With pitchers and catchers reporting to major league camps across Arizona and Florida this week, baseball is officially back — and for the first time since 2019, we have a full spring training ahead of us.
The start of camp means a first chance to view stars such as Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander and Trea Turner in their new uniforms, and this year we’ll get to see MLB’s 2023 rule changes in action as soon as Cactus League and Grapefruit League games begin.
To celebrate the sport’s return, we asked our MLB experts to weigh in on the teams, themes and stars they can’t wait to check out as spring training begins.
After last year’s lockout led to a rushed frenzy to start the season, what is the one thing you are most excited about as a full spring training begins?
Buster Olney: Baseball officials, staffers and players have been talking about the potential impact of the rules changes for years, but now we get to see the actual effects on the field. Some of the early feedback I’ve heard from club coaches and managers is that they believe the larger bases will change the game to a degree that is unforeseen, because the geometry of the sport has always been so precisely ingrained in how the game is played.
Jeff Passan: The pitch clock. If you didn’t happen to see it in play in a minor league game last year, big league games this year are going to look almost foreign: 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 in the clock-free World Baseball Classic. There will be some ugly moments. A game is bound to be won and lost on a pitch-clock violation, and that will not sit well with people. But it’s a small price to pay for what will become a regular occurrence: Major League Baseball games that last 2½ hours.
Alden Gonzalez: I’m psyched about the upcoming World Baseball Classic, which will run simultaneously with spring training. We’ve had stars take part in previous WBCs, but never like this. The rosters include eight MVP winners and 67 All-Stars, 35 of whom took part 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 decorated with stars, and the Dominican Republic is absolutely stacked. This is a chance to see intense games in frenzied environments with upper-echelon talent — before the regular season even begins. It’s going to be great.
David Schoenfield: Those first reports and game results from up-and-coming prospects. I think back to last spring training, when we heard a lot of good things about Michael Harris II in Braves camp. His spring performance was one reason the Braves were confident in promoting him to the majors after just 43 games in Double-A. So I’ll be looking at guys such as pitchers Grayson Rodriguez of the Orioles and Andrew Painter of the Phillies and hitters such as Jordan Walker of the Cardinals and Anthony Volpe of the Yankees to see how soon they might impact the big league team in 2023.
Brad Doolittle: The normal rhythms of spring, and a focus on actual baseball. There are always sideshows, and I assume the new rules will serve that purpose this spring. But for the first time in a while, we know when the regular season starts. We have players in camp fighting for spots, working their way into shape. Some hitters will have revamped swings. Some pitchers will be trying out new offerings. The news will come in a steady, undramatic, slow drip. Baseball for many, including me, is kind of like the throughline of the calendar and after a long, long period of general tumult, it’s good to just have it there, at its normal pace.
On the heels of this winter’s wild free agency, which player who changed teams are you most interested in seeing in his new uniform?
Olney: Xander Bogaerts wanted to play his whole career with the Red Sox, and in fact, worked to make that happen with a team-friendly deal signed in 2019. To see him in the Padres’ colors will be jarring, for sure, but also fun — Bob Melvin gets to decide how to arrange his unmatched quartet of hitters in late April. I’d bat Bogaerts in the cleanup spot, behind Fernando Tatis, Jr., Juan Soto and Manny Machado.
Passan: The New York Yankees entered the winter with two priorities: re-sign AL MVP Aaron Judge and add to a pitching rotation that can shut down elite lineups. Six years and $162 million for Carlos Rodon certainly helps with the latter, as the 30-year-old left-hander joins a staff with Gerrit Cole, Nestor Cortes and Luis Severino. It’s a formidable group, and the Yankees hope Rodon’s power stuff — he struck out 237 in 178 innings for San Francisco last season — plays as well against the AL East as it did the NL West.
Gonzalez: I really like the fit of Trea Turner in Philadelphia, hitting atop that lineup. But what I really like is Trea Turner under baseball’s rules in 2023 — more specifically the bigger bases and the limited pickoffs. I want to see stolen bases become prominent in the sport again, and I’m hopeful baseball will begin to get back to that this season. Nobody runs — or slides — quite like Turner. I want more of it.
Schoenfield: I’m going to cheat a little here and go 2-for-1: Jacob deGrom going to the Rangers, and then Justin Verlander going to the Mets to replace deGrom. Given deGrom’s issues staying on the mound the past two seasons, the Rangers’ five-year, $185 million deal with him probably qualifies as 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 in the Cy Young voting. He turns 40 next week and some point will start slowing down, but I don’t think it’s going to be in 2023.
Doolittle: The sight of Willson Contreras in a Cardinals uniform is going to seem incongruous for a while but we’ll get used to it soon enough. It’s not just that he’s moved to a longtime rival. It’s that he’s also trying to fill the shoes of Yadier Molina, on the field and in the clubhouse, and it’ll give St. Louis a different feel. I have little doubt it’ll work fine, but I’m looking forward to seeing this new combination in action.
Which team are you far more interested in today than you were a year ago at this time?
Olney: The Padres, who have caused more discomfort in the owners’ boxes of rival teams than any club. Rival clubs can dismiss the spending of Mets owner Steve Cohen by citing Cohen’s unmatched wealth, but when the Padres spend big — and they’re spending huge, with the additions of Soto, Josh Hader and Bogaerts — well, that changes the context for everybody else. You get two distinct reactions from other clubs about the Padres: that what they’re doing is A) risky and unsustainable, or B) making other owners look bad.
Passan: This is not to suggest Arizona is an immediate threat to the Dodgers or Padres for NL West supremacy. But the Diamondbacks are undoubtedly a team on the rise, and there are few more enjoyable things in baseball than watching a talented group of young players ascend together. Arizona’s roster features a number of players with not only high ceilings but high floors, too. Outfielder Corbin Carroll is one. Catcher Gabriel Moreno, acquired from Toronto in a trade for Daulton Varsho, has multi-time All-Star potential. Right-hander Zac Gallen took the leap last year. And if Brandon Pfaadt (218 strikeouts and 33 walks in 167 minor league innings), Drey Jameson or Ryne Nelson can carve out a rotation spot, perhaps it will be enough to compel ownership next winter to do what it didn’t this time around: invest in free agency and supplement an excellent core.
Gonzalez: The Rangers spent a combined $500 million on two middle infielders in one day last offseason — and that was only half the work. The presence of Corey Seager and Marcus Semien instantly elevated the franchise, but it was clear then that it still needed major help on the pitching side. This offseason, the Rangers opened their wallets once again and signed deGrom, Nathan Eovaldi and Andrew Heaney in free agency, adding them to a group that includes Martin Perez, Jon Gray and Jake Odorizzi to form a very nice rotation. The Rangers might not be legitimate contenders just yet, but they’re getting there fast.
Schoenfield: This is weird to say, since a year ago the Braves were coming off a World Series championship, but last season they added two new exciting stars in center fielder Harris and flamethrowing Spencer Strider. They were a better team in 2022 than in 2021, and they might be better in 2023 than they were in 2022 thanks to the addition of catcher Sean Murphy and what I expect will be a resurgent Ronald Acuna Jr. with more power.
Doolittle: Of all the recent rebuilding teams, I feel like the Orioles have emerged as the most interesting. It’s not just because they were so much better last season (though that’s part of it), because I feel like they played over their heads. But on top of that unexpected success, now the O’s are starting to graduate some of their prospects, and they have more than a few who seem like they can be true impact players. Adley Rutschman already is. Gunnar Henderson is following in his wake. Grayson Rodriguez should be a factor soon. The rebuild in Baltimore looked murky to me as recently as a year ago. Now I’m just excited for the fans there.