Spring Training Storylines to Watch

What are the biggest storylines to follow this spring?

The first weekend of Spring Training actual games is upon us, along with the usual hope-springs-eternal attitude around baseball. This is always a welcome development in the baseball calendar, as the season starts coming into focus and we can all start dreaming about a fun-filled summer and our favorite team in the middle of a pennant race. Before all that happens, there are several things that need to be settled around the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues. While the games played there may not be all that serious, the storylines around Spring Training reveal important issues that will help shape the course of the 2024 season.

The Boras Four and other unsigned free agents

The recent arrival of players to Arizona and Florida was notable for some strange absences, especially considering that four of the consensus top-10 free agents of this offseason remain unsigned. Of course, all of them have a common trait, being represented by the most famous (and infamous) agent in the sport. Scott Boras and his company remain a necessary evil for players and teams, famously negotiating at the top of the market and holding the upper hand in most deals. However, the current crop of Boras players not being close to landing teams with only a month to go before the season starts reveals a deeper issue within the industry, which is why there are many interested parties around the results.

It is important to mention that said players, Blake Snell, Cody Bellinger, Jordan Montgomery, and Matt Chapman each come with red flags of varying shapes and sizes, but also with plenty of recent success and solid MLB careers. Between interviews and anonymous reports, it is clear that most teams are not willing to meet the high asking prices or multi-year deals that Boras is trying to push for his clients, even as it seems inevitable that somebody will bite the bullet in the end. Whether that happens in a week, a month, or even with the season in progress remains to be seen.

The recent uncertainty regarding RSNs and cash flow is not helping matters, but there should be enough deep pockets to provide homes for the Boras Four, even if it happens in short-term contracts or longer ones with complicated opt-out clauses. In a similar vein, the market also features a number of intriguing veterans looking for an opportunity, or at least a last hurrah in their careers. The likes of JD Martinez, Zack Greinke, Brandon Belt, and Joey Votto could get the call sometime in March, as injuries start piling up and teams need to patch up their rosters. In any case, current depth charts may look different before the season officially kicks off.

Old faces in new places

Fortunately, the offseason has included several big moves, including a few that can alter the power structure in MLB and others that made the strong even stronger. Regardless of the type of move, Spring Training will give us the first real chance of seeing familiar faces in unfamiliar colors, with different senses of urgency and the pressure that comes from inking a mega deal.

The biggest focus will certainly fall on the Dodgers, who have assembled yet another superteam after getting Shohei Ohtani, Yoshinoobu Yamamoto, and Tyler Glasnow, while also complementing the roster with solid depth pieces like Teoscar Hernandez. A similar sense of anticipation will be felt around the Bronx, where Juan Soto will play for his third organization on the heels of his inevitable mega contract. Soto’s performance in 2024 may be the difference between a Bryce Harper deal and something closer to Ohtani money.

Elsewhere, we will get our first glimpse of Corbin Burnes playing for the Orioles, Jarred Kelenic trying to revive his career in Atlanta, Marcus Stroman in pinstripes, Josh Hader becoming Houston’s closer, and Sonny Gray taking his underrated talents to St. Louis. There is even some managerial intrigue, as Craig Counsell’s first games leading the Cubs should provide plenty of interest.

Top prospects and non-roster invitees

As it happens every year around this time, the reports of non-roster invitees crashing Spring Training facilities provide a blend of prospect dreams and recognizable names trying to make it back to the Show. As a testament to this storied tradition, last week gave us reports of franchise legend Pablo Sandoval arriving at Giants camp trying to make a comeback at age 37. Other veteran sluggers trying to earn a second chance include former Twin Miguel Sano in Angels camp, Trey Mancini with the Marlins, and Jesse Winker with Washington. In a similar fashion, a few notable pitchers will also try their luck, such as Carlos Carrasco vying for a second act with the Guardians, Ken Giles aiming to become a bullpen fixture with the Braves, and even Danny Duffy joining the Rangers at age 35.

In terms of prospects, it is always a fool’s errand to predict who will make it to Opening Day, as teams usually have to balance their current situation with potential years of team control. However, the contention window for some franchises may force their hands if a player proves he is ready for the big leagues, just like it happened with eventual Rookie of the Year Corbin Carroll in 2023.

The list of headlining youngsters who will play Spring Training games and have a realistic chance to debut on Opening Day includes consensus top prospect Jackson Holliday, San Diego’s Jackson Merrill, Texas’s Wyatt Langford, and even an outside chance that the Pirates could fast-track Paul Skenes to anchor their rotation. In any case, the youth movement is ready to start.

The early race for the AL East

Back on the field, the race towards a division title starts even with the earliest Spring Training drills, as teams start getting used to their new roster construction and training staff, and everyone claims to be in their best shape ever. However, not all division races are created equal. With MLB’s disparity reaching concerning heights, it is almost certain that a few divisions are decided months in advance, with teams like the Dodgers, Braves, and Astros being prohibitive favorites. Also, while both Central divisions are projected to be disputed, it will probably happen in the low-quality end of things. That leaves us with the AL East, which appears to have the only blend of talent and competitiveness to produce a true division slugfest.

Leaving aside the Red Sox, who continue to be confounding in many ways, the East goes four-deep in teams that can be considered contenders. According to Fangraphs projections, the difference between the presumed first-place Yankees and the fourth-place Blue Jays is only four games, with the Rays and Orioles right in the thick of it. With such a small difference in talent levels, the decisions made since early Spring Training can make an impact on the results. For example, the Orioles and Rays will probably not be signing any top-tier free agent, but they can still browse the trade market and take advantage of their surplus of prospects, or maybe even start promoting some of them.

The Yankees have reacted to last season’s disappointment with the Soto trade and hope that Carlos Rodon can have a renaissance to make a fearsome one-two punch with Gerrit Cole atop the rotation. However, they remain in the conversation for a potential Blake Snell addition and could also find a spot for the likes of Cody Bellinger, if they don’t mind paying the luxury tax. The same payroll-adding possibilities apply for Toronto, who whiffed on several free agents (remember the Anaheim to Toronto private jet fiasco?) but still should have the flexibility for a Matt Chapman reunion or taking a chance on Snell and Montgomery to suddenly have a tier-1 rotation. In any case, the moves, injuries, and news around the AL East should be of great interest throughout Spring Training.

More rule changes

Last season gave us one of the most radical rule changes in baseball history when the adoption of the pitch clock quickly went from sacrilege to standard operating procedure around MLB. While the one-season sample of its use provided promising returns (games ending before midnight!), it also may have played a part in the rise of arm injuries for pitchers. Regardless of the unintended consequences of the pitch clock, the league is doubling down on its implementation, as pitchers will now only have 18 seconds to throw a pitch with men on base, compared to the initial rule of 20 seconds. While a two-second difference may not seem all that relevant, it is bound to add stress to pressure situations for hurlers.

Along with this tweak, the league has also changed the verbiage regarding the runner’s lane to first base, which has remained mostly unchanged since the 19th century. The new rule makes the dirt between the foul line and the infield a legal lane to reach first, trying to provide runners a more direct path, while also avoiding controversial interference calls in the process. The potential ramifications of this change remain to be seen, but they could benefit speedy runners while possibly hampering infielders’ throwing habits that have been ingrained for years. In any case, players will need to adapt since Spring Training, and now have more incentive to put the ball in play as the league tries to increase scoring.

There are other minor changes to consider, including the reduction of mound visits and the enforcement of pitchers to always start an inning in which they warm up on the mound, but they will become relevant once the real games begin. Even as we will start another season without a challenge system or any type of robot umpires, the endless quest of making baseball more “efficient” makes it likely that we will continue to see changes as long as Rob Manfred remains in charge.



Pablo Figueroa

Pablo Figueroa is a Baseball Writer here at Pitcher List, with experience as a writer since 2013. He lives in Aguascalientes, Mexico - proud home of Los Rieleros. When he´s not thinking about baseball , he's a husband, owns two dogs, watches random episodes of The Sopranos , plays padel, and works on his day job to pay the bills.

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