Introducing MLB's 'Best Shape of Their Life' Team for 2018
Every spring, players across Major League Baseball show up to spring training in one of two shapes: undeclared or the best of their lives.
One of these groups is more interesting than the other. Here's a hint: It's the one that has its own hashtag.
So, what's say we honor the "Best Shape of His Life" crowd by looking at the most intriguing stories at all the key positions? That covers catcher, first base, second base, shortstop, third base and all three outfield spots, with a starting pitcher and relief pitcher on the side.
What we're after isn't necessarily the most impressive offseason weightlifting or weight-loss sagas. Of equal importance is what players' transformations could mean for them in 2018. The more upside, the better.
On with the show.
Catcher: Gary Sanchez, New York Yankees
Gary Sanchez brought a lot less of himself to New York Yankees camp this year.
Citing a source close to the catcher, Brendan Kuty of NJ.com reported that Sanchez was 20 pounds lighter than the 235 pounds he weighed last spring.
According to Dan Martin of the New York Post, Sanchez himself claims his weight is actually the same. He does look leaner, however, and he has professed to adjusting his offseason routine for a specific purpose.
"This offseason, I worked really hard on defense because I want to be better than last year," the 25-year-old said, per Martin. "I want to fix all the little issues I had last year defensively and keep improving."
The "little issues" that Sanchez referred to weren't actually that little. He committed 16 passed balls last season, which led MLB. They frustrated former manager Joe Girardi to a point where he even benched Sanchez in August. At the time, general manager Brian Cashman pointed to Sanchez's bulk as the primary problem.
A leaner version of him could indeed be more reliable behind the dish. If he can handle that while maintaining a bat that's produced a .923 OPS and 53 home runs since 2016, his limit is somewhere in the sky.
First Base: Albert Pujols, Los Angeles Angels
For the first time since the 2014-15 offseason, Albert Pujols didn't have to worry about recovering from surgery this winter. He took full advantage.
According to Maria Guardado of MLB.com, the 38-year-old reported to Los Angeles Angels camp looking "leaner and stronger" after dropping 13 to 15 pounds. In addition to good health, what helped was a revamped workout routine.
"I stayed away from a lot of the heavy lifting," Pujols said. "They introduced me to a different workout that I never had. It was more agility, flexibility. Before, I spent two to two-and-a-half hours in the gym; now I take care of everything in an hour-and-a-half."
Pujols has generally struggled to live up to his 10-year, $240 million contract but truly hit a nadir in 2017. He hit just 23 homers and posted career worsts with a .672 OPS and minus-1.8 WAR.
One big problem was that he had virtually zero athleticism. He was the slowest runner in MLB and was able to play just six games at first base all season.
Being in better shape could at least solve those problems. If it also makes Pujols more spry in the batter's box, he could be in for a much-needed renaissance.
Second Base: Jedd Gyorko, St. Louis Cardinals
Pardon the pun, but there appear to be slim pickings for BSOHL stories at second base. It's as if the position is primarily populated by good athletes who can't afford to let their conditioning slip from year to year.
There is Jedd Gyorko, however. He's a third baseman who started his major league career at second base and who still moonlights there when Kolten Wong isn't available. Good enough.
According to Jim Hayes of Fox Sports Midwest, Gyorko reported to St. Louis Cardinals camp 20 pounds lighter at 215. Per Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the 29-year-old's mission was to avoid wearing down like he did in 2017. Thus, all manner of carbs had to go.
"Bread, potatoes, rice...they're gone. It [stinks]," he said.
Having less weight to carry around can also only help Gyorko on the basepaths. He sprinted at an average of just 25.4 feet per second in 2017. That's slow even by third base standards, and even worse by second base standards.
Shortstop: Francisco Lindor, Cleveland Indians
Shortstop is another position where BSOHL stories are hard to come by. However, anyone who bothered to inspect the header photo for this article might have noticed Francisco Lindor looking more buff than usual.
"I did my normal stuff," the 24-year-old said when pressed on his muscles, according to Paul Hoynes of Cleveland.com. "The same thing I do every offseason. People say I look a little bigger. It has to do with age...I work as hard as I can to get bigger, to get stronger and be the best player I can be."
Even if the Cleveland Indians All-Star is only kinda-sorta bigger than usual, one concern is what it might mean for his defense.
His ratings were good in 2017 but short of the levels that had qualified him as one of the best in the business in 2015 and 2016. If more weight amounts to less athleticism, it's possible that the 190-pounder will take another step down toward being merely average.
But as far as concerns go, this one isn't quite at DEFCON 1. It's just as likely that Lindor's defense will stay the same and that his offense will get a boost. After he posted an .842 OPS and slugged a career-high 33 homers last year, such a boost would turn him into an even bigger superstar.
Third Base: Alex Bregman, Houston Astros
Alex Bregman's big league story is already a doozy. He made it to The Show just a year after the Houston Astros drafted him No. 2 overall in 2015 and ended 2017 with a World Series title.
And he's only now getting into great shape.
The 23-year-old spent the winter working out at Dynamic Sports Training in Houston. The facility recently posted a photo on Twitter of the before and after results, which reveals that Bregman swapped out a dad bod for one with many more visible muscles.
To be fair, it helped that the 6'0", 180-pounder added a diet to go with his exercise.
"Before I'd eat like cheeseburgers and pizza for every meal and drink about eight Dr Peppers a day," Bregman told Jake Kaplan of The Athletic. "Since the World Series ended, I've had zero Dr Peppers and hired a chef. Really, it's turned into chicken and fish. About as healthy as you can get."
All this is coming after Bregman finished his first full major league season with an .827 OPS, 19 homers, 17 stolen bases and 4.1 WAR. That alone seemed to have him on a fast track to superstardom, and now he's equipped for more power and athleticism.
Left Field: Kyle Schwarber, Chicago Cubs
A special shoutout is owed to Matt Kemp. According to Ken Gurnick of MLB.com, the Los Angeles Dodgers veteran has lost a staggering 40 pounds after struggling with the Atlanta Braves in 2017.
Nonetheless, he doesn't have Kyle Schwarber's upside.
The 24-year-old's offseason transformation started garnering buzz well before he reported to Chicago Cubs camp. Jesse Rogers of ESPN.com based a whole profile on it in December, covering how Schwarber was working hard to lose weight and to improve his athleticism.
"Everyone is caught up in the weight-loss thing," the 235-pounder told Rogers. "I'm not. I'm training my body for 162 games times nine innings or maybe more. I want to be an MVP. I want to be a Gold Glover. I want to set my standards really high."
Athleticism became more of a requirement than a luxury as soon as the Cubs determined that Schwarber was better off in left field than behind the plate. Although he managed a good ultimate zone rating in 2017, his minus-nine defensive runs saved matched up better with the eye test's conclusion: This guy needs to slim down if this experiment is going to last.
It's also possible that Schwarber's improved athleticism might help close some holes in his swing. If he gets his strikeout rate down, his already-excellent power/patience combination stands to shine much brighter.
Center Field: Juan Lagares, New York Mets
With Michael Conforto still recovering from an injured shoulder, there's an opening in the New York Mets outfield. Juan Lagares means to take advantage with more muscles and a renovated swing.
On Twitter, Anthony DiComo of MLB.com showed off Lagares' new-look physique as well as a testimonial that he's "heard more 'best shape of his life' raves" about him than any other Met.
Meanwhile, the 215-pounder is out to join the fly-ball revolution. According to Kevin Kernan of the New York Post, the 28-year-old worked with Craig Wallenbrock, whose success stories include J.D. Martinez and Chris Taylor, on adding loft to his swing so he can hit for more power.
"I feel a little weird," Lagares told Kernan. "When the games start, I have to make sure I do my thing. I needed a change."
Lagares owns a pedestrian .257/.297/.366 slash line over five major league seasons and has never hit more than six homers. Fixing that won't be as easy in reality as it is in theory, but he at least has the right idea.
The real trick, however, will be making sure that he doesn't lose anything on defense. That's where the 2014 Gold Glover proved he still had it in 2017, as he tallied 15 defensive runs saved in only 566.2 innings in center field.
Right Field: Gregory Polanco, Pittsburgh Pirates
Gregory Polanco's major league career has never really taken off, and he's now looking to bounce back from a 2017 season in which he produced zero WAR in 108 games.
Yet, the 26-year-old isn't far removed from being one of baseball's very best prospects. And now he's in better shape after returning to his old personal trainer, Kelvin Terrero, following a one-year hiatus. He lost as much as eight pounds of body fat while gaining lean muscle.
"I feel quicker. I feel like I can be me," the 6'5", 235-pounder said, per J. Scott Butherus of MLB.com. "I can't wait to get back into the season, start spring training."
Also of importance is that he's healthy. He didn't have that luxury last year, as he began the season battling a shoulder injury and was on and off the disabled list with hamstring issues.
Assuming Polanco's good health holds, his extra quickness can only help him in all phases of the game.
On offense, he's often been held back by a swing that tends to get long. On defense, he might be able to push his ratings from good to great. On the bases, he might be able to resuscitate a stolen base total that's fallen precipitously from the 27 bags he swiped in 2015.
Starting Pitcher: Noah Syndergaard, New York Mets
The last thing Noah Syndergaard seemed to need going into the 2016-2017 offseason was more bulk. But he added 17 pounds anyway, and it may have contributed to a lat injury that limited him to seven starts.
So, he reversed course this winter.
Per a December report from Marc Carig of Newsday, the 240-pound right-hander spent the winter focused less on strength and more on flexibility.
"It’s different," the 25-year-old told Carig. "It's still taxing workouts. But my body has never felt better. ... I'm just working on certain flexibility issues that I've had probably my entire life that just haven't been addressed. Just trying to become a more well-rounded athlete."
There might be a fear that Syndergaard's fastball could suffer as a consequence of his new program. But that's not likely. Even all the extra weight he added the prior winter only increased his average velocity from 98.0 mph to 98.3. That's a small step up that he can afford to take back.
It'll be more than worth it if the primary benefit is good health. As Syndergaard showed in putting up a 2.60 ERA and a 5.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2016, that's really the only thing standing in between him and Cy Young Award contention.
Relief Pitcher: Aroldis Chapman, New York Yankees
Aroldis Chapman averaged 100.1 mph on his fastball in 2017. That was 1.1 mph better than any other reliever.
It wasn't all good last season, however. Chapman's velocity was at its best early and late in the season. In between, the left-hander suffered a drop that corresponded with the sort of mortality that he's not used to. At one point, he was in a bad enough rut to lose his gig as the Yankees closer.
The 29-year-old's goal for the winter was to ensure this won't happen again. Exactly what he did is unclear but he reported to camp feeling much stronger.
"I worked a lot on my shoulder and my arm," he said through a translator, according to Ralph Long of MLB.com. "I want to become stronger and have more stamina to prevent injuries and fatigue."
As it is, Chapman seemed all the way back by the end of last season. He was averaging 100.9 mph on his fastball in September, and that climbed as high as 104.2. He allowed zero runs and only three hits in 11 appearances while striking out 17 of the 41 batters he faced.
If Chapman's offseason program helps him sustain that for six months, he can have a truly special season.