So long, Super Bowl. Hello, spring training and the dawn of a new Major League Baseball season.
Are you ready?
No, you say? Oh. Well, then. We'd better get you up to speed.
Don't worry. We've done this sort of thing before. The first thing you need to know is that, starting on Feb. 17, spring training is when MLB's 30 clubs gather in Arizona and Florida to prepare for the coming season. For those involved, there are drills, exhibition games and...uh, more drills and exhibition games.
But you, the baseball consumer, obviously care about what's worth your attention. So, let's get to it!
Teams with New Toys
While the rest of us spend our winters playing old Nintendo games and binge-watching old X-Files episodes—works for me, anyway—major league clubs pass the time shopping for new toys. Some teams do more shopping than others, and spring training gives us our first peek at what these teams look like.
There's your cue to have eyes on the...
Last year's Diamondbacks could hit and field like gangbusters, but probably would have been better off with a pitching staff of actual snakes. So they spent over $200 million to sign Zack Greinke and traded basically the whole farm for Shelby Miller. Throw in Tyler Clippard and Jean Segura, and this is a team that clearly means business in its quest to take back the NL West. They may not succeed, but it's nice to see the D-Backs trusting the process instead of, you know, grit.
Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox finished in last place for the third time in four years in 2015. In a place like Boston, that will not stand. And since they had the same problem as the Diamondbacks, they signed David Price for $217 million and also upgraded their bullpen with trades for Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith. FanGraphs now projects them as the best team in the American League, and they may look the part this spring.
The Cubs put an end to their rebuild with a 97-win campaign in 2015 and were aggressive in keeping their momentum going this winter. They spent close to $300 million to add Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist to their power-packed lineup and John Lackey to their rotation. The Cubs are now an easy choice for the best team in baseball, and there's nothing* in their history that suggests they'll disappoint.
*Not actually, but whatever.
The Tigers finishing in last place in the AL Central in 2015 clearly did not sit well with owner Mike Ilitch. He spent nearly as much money as the Cubs, giving $100 million contracts to Jordan Zimmermann and Justin Upton. Detroit's characteristically lousy bullpen has also been remade. The Tigers still may not be good enough to topple the Kansas City Royals, but darn it if they aren't going to try.
San Francisco Giants
The Giants enjoyed awesome performances from Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner and a terrific infield in 2015, but were undone by a lack of rotation and outfield depth. About $250 million later, they've solved these problems with Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija and Denard Span. They now have enough talent to make it four championships in seven years. Plus, this is an even year.
Check Out These Position Battles
Spring training isn't just about showing off new toys. There's also a Thunderdome aspect to the proceedings, as teams need to hold battles to determine who they want to go with at certain positions. And this year, the interesting ones include...
Arizona Diamondbacks Middle Infield
Because they already had the slick-fielding Nick Ahmed at shortstop, one wondered if Arizona's plan was to have Segura play second base. But as general manager Dave Stewart told MLB Network Radio:
MLB Network Radio @MLBNetworkRadio
#DBacks Dave Stewart: "Don't want to be disrespectful to Nick Ahmed. Jean is going to come in & get most of his reps at SS not 2B"1/31/2016, 4:39:28 PM
This can be taken to mean that the D-Backs plan to go with Segura at shortstop, with Ahmed competing with Chris Owings at second base. Or, it could mean that shortstop and second base are up for grabs. Either way, this would-be contender has some important positions to square away.
Minnesota Twins Center Field
In case anyone's forgotten, the Twins were actually good in 2015! They could be even better in 2016 if top prospect Byron Buxton is ready to take over the center field job, but it doesn't sound like they're ready to hand him the position just yet.
"It will make things a lot smoother if he's the guy. Because if he's not, it's going to be interchanging parts and it might not look too pretty, at least at the start," Twins skipper Paul Molitor said last month, per Phil Miller of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "So I'm hoping that works out. It would be the best-case scenario if Byron Buxton is ready to be our center fielder."
Or, in so many words: Show us what you've got, rook.
Toronto Blue Jays Closer
A big reason the Blue Jays were able to get Drew Storen from the Washington Nationals was because he had been outed from his closer gig. But as Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet.ca reported, the Blue Jays are going to play their closer role by ear this spring. Storen will have to earn it over Roberto Osuna, who's coming off a dominant rookie season. Them's the fixings for an intriguing closer battle.
Toronto Blue Jays Left Field
It's not just their closer gig the Blue Jays have to figure out. They gave up Ben Revere in the trade for Storen, putting left field up for grabs. There to battle for the job are Dalton Pompey, a top prospect heading into 2015, and Michael Saunders, who's shown he can be a quality left-handed bat. Whoever wins will get regular action in a Blue Jays lineup that's baseball's answer to The Expendables.
Washington Nationals Shortstop
The Nationals began the winter with openings at shortstop and second base, but their signing of Daniel Murphy took care of the latter. Shortstop is still open, though, and there could be a doozy of a competition for it this spring. In one corner is veteran defensive wiz Danny Espinosa. In the other is Trea Turner, who MLB.com rates as baseball's No. 11 prospect. You might want to pull up a chair for this one.
Keep an Eye on These Prospects
New toys and position battles are nice, but arguably the coolest part of spring training is that it offers a chance to see the league's top prospects in the flesh. Even better, some of them actually have something to play for. This year, the list includes...
Byron Buxton, CF, Minnesota Twins
Buxton is rated as the No. 2 prospect in baseball by MLB.com, with Jim Callis writing that he has the best combination of tools since Mike Trout. Those include plus-plus speed and throwing strength, as well as above-average hitting and power tools. Sounds awesome, to be sure, but Buxton still has much to prove after a disappointing showing in the majors last year. So, again, show us what you've got, rook.
Joey Gallo, OF/3B, Texas Rangers
Gallo heads into the spring season as a consensus top-10 prospect but without a clear shot at a job with Adrian Beltre at third base and Josh Hamilton in left field. There may be an opening for him if the injury bug gets its usual hankering for Hamilton, though. And if not, well, there's always the chance that you'll tune in and see Gallo hitting some tremendous dingers.
Lucas Giolito, RHP, Washington Nationals
According to, well, everyone, Giolito is baseball's top pitching prospect. He combines a big frame with awesome stuff and good command, and he'll even slay a dragon if you need him to. It's unlikely he'll crack Washington's rotation, but it should be fun to watch him make his presence known in his first major league spring training.
Jon Gray, RHP, Colorado Rockies
Unlike Giolito, Gray is a top pitching prospect who actually has a shot at a rotation spot this spring. The No. 3 overall pick in 2013, Gray is a hard-throwing right-hander who's bringing a new curveball to spring training. If the Rockies are convinced that can be the key to him solving last year's problem with Coors Field, the rotation spot Gray seeks may be all his.
Steven Matz, LHP, New York Mets
And now for a top pitching prospect who already has a job in hand. Matz teased his potential as yet another dangerous hard-thrower in the Mets rotation with a 2.27 ERA in six regular-season starts last year, and he is heading into camp as the club's projected No. 4 starter. If he makes good on the club's faith this spring, their rotation is going to look that much scarier.
Corey Seager, SS, Los Angeles Dodgers
Speaking of top prospects who teased their potential in 2015, Seager fits that bill just as well. After hitting .337 with a .986 OPS in 27 major league games last year, he's now considered baseball's No. 1 prospect. The Dodgers look like they're all aboard the hype train, as their starting shortstop gig is Seager's to lose.
Trea Turner, SS, Washington Nationals
While Seager already has a shortstop gig in hand, we've been over how Turner will be fighting for a job of his own in Washington's camp. And don't underestimate his likelihood of landing it. With blinding speed and a solid bat, Turner may establish himself as a perfect fit for the top of the Nationals lineup. And though Espinosa is a good defender, Turner's no slouch in his own right.
While prospects seek to establish themselves and other players scrap it out in position battles, most veterans just go through the motions in between rounds of golf. Others, though, need to use the spring season to get back on track and back in shape. This year's list includes...
Michael Brantley, OF, Cleveland Indians
The Indians don't have a world-beating offense, so they need Brantley, a .319 hitter over the last two years, to make a strong recovery from the right shoulder surgery he had back in November. Brantley told Jordan Bastian of MLB.com in late January that his target is Opening Day, but he has yet to start a hitting program. How much he'll be able to do this spring remains a good question.
Yu Darvish, SP, Texas Rangers
After he missed all of 2015 recovering from Tommy John surgery, Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News reports that Darvish is aiming to throw his first bullpen session in March. Of course, the big question is if he'll see any live-game action. And even if he does, the Rangers aren't going to push him to be ready for Opening Day. Still, it'll be nice to see his slider again.
Jung Ho Kang, SS, Pittsburgh Pirates
Kang was a revelation in his first season out of South Korea in 2015, posting an .816 OPS and hitting 15 home runs in 126 games. But then a hard takeout slide tore up his left leg, ending his season in mid-September. As Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported last month, Kang may be on track to return sometime in April. If things go well enough, Opening Day may even be possible.
Yadier Molina, C, St. Louis Cardinals
Molina was undone by a bad left thumb at the end of 2015, and he has had to have two surgeries on it this winter. And as Jenifer Langosch of MLB.com reported in mid-January, he won't even be getting his cast off until the middle of this month. It's going to take some work to get him ready for Opening Day, and the Cardinals can certainly ill afford any setbacks.
Albert Pujols, 1B, Los Angeles Angels
Pujols enjoyed a 40-homer season in 2015, but his offseason started on a down note when he had surgery on his right foot in November. Jon Morosi of Fox Sports reported in late January that Pujols had been cleared to begin hitting off a tee, but that he's still not expected to resume full baseball activities until late March. Opening Day may be a long shot for the 36-year-old future Hall of Famer.
Hyun-Jin Ryu, SP, Los Angeles Dodgers
Following strong showings in 2013 and 2014, a bad left shoulder sidelined Ryu for all of 2015. He was cleared to throw off a mound in mid-January, but Steve Dilbeck of the Los Angeles Times recently indicated that Ryu will need to show he's healthy this spring in order to claim a spot in the Dodgers rotation. That makes Ryu one of the bigger wild cards of the spring season.
CC Sabathia, SP, New York Yankees
Sabathia's rough 2015 season came to a distressing end when he entered an alcohol rehab program in early October. Thankfully, he seems to have emerged all the better for it. He told Chad Jennings of the Journal News in mid-December that he was "light-years ahead" of his usual workout pace. More recently, he told George A. King III of the New York Post that he feels the best he has in three years. Now all he has to do is earn a spot in the Yankees rotation, which will take a strong spring.
Giancarlo Stanton, RF, Miami Marlins
Stanton put himself on a heck of a pace by slugging 27 homers through just 74 games last season, but a broken bone in his left hand put an end to that. The last word on him came in early December from Joe Frisaro of MLB.com, who reported that the Marlins slugger was able to swing a bat without pain. This is welcome news, as Stanton's ability to destroy baseballs hasn't been known to take spring training off.
Don't Forget the BSOHL Club
All of the above is important, but here's a spring training question that's just plain fun: Who's in the "Best Shape of His Life" club?
The folks at Hardball Talk do us all a favor by keeping a handy database, which tells us that the following players have already been reported to be in the best shape of their lives:
- Twins reliever J.R. Graham
- Mariners starter James Paxton
- White Sox outfielder Avisail Garcia
- Blue Jays starter/reliever Aaron Sanchez
- Padres outfielder Wil Myers
The club's membership will increase in size (not that kind of size) as more players report to spring training. And as easy as it will be to mock it, Ben Lindbergh did a study for Grantland (RIP) last spring that found that both hitters and pitchers who report to camp in the best shape of their lives have a track record of seeing the benefits.
However, don't be hasty to get excited about players seeing the benefits right away in spring training. Because...
Don't Trust the Numbers
OK, look. Us baseball fans love numbers. Numbers are to baseball fans as the one ring is to Gollum. And when the spring exhibition season opens up, there will finally be numbers to look at.
But here's your annual reminder not to read too much into them.
As we discussed at length last spring, neither team performances nor individual hitting performances nor individual pitching performances during spring training are especially predictive of what's to come in the regular season. Numerous studies have been done on these fronts, and their conclusions can generally be summarized with a shrug GIF.
And really, you don't even need to look at any studies.
The next time you have an inkling that a spring training performance might mean something, just remember that the best team last spring was the Oakland A's. Or that the second-best hitter behind Mike Trout was Mike Zunino. Or that the two best pitchers were Kendall Graveman and Taijuan Walker.
Are we still going to talk about the numbers, though? Well, yeah. Of course. They're easily downplayed, but not easily ignored. Besides which, we have to talk about something, right? It's either talk about the numbers or wait around for the next weird injury.
Lastly, Beware of Weird Injuries
Weird injuries are a spring training tradition, and one that kept going strong in 2015. Ronald Belisario hurt himself getting out of a swimming pool. Corey Hart had a similar incident, except in a hot tub. Chris Sale may have broken his foot unloading his truck, or by roundhouse kicking a home intruder.
What could possibly be next? Here are some guesses:
- Rogue pitching machine
- Beard caught on cactus
- Tried to get beard out of cactus
- Tried to lift Bartolo Colon
- Didn't notice toilet seat was on fire
- Shane Victorino'd
- Run-in with Florida man
- "Witness me!" stunt
- Chief Wiggum's chili
- Manbearpig attack
We're half-joking, of course. But only half. Spring training is a weirdly dangerous time. Players need to be careful out there.
As for the rest of us, well, I'd say we're about ready. All there is left to do now is enjoy spring training for what it is.
It may not be real baseball, but it's still baseball. It's still baseball.
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