Predicting the Biggest Winners and Losers of 2017 MLB Spring Training
Spring training is underway, and the first games of the Cactus and Grapefruit leagues schedule are set to begin on Friday, Feb. 24.
The preseason means different things to different players, as some will be shaking off the rust and simply trying to stay healthy with a roster spot already locked up, while others will be going all-in to battle for a spot on the Opening Day roster.
Ahead, we've taken a crack at predicting some of the biggest winners and losers of this year's spring slate.
We've highlighted a couple remaining free agents, notable position battles, teams as a whole and also looked at Team USA and the World Baseball Classic.
Spring performance might not mean much in the grand scheme of things, but that doesn't mean there won't be clear winners and losers beyond just win-loss records.
Loser: C Matt Wieters
Is anyone going to sign Matt Wieters?
The 30-year-old was an All-Star for the fourth time in his career last season, posting a .711 OPS with 17 home runs and 66 RBI after accepting a qualifying offer last winter.
The Baltimore Orioles opted against extending him another offer this offseason, instead adding Welington Castillo as the new starting catcher.
Dominos continued to fall on the offseason catcher market as Jason Castro (MIN), Wilson Ramos (TB), Derek Norris (WAS), Kurt Suzuki (ATL), Nick Hundley (SF) and others all found new homes.
Yet, Wieters is still unsigned.
At this point, he'll almost certainly have to settle for a one-year deal, and the Tampa Bay Rays have made him an offer, according to Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times.
With the aforementioned Ramos still recovering from a torn ACL that he suffered in September, Wieters would have a starting gig in Tampa, but he could be pushed to part-time duty once he returns.
That wouldn't be an ideal situation for him to rebuild value ahead of another run at free agency next winter.
Winner: RP Joe Blanton
Some team is going to realize they need one more quality reliever this spring, whether it's the result of an injury of a troubling performance from an established arm.
Enter Joe Blanton.
The 36-year-old resurrected his career as a reliever with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2015 and made good on a one-year, $4 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers last season.
Appearing in a career-high 75 games, he went 7-2 with 28 holds while pitching to a 2.48 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and 9.0 K/9 as one of the team's primary setup arms.
No one has been solidly linked to Blanton this offseason, and the last time he made an appearance on MLB Trade Rumors was back on Feb. 2 when it was reported that the Dodgers were still showing some level of interest in a potential reunion—prior to signing Sergio Romo.
The veteran will land on his feet somewhere this spring, and it wouldn't be surprising for him to weigh multiple offers and still wind up signing for more than he made a year ago.
Loser: 2B Ozzie Albies, Atlanta Braves
Ozzie Albies was one of the stars of spring training last year when he hit .371 as a teenager and made it clear that Dansby Swanson wasn't the only emerging star among Atlanta Braves infield prospects.
After hitting .292/.358/.420 with 49 extra-base hits and 30 stolen bases between Double-A and Triple-A last year as a 19-year-old, it looked like he was ready to push incumbent Jace Peterson for the starting second base job this spring.
Instead, the recent addition of veteran Brandon Phillips would appear to push his ETA back to 2018.
Part of the reason for that trade was the season-ending injury suffered by newly signed utility man Sean Rodriguez.
However, another big part of it could be Albies recovering from an injury of his own, as he underwent elbow surgery last September.
"He’s on a rehab program, pretty much. It’ll be a few weeks before he’s in games. He’s going through the process. They have a program mapped out for him. He’ll be a little behind," manager Brian Snitker told Zach Dillard of Fox Sports. "The biggest thing is just getting him healthy and not trying to rush him. He’s a young kid. It’ll be hard for him, I’m sure, to tone it down a little bit because he’s an aggressive kid that wants to play."
Phillips will be a free agent next offseason, so he's not a long-term roadblock by any means, but his presence still pushes back the likely arrival of Albies after it looked like he had an outside shot of breaking camp with the team.
Winner: Jae-Gyun Hwang, San Francisco Giants
The San Francisco Giants have one of the more intriguing non-roster invitees of the spring in KBO standout Jae-gyun Hwang.
The 29-year-old hit .330/.391/.558 with 22 doubles, 26 home runs and 104 RBI playing for the Lotte Giants last season.
"You can see that he has a great swing, and that swing will work," manager Bruce Bochy told Chris Haft of MLB.com.
Hwang will have plenty of competition for the final spot on the Giants' bench as Jimmy Rollins, Aaron Hill, Gordon Beckham, Justin Ruggiano, Michael Morse and Kyle Blanks are also in camp on minor league deals.
With recent KBO success stories like Jung-ho Kang and Hyun-soo Kim, it's a chance worth taking for the Giants, and it's not out of the question to think he could play his way into a more significant role, potentially as the starting third baseman if Eduardo Nunez regresses or winds up moved to left field.
At any rate, look for Hwang to come out on top in as interesting a battle as you'll see for a bench spot.
Loser: Team USA at the World Baseball Classic
This year's roster looks like it will be the best the United States has ever taken into a World Baseball Classic.
It still won't be good enough, though.
The offense is stacked, and the bullpen is deep, but once again, the league's top starting pitchers have opted against participating.
That leaves some combination of Chris Archer, Sonny Gray, Marcus Stroman, Danny Duffy, Michael Fulmer, Tanner Roark, J.A. Happ and Drew Smyly tasked with leading the way for the U.S. team on the mound.
That's certainly a step in the right direction from the 2013 team that deployed a rotation of R.A. Dickey, Gio Gonzalez, Derek Holland, Ryan Vogelsong and Ross Detwiler.
Still, the United States has never finished better than fourth in the WBC, and they'll once again be contending with loaded teams from the Dominican Republic, Japan and Venezuela as well as strong squads from Puerto Rico and South Korea.
Maybe 2021 will be the year.
Winner: The World Baseball Classic in General
While Team USA might not be poised to hoist the trophy, the World Baseball Classic as a whole is in good shape.
With more superstar talent than ever scattered among the 16 rosters, interest will be high, and MLB Network is televising every game this time around.
For baseball fans, it's a chance to see some competitive baseball long before Opening Day rolls around as opposed to the low stakes that come with spring baseball.
It will also once again serve as a showcase of sorts for some of the top international talent around the world, though Japanese superstar Shohei Otani is unfortunately not playing due to a right ankle injury.
As the popularity of the WBC continues to grow among both players and fans, it's good for baseball as a whole and the continued globalization of the sport.
Loser: Texas Rangers
The Texas Rangers are still the team to beat in the AL West after a 95-win season a year ago.
Their perch atop the division is a precarious one, though.
The Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners have both made significant additions this offseason, and even the Los Angeles Angels look like an improved team, setting up what figures to be a hotly contested battle for division supremacy.
A shaky spring from a questionable pitching staff could be enough for some Rangers fans to start pushing the panic button before Opening Day arrives.
Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish are as good as any tandem in baseball, but the rest of the rotation is a question mark.
Martin Perez, Andrew Cashner and whoever wins out between A.J. Griffin and Dillon Gee will make up the five-man staff to begin the season, with Tyson Ross expected to eventually push his way into the picture once he's fully recovered from thoracic outlet surgery.
For a team whose window to win is seemingly open right now, it's hard to feel like the Rangers did enough this offseason to keep pace.
Signing Mike Napoli was a nice low-cost solution to adding a power bat, and both Cashner and Ross offer plenty of upside, but that's been the extent of their notable offseason pickups.
This spring could shine light on a weakness that it's too late to fix.
Winner: New York Yankees
The New York Yankees might have a tough time keeping pace with the rival Boston Red Sox in the AL East standings this coming year, but the future is incredibly bright.
That future will be on full display this spring as eight of the team's top 10 prospects, per Baseball America, will be in big league camp.
That includes slugger Aaron Judge, who is looking to play his way into the starting right field job, and No. 1 overall prospect Gleyber Torres, who is fresh off Arizona Fall League MVP honors and looking to prove he can make an impact sooner than expected.
There is a legitimate question whether the Yankees have enough pitching to contend in 2017 as Bryan Mitchell, Luis Severino, Chad Green, Luis Cessa and perhaps Jordan Montgomery battle it out for the final two spots in the rotation.
This spring will be about providing a glimpse into the future, though, as the front office has finally made building from within a priority after years of turning top prospects into immediate impact veterans.
Yankees fans simply need to trust the process, and that will be easier to do with an impressive showing from the youngsters this spring.
Loser: New York Mets
Here's what Bleacher Report's Danny Knobler wrote earlier this month while naming the New York Mets as the team that will "look worse than advertised" in our MLB expert poll:
"This isn't a prediction of a bad season. It's only a prediction that the spring will be rockier than the Mets hope and expect. They have too many players coming off injuries, including most of the rotation and most of the infield. While the early reports have been good, it's hard to imagine all the rehabs will be smooth all the way from now to April."
Matt Harvey (thoracic outlet surgery), Jacob deGrom (ulnar nerve surgery) and Steven Matz (elbow bone spur removal) are all working their way back from offseason surgery, and Zack Wheeler is already dealing with "elbow tenderness" this spring.
Meanwhile, no notable additions were made to an offense that ranked 25th in the league at 4.14 runs per game, though the team did re-sign Yoenis Cespedes and bring back Neil Walker on a qualifying offer.
That means a lot of the hopes for the upcoming season are being heaped on that potentially dynamic starting rotation.
A setback or two in the rehab process of those aforementioned arms could leave the Mets looking like the biggest losers of the spring.
Winner: Chicago White Sox
The Chicago White Sox are in a terrific position right now.
A pair of offseason blockbuster deals netted them a wealth of high-end prospect talent led by Yoan Moncada and Lucas Giolito, who will both be looking to prove they belong on the Opening Day roster this spring.
The South Siders are still very much open for business, too.
If Pablo Sandoval falls flat in Boston, the Red Sox could come calling with an offer for third baseman Todd Frazier.
Or if the Houston Astros don't like what they're seeing out of the starting rotation, they could revisit earlier talks centered around Jose Quintana.
Maybe the Washington Nationals aren't comfortable relying on Shawn Kelley in the ninth inning after all. David Robertson, anyone?
The 2017 White Sox are not going to win a ton of games, but they're building toward something special, and that process has only just begun.