With pitchers and catchers covering major league camps in Arizona and Florida this week, baseball is officially back — and for the first time since 2019, we have full spring training ahead of us.
The start of camp means a first opportunity to see stars like Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander and Trea Turner in their new uniforms, and this year we’ll see MLB’s 2023 rule changes in action once the Cactus League and Grapefruit games League take place start.
To celebrate the sport’s return, we asked our MLB experts to weigh up the teams, themes and stars they can’t wait to watch as spring training begins.
After last year’s lockout led to a hectic start to the season, what are you most looking forward to as full spring training begins?
Buster Olney: Baseball officials, staff and players have spoken for years about the potential impact of the rule changes, but now we’re seeing the real impact on the field. Some of the early feedback I’ve heard from club coaches and managers is that because the geometry of the sport has always been so ingrained in the way how the game is played .
Jeff Passan: The pitch clock. Unless you happened to see it in a minor league game last year, big league games will look almost alien this year: crisp, clean and dare I say fast-paced? Here’s the thing: It’s going to take some time for players to get used to, especially considering how many will be playing without a watch in the World Baseball Classic. There will be some ugly moments. A game is inevitably won and lost on a pitch clock violation, and people aren’t going to like that. But it’s a small price to pay for what will become a regular occurrence: Major League Baseball games that last 2½ hours.
Alden Gonzales: I look forward to the upcoming World Baseball Classic, which will be held concurrently with spring training. We’ve had stars compete in previous WBCs, but never like this. The list includes eight MVP winners and 67 All-Stars, 35 of whom competed in last year’s Midsummer Classic. Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw will represent Team USA for the first time. Shohei Ohtani will star for Japan. Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and Mexico are all star-studded, and the Dominican Republic absolutely stacks. This is a chance to see intense games in hectic environments with high-profile talent – before the regular season even begins. That’ll be great.
David Schoenfield: These first reports and match results from aspiring prospects. I think back to last spring practice when we heard good things about Michael Harris II at Braves camp. His spring performance was one of the reasons the Braves were confident of promoting him to the majors after just 43 games in Double-A. So I’m going to look at guys like pitchers Grayson Rodriguez of the Orioles and Andrew Painter of the Phillies and hitters like Jordan Walker of the Cardinals and Anthony Volpe of the Yankees to see how fast they’re making the big league team a year could affect 2023 .
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Brad Doolittle: The normal rhythms of spring and a focus on real baseball. There are always sideshows, and I expect the new rules this spring will serve that purpose. But for the first time in a while we know when the regular season starts. We have players in camp fighting for spots and getting in shape. Some clubs will have revised swings. Some pitchers will try new offerings. The news will come in a steady, undramatic, slow drip. Baseball is something of a common thread on the calendar for many, including myself, and after a long, long period of general tumult, it’s good to just have it there, at its normal pace.
After this winter’s wild free agency, which player who switched teams are you most interested in in his new uniform?
Olney: Xander Bogaerts wanted to play his entire career with the Red Sox and has worked to achieve that with a team-friendly contract signed in 2019. Seeing him in the Padres’ colors will certainly be harrowing, but it’ll also be fun — at the end of April, Bob Melvin will have to decide how to assemble his unrivaled hit quartet. I would beat Bogaerts in the cleanup behind Fernando Tatis Jr., Juan Soto and Manny Machado.
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Happen: The New York Yankees started the winter with two priorities: re-signing AL MVP Aaron Judge and adding a pitching rotation that can close elite lineups. Six years and $162m for Carlos Rodon certainly helps with the latter as the 30-year-old left-hander works alongside the likes of Gerrit Cole, Nestor Cortes and Luis Severino. It’s an impressive group, and the Yankees are hoping Rodon’s power stuff — he batted 237 in 178 innings for San Francisco last season — plays as well against the AL East as it did against the NL West.
Gonzales: I really like the fit of Trea Turner in Philadelphia, who is at the top of this lineup. But what I really like is Trea Turner by the Rules of Baseball in 2023 — more specifically, the bigger bases and limited pickoffs. I want stolen bases to be a part of the sport again, and I’m confident baseball will return to them this season. Nobody runs – or slides – like Turner. I want more of this.
Schoenfield: I’m going to cheat a little here and go 2-for-1: Jacob deGrom goes to the Rangers, and then Justin Verlander goes to the Mets to replace deGrom. With deGrom’s troubles remaining on the mound for the past two seasons, Rangers’ five-year, $185 million deal with him is probably the biggest gamble of the offseason — and perhaps a worthwhile one. As for Verlander, in his three full, healthy seasons with the Astros, he finished second, first and first on the Cy Young poll. He will be 40 next week and eventually it will slow down but I don’t think it will be 2023.
Doolittle: The sight of Willson Contreras in a Cardinals uniform will seem out of place for a while, but we’ll get used to it soon enough. It’s not just that he’s moved on to a longtime rival. It’s like he’s also trying to fill in Yadier Molina’s footsteps, on the field and in the clubhouse, and that’s going to give St. Louis a different feel. I have little doubt it will work well, but I look forward to seeing this new combination in action.
Which team interests you much more today than a year ago at this point?
Olney: The Padres, who have caused more discomfort in opposing teams’ owner boxes than any club. Rival clubs can dismiss Mets owner Steve Cohen’s spending by citing Cohen’s unmatched wealth, but when the Padres spend big – and they spend huge, with the additions of Soto, Josh Hader and Bogaerts – well, that changes the context for all others. You get two different reactions from other clubs about the Padres: that what they’re doing is A) risky and unsustainable, or B) makes other owners look bad.
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Happen: This is not to say that Arizona poses an immediate threat to the Dodgers or Padres to NL West dominance. But the Diamondbacks are undeniably a rising team, and there’s nothing quite like watching a talented group of young players rise together in baseball. Arizona’s roster features a lineup of players who not only have high ceilings but high floors as well. Outfielder Corbin Carroll is one. Catcher Gabriel Moreno, who was acquired by Toronto in a trade for Daulton Varsho, has multiple All-Star potential. Right-hander Zac Gallen took the plunge last year. And if Brandon Pfaadt (218 strikeouts and 33 walks in 167 minor league innings), Drey Jameson or Ryne Nelson can snag a spot on the rotation, it might be enough to compel owners to do so next winter , which they didn’t do this time: invest in the free hand and add an excellent core.
Gonzales: Rangers spent a total of $500 million on two midfielders in one day last offseason — and that was only half the job. The presence of Corey Seager and Marcus Semien immediately elevated the franchise, but it was clear it still needed big help on the pitching side. This offseason, Rangers opened their wallets again and signed deGrom, Nathan Eovaldi and Andrew Heaney to free agency and added them to a group that includes Martin Perez, Jon Gray and Jake Odorizzi to form a very nice rotation. The Rangers may not be legitimate contenders just yet, but they’re getting there fast.
Schoenfield: That’s odd to say given that the Braves emerged from a World Series championship a year ago, but last season they added two exciting new stars in midfielder Harris and flamethrower Spencer Strider. They were a better team in 2022 than 2021 and they could be better in 2023 than 2022 thanks to the addition of catcher Sean Murphy and what I expect will be a resurgent Ronald Acuna Jr. with more power.
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Doolittle: Of all the recent conversion teams, I feel the Orioles are the most interesting. It’s not just because they were so much better last season (although that’s part of the game), but because I feel like they played over their heads. But on top of that unexpected success, the O’s are now starting to graduate some of their prospects, and they have more than a few who seem like they could be real Impact players. Adleyrutschman already is. Gunnar Henderson follows him. Grayson Rodriguez should soon be a factor. Rebuilding in Baltimore looked bleak to me a year ago. Now I’m just looking forward to the fans there.
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