PHOENIX — The stars are out in Arizona this spring. Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani rode in a golf cart together at Angels camp. Clayton Kershaw retired three Seattle Mariners on 11 pitches in his Cactus League debut. Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen are settling in with a veteran group in San Francisco, and Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain are determined to help the Milwaukee Brewers hang with Chicago and St. Louis at the top of the National League Central.
For the general managers who build rosters and the managers who try to make the pieces fit, spring training is a time of discovery and enlightenment. Which young player is ready to make some noise, and which veteran arrived in camp looking especially motivated? Is there an intriguing position battle that needs to be sorted out over the coming weeks? A lot of questions will be resolved at camps between now and Opening Day on March 29.
ESPN.com asked executives and managers for the 15 Cactus League clubs, “What player or facet of the team has caught your eye in the early stages of camp?” Here are their responses:
San Francisco Giants: Bruce Bochy’s batting order
“I think if you asked everybody in our room, as far as the coaches and the front office, they would give you a different lineup,” Bochy said.
Denard Span, who logged 66 percent of the Giants’ leadoff at-bats in 2017, is now a Tampa Bay Ray, so the Giants have to find someone to fill that void. One possibility: McCutchen, who has logged a .277/.357/.469 slash line in 1,060 career plate appearances in the No. 1 spot. Austin Jackson is another candidate to lead off when the Giants are facing a lefty.
Buster Posey and Longoria have both bounced around between the No. 3 and 4 spots in the order, and McCutchen has spent the bulk of his career in the three hole, so the middle of the order will require some maneuvering. Bochy likes the thought of going left-right, so he’ll try to find a way to strategically use Joe Panik, Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford between his righty bats.
“I’m open-minded,” Bochy said. “I know I’ve been around a while, and a lot of people think we’re old-school. But we have our analytics [people], and I’m looking forward to getting their help. At the same time, I can’t get away from using my gut and my staff’s feelings. That’s all part of it.”
Arizona Diamondbacks: Three shortstops, one starting spot
“I don’t necessarily evaluate it by results,” Lovullo said. “We know spring training can be misleading. So we’ll watch swing planes and breaks on defense and how the ball is coming off the bat. That’s the game within the game — the part we all love.”
Ahmed is the lockdown defender of the group, while Owings hit a career-high 12 homers in 97 games last season. Marte, acquired from Seattle in the Jean Segura trade, showed improved plate discipline in 2017 and had a wild-card game to remember. He went 3-for-5 with two triples against Colorado and showed energy and some tantalizing glimpses of his ceiling.
“I think competition brings out the best in people,” Lovullo said. “That’s what I lock down on. It’s a time for me to get to know body language and what makes someone tick. I pay attention to the little things that show me they’re comfortable in winning those innings.”
Cleveland Indians: Minor league first baseman Bobby Bradley’s buffed look
Bradley, Cleveland’s third-round pick in the 2014 draft, has shown impressive power with 87 homers in 411 minor league games. The Indians had been pushing Bradley to lose weight, so they were ecstatic when he attended two offseason strength and conditioning sessions and dropped about 30 pounds. Bradley is on track to begin this season as the starting first baseman for Triple-A Columbus.
“He’s a pretty big prospect for us,” manager Terry Francona said. “He just wasn’t blessed with the greatest body. He walked into our one-on-one meetings, and I think I set the record for expletives because I was so proud of him. He looked so good, and then to listen to him talk about what he did and how he did it, that made my whole day.
“You watch the box scores [this spring]. He’ll get some at-bats — maybe more than he would have.”
Cincinnati Reds: Bryan Price’s four-man outfield
The Reds plan to implement a four-man outfield time-share arrangement with Billy Hamilton, Scott Schebler, Adam Duvall and Jesse Winker logging a relatively equal number of the at-bats. Hamilton is the resident defensive whiz and stolen base threat. Schebler and Duvall bring the power, and Winker’s exceptional plate discipline is reflected in his .398 OBP in more than 2,400 professional plate appearances.
“Are they going to complement each other in the way that we need them to — righty-lefty, defense and offense?” general manager Dick Williams said. “It’s going to be an interest thing to watch unfold.
“I think we have enough at-bats to go around as long as everybody buys into the program — and you would think they should buy into the program because it’s going to put them in more of a position to succeed. The only at-bats they’re losing are the ones that should be the least productive. That’s easy to put on paper. In practice, it’s not so easy to implement.”
Profar rated as one of MLB’s top prospects in 2012-2013, but his star has gradually faded due to injuries and underperformance. After breaking camp as Texas’ starting left fielder last year, he played his way to Triple-A Round Rock with a 5-for-37 (.135) start. With the exception of cameo appearances in June and July, that was the extent of his exposure in Arlington.
Profar showed improved plate discipline with 43 walks, only 33 strikeouts and a .383 OBP in Round Rock, and he worked on his speed, agility and strength in the offseason. He’s out of minor league options, and the Rangers would like him to seize a utility job and provide a security blanket for the Adrian Beltre–Elvis Andrus–Rougned Odor infield contingent.
“He just turned 25,” Rangers assistant GM Josh Boyd said. “In the industry, we follow guys from such a young age, it seems as if he’s been around forever. The reality is he’s still young. He’s still the same guy who was once considered one of the top prospects in baseball. The way he’s come into camp is really encouraging.”
Los Angeles Dodgers: Settling on an outfield mix
“We have as much outfield depth as anyone in baseball, and there are only so many at-bats to go around,” manager Dave Roberts said. “So it’s going to be fun to see how that plays itself out.”
Chris Taylor is a given in center field after logging an .850 OPS last season, but he won’t have the luxury of sneaking up on people this time around. Yasiel Puig, who hit 28 homers and slugged .487, is a fixture in right. Left field is the mystery position. Andrew Toles is working his way back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, and Joc Pederson would like to bottle the magic from October, when he salvaged a rough year with three home runs and a .944 slugging percentage in the World Series. Pederson has a .184/.278/.321 career slash line vs. lefties, so he’s strictly a platoon guy at this stage of his career.
The Dodgers are also keeping an eye on prospect Alex Verdugo, who slashed .314/.389/.436 in Triple-A and is pushing to expedite his timetable at age 21.
Matt Kemp lost a reported 40 pounds over the winter and showed up in a positive frame of mind. But how upbeat will he be if it’s mid-April and he’s stuck on the bench? The Dodgers owe Kemp $43 million over the next two years and made every attempt to move him after acquiring him from Atlanta in mid-December. He’s still around, and now it’s up to Roberts and the coaching staff to make the arrangement work. “Fun” isn’t the word that immediately springs to mind.
Seattle Mariners: Is Kyle Seager due for a rebound?
After finishing 12th in American League MVP balloting in 2016, Seager fell off across the board last year. He hit .253 with one homer in 90 plate appearances in April and arrived in camp intent on getting off to a better start. He made some tweaks to his swing and showed up in Arizona with a noticeable sense of purpose.
“He’s typically a slow starter,” manager Scott Servais said. “I talked to him and said, ‘We’re not talking about that anymore. We’re getting rid of the mental side of that thing.’ He’s a really good player, and he had a little bit of a down year, and he’s anxious to get back out there.”
Seager won the award for most creative Players’ Weekend moniker last season when he referred to himself as “Corey’s brother” on the back of his jersey. He’s not quite as light-hearted about Seattle’s recent lack of postseason exposure. The Mariners haven’t been to the playoffs since 2001, and they’ll need big seasons from Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Seager if they want to be a factor in the AL West.
“His brother has been playing in the postseason, and he hasn’t,” Servais said. “He wants to get a taste of that.”
After hitting .211 with 150 strikeouts (albeit with 30 homers), Schwarber embarked upon a mission to remake his body in the offseason. The guy who stole four bases in his first 200 MLB games looked awfully spry with two steals in Chicago’s 12-10 Cactus League victory over San Francisco on Sunday.
Schwarber’s goal was to add quickness and agility without sacrificing power. Cubs manager Joe Maddon loves what he has seen early in camp.
“When you watch him run, it’s almost like, ‘Who is that?”’ Maddon said. “You don’t even know who it is. He looks fabulous, and you want to believe all that hard work is going to be rewarded.
“I saw him during the winter time. He came to my event in Tampa, and he was a celebrity bartender, and he looked good then. Right now, it’s unbelievable. He’s moving great, and he’s so motivated. Oh my god, he’s so motivated.”
Los Angeles Angels: Will they stick with six?
The six-man rotation is ideal for Shohei Ohtani, who pitched once a week in Japan and can use the extra time between starts to contribute to the cause as a DH. But how will the new arrangement fly with Garrett Richards, Tyler Skaggs, Matt Shoemaker, Andrew Heaney and whichever pitcher emerges from the Nick Tropeano/J.C. Ramirez/Parker Bridwell trio to claim the sixth spot?
The Angels’ starters have piled up their share of injuries and disabled list days, so the new arrangement is theoretically a way to lighten the load. But they’ll have to worry about keeping six starters healthy instead of five. If the experiment is successful, they could be ahead of the curve.
“I don’t think anybody’s ever had a lot of experience with a six-man rotation, so there’s not a whole lot of feedback,” manager Mike Scioscia said. “I don’t think we’re really sure how it’s going to work, so we have to be flexible. But it just makes too much sense right now not to try it. Not only for Shohei, but the grouping of our projected rotation. We’re going to try it, and we have a lot of confidence it’s going to work.”
Milwaukee Brewers: The dominos from Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain
Last year, the Brewers spent a lot of time talking about their young outfield talent. Now that Cain and Yelich have arrived, Ryan Braun will be spending a lot more time at first base, and manager Craig Counsell will have to find a way to divvy up the available at-bats at first and in the outfield.
Here’s how the math shakes out: The Brewers have about 2,800 available plate appearances at four spots, and Yelich, Cain, Braun, Eric Thames and Domingo Santana will share them roughly equally. “If you split it evenly with five guys, that’s 560 apiece,” Counsell said. “With injuries and everything, we’ll find a way. Some guys will get 500, and some will get 600, but it will work out.”
The most pressing questions: How will Yelich adapt if asked to play right field, where he has yet to log an inning in the big leagues? What do the Brewers do with Brett Phillips and Keon Broxton? Both players have minor league options left. But Phillips posted a .799 OPS in 37 games last season, and Broxton hit 20 home runs in Milwaukee, and until recently they both had reason to believe their time had come.
Chicago White Sox: How quickly can the kids progress?
Manager Rick Renteria talks about the maturity he has seen from shortstop Tim Anderson and second baseman Yoan Moncada this spring. And general manager Rick Hahn roams the grounds at Camelback Ranch and sees boundless potential when Eloy Jimenez, Luis Robert and Micker Adolfo take batting practice in the same group and Michael Kopech, Dylan Cease and Alec Hansen throw off the bullpen mounds in unison.
But it’s all about 2019 and beyond for the White Sox, who won 67 games last year and are taking a disciplined and methodical approach to building a contender. “We know two things, as we stand here today,” Hahn said. “Reasonably and objectively, we have guys who, if they hit their ceilings, could be players on a championship club at every position. Unfortunately, we also know that’s not going to happen. Not everyone is going to hit their ceiling. The baseball gods have cruel things in mind for us, whether it’s injury or underperformance or whatever else. So they’re not all going to wind up being exactly who you hoped they would be.
“This is an important year for us from a player development standpoint to see who’s going to continue on that path to being potentially a dude, and we may have to go outside the organization and augment some holes over the next couple of years. Right now there’s that excitement. Nobody has failed or gotten injured yet, so it’s a fun camp to walk around and see [what we have].”
San Diego Padres: What to do with all those outfielders?
Eric Hosmer’s arrival via an eight-year, $144 million contract forces Wil Myers to the outfield, which adds to an already crowded picture. Manuel Margot will log the bulk of the at-bats in center, and that leaves Jose Pirela, Hunter Renfroe, Alex Dickerson, Franchy Cordero and Travis Jankowski scrambling for at-bats.
Renfroe set a franchise rookie record with 26 home runs last year, but he also struck out 140 times in 445 at-bats and logged a .284 OBP. Dickerson recorded an .810 OPS vs. righties in 2016 before missing all of last season with a back injury. Franchy Cordero was MVP of the Dominican Winter League. Pirela has big raw power and can play both outfield and second base. Jankowski is a terrific defender capable of playing all three outfield spots.
“There is cutthroat competition for opportunity and a chance for us to maybe platoon a little bit,” manager Andy Green said. “All of those guys have done some things that would make you want them out there. There’s going to be real competition, and I think we’ll be better for it.”
Kansas City Royals: Can Adalberto Mondesi take the next step?
Mondesi, who previously went by “Raul,” announced early in camp that he wants to be referred to by his middle name to distinguish himself from family members. His father and brother both go by Raul.
Will the name change help him reclaim the promise he showed in 2015, when he became the youngest player to appear in a World Series game since Andruw Jones of the 1996 Braves?
Mondesi has a .181/.226/.271 slash line in in 209 plate appearances with Kansas City. He incurred a 50-game suspension for a banned substance last season, and he has been hindered by back problems, an undisciplined approach at the plate and questions about his maturity and work ethic. But he’s only 22, so time is still on his side. “He’s a dynamic player,” Royals assistant GM J.J. Picollo said.
The Royals have Alcides Escobar at shortstop and Whit Merrifield at second, but Mondesi has an opportunity to make an impression in camp and prompt the Royals to shift Merrifield to the outfield or a super-utility role.
Colorado Rockies: Can the pitching hold up?
The Rockies made a splash when they spent $106 million to upgrade the bullpen with free agents Wade Davis, Bryan Shaw and Jake McGee. But general manager Jeff Bridich talks constantly about the team’s “pitching culture” and a collaborative effort that has been years in the making.
The Rockies have gone from last in the NL in ERA in 2015 (5.04) to 13th in 2016 (4.91) to ninth last season (4.51). But the new-look pen isn’t going to matter much if Jon Gray, Chad Bettis and a young rotation can’t get the ball to Davis, Shaw and McGee with leads to protect. The Rockies continue to monitor the growth curve of starters German Marquez, Kyle Freeland, Jeff Hoffman and Antonio Senzatela and reliever Carlos Estevez, all of whom are 25 or younger.
“A lot of the splashy stuff, as it relates to our bullpen, is all well and good,” Bridich said. “But I think if you look at the potential of that group of young pitchers — the starters and some of the young guys we have in the bullpen — that’s one of the more exciting parts of our team.”
Oakland Athletics: Can A.J. Puk make the mullet fashionable again?
When asked what’s caught his eye early in camp, A’s GM David Forst laughed and mentioned Puk’s flowing red locks.
“It’s a lot like ‘Bull Durham,”’ Forst said. “When you win 20 in the show, you can wear your hair however you want and people think you’re creative.”
Puk, the No. 6 pick in the 2013 draft out of the University of Florida, is No. 13 on Keith Law’s list of MLB’s top 100 prospects. Now that Matt Chapman and Matt Olson have graduated to the majors, the A’s are cultivating a young wave of middle infield talent and pitchers with ability, stuff and checkered injury histories in the minors. It’s going to be hard for Puk to slip under the radar. He’s a lanky, 6-foot-7 lefty, and when A’s manager Bob Melvin was asked for a historical comparable early in camp, he aimed high.
“The obvious guy is the guy I managed in Arizona,” Melvin told reporters. “You hate to put that kind of expectations or comp on a guy, but there are some similarities, maybe a little different arm angle. But the hair, the whole bit and the height and the velocity — Randy Johnson. It’s just a tough comp to put on a guy.”
Given ‘his stats are beyond amazing,’ New York Mets ace Jacob deGrom becomes betting favorite to win NL MVP award
It often takes eye-popping statistics for a pitcher to win a regular-season MVP award, something that’s happened only twice since 1992. Sportsbooks believe New York Mets ace Jacob deGrom has what it takes.
DeGrom, who is sporting a 0.56 ERA and has driven in more runs at the plate than he has allowed on the mound, has emerged as the consensus favorite to win the National League MVP at U.S. sportsbooks. After opening at 40-1, he is now the National League MVP favorite at 2-1 at Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill. He went from 9-1 to the favorite at 2-1 in a week at BetMGM sportsbooks.
DeGrom moved ahead of San Diego Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. last week, despite leaving his most recent start on Friday with flexor tendinitis. DeGrom is expected to be available for his next scheduled start on Wednesday. DeGrom’s departure caused William Hill’s Nevada sportsbooks to halt betting on the NL MVP, but the company’s New Jersey shops kept the odds on the board. A bettor with William Hill in New Jersey placed $1,000 on deGrom to win NL MVP at 6-1 odds prior to his last start.
In the past 28 seasons, only two pitchers have won regular-season MVP awards, the most recent being Clayton Kershaw in 2014. Only 25 pitchers have won the award in Major League Baseball history.
“He goes out every game and just shuts the other team down,” Adam Pullen, second director of trading for William Hill U.S., said. “It’s hard for people to get past that he’s not an everyday player, but he’s just so dominant. For a pitcher to win the MVP, you have to have dominant stats, and his stats are beyond amazing.”
DeGrom is also the favorite to win the NL Cy Young and has attracted 79.3% of the amount wagered on the odds at BetMGM sportsbooks.
The Mets have been favored in each of deGrom’s 10 starts this season, going 7-3 with him on the mound. The price to bet the Mets with deGrom on the mound, however, was so high that if a bettor backed him for $100 on each of his starts, they’d be down $55 on the season, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
In the American League, the Los Angeles Angels‘ two-way star, Shohei Ohtani, is the favorite to win MVP at +120. Before the season, William Hill reported taking a $30,000 bet on Ohtani to win MVP at 30-1 odds. The bet would pay $930,000.
Kansas City Royals’ Andrew Benintendi hits IL, won’t face Boston Red Sox this weekend
The move means that Benintendi won’t be able to face his former team when the Royals host the Boston Red Sox this weekend.
“He had something grab when he threw yesterday [against the Oakland Athletics] with the ball off the wall,” Royals manager Mike Matheny told reporters, according to the Kansas City Star. “He’d been feeling a little bit of something for a while. Obviously, it wasn’t affecting his swing. On the throw, it grabbed him. He was fine last night. Woke up today and it wasn’t right. He had it X-rayed.”
Benintendi, who was traded by the Red Sox to the Royals before the season, is hitting .283 with eight home runs and 31 RBIs in his first season with Kansas City.
He missed most of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season because of a strained right rib cage.
The Royals recalled outfielder Edward Olivares from Triple-A Omaha in a corresponding move.
Day after uncharacteristic loss, Cleveland Indians ace Shane Bieber placed on 10-day injured list with right shoulder injury
Manager Terry Francona said Bieber complained of tightness in his shoulder after pitching Sunday and underwent an MRI. The tests showed the muscle strain, and Bieber will be temporarily shut down.
The Indians placed the right-hander on the injured list and recalled reliever Kyle Nelson from Triple-A Columbus.
Bieber’s loss is a major blow to Cleveland, which has managed to stay in contention in the first 2 1/2 months of the season despite a rash of key injuries. The Indians will now have to survive without Bieber, one of baseball’s best pitchers, for at least a few weeks.
Bieber allowed a season-high 10 hits and five runs while losing to the Seattle Mariners on Sunday.
“Today, I got beat for not executing,” Bieber said after the loss. “That’s obvious. Whether it’s curveball, fastball, slider, changeup, cutter, it doesn’t really matter. I just got to be better and continue to hit spots, execute throughout the game, strike one, two and three and then continue momentum.”
His velocity was noticeably lower vs. Seattle, but Francona didn’t make much of it when asked in his postgame news conference.
Bieber is 7-4 this season in 14 starts, covering 90.2 innings. He has 130 strikeouts, opposed by just 33 walks and has maintained momentum from last season, when he led the majors in wins (8), ERA (1.63) and strikeouts (122).
Seattle has beaten Bieber twice this season, scoring eight runs on 15 hits in 10.1 innings.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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