With MLB spring training games set to begin Sunday across Florida and Arizona, it is officially baseball season once again.
The start of a new season means seeing players like Francisco Lindor, Trevor Bauer and Nolan Arenado in their new uniforms along with a chance to get a glimpse of some of the game's top prospects -- and for those of us with snow on the ground, a chance to think ahead to the warmer months.
To celebrate the sport's return, we asked our MLB experts to weigh in on the players, teams, prospects and themes they can't wait to see when they tune into MLB spring training action for the first time starting Sunday.
What are you most excited to see when spring training games start this weekend?
David Schoenfield: Wait, let me check ... OK, Saturday, March 6: Padres at Dodgers for their first meeting of spring training. Interestingly, they play only one other game against each other. Do those two games mean anything? No, of course not. But they will whet our appetite for what's to come: Fernando Tatis Jr. in action with his fat new contract, Yu Darvish and Blake Snell in those beautiful brown Padres uniforms, Trevor Bauer in Dodger Blue, Clayton Kershaw trying to go back-to-back. There are a few players to check in on here as well: Is Dinelson Lamet healthy? How is Cody Bellinger's shoulder? Is Ha-Seong Kim the real deal? Is Kenley Jansen still the Dodgers' closer?
Bradford Doolittle: I am just looking forward to the sights and sounds of baseball. And while the games themselves aren't usually too arresting, I actually enjoy a spring broadcast because there tends to be a lot of storytelling. I also like the pie-eyed optimism that homer broadcasters project this time of the year. Why not? Everyone is 0-0. Also, I like to see places that are warm because we are at that point of a Chicago winter when you start to understand why George R.R. Martin dreamed up the whole "north of the wall" scenario when he was living here.
Joon Lee: I'm right there with Brad. I love the optimism of spring training, where almost every single team feels like it has a chance to make an impact and get a postseason berth. Of course, that optimism for many teams might disappear once we get six or so weeks into the season, but there's usually one every single year that surprises out of the gate and starts a swirl of "are they for real?" headlines.
Jesse Rogers: After seeing the layout for social distancing at spring parks, I'm interested in seeing fans track down home runs and foul balls. For example, at the CoolToday Park, where the Atlanta Braves play in Florida, they have 18 squares made out in white chalk in the grass viewing area beyond left field. The squares are where each group of fans is allowed to sit during the game, with distance between each square. So what happens when a home run is hit out there? Are you allowed to leave your square to track it down in another one? These are important questions that we'll start to get answers to once games start. Of course, foul balls will be easy to track down with so few fans in the stands.
Alden Gonzalez: Nolan Arenado suiting up for the Cardinals, making diving plays down the third-base line to conjure up images of Scott Rolen. The weight of the Rockies' mismanagement has noticeably been wearing on Arenado ever since he signed his extension in February 2019. It'll be nice to see what he does with a breath of fresh air while playing for fans who will quickly grow to adore him just like the people of Denver did.
Who is one player you will be watching closest early in spring training?
Schoenfield: I want to see if Jarred Kelenic hits .364 with six home runs this spring and forces the Mariners to do the right thing: Put one of their 26 best players on the major league roster on Opening Day. Heck, he might be one of their three best players already and he's played only 21 games above Class A. "This should be an exciting time for baseball," Kelenic told USA Today this week. "This is what we've been waiting for. Now, the day before spring training, this is what I have to deal with." Exactly. Now, go tear it up, Jarred.
Doolittle: You have to be careful because it's easy to be fooled by spring performances, but I keep reading how Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has gotten lean and now is better, stronger, faster. (That's a "Six Million Dollar Man" reference for the old folks.) Or, in a more baseball-centric spring parlance, he's in the best shape of his life. Anyway, I want to see how he looks, because for all the Blue Jays' offseason aggression, their hopes to move to a higher tier might still center around Vlad Jr. turning into the star he is supposed to become.
Lee: I'm really excited to watch how Francisco Lindor adapts to the New York market. For a few years now, some within the Cleveland organization recognized that the size of their media market didn't quite allow Lindor to maximize his potential to be a massive face and ambassador for baseball. New Balance recently announced a signature sneaker for Lindor, making him the third baseball star, joining Mike Trout with Nike and Bryce Harper with Under Armour, to get the treatment. Given the excitement around the Mets following the sale of the team to Steve Cohen, Lindor has the chance to become not just a face of New York City sports but one of baseball's most marketable stars.
Rogers: I'll give you two: Yoan Moncada and Jose Abreu of the White Sox. The former recently documented his journey in 2020 after testing positive for COVID-19. He was often winded and barely made it around the bases on one occasion last season. He says he's fully recovered but watching him this spring might tell the complete story. Meanwhile, the reigning American League MVP recently tested positive himself so, while Abreu is asymptomatic, there's no way to know if the virus will have an impact on him when he returns.
Gonzalez: Shohei Ohtani. Angels general manager Perry Minasian spent the offseason raving about his aggressive, data-driven offseason program, and Angels manager Joe Maddon has spent a lot of time in spring training talking about how they're essentially going to let Ohtani loose and not bog him down with artificial restrictions in 2021. This might be Ohtani's last chance to prove he can pitch and hit effectively, and there's a case to be made that last season -- with no fans in the stands, no access to in-game video and only 60 games on the schedule -- took a particular toll on Ohtani, who was coming off Tommy John surgery as a pitcher and didn't have the ability to get his typical pregame work as a hitter. I'm still holding out hope for the two-way sensation I saw during the first two months of 2018, faint as it might be.
Which player who changed teams this winter are you most excited to see in his new uniform?
Schoenfield: I don't know if excited is the right word, but I'll be closely monitoring the progress of Jameson Taillon and Corey Kluber for the Yankees. The Yankees' rotation has a chance to be outstanding if they can get, say, 55 starts out of that duo and maybe 15 more from Luis Severino when he returns from Tommy John surgery. But they not only have to show they're healthy -- they have to get back or close to their 2018 level of success.
Doolittle: Andrew Benintendi. His nosedive, both by straight performance and Statcast skill indicators, is kind of baffling. You hear that he tried to do something with his swing to hit more homers and it messed him up. Then you hear that he has reverted to his former approach and is healthy and ready to take off. It seems like we could get at least some read on where he's headed during spring. And, let's face it, I'll be watching Royals spring games anyway. Bobby Witt Jr. and Asa Lacy are in camp and I am anxious to get my eyeballs on those two against big league competition.
Lee: Blake Snell. The Padres are one of the most exciting teams in the sport, but I'm especially interested in seeing Snell coming off the drama of the World Series. I'm fascinated to see how the former Cy Young Award winner adapts to his new circumstances. Since posting a 1.89 ERA in 31 starts in 2018, Snell had a 4.29 ERA in 2019 in 23 starts and a 3.24 ERA in 11 starts in 2020. He's still just 28 years old, so I'm curious to see what kind of season he puts together after leaving the organization that drafted and developed him.
Rogers: Yu Darvish. Easily. He's a comfort guy. And just when he was getting comfortable in his surroundings in Chicago, now he has to start over again. And for a World Series contender. No pressure. The good news for the Padres is Darvish understands he was in a shell early in his Cubs tenure and needs to bond with his teammates and the city a little quicker in San Diego. If his game remains as it was in Chicago, the Padres have an ace. But that's a big IF right now.
Gonzalez: The obvious answer is Francisco Lindor, who fascinates me no matter what uniform he's wearing. But I'll go slightly under the radar and say Ha-Seong Kim, the 25-year-old Korean infielder who batted .294/.373/.493 from ages 18 to 24. The Padres will bounce him around the infield, and if he adapts, Kim could play a pivotal role in their hopes of dethroning the Dodgers in the National League West. Kim was bursting with personality in his introductory news conference at the start of the new year. He said his goal is "to become the Rookie of the Year" and added, through an interpreter, that he chose the Padres "because they'll be the World Series champions this year." I like him already.
Which one team are you most excited to watch during spring training?
Schoenfield: In the non-Padres/Dodgers division, I'm going with the Mets. I want to see Francisco Lindor with his new team, how Dominic Smith looks after hitting .316/.377/.616 in 2020, and if Pete Alonso can get going in spring training to avoid the slow start he had last year (in both spring training and in the restart of the season). Finally, let's see how manager Luis Rojas puts together his bullpen. Rojas showed his inexperience with some of his in-game moves last season.
Rogers: The Mets. Let's see what kind of impact Lindor can have on this team early on. Are they playing with a swagger? Do they feel like, despite recent Braves dominance, they are the team to beat because of their winning winter? The Lindor effect might and should change everything we think about the Mets.
Doolittle: Besides the Royals ... I guess the Cubs, but mostly because I can't wait to hear Boog Sciambi calling the action. Chicago was already America's best city before Boog signed on, and now it's even better. Are my personal biases showing? And speaking of Chicago, watching Tony La Russa run the White Sox, a team whose uniform he last donned when I was ... younger, will be surreal.
Lee: The White Sox. I'm really interested to see how this team shapes up with La Russa at the helm of one of the most exciting young rosters in the sport. I'm excited to see what kind of season Luis Robert can put together in his sophomore campaign and if top prospect Michael Kopech can make an impact on the roster following his Tommy John surgery. Lance Lynn will make an interesting addition to the rotation. Toss in the roster's other big names such as Lucas Giolito, reigning MVP Jose Abreu, Eloy Jimenez and Tim Anderson, and you've got a squad that will regularly find itself in the MLB.TV rotation.
Gonzalez: It's the Blue Jays for me. I wanna see George Springer bond with his young new teammates. I wanna see what a slimmed-down Vladimir Guerrero Jr. can do, particularly at third base. I wanna see what kind of leaps Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio and Nate Pearson have made. I wanna see how Marcus Semien takes to second base. And I wanna get a closer look at Austin Martin, the No. 5 overall pick out of Vanderbilt who has yet to register a professional plate appearance.
Which young prospect should fans make sure to watch when he plays with his MLB team this spring?
Schoenfield: I'll mention Andrew Vaughn of the White Sox. They drafted him third overall in 2019 and it's notable that they didn't sign a DH this offseason -- perhaps a sign that they believe he's ready for the majors. Tony La Russa said Vaughn is "tied for first" to open the season as the team's DH. While he has just 55 games of pro experience and hasn't played above Class A, remember that La Russa once had a young slugger named Albert Pujols jump from Class A to the majors.
Doolittle: Baseball America just put out its list of the top 40 prospects it has rated during the 40 years of BA's existence. Two of them are prospects right now, and neither has yet made his regular-season MLB debut. They are also the Nos. 1 and 2 prospects on Kiley McDaniel's top 100 list this year. And both will be in camp this spring in advance of their likely ascension to The Show in 2021. One is Baltimore catcher Adley Rutschman. The other is Rays shortstop Wander Franco. This is your chance to see what the hype around those two is all about.
Lee: Wander! He's been one of the most exciting prospects to follow over the past few years, and he seemingly has all the tools to be a superstar. Combined with Tampa Bay's ability to develop its homegrown talent, I'm excited to see if Franco can live up to the hype that has followed him for the past few years. Given that he's been in the consciousness of prospect hounds for such a long time, it's easy to forget that the dude is still just 19 years old.
Rogers: Cristian Pache of the Braves. He'll have a lot of room to cover with Marcell Ozuna in left field, and playing center field on a World Series contender -- as a rookie -- brings its own set of pressures. If Pache doesn't make the team and perform, the Braves look light on depth in the outfield. Without Nick Markakis or Adam Duvall around, they need Pache to be THAT guy. Plus, he can go get it. Those great defensive plays are fun to watch in the spring as much as they are in the regular season.
Gonzalez: I'm gonna cheat a little and say Gavin Lux, who no longer has prospect status but has yet to break through on a loaded Dodgers team. This is his chance. Second base is right there for the taking with Enrique Hernandez gone and Chris Taylor expected to bounce around. The Dodgers don't just like him -- they view him as a future star. And he'll be just 23 years old all season. Lux struggled to hone in on the mechanics of his swing early last year and the Dodgers, on their way to a historically dominant season, didn't want to wait around. People with the team say he looks really good heading into spring training. His 2021 performance could impact what the team does long term at shortstop, where Corey Seager is a free agent at season's end.