At long last, spring training has arrived. Pitchers and catchers begin reporting to spring camps across Arizona and Florida this week, and, late next week, Cactus League and Grapefruit League play will begin. Here are each team’s reporting dates.

The arrival of spring training is quite anticlimactic. On one hand, the new season has arrived, which is always awesome. On the other hand, not much happens the first 10 days or so. Players report, take their physical, spend a few days throwing bullpen sessions or taking batting practice, and reporters tweet out grainy photos. To wit:

Hey, I’m not knocking it. Give me all the grainy spring training photos you can find. They’re certainly better than not looking at live-ish baseball photos, you know? Point is, the start of spring training is exciting, though not a whole lot happens until a week or two into camp. Once the exhibition season begins, that’s when it gets really fun.

Now that spring training week has arrived, let’s break down the biggest storylines leading into camp and the things we’re more looking forward to seeing in the coming weeks. Opening Day is still more than six weeks away, but baseball has finally returned.

Seriously, when will Harper and Machado sign?

We kind of have to start here, right? Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are two of the very best players in baseball and they’re both only 26 years old. As good as they’ve been thus far in their careers, the case can be made their best years are still yet to come. And yet, Harper and Machado remain unsigned as camp is about to begin. It is a shame.

It’s not just Harper and Machado either. Former Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel remains unsigned. So does Craig Kimbrel, arguably the best closer of his generation, and Marwin Gonzalez, a 29-year-old switch-hitter who can play pretty much anywhere. I don’t get it. Can’t every team use someone like Marwin? Why is he still unemployed?

Free agents felt the squeeze last offseason as well. In fact, the five largest free-agent contracts handed out last winter were signed either after spring training camps opened, or in the days leading up to pitchers and catchers reporting. The list:

  1. Eric Hosmer, Padres (eight years, $144 million): Signed Feb. 19.
  2. Yu Darvish, Cubs (six years, $126 million): Signed Feb. 13.
  3. J.D. Martinez, Red Sox (five years, $110 million): Signed Feb. 26.
  4. Lorenzo Cain, Brewers (five years, $80 million): Signed Jan. 25.
  5. Jake Arrieta, Phillies (three years, $75 million): Signed March 12.

You don’t have to worry about Harper or Machado, or Keuchel and Kimbrel either. Those guys will get paid handsomely at some point. It’s the free agent middle class that really feels the squeeze now. Guys like Martin Maldonado and Adam Jones, Adam Warren and Josh Harrison, Jose Iglesias and Gio Gonzalez. They’ll likely have to settle for small one-year contracts and start spring training late, which puts them behind the 8-ball.

With Machado and Harper, it’s a giant game of chicken. Everyone is waiting for the other side to blink. Teams are waiting for the players to cave during contract talks and vice versa. Also, Machado wants Harper to sign first and vice versa. They want the other to set the market, and also to sign and make they become the undisputed best available free agent. Let’s say Harper signs with the Giants. How desperate does that make the Phillies for Machado? Exactly.

My guess — and this is just a guess — is Keuchel will be the next big-name free agent to sign and it’ll happen at some point within the next 10 days. The Braves and Twins strike me as the best fits. Among the unsigned big-name free agents, I think Harper is by far the most likely to remain unsigned on Opening Day. I don’t think it’ll happen — I expect him to sign at some point in spring training — but, if anyone is going to hold out that long, I think it’ll be Bryce. Just a hunch. 

New faces in new places

Even with the top of the free-agent market currently frozen, there are still several big-name players entering their first spring with their new teams. There’s Paul Goldschmidt with the Cardinals, Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz with the Mets, Patrick Corbin with the Nationals, Josh Donaldson with the Braves, Andrew McCutchen and J.T. Realmuto (and Jean Segura) with the Phillies, so on and so forth.

Remember all the hoopla surrounding Giancarlo Stanton’s first spring camp with the Yankees? Then he did this …

… and that was pretty cool. For the players, spring is about preparation for the season, first and foremost. It’s also a chance to meet and build relationships with their new teammates and coaching staff after changing teams. 

For fans, spring training is a time for optimism, and seeing that big offseason pickup wear your favorite team’s uniform for the first time can be thrilling. The Phillies have three new lineup regulars! The Cardinals and Mets have new middle of the order All-Stars! The Reds have almost a completely new rotation and outfield! That shiny new toy feeling is very real in February and March. Seeing players with their new teams is one of the best things about spring training.

Big-name players returning from injury

We already know Angels ace-slash-slugger Shohei Ohtani will not be ready for Opening Day. He is recovering from Tommy John surgery, though the expectation is he will play as a DH at some point in 2019. Just not for the season-opener. We’ll have to wait a few more weeks to see the super fun Ohtani on the field.

There are, however, several big name players around the league returning from serious injuries that will be ready for Opening Day. Among them:

  • Yu Darvish, Cubs: Elbow trouble that eventually required surgery ended his 2018 season in May.
  • Jimmy Nelson, Brewers: Out since having shoulder surgery in September 2017.
  • Buster Posey, Giants: Returning from hip surgery last August.
  • Trevor Rosenthal, Nationals: Out since having Tommy John surgery in August 2017.
  • Corey Seager, Dodgers: Had Tommy John surgery last May.
  • Troy Tulowitzki, Yankees: Hasn’t played since July 2017 due to ankle trouble and heel surgery.

That list of injuries above is not complete, of course. Guys like Kris Bryant (shoulder) and Carlos Correa (back) played hurt last season and were obviously compromised. They should be healthy now. Jose Altuve (knee) and Gary Sanchez (shoulder) played hurt late last year and had offseason surgery, and will return to the field in spring training. Spring training will be the first time many players step on a field following their injuries.

Let’s not forget Danny Farquhar either. Farquhar collapsed in the dugout last April while with the White Sox and had to be rushed to the hospital to receive treatment for life-threatening hemorrhage caused by a ruptured brain aneurysm. He missed the rest of the season but has made a full recovery, and will be in camp with the Yankees as a non-roster invitee this spring. Every baseball fan should be rooting for him.

Position battles aplenty

Generally speaking, spring training performance is meaningless. Last spring Mariners first baseman Daniel Vogelbach led all players in home runs (seven), batting average (.407), on-base percentage (.529), and slugging percentage (.926). He then spent most of the regular season in Triple-A and hit .207/.324/.368 in 102 underwhelming big-league plate appearances.

Spring performance is meaningless because the competition is so uneven. A hitter could face a Cy Young candidate in his first at-bat and a Single-A pitcher in his second. Veterans will often work on something specific during spring games rather than chase results. I’ve been doing this a long time and I still fall into the trap of overreacting to spring performance, believe me, but the numbers in February and March have little predictive value.

That said, spring training is much more important for some players than others. It’s basically impossible to win that final bench or bullpen spot without a good camp. Many roster spots across the league will be up for grabs this spring, as always. Here are some notable spring training position battles for contending teams:

Keep in mind that winning a spring training position battle does not mean the player is guaranteed to keep the job all year. The position battle lasts all season, really. If, say, James wins Houston’s fifth starter spot but is sitting on a 6.00 ERA on May 1, the Astros won’t hesitate to turn to Perez or Valdez or someone else. Winning a spring training position battle is only the beginning. Keeping the job all season is the hard part.

Spring training is prospect-watching season

If you’re like me, the last three or four innings of Cactus League and Grapefruit League games are more exciting than the first five or six. Late in the game, after all the regulars go through the motions and get their work in, we get to see prospects and minor leaguers strut their stuff. The first time many fans saw Ronald Acuna Jr. was last spring, when he did this:

It’s an awful lot of fun watching the future of baseball, and it would take far too long to list the prospects I’m excited to watch this spring. Blue Jays third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and White Sox outfielder Eloy Jimenez top the list with Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. and Astros righty Forrest Whitley right behind them. Here are a few others I want to see (MLB.com top 100 ranking in parenthesis):

  • LHP Jesus Luzardo, Athletics (No. 12): The best lefty pitching prospect in baseball will have a chance to win an Opening Day rotation spot in camp.
  • OF Jo Adell, Angels (No. 14): He’s not Mike Trout but he’s cut from a similar cloth. He’s a five-tool threat who impacts the game in a lot of ways.
  • RHP Casey Mize, Tigers (No. 17): The first overall pick in last year’s draft probably won’t pitch in the big leagues this season for service time reasons, though he’s not far off.
  • 3B Ke’Bryan Hayes, Pirates (No. 46): Charlie’s kid keeps getting better and better, and he’s already a Gold Glove caliber defender at the hot corner.
  • OF Victor Victor Mesa, Marlins (No. 99): Victor-squared signed for $5.25 million in October and drawn comparisons to Rickey Henderson (!) for his playing style.

Oftentimes spring training is the only chance we get to see prospects because they spend the entire season in the minors and do not get called up, either for developmental reasons or service time reasons. We should see Vlad Jr. and Jimenez this season. Ditto Luzardo. Tatis? Whitley? Adell, Mize, Hayes, and Mesa? I’m not sure. Enjoy watching them this spring while you can.

New managers take the reins

For the second consecutive year there were six managerial changes in the offseason, and, for the second consecutive year, five rookie managers were hired. Last year Ron Gardenhire (Tigers) was the only veteran skipper hired. This year it was Brad Ausmus (Angels). Here are the newest rookie managers:

  • Blue Jays: Charlie Montoyo
  • Orioles: Brandon Hyde
  • Rangers: Chris Woodward
  • Reds: David Bell
  • Twins: Rocco Baldelli

Hyde managed one game for the 2011 Marlins on an interim basis following Edwin Rodriguez’s surprise resignation in June. Otherwise those five men have no big-league managerial experience. They’ve managed in the minors and been part of big-league coaching staffs. None have been an MLB manager before, however.

This is the new trend in baseball. Teams are hiring young and inexperienced managers because they are 1. cheap, and 2. a ball of clay that can be molded into any kind of manager the team wants. Young managers tend to be more analytically inclined and they also aren’t too far removed from their playing days, which ostensibly helps them relate better to the modern ballplayer.

There’s usually not a whole lot to see with managers in spring training. In-game substitutions have more to do with workloads than strategy, and everything that goes on behind the scenes goes on, well, behind the scenes. It is our first exposure to these men as managers though. How do they handle the day-to-day? The media? How are players responding? This is our first look.

The A’s and Mariners are going overseas

The Athletics and Mariners will open the 2019 regular season with a two-game series in the Tokyo Dome from March 20-21. The Mariners will have Ichiro Suzuki on their active roster for that series and it is entirely possible the global baseball icon will call it a career following those two games in his home country. It would be a heck of a way to go out.

Because of the travel and the scheduling quirk, the A’s and Mariners will play two regular season games in Japan, then come back home and play more spring training games. In fact, the Mariners have a split squad game scheduled for March 21 in Arizona. The big league team will play a regular season game in Tokyo while the minor leaguers stay behind to play a spring game the same day. Weird!

In addition to the A’s vs. Mariners series in Tokyo, the Rockies and Diamondbacks will play two games in Monterrey, Mexico, from March 9-10. Those are exhibition games, however. They do not count in the standings. The two clubs will travel to Mexico for the weekend before returning to Arizona and continuing Cactus League play.

Rule changes coming?

Last week it was reported MLB and the MLBPA are discussing a series of sweeping rule changes that could take effect as soon as this season. Some of them, like a universal DH and draft revisions to combat tanking, are still several years away. Others could happen soon, as in before Cactus League and Grapefruit League games begin.

The collective bargaining agreement allows MLB and commissioner Rob Manfred to unilaterally implement rule changes one year after presenting a proposal to the MLBPA. That’s how we got the new mound visit rule last year. MLB proposal the rule in 2017, the union rejected it, then Manfred implemented it in 2018. MLB can unilaterally implement the following this year:

  • 20-second pitch clock
  • Reducing available mound visits from six to five
  • Placing a leadoff runner at second base after the 10th inning in spring games and the All-Star Game

I think the odds are pretty darn good we’ll see a 20-second pitch clock and five mound visits in 2019. Pace-of-play is a hot topic — is it MLB’s biggest issue right now? no, but can it be improved? yes — and I think Manfred and MLB will take advantage of the opportunity and unilaterally implement a pitch clock and mound visit limit reduction.

As for the extra-innings tiebreaker rule, I don’t love it, but spring training games and the All-Star Game are meaningless exhibitions, so who cares? When’s the last time you saw a spring game go to 11 innings anyway? The two teams usually agree to call it a tie after nine innings (sometimes 10) to avoid overworking pitchers. As long as we don’t see the tiebreaker rule in regular season games, I’m cool with it.

If MLB and Manfred do unilaterally implement these rule changes, expect it to happen soon. They’ll want the pitch clock and mound visit reduction in place before the start of exhibition games so teams and players can use spring training to adjust. There has been a pitch clock in Double-A and Triple-A for a few years, so many pitchers are used to them, but veterans are not. Do not be surprised to hear some rule change news in the coming days.

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