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Baseball’s spring training is set to have plenty of stories to watch this year, but which are the most interesting?
Written by Jake Elman
For a baseball fan, the two magic words of “spring training” is enough to create hope, optimism, and if you’re a fan of the New York Mets, more demanding for a shortstop. Spring training is in session, the games ‘officially’ start this week, and baseball is back. As a fan of the game, I could not be more stoked for spring training, as it’s a great time to see not only if your team is a contender or a pretender, but who might be in line for a big season ahead.
As with every spring training, there are some interesting storylines to watch, but which are going to be the most intriguing? Out of at least twenty five that I counted, I’ve decided to pick ten and talk about what makes them so interesting to watch. This list is not necessarily ranked in any order, and if you think I left a storyline off, you can leave a comment or tweet me.
Without further waiting, let’s dive right into the top ten storylines to watch in 2015’s spring training.
10. Welcome back
Though we’re welcomed back to baseball (thankfully), the first post on this list refers to players that we either haven’t seen since early last year or 2013. Other than he-who-shall-not-be-named-until-later-on-this-list, Major League Baseball is set to welcome back Athletics pitcher Jarrod Parker, Mets pitcher Matt Harvey, Rangers first baseman Prince Fielder, Athletics non-roster invitee Barry Zito, and so on.
With MLB Network airing daily spring training games, as well as the regional sports networks airing more and more of their team’s spring training games, you should be able to see these players making their returns; it’s a fairly obvious storyline, sure, but watching them bounce back and seeing how they fare against competition is one of the more interesting things to watch in the spring.
9. Old faces, new places
Baseball is a game of change, and this past offseason demonstrated that perfectly. The San Diego Padres, Oakland Athletics, and Atlanta Braves completely re-tooled their teams, while the Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Chicago White Sox all added pieces to help them contend for World Series championships. You have the obvious changes, like Pablo Sandoval, Rick Porcello, and Hanley Ramirez going to Beantown. Max Scherzer is now hanging out in our nation’s capitol, the White Sox brought in Melky Cabrera, Jeff Samardzija, Adam LaRoche, and David Robertson, Jon Lester is now a Chicago Cub, and then you have everything that the Padres did and more.
Even with that being the case, there were still some interesting, low-key signings and trades this offseason. Ichiro Suzuki takes his pursuit of 3,000 hits to Miami, Nathan Evoladi and Didi Grigorious look to be key members of the New York Yankees for years to come, Texas thinks they have a new ace in Yovani Gallardo, and there are plenty of other interesting moves made this past winter. Seeing how these guys do in their new homes will be fun to watch…unless they get injured, which leads me to…
8. Who else gets hit by the injury bug?
Well, we’ve done the obligatory first two ones on this list, so it’s time to get into some of the stuff you likely haven’t thought about…or, in the case of one on this list, you’ve tried not to think about. So, let’s talk injuries. Chris Sale, I hope your foot gets better. Ronald Belisario, I’m sorry about your swimming related injury. Michael Saunders, your Mickey Mantle imitation could have gone a bit better. Spring Training has been described by Deadspin as having the tradition of players suffering injuries in weird ways, and this spring has been no exception.
Already, a Cy Young candidate, a solid outfielder who was on the verge of a breakout season, and a middle reliever who isn’t bad in the bullpen have all suffered injuries, and fans all over are crossing their fingers to make sure that their star player isn’t next. Predicting player injuries is near impossible, but this is definitely an interesting storyline to watch as the spring goes on, especially if we see more of the crazy, unbelievable injuries. We’ve seen All-Star relievers fall down the steps moving boxes, position players miss time thanks to tattoo injuries, and even the occasional knee injury thanks to the dog.
Regardless of what team you root for, you just might want to pray to the baseball gods that no one on your team sustains a serious injury. Besides, even if you do that, a player or two is still likely to get hurt.
7. How will players, coaches adjust to pace of play?
I’ve always thought of spring training as a time to test things out, whether it be lineup order, certain shifts, or what flavor Gatorade there is in the dugout (blue, please), but this spring will be a time of testing the new pace of play rules. Those commercial breaks you loathe so much will be shorter, managers will be leaving the field for non-pitching change reasons much less, and the games will hopefully go at a faster pace. I’m someone who enjoys the three hour, 3-2 game, but I’m always up for change.
I’ve heard some people express concern about the early adjustment to pace of play, but that’s exactly what spring training is for: adjusting to new things. The preseason is a time to work the kinks out, and because Major League Baseball has promised that people won’t be fined for making mistakes relating to pace of play, I think everything will work itself out. You may have a veteran player like a David Ortiz be somewhat skeptical — or even slightly defiant — of the new rules, but it’s a learning experience for everyone.
6. Will Rob Manfred do anything noteworthy?
The short answer, no. The more in-depth answer is that because he’s done so much already, it may be best for Manfred to just sit back, relax, and watch his first spring training as commissioner. People will expect Manfred to do something, but think back to the NBA preseason this past fall. Did Adam Silver really do anything in the preseason other than conduct an interview or two and do his normal job? Besides, Manfred is entitled to a little bit of sunshine, baseball, and doing his best not to speak about he-who-shall-not-be-named.
5. Hello there, international people
For the past decade or so, it feels like more and more teams are coming into spring training with a new player from the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Japan, China, etc; they’re the shiny, brand new toys that they hope will make them the most popular kid in the class…or the winners of the World Series. It all depends on which point of view you look at it from, though I’m choosing to look at the second because, well, this is baseball.
Anyways, let’s welcome Jung-Ho Kang, the Korean shortstop that smashed 40 home runs last year, to Pittsburgh’s camp and give a warm hello there to Cuban imports Yasmany Tomas and Yoan Moncada; Tomas is in Arizona with the Diamondbacks, while Moncada is hanging out with fellow Cuban import Rusney Castillo in Red Sox camp. There are also other minor league prospects who are attending their first spring training camps in America, but these three are the cream of the crop; they’re our Masahiro Tanaka and Jose Abreu of this year, so to speak.
How will they fare in the big leagues? Will they even play in the big leagues this season? Those are questions that will be answered throughout the season, and that’s why you should probably pay attention to this.
4. Will teams learn to beat the shift?
One of the hotter debates this offseason (besides if the dress was blue and black, or if it was gold and white) concerned the defensive shifts, or as I like to call it, the three-one shift. The whole idea of the ‘three-one shift’ is that the second baseman will move to shallow right field and the third baseman or shortstop will be on the right side of the infield; teams use it to combat pull hitters, and it’s worked to perfection, preventing players like Ryan Howard and Brian McCann from getting easy hits to right field in the process.
But, the fact that it’s worked so well is why many people are trying to make it illegal and cause Major League Baseball to rule the shift an illegal defense. Though I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon, I do think more and more teams are going to find ways to beat the shift. Whether it’s bunting to the third base side or finding ways to put the ball in a place that is not covered by the shift, there has to be something these teams can do; in a time of devoting your time to PFP and the cone drills, learning to hit the shift should be up there in the necessary spring training drills.
3. Will Hamels last whole spring with Phillies?
The relationship between Cole Hamels and the Philadelphia Phillies is deteriorating faster than you can say cheese steak, and the former World Series MVP has made it clear that he wants out of the City of Brotherly Love; with the Phillies stuck somewhere between rebuilding and trying to field a team that could’ve won the NL East five years, Hamels wants to pitch for a contender, and it’s hard to blame him. Now, spring training trades are rare (unless you’re a player on the waiver wire), but I’m interested to see if the Phillies might send Hamels packing before the season starts.
Realistically, Cole Hamels is going to start for the Philadelphia Phillies on opening day against the Boston Red Sox in a matchup of teams with rosters that could contend for the World Series four years ago. Logically, it makes sense for the Phillies to trade Hamels soon, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. I still think the earliest we’ll see a Cole Hamels trade is late June to early July, but with this team, you never know. At this point, I can’t say it’d be truly shocking to see Hamels and closer Jonathan Papelbon both dealt for a bag of magic beans, an egg that you cannot cook, and a Jar Jar Binks toy. Who knows, maybe Jar Jar Binks can help the Phillies be contenders once again.
2. The Alex Rodriguez circus
If you clicked on this article and weren’t expecting to see Alex Rodriguez on here, come on. Now to some, this may not be interesting because they just want Rodriguez to play (I’m in that crowd), but you have to admit that the circus that surrounds him and the Yankees — not to mention how he’ll play this spring after not playing since September 2013 — is pretty interesting. I’ve already talked about the Alex Rodriguez drama a lot on SportsMix, so I don’t really have much to say about it that hasn’t been said, but this is the storyline that you want to ignore, and you probably should ignore, but you just can’t ignore.
1. Who is this year’s Yangervis Solarte?
One of 2014’s biggest breakout players, former minor league lifer Yangervis Solarte won a spot with the Yankees out of spring training and parlayed that not only into a starting spot with the Yankees, but also was the main piece that the Padres acquired in last July’s Chase Headley trade. Though Solarte trailed off after a hot first two months that saw him hit .299/6/26 with 11 doubles, he still finished with a .260/10/48 statline and is slotted in as the Padres’ starting third baseman barring a hot spring by Will Middlebrooks; Solarte went from a fringe player on the verge of being cut to a starting third baseman in the pros thanks to a .429/.489/.571 statline in spring training, and it makes you wonder who will be this year’s player that benefits from a strong preseason showing.
Of course, part of this question is not knowing who the breakout player will be; it could be a young prospect, or a little-known guy who, like Solarte, is able to use spring training to avoid yet another year of rotting in the minor leagues. If I had to pick three players who I can see using spring training to break out and secure a spot in their team’s future, it’d be Detroit Tigers outfielder Anthony Gose, New York Mets infielder Gavin Cecchini, and Giants lefty Ty Blach. But, part of the fun is that you don’t know who will break out, so I could be one hundred percent wrong.
What do you think are the most interesting storylines surrounding Spring Training 2015? Make sure to chime in on the conversation by tweeting me at @JakeElman.