- It might feel like the offseason never got going, but spring training is here! Shohei Ohtani and Giancarlo Stanton are among some of the top storylines.
You may not have noticed, but spring training is already here. Across Florida and Arizona, players have descended to long toss, field grounders, and spray baseballs across pristine swaths of green grass as they get ready for the 2018 season. That might be too rosy a picture, however, given the league’s public winter of discontent. Owners and players remain increasingly at odds over the glacial pace of free agency a. That labor dispute is the unpleasant talk of the game right now, but here are five other storylines to watch as camps open and Grapefruit and Cactus League action gets set to begin.
The rich get richer: Take a look around the game right now, and you’ll find an inequality gap of unprecedented scale. On one side, you have anywhere from a quarter to a third of the league that’s decided not to compete in 2018; they range from those frantically burning everything down for the insurance money (the Marlins and Tigers) to those who have quietly shied away from doing anything at all since season’s end (the Orioles and Reds come to mind). On the other side, the league’s best teams suddenly have no real competition, either on the field or in the offseason: Part of what’s made this winter so slow for free agents is that the group of bidders has decreased. That’s helped baseball’s elite squads somehow get even better: the Yankees sending spare parts to Miami for NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton; the Cubs inking ace righty Yu Darvish when he found his market inexplicably barren; and the world champion Astros scoring former No. 1 pick Gerrit Cole when the Pirates cried poverty and punted. The result: a small but super-powered group of World Series contenders who will spend the bulk of the year beating up on a sorry collection of rebuilding teams. Power belongs to a select few.
The New Bash Brothers
It feels fitting that baseball’s resident hulks—Stanton and AL Rookie of the Year Aaron Judge—will come together in pinstripes to torture the American League for the next decade or so. By acquiring Stanton, New York has paired the two best and biggest home-run hitters in the game; the resulting fireworks may destroy the rest of the AL East, if not every seat in Yankee Stadium’s leftfield stands. And it’s thematically appropriate, given the franchise’s roll call of past sluggers: Ruth and Gehrig, Mantle and Maris … Stanton and Judge? Brian Cashman is hoping that, thanks to Derek Jeter’s largesse, he’s created a new Hall of Fame-worthy duo in the Bronx. If nothing else, he’s upped the odds that Yankees fans will go home happy and with souvenirs in tow every night.
The Ohtani Conundrum
What do we have with Shohei Ohtani? Few foreign arrivals have carried as much intrigue, potential and mystery as the Japanese righty, just 23 years old but already an impact player at two positions. He throws 100 mph; he hits tape-measure home runs; if you hang around Angels camp long enough this spring, you’ll probably hear someone say they’ve seen him turn Gatorade into wine. We’ve seen what he did to Japan’s professional league (in short: he dominated it). Left to answer is how his skills will translate to America—and, in particular, how Los Angeles will deploy the man of many roles and tailor things to make him fit. One thing is for certain: With him and resident demigod Mike Trout in place, the once moribund Angels have become a must-watch team.
Pace of Play
As baseball lurched toward an average game time of three hours and five minutes last year—a new major league record, and one no one celebrated—you could easily imagine steam pouring out of the ears of Commissioner Rob Manfred. Making the game faster by whatever means he can has become one of Manfred’s pet causes since taking over in 2013, and this winter, he took his biggest step yet toward lopping off extra minutes by proposing the adoption of a pitch clock in the majors. The players resist the idea, but Manfred has frequently threatened unilateral imposition of his pace of play measures if the union doesn’t acquiesce. That conversation hasn’t finished, as the two sides continue to bargain and debate. But given how unhappy he is with a game that’s dragged like never before, it seems unlikely that Manfred would choose this moment to slow things down. The spring could bring a big upheaval to the way the game itself is played.
As players settle into new homes or roles, so too will a handful of managers, as is the case every spring. But this year’s crop of fresh skippers will be, for the most part, an unseasoned bunch. Some, like Mickey Callaway with the Mets, Alex Cora with the Red Sox, and Dave Martinez with the Nationals, at least have experience on the bench as coaches. But in Philadelphia, the Phillies have entrusted the next stage of their rebuild to Gabe Kapler, who spent the last three years in the Dodgers’ front office and comes with only a season’s worth of managerial experience in the minors. And in New York, the Yankees booted aside Joe Girardi after a decade and went with former player Aaron Boone, late of ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball booth and with not a single game of coaching experience to his name. That may feel like handing the keys to an F1 racer to a teenager fresh out of driving school, but New York clearly likes the idea of the manager being more a clubhouse leader than a tried tactician. Keep the players happy, and the wins should flow no matter who’s in charge. It’s a bold strategy, and a decidedly risky one for a team with real World Series hopes.