Astros-Free MLB Spring Training Storylines to Track Ahead of Opening Day
Had enough of the Houston Astros' sign-stealing scandal and the fury it's caused throughout Major League Baseball?
If so, well, that's understandable. But with Opening Day (March 26) just over the horizon, there are also plenty of other spring training storylines out there.
We've rounded up 10 in particular that are worthy of attention. They cover everything from key trends to rule changes to potential transactions to new-look teams and players.
Let's take it away.
The Reigning Champions Look Familiar, and Different
The last time anyone saw the Washington Nationals in 2019, they were winning their first-ever World Series championship. And over the dreaded Astros, no less.
Unsurprisingly, the Nats put a ton of effort into keeping the band together over the winter. They spent $245 million to re-sign World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg, and they also brought back Howie Kendrick, Yan Gomes, Ryan Zimmerman, Asdrubal Cabrera and Daniel Hudson.
The one guy the Nationals couldn't retain, however, was their best player from 2019: Anthony Rendon. After exploding with a career-high 1.010 OPS and 34 home runs, the superstar third baseman bolted for the Los Angeles Angels when they offered him a seven-year, $245 million deal of his own.
Sans Rendon, Washington has a huge hole in the middle of its lineup and a major question mark looming over third base. The club is hoping that some combination of top prospect Carter Kieboom and newcomers Starlin Castro and Eric Thames will resolve these matters.
Ultimately, spring training is equal parts victory lap and an experimental phase for the reigning champions.
"Keep your eye on the ball" may well have been the original piece of baseball advice. Albeit in a different context, it's also relevant in the here and now.
The baseball itself has been behaving oddly enough in recent seasons to inspire rampant speculation about what exactly is going on with it. It all reached a fever pitch last season, in which the ball was accused of being juiced in the regular season and then de-juiced in the postseason.
Though Major League Baseball didn't admit to intentionally altering the ball, it did release an official report that copped to manufacturing inconsistencies as a factor in the ball's inconsistent performance.
Because the league owns Rawlings, it hypothetically could do something about this. For instance, it could aim for more consistent balls through stricter quality-control measures.
In any case, the frequency of home runs during spring training could be an early tell for how the ball will behave this season. If home runs are plentiful, it could resemble the 2019 regular season. If they're at a premium, this season might play out more like the 2019 postseason.
Adjusting to New Rules
Setting aside what's going on with the literal baseball, baseball in general figures to be different this season.
There are some new rules in effect for 2020, including two that have major ramifications for roster construction. Rosters have expanded from 25 to 26 men, and there's also a new stipulation that pitchers must face at least three batters upon entering a game.
The latter rule figures to effectively kill the "LOOGY," or left-handed one-out guys. It isn't in effect yet, but it will be as of March 12. At that point, lefty specialists like Adam Kolarek, Alex Claudio, Andrew Chafin and Oliver Perez will be under pressure to prove they can handle right-handed batters.
In theory, forcing pitchers to face at least three batters should help reverse baseball's ongoing trend toward longer games. The provision that teams carry no more than 13 pitchers could also help.
Otherwise, the expansion of rosters is good news for those who had previously been on the fringes of the majors. A total of 30 additional players now have a shot at earning major league money, which should spice up position battles around the league.
Position Battle Intrigue
Speaking of position battles, there are plenty of good ones to keep an eye on this spring.
Virtually every team in the league is trying to figure out the back end of its starting rotation and which guys it wants in its bullpen. That extends even to contenders such as the Boston Red Sox, who have several open spots in their pen and a David Price-sized hole in their rotation.
Elsewhere, there are interesting competitions going on at second base and third base, respectively. The Oakland Athletics, Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox are trying to figure out the former, while the Nationals and New York Yankees are working on the latter.
The fight for the hot corner in New York looks especially intriguing. It's Gio Urshela's position to lose after his breakout campaign in 2019, but Miguel Andujar should not be counted out. The 2018 American League Rookie of the Year runner-up is looking healthy after missing most of 2019 with an injured shoulder.
On the lookout for a good outfield competition? Train your eyes on the Cincinnati Reds, Toronto Blue Jays and San Diego Padres, each of whom have more outfielders than they need.
Somebody's Going to Sign Yasiel Puig
While we're on the topic of outfielders: One of baseball's most recognizable players is still looking for work.
Around this time last year, Yasiel Puig figured to be one of the top players on the 2019-20 free-agent market. Alas, the 29-year-old right fielder didn't help his cause with a mediocre walk year. He finished 2019 with a .785 OPS, 24 home runs and 1.4 wins above replacement, per Baseball Reference.
Puig did, however, frontload the bulk of his struggles. From May 10 through the end of the year, he recovered nicely with a solid .288/.350/.493 slash line with 19 homers.
Puig's track record gives him another leg to stand on as he seeks a contract. Though he was at his best in his first two seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2013 and 2014, he was still a star-caliber performer as recently as 2017 and 2018, when he was worth a total of 6.5 WAR.
There would seem to still be space for Puig on the Cleveland Indians, with whom he ended his 2019 campaign. If not them, some other team is sure to sign him before Opening Day arrives.
Ongoing Trade Rumors
The time for blockbuster trades typically has come and gone by the time spring training arrives. But it's within the realm of possibility that this spring will challenge that notion.
The Colorado Rockies were known to be shopping superstar third baseman Nolan Arenado during the winter, and the situation seemed to break their relationship beyond repair at one point. Even upon showing up for spring training, Arenado told Tim Brown of Yahoo Sports that there was a "disconnect" between himself and the team.
Even if the Rockies keep Arenado, there might be action elsewhere in the National League West. According to Dennis Lin of The Athletic, the Padres have recently explored trading Wil Myers to the Red Sox. They also still have their eyes on Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor and Reds infielder Nick Senzel.
Ah, but what of Kris Bryant?
That one is probably more of a long shot, as Bryant himself told Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times that he expects to stay with the Cubs throughout 2020. Still, the stars are aligned in such a way that the Cubs might keep him on the block just in case.
Extension Season Is Here
Even if there aren't any big trades, there will almost certainly be big extensions this spring.
Take what happened last year, for example. A total of 19 players signed contract extensions between February and March, including six who signed for nine figures: Arenado, Mike Trout, Jacob deGrom, Alex Bregman, Chris Sale and Paul Goldschmidt.
So far this year, Marco Gonzales, Max Muncy and Nick Ahmed have pulled in a total of $88.5 million since the start of February. And there are still plenty more candidates to cash in before Opening Day.
For instance, the Philadelphia Phillies might lock up star catcher J.T. Realmuto before he reaches free agency after 2020. And while Bryant may not be long for Chicago, the Cubs seem genuinely interested in extending do-it-all shortstop Javier Baez before the open market beckons him after 2020.
Some other extension candidates include MVPs Cody Bellinger and Christian Yelich, sluggers Joey Gallo and Aaron Judge and shortstops Marcus Semien and Trea Turner. And while it isn't likely, the Los Angeles Dodgers may be more willing to pay Mookie Betts what he's worth than the Red Sox were.
Healing and Developing Injuries
The general attitude about spring training games is that they don't matter, but they certainly do with regard to injuries.
There's nothing keeping the injury bug from striking during the spring, after all, and it's already wreaked a fair deal of havoc this time around.
To highlight just a few injury developments, the Yankees are dealing with injuries to Judge (sore shoulder) and aces Luis Severino (Tommy John surgery) and James Paxton (back surgery), while the Atlanta Braves have to worry about left-hander Cole Hamels (shoulder inflammation) and first baseman Freddie Freeman (elbow pain).
On the bright side, this road goes both ways. There are also a handful of players across the league who are back at full strength following injury-ruined seasons in 2019, including notables such as Yoenis Cespedes, Andrew McCutchen, Lance McCullers Jr., Sean Manaea, Corey Kluber, Tyler Glasnow and Giancarlo Stanton.
Perhaps most exciting of all: Angels two-way wunderkind Shohei Ohtani is throwing again after Tommy John surgery limited him strictly to hitting duty in 2019.
Top Prospects Abound
And now for another counterpoint for the notion that spring training games don't matter: They're a proving ground for some of the game's best prospects.
To wit, eight of MLB.com's top 10 prospects are in camp with their parent clubs this spring. Dodgers infielder Gavin Lux and White Sox outfielder Luis Robert already have jobs in hand, while others such as Padres lefty MacKenzie Gore and Angels outfielder Jo Adell are trying to earn theirs.
Adell, in particular, may have a real shot at lining up alongside Trout and Justin Upton on Opening Day. The 20-year-old has already made it to Triple-A in the minors, and he's wasted no time turning heads.
There are otherwise too many notable prospects in camp this spring to count, but Kieboom, A's lefty Jesus Luzardo, St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Dylan Carlson and White Sox second baseman Nick Madrigal are a few more who are gunning for major league gigs.
Familiar Faces in New Places
Though the chance to see familiar players in new threads isn't an important part of spring training, per se, it's certainly one of the more fun aspects of it.
Case in point, the Yankees unleashed $324 million ace Gerrit Cole for the first time Monday night. He threw only 20 pitches in two innings, yet he offered a tantalizing tease of his extraordinary ability by hitting 98 mph on the gun and striking out two.
Meanwhile in Los Angeles, the Dodgers have already trotted Betts out for a few games. The 2018 AL MVP has done his part with two hits in five at-bats, plus an RBI on a sacrifice fly.
The Dodgers will also get a sense of whether David Price is a capable replacement for Hyun-Jin Ryu, who's now with the Toronto Blue Jays. Fellow aces Zack Wheeler (Philadelphia Phillies), Madison Bumgarner (Arizona Diamondbacks) and Corey Kluber (Texas Rangers) are also in new places.
In addition to Rendon, Josh Donaldson (Minnesota Twins) is another star third baseman who left the NL East. There are also whole teams that look completely different, including the Reds (Mike Moustakas, Nick Castellanos and Shogo Akiyama) and White Sox (Yasmani Grandal, Edwin Encarnacion, Dallas Keuchel, et al).
Because all of this will take some getting used to, there's no time like the present to get started.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference.