15 Things We Already Can't Wait to Watch in Spring Training
The slow period of Major League Baseball's offseason will be over shortly. There will soon be sunshine, fresh-cut grass, the familiar sound of bat hitting ball and springtime curveballs bouncing 10 feet in front of home plate.
Spring training is inching ever closer, folks. The voluntary reporting date for pitchers and catchers is Feb. 12, which is just a couple of weeks away.
I can't wait. Can you?
Of course you can't. We all want to see baseball again, even if it's just spring training baseball. After several chilly months of nothing but rumor-mill buzz, any of the usual sights and sounds will do.
There are, however, a few specific things worth looking forward to. Here are 15.
15. Mike Trout and Bryce Harper
I realized sometime in July that I was hooked on watching Mike Trout and Bryce Harper play. Even with the 2012 season long gone, I still feel like I need them in my life.
It's cool. You can admit that you feel the same way. We are, after all, talking about the game's two best young stars who both play a very exciting brand of baseball.
Harper had the greatest season ever by a 19-year-old in 2012, hitting 22 home runs with an .817 OPS and acting like a daredevil on both the basepaths and in the field. With roughly a full season of big league action under his belt, he could have the greatest season ever by a 20-year-old in 2013.
That would be impressive, of course, as Mr. Trout currently holds the distinction of having the greatest season ever by a 20-year-old player. All he did was hit .326 with a .963 OPS, 30 home runs and 49 stolen bases, all while playing exceptional defense in the outfield.
Trout and Harper may save the good stuff for the regular season, but who cares? I'll speak for myself and say that I'll be happy the first time Trout catches a can-of-corn fly ball and Harper legs out a routine ground ball to second.
Anytime they're on the field is a good time, period.
14. Billy Hamilton in Action
This one's a little tricky.
I mean, we won't actually be seeing Billy Hamilton, will we?
Nah. He's too fast for human eyeballs. Hamilton has a growing reputation as the fastest player ever, which he fueled by stealing 155 bases in 132 games between Single-A and Double-A in 2012.
In the event that you somehow didn't hear anything about Hamilton in 2012, that's not a typo. He actually stole 155 bases. One hundred and fifty-five. In layman's terms: A lot.
And Hamilton will soon be coming to a big league camp near you. The Cincinnati Reds have invited Hamilton to their camp for the first time.
This presumably isn't a precursor to Hamilton breaking camp with the big club this spring, but the Reds may have it in mind to get a good look at Hamilton so they can gauge whether or not he may be worth a call-up midway through or late in the 2013 season.
And that could happen. It's not unheard of for teams to find themselves in need of a good pinch-runner for the stretch run. If the Reds decide to call up Hamilton, they'll basically be bringing The Flash off the bench.
13. Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon at Pirates Camp
We go from a guy who leaves flames in his wake to two guys who throw flames for a living.
The Pittsburgh Pirates announced this week that Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon have been extended invites to their big league camp. Both hard-throwing right-handers, Cole and Taillon rank as Pittsburgh's top two prospects, according to Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com and, well, pretty much everyone else.
This will be Cole's second big league camp, and it wouldn't be much of a surprise if he played something of a starring role for the Pirates this spring. The first overall pick in the 2011 draft, Cole made it as far as Triple-A in his first full season. He could be seen in the majors in 2013 if he shows promise this spring and then makes further progress in Triple-A to start the season.
Taillon's situation is a little different. This is his first invite to big league camp, but he won't be staying that long due to the World Baseball Classic. Taillon, a dual American and Canadian citizen, will be pitching for Team Canada in the WBC.
If things go according to plan, it won't be long before the two of them are blowing hitters away at the top of Pittsburgh's starting rotation. For now, any glimpses fans get of Cole and Taillon, no matter how brief, will be more than welcome.
12. Wil Myers in a Rays Uniform
The Tampa Bay Rays pulled off the steal of the offseason, acquiring slugging youngster Wil Myers and several other prospects from the Kansas City Royals for James Shields and Wade Davis.
Because the Rays don't want to get Myers' arbitration clock started any sooner than they absolutely have to, the plan is to have him begin the 2013 season in the minors. Until then, however, Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times says that Myers will be at the Rays' big league camp this spring.
Myers is coming off a year in which he hit 37 home runs with a .987 OPS between Double-A and Triple-A, earning Minor League Player of the Year honors from Baseball America.
Myers projects as a typical power-hitting right fielder. He already has plenty of bat speed and good pop, and he's still bulking up. After showing off his power in 2012, he may put on a real laser show at spring training.
The Rays are going to be too disciplined to let Myers force their hand, but he will likely give them every reason to be called up as soon as they get an excuse in 2013.
11. Will Jurickson Profar Force the Rangers' Hand?
As the offseason went along, there was all sorts of chatter about how the Texas Rangers were going to shake things up so they could open the 2013 season with Jurickson Profar in their starting lineup.
It now sounds like they're going to do nothing of the sort. Elvis Andrus has yet to be traded to clear the way for Profar—baseball's No. 1 prospect—at shortstop, and the word from FoxSports.com is that the Rangers aren't going to move Ian Kinsler from second base.
This gives the Rangers little choice but to have Profar begin the 2013 season in the minors, but he may force them into having second thoughts this spring.
Profar is sure to see some action with the Rangers during spring training, and he'll also get to show his employers what he can do against top-flight competition. Profar is on the Netherlands team for the World Baseball Classic.
If Profar lights things up both in the WBC and in spring training, the Rangers may determine that they'd be fools to start Profar in the minors. They could either finally trade Andrus, or force Kinsler over to first base or the outfield.
Admittedly, we're talking about a long shot. But since Profar is supposed to be that good, it could happen.
10. Tim Lincecum in Action
We're going to see a brand-new Tim Lincecum this spring.
Big-Time Timmy Jim has undergone a couple noteworthy changes this winter. For one, he no longer has shoulder-length hair, as reports broke in December that somebody had taken a pair of scissors to him.
Lincecum looks like a regular guy now, which is, well, weird.
Then there's the weight gain. Lincecum lost a ton of weight last offseason, but he's been told to put some back on this winter. Not a bad idea, seeing as how his massive weight loss last year was followed by the worst season of his career.
There are darn good reasons Lincecum had such a lackluster 2012 season, chief among them being his lack of velocity. While he won't overdo himself too much in spring training, it's going to be interesting to see if his fastball has more life than it did in 2012 (when it had none).
If it doesn't, it will be interesting to see if Lincecum takes a different approach to how he pitches. Instead of throwing the ball down the middle and hoping for the best, he may take to trying to hit the corners with more consistency.
He may have a new look, but what we're going to find out in spring training is whether Lincecum has any new tricks.
9. The Return of Mariano Rivera
Full disclosure: I missed Mariano Rivera in 2012. It was just plain weird not having him around, even if Rafael Soriano handled his job way better than expected.
Rivera last threw a pitch on April 30, tearing his ACL a few days later on the warning track at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City. The good news is that he's said his knee feels like it's at about 95 percent, meaning he should be good to go by Opening Day.
The Yankees probably aren't going to push their luck with Rivera this spring. He's likely to only get a few appearances, and they likely won't come until the final days of the exhibition season. His spring tuneup will be a last-minute thing.
His first appearance will be a big moment. In part because it will be "Hey, Mo's pitching again!" and in part because everyone and their uncle is anxious to see if Mo's nearly full year off from pitching has robbed him of his renowned cutter.
My best guess: probably not.
8. The Detroit Tigers' Closer Competition
Dombrowski told MLB.com in an email this week that Soriano never even got an offer from the Tigers. If true, that shows the Tigers are not only serious about having a closer competition this spring, but they are quite comfortable with the idea.
The contenders will be plentiful. On the one hand, the Tigers will have established major league veterans like Phil Coke, Octavio Dotel and Joaquin Benoit to turn to. On the other, they'll have hard-throwing youngster Bruce Rondon available to them.
Rondon is easily the most intriguing candidate for the job, as he certainly has the look and the stuff of a future closer. He's an intimidating presence on the mound at 6'3" and 265 pounds, and he can crank his fastball up to triple digits.
The tricky part: Rondon has the control of Nuke LaLoosh. If he doesn't figure that part out this spring, he'll go back to the minors, and the Tigers will have to tab somebody else to be their closer.
Of all the position battles that will be going on this spring, this one promises to be a dandy.
7. The Arizona Diamondbacks' Outfield Situation
As things stand right now, the Arizona Diamondbacks have Jason Kubel penciled in to start in left field, Cody Ross as their starting center fielder and Justin Upton as their starting right fielder.
Not a bad trio right there, but don't expect it to survive spring training. Something is going to happen.
The Diamondbacks are in a tricky spot with their outfield. Kubel, Ross and Upton are viable starters, but the D-Backs have at least two more potential starting outfielders behind them in Gerrardo Parra and Adam Eaton. Either of them would be wasted coming off the bench.
The Upton situation is an entirely different headache. The Diamondbacks have been looking to trade him all offseason, and they even got as far as reaching an agreement with the Seattle Mariners. Upton swatted that down using his limited no-trade clause.
It now seems like a given that Upton will still be a D-Back when spring training opens up. If so, there's going to have to be some fence-mending between him and his bosses.
Even if there is, the D-Backs could wait for Upton to show off his talent during the exhibition season and try to move him once again.
Between that situation and the sheer amount of depth Arizona has in its outfield, watching the various knots become untangled during the spring should make for quite the show.
6. Aroldis Chapman as a Starter
Aroldis Chapman has been stretched out as a starting pitcher in spring training before. In fact, four of his five spring appearances last season were starts.
So when Chapman is brought out as a starter this spring, fans really won't be seeing anything new. Just business as usual, so to speak.
Except it will be anything but.
There are no ifs, ands or buts about Chapman's situation this year. Whereas the Reds have tended to be on the fence about what role they wanted Chapman to fill in the past, this year he's going to be a starting pitcher come hell or high water.
Chapman showed last spring that he has the potential as a starter, posting a 2.12 ERA over his 17 innings. We also know that he has filthy pure stuff, as he complements a 100-mph fastball with one of the nastiest sliders in the business.
What we don't know is if he can pitch over six or seven innings, which is decidedly different than throwing for one inning. Control will be a point of emphasis for Chapman during spring training, as will stamina.
I'll just say this: If Chapman actually pans out as a starting pitcher, Cincinnati's rotation is going to be unfair.
5. The New-Look Boston Red Sox
When spring training began last year, the Boston Red Sox were still dealing with a sort of hangover from their beer- and chicken-aided collapse at the end of 2011.
They never really got a chance to turn the page. Bobby Valentine rubbed pretty much everyone the wrong way, and all anybody wanted to talk to Red Sox players about was beer and chicken.
Things should be a little different this year, if for no other reason than the fact that the Red Sox today look drastically different from the Red Sox of a year ago.
Boston has a new manager in John Farrell and several starters all over the field. Jonny Gomes is in left, Shane Victorino is in right, Jose Iglesias is at short and Mike Napoli is at first. The Red Sox also have Ryan Dempster in their starting rotation, and Koji Uehara and Joel Hanrahan in their bullpen.
Clearly, name tags are going to be needed for the first few days of spring training.
Exactly how all the new pieces are going to fit together is anybody's guess, but the Red Sox put this team together under the notion of constructing an actual team rather than just a collection of hired guns.
If things pan out the way they hope, the vibes at Red Sox camp should be far more positive than they were last year.
If not, it won't be long before somebody says, "Maybe this wasn't such a good idea."
4. The Dodgers' New-Look Starting Rotation
The Los Angeles Dodgers already had a pretty good starting rotation lined up for 2013, with Clayton Kershaw at the top and Josh Beckett, Chris Capuano, Chad Billingsley and Aaron Harang behind him.
But they made it better anyway, which I suppose is what one does when one has tons of money and one seriously could not give fewer you-know-whats.
The first order of business for the Dodgers was to sign 2009 AL Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke, and they did that by inking him to a six-year, $147 million deal. After that, they signed Korean left-hander Ryu Hyun-jin to six-year, $36 million deal that was preceded by a $25.7 million posting fee.
Greinke's first appearance in Dodgers blue is going to be a big moment, as is always the case whenever the offseason's most expensive player tests his new threads for the first time. Beyond that, we know what we're getting from him.
Ryu is a different story. There are scouting reports on him out there, as well as some videos of him on YouTube, but he's still something of a big mystery. Exactly how he's going to fare against big league hitters is anybody's guess.
Ryu's future in the big leagues won't become clear during spring training, but it will at least become a little clearer than it is right now.
3. Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols in the Same Lineup
Between the two of them, Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols hit 73 home runs in 2012. There could be more where that came from in 2013.
The big difference is that their production will serve the same lineup. Hamilton signed with the Angels for five years and $125 million this winter, setting him and Pujols up to be one of baseball's most explosive middle-of-the-order duos.
We'll get our first glimpse at it this spring, and the World Baseball Classic won't be breaking it up. Hamilton is not on Team USA's roster, and Alden Gonzalez of MLB.com reported on Thursday that Pujols won't be suiting up for the Dominican Republic after having surgery on his knee this offseason.
The Angels aren't going to push Pujols' knee any more than they have to, and they'll probably play it safe with Hamilton too, knowing his injury history. But they should be featured in the same lineup at least a couple of times, which will be a pretty sight, even if they don't do anything.
Why not, right? Pujols has one of the sweetest right-handed swings in baseball history, and Hamilton's lefty swing is one of the smoothest in baseball today. It's like they were made to be together.
Either that, or they just happened to be hired by the same ambitious guy with deep pockets.
2. The Remodeled Toronto Blue Jays
I'm excited to watch the Blue Jays this season.
I honestly can't remember the last time I said that. In fact, this may be a first for me.
The Blue Jays have undergone a metamorphosis this winter, transforming from a mediocre collection of broken-down players into one of the most star-studded teams in baseball. As a result, they've got people outside of Canada buzzing for a change.
Jose Reyes will be at short, with fellow speedy infielder Emilio Bonifacio seeing significant playing time beside him at second base. Melky Cabrera will be in left field. On the mound will be 2012 NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson.
The talent is certainly there, and it will be on display during spring training (when the WBC isn't getting in the way, of course).
Just as interesting will be how John Gibbons handles himself after four years away from managing. He was never a great manager to begin with, and now he finds himself tasked with managing the most talented roster the Blue Jays have had in years.
No pressure, dude.
No, but seriously, lots of pressure. Don't screw this up.
The storylines are all well and good, but if we're being honest, you and I only really care about seeing one thing in spring training.
And that's baseball.
Just baseball. The quality of it and the players on the field matters little, so long as it's baseball.
Because, really, it's just been too long. The last baseball game of the 2012 season was played on Oct. 28, nearly three whole months ago. Since then, there's been nothing but football, basketball, some dude getting knocked the heck out and another dude with a fake girlfriend.
I desire normalcy. And for me, normalcy requires baseball.
Hurry up, spring training.
A tip of my hat to Josh Muller, who blogs about the Oakland A's for ProSportsBlogging.com. This one was his idea.
If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.