Predicting the Early Sensations of MLB's 2017 Spring Training Action
We're almost finished with the checking-in and stretching-out portion of spring training and now head into the slate of meaningless/meaningful action.
Meaningless because the scores don't matter. Meaningful because the way players look and perform does (to an extent).
A hot start in the Grapefruit League or Cactus League does not guarantee a great regular season, just as early scuffling isn't cause for panic.
Every year, though, a handful of players hit the ground running as early-spring sensations. Some are youngsters flashing their potential, while others are veterans who recently recovered from injuries or reworked their approaches.
Here's a look at eight guys who, for various reasons, appear poised to make a memorable first impression in exhibition games, including a newly bearded Tampa Bay Rays infielder, a Chicago Cubs outfielder with a revamped swing and a New York Yankees right-hander who got tutelage from a Boston Red Sox Hall of Famer.
Pablo Sandoval, 3B, Boston Red Sox
You've heard about svelte Pablo Sandoval, and perhaps you're skeptical. If you're a Red Sox fan, you have every right to be.
Sandoval has been mostly awful since signing a five-year, $95 million deal with Boston prior to the 2015 season. Last year, he showed up woefully out of shape and played just three regular-season games before a shoulder injury put him on the shelf.
The Kung Fu Panda got back into fighting shape over the winter, and he's saying the right things in camp.
"Teamwork is the most important thing to me," Sandoval said, per Bleacher Report's Scott Miller. "I don't care about my numbers. I just want to give Boston another chance to win a World Series."
He may not care about the stat sheet, but the Red Sox would surely take a return to 2009, when Sandoval hit .330 with 25 home runs for the San Francisco Giants. Or 2012, when he hit three home runs in a single World Series game and claimed Fall Classic MVP honors.
Sandoval is only 30 years old, and a resurgent second act is within his grasp. With his diminished waistline and increased focus, he'll tease big things in the Grapefruit League.
A.J. Pollock, CF, Arizona Diamondbacks
In the waning days of the 2016 exhibition schedule, A.J. Pollock fractured his elbow sliding into home. The Arizona Diamondbacks center fielder wound up missing all but 12 games in the regular season.
He's now back, healthy and looking to replicate or exceed his breakout 2015 performance. That's the year he hit .315 with 20 home runs and 39 stolen bases and won a Gold Glove.
"I feel great," the 29-year-old said, per the Associated Press (h/t Fox Sports). "The elbow's something in the past. [I'm] just working smart, and I'm looking forward to this spring."
The 2016 layoff could lead to some rust, but smart money would bet on a player in his prime seeking to re-establish his All-Star credentials.
Evan Longoria, 3B, Tampa Bay Rays
Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria had a resurgent season in 2016, slashing .273/.318/.521 and hitting a career-high 36 home runs.
Now, the 31-year-old three-time All-Star will look to build on that success with a newish approach. Longoria shortened his swing last year and is looking to carry that over.
"My swing has probably felt as good as it's ever felt coming into the spring," Longoria said, per MLB.com's Mike Nabors. "The adjustments I made last year just really made it easier for me to set back to that spot."
Oh, and he sprouted some new facial hair.
"I started growing it in November," Longoria said of his jaw ornament, per Nabors. "My wife likes it. She told me if I cut it when I got here, she'd be upset."
He's overshadowed in the hirsute department by teammate Colby Rasmus, but his early exhibition output could trump all beard-related considerations.
Michael Kopech, RHP, Chicago White Sox
If you aren't excited to watch Michael Kopech this spring, you don't like baseball and may not have a pulse.
The Red Sox sent the 20-year-old right-hander to the Chicago White Sox in the Chris Sale trade. He's capable of flying past triple digits on the radar gun and threw 110 mph off flat ground in mid-January.
Kopech chopped off his signature flowing locks, per Colleen Kane of the Chicago Tribune, and he's now cutting deep into his first-ever big league camp. If anything, he's going too hard.
"He basically had to tell me, 'Don't do everything 100 percent right away. It's going to be a long spring,'" Kopech said of White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper, per Scot Gregor of the Daily Herald. "That's something I have trouble grasping. I'm a guy who likes to do everything 100 percent."
That's sound advice for the 162-game grind. However, Kopech's unbridled desire could lead to electric spring moments, as pitchers are often ahead of hitters in the early going.
Hunter Renfroe, RF, San Diego Padres
The San Diego Padres may lose 100-plus games in 2017. Still, there's something brewing in the Friars camp, and it feels like hope.
"I think the vibe is unbelievably different," outfielder Hunter Renfroe said, per Derek Togerson of NBC San Diego. "I think it's moved more towards a positive attitude and everybody's having a great time."
In the past, Renfroe added, with experienced players in camp, the tendency was "to walk on egg shells because you don't want to insult them." He didn't call them out by name, but it's possible the Pads rookie was referencing departed veterans such as outfielder Matt Kemp and right-hander James Shields.
Now, after years of being caught between a rebuild and misguided attempts to contend, San Diego has committed to an unambiguous youth movement.
Renfroe could be at the center of that. The 24-year-old masher made deafening noise after a September call-up last season, going 13-for-35 with three doubles and four home runs, good for a 1.189 OPS. Add 30 home runs with 105 RBI at Triple-A El Paso, and it's no wonder he's the odds-on favorite to win the right field job.
With his big-pop ability and that newfound clubhouse looseness, look for an early Cactus League power surge from Renfroe.
Jason Heyward, RF, Chicago Cubs
The Chicago Cubs signed Jason Heyward to an eight-year, $184 million contract last winter and proceeded to win the World Series in spite of him. Despite his trademark defense, Heyward hit .230 with a career-low .631 OPS and notched just two extra-base hits in 16 postseason games.
The Cubs buried the billy goat and busted their century-plus championship drought, but that didn't erase Heyward's struggles.
The 27-year-old former All-Star got busy rejiggering his swing during the offseason. Cubs mental skills coordinator Darnell Howard showcased Heyward's new, more upright hack in an Instagram post.
"He was one of the best guys in baseball, and we just lost it for here or there," Cubs hitting coach John Mallee said, per CBS Chicago's Chris Emma. "You take it back to where he was good, and then goes back to what he was in 2012—get those patterns back in his swing."
The 2012 season was when Heyward hit his offensive zenith, belting 27 home runs with 82 RBI and 21 stolen bases for the Atlanta Braves.
Tinkering with his swing won't necessarily get him back there, but he's young and skilled enough to make a rebirth plausible. After failing to live up to his massive contract last year, he'll be extra motivated to crush it out of the gate.
Luis Severino, RHP, New York Yankees
Sorry, Red Sox fans. Pedro Martinez turned on you this winter.
No, Pedro didn't renounce his place in Beantown lore or burn a Ted Williams jersey in effigy. He did, however, spend a portion of the offseason mentoring Yankees right-hander Luis Severino on mechanics and location, per Pete Caldera of USA Today.
The 23-year-old Severino posted a 5.83 ERA in 71 innings with the Yankees last season. He's in the mix for a rotation spot, but the field is as crowded as it is murky.
"I want to be a starter. I came here to leave it all [out] there," Severino said, per Caldera. "I've got to do my best… to be a starter."
In addition to working with his Hall of Fame countryman, the young Dominican shed 10 pounds, per Caldera.
Whether that translates to a breakout season in the Bronx remains to be seen, but it has the makings of an eye-opening exhibition showcase.
Noah Syndergaard, RHP, New York Mets
Noah Syndergaard didn't need to get better.
In a New York Mets starting five littered with question marks and injury comebacks, Syndergaard is the lone sure thing after posting a 2.60 ERA with 218 strikeouts in 183.2 innings.
The big right-hander with the Norse god nickname beefed up anyway, adding 17 pounds of muscle with the aim of accelerating the gas.
"I've always wanted to throw harder and continue to make the game easier," Syndergaard said, per James Wagner of the New York Times. "Last year, from my rookie season, my velocity jumped up. I'm always going to try to raise that kind of bar. Hopefully, it allows me to go deeper into games with more ease."
That's a scary thought for opposing hitters, considering Thor's average fastball sat at 97.9 miles per hour in 2016 and topped out in triple digits.
Given the snakebitten nature of this Mets rotation, it's natural to wonder if Syndergaard is next in line for health problems. Ken Davidoff of the New York Post did exactly that.
That's wet-blanket talk, though. For now, Thor is ready to throw his mightiest bolts to date. As early-spring storylines go, that's pretty divine.