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, and he was an All-Star way back in 2013, but injuries and struggles intervened.
Brewers: Luis Urías, SS
The trade that sent Trent Grisham to the Padres is looking pretty lopsided at the moment, but Urías can change that. Last year, he dealt with a hand injury and COVID before posting an uninspiring .602 OPS in 41 games with the Brew Crew. But Urías is a good defender with contact skills and has a chance to be the starter at short.
Cardinals: Carlos Martínez, RHP
The one-time closer wants to start for the Cards again, and the fifth rotation spot is up for grabs. After a rough bout with COVID-19 and rough results in 2020 (9.90 ERA in 20 innings), can Martínez convince the Cards to give him the role he wants?
Cubs: Kris Bryant, 3B
Will his pending free agency and the trade rumors be a distraction? Will a trade actually transpire? And most important of all, after a bunch of injuries and brutal output in 2020 (.644 OPS), is Bryant ready to reclaim his old swagger with the stick?
Pirates: Wil Crowe, RHP
Acquired in the Josh Bell trade with the Nationals, Crowe becomes an important transition piece for a Pirates team bound for a long summer. After making his big league debut with three starts for the Nats last season, Crowe has a leg up on a rotation spot with the Buccos.
Reds: Shogo Akiyama, OF
Last year was, well, pretty unfair for this veteran import from Japan. The 32-year-old Akiyama didn’t get the full complement of Spring Training to adjust to the States and to big league pitching, and the scramble to the shortened 2020 season did him no favors. So let’s see what he can do with a more traditional preparation and if his high on-base skillset does translate.
D-backs: Tim Locastro, OF
Per Statcast’s sprint speed data, this is the fastest player in the game (he’s 26-for-26 in career stolen base attempts), and he had an encouraging .395 on-base percentage in a small sample of 82 plate appearances last year. If Locastro can demonstrate that this was no fluke, he’s a legit center-field option that frees Arizona up to have Ketel Marte make some starts at second base.
Dodgers: David Price, LHP
After opting out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns, Price is back for his first/second (depending on how you look at it) season with the Dodgers, helping to round out the most loaded rotation in the game. We’ll see if the unexpectedly long layoff helped or hurt his stuff.
Giants: Anthony DeSclafani, RHP
In 2020, San Francisco wound up getting good value out of the low-profile signings of Kevin Gausman and Drew Smyly, and DeSclafani on a one-year, $6 million deal could be another signing along those lines. “Disco” maintained above-average velocity last year but got hit hard. Can the Giants’ coaching staff point him back to the strike zone and help him induce weaker contact?
Padres: Dinelson Lamet, RHP
Even with Mike Clevinger out for the year, the Padres might be in possession of three aces atop their rotation in Blake Snell, Yu Darvish and Lamet, who broke out in 2020. But Lamet’s elbow/biceps ailment required a platelet-rich plasma injection last October and caused him to miss the postseason. If he comes back strong this spring, we’ll be that much more bullish about San Diego’s chances of taking down the Dodgers.
Rockies: Trevor Story, SS
Another unavoidable repeat from the “most exciting” list, because Story’s looming free agency hangs over this franchise in a big way. They won’t trade him now, even if there’s merit to the idea of totally blowing things up after the Nolan Arenado trade. So can an extension be worked out prior to Opening Day, or does Story go into the year as potential midseason trade bait?