A year ago this week, as spring training 2018 opened, the baseball world was buzzing about the first glimpses of Shohei Ohtani, the Japanese two-way star who was going to revolutionize the game with the Los Angeles Angels; slugger Giancarlo Stanton’s first appearances in New York Yankees’ pinstripes; and the Chicago Cubs’ signing of right-hander Yu Darvish to be their ace and lead them back to the game’s pinnacle.
In the meantime, with relatively little fanfare, the Boston Red Sox, with a bloated payroll (that would become even more so with the signing of J.D. Martinez a couple of weeks later) and a reputation for underachieving despite consecutive division titles in 2016 and 2017, were gathering in Fort Myers, Fla., for their first spring training camp under Alex Cora, their unassuming rookie manager perhaps best known for his stint as an ESPN analyst.
The point is, the storylines that seem most important in February are often irrelevant by October: Ohtani hurt his elbow, Stanton struck out 211 times and Darvish made just eight starts for the Cubs before an elbow injury ended his season.
Cora’s Red Sox, meanwhile, had one of the most dominant seasons in recent history, going 108-54 in the regular season and 11-3 in the post-season to win their fourth World Series title in 15 years.
With spring training camps opening in Arizona and Florida this week, keep the above caveat in mind when perusing this list of the biggest storylines of spring training 2019 — and be sure to check back with us in October.
Article Continued Below
UNFINISHED BUSINESS: Just like last year, when Martinez, Eric Hosmer (San Diego Padres) and Jake Arrieta (Philadelphia Phillies) all signed big deals after their teams’ reporting dates, a couple of camps will be jolted this spring by the additions of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, two 26-year-old superstars with immense talent and complex personalities whose arrivals almost certainly will change the atmosphere in their respective clubhouses. Also still available — courtesy of another slow-moving free agent market — are lefty starter Dallas Keuchel and closer Craig Kimbrel, among others. Nobody — including players, league officials, media members and team marketing executives — seems to prefer a system in which top talent remains unsigned well into the spring, but it appears to be the sport’s new normal.
LABOUR STRIFE: Per tradition, union chief Tony Clark and his lieutenants will be making a tour of camps, talking privately with players and publicly with the media — and judging from the rhetoric already out there, the message is not likely to be encouraging. It isn’t just the late signings that has players upset, but also the lack of spending on the part of some teams and the general turning away from veteran players.
RULE CHANGES: Commissioner Rob Manfred has signalled a willingness to implement unilaterally his proposed 20-second pitch clock and a reduction on the permitted number of mound visits to five from six, both part of his ongoing effort to improve pace of play. But he would prefer to get the union’s blessing through the sides’ ongoing negotiations. Some of the bigger matters under discussion — a universal designated hitter, a three-batter minimum for pitchers and a limit or ban on defensive shifts, to name three — will require more extensive talks and are unlikely for 2019. But given their potential impact, these proposed changes are certain to generate dialogue this spring.
BOSTON’S BULLPEN: The defending champs had a curiously quiet winter, re-signing first baseman Steve Pearce and right-hander Nathan Eovaldi, two of their October heroes, but otherwise more or less standing pat. They will again field by far the game’s biggest payroll, at around $ 240 million (U.S.) as currently constructed, and they may be saving up for future winters when Chris Sale and Xander Bogaerts (after 2019) and Mookie Betts (2020) hit free agency. But in letting Kimbrel walk away (and they could, of course, surprise everyone and re-sign him), and failing to land a notable replacement, the Red Sox are showing an enormous amount of trust in a bullpen currently headed by Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier, neither of whom has experience closing in the big leagues.
NOLAN ARENADO: The Rockies’ sublime third baseman would be the most highly coveted player on next winter’s free agent market — if he gets there. Team and player are said to be working on a long-term extension that, if completed, will alter both next winter’s market and this winter’s — because the terms of an anticipated Arenado deal could impact the final stages of the negotiations for Harper and especially Machado. And if Arenado re-ups with the Rockies, attention will immediately turn to Washington’s Anthony Rendon, another third baseman who would make an attractive free agent target next winter — but who also appears to be a strong candidate for an extension with the Nationals.
MIKE TROUT: The Angels’ centre-fielder makes the list not because of any news being generated within his orbit — he does a bang-up job of avoiding that — but simply because he has been the consensus best player in the game for a half-dozen or so years now, and everything he does and says matters. As such, everyone in the game will be scrutinizing his every statement this spring to discern his stance toward an Angels franchise that has (so far) squandered his prime years, as well as his view of his approaching free agency at the end of 2020.
VLADIMIR GUERRERO JR. AND FERNANDO TATIS JR.: Baseball was graced last year by two of the best 20-or-under phenoms in history, with Atlanta’s Ronald Acuna Jr., 20, edging Washington’s Juan Soto, 19, for NL rookie of the year honours. And this year could belong to these two sons of longtime big-leaguers: Toronto’s Guerrero, a third baseman, and San Diego’s Tatis, a shortstop, the consensus top two prospects in the game. Both will be 20 on Opening Day, but it is an open question across the game whether either will actually be in the majors at that point. Under the current system, teams have incentive to keep their top prospects in the minors for a couple of weeks to delay their free agency by a year — or even later, to delay their eligibility for salary arbitration — and it’s expected the Blue Jays and Padres are planning to do that with Guerrero and Tatis.
ROOKIES IN CHARGE: It’s not only the 25-man rosters in baseball that are skewing younger these days. For the second straight year, five rookie managers will be leading teams in 2019 — Rocco Baldelli (Minnesota Twins), David Bell (Cincinnati Reds), Brandon Hyde (Baltimore Orioles), Charlie Montoyo (Toronto Blue Jays) and Chris Woodward (Texas Rangers) — all of them replacing older skippers and all hoping to be this year’s version of Cora.