Seeing MLB players report to their respective Spring Training complexes evokes a level of euphoria for baseball fans longing for spring and summer. It’s hard to describe the general feeling of extreme happiness when games start being played, though.
Sure, they don’t mean anything and the stats don’t count, but it’s actual baseball being played after months of suffering through the cold, cold winter. Now that the Grapefruit and Cactus League schedules are underway, the storylines about certain players that we’ve talked about for the last few months can finally come to life.
For the following 10 MLB players, the next month will be an important foundation as to whether or not 2018 will be a successful campaign for them or not.
David Price, SP, Boston Red Sox
Since becoming an every-day starter for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2010, David Price had thrown fewer than 200 innings in a season just once heading into 2017. Elbow problems limited him to a career-low 74.2 innings last year, though, which also saw him getting his first taste of bullpen work during the regular season since 2008.
Boston had one of baseball’s most effective starting rotations last year, but have begun Spring Training with a number of question marks behind Chris Sale. Eduardo Rodriguez won’t be ready for Opening Day because he’s recovering from knee surgery, and it’s now looking like knuckleballer Steven Wright also won’t be ready.
Sale and Price must lead the way — with Drew Pomeranz and Rick Porcello following suit — but it’s Price who needs to get himself ready for the season while also staying healthy since he went on the disabled list last spring just days before Opening Day.
Ryan Braun, OF, Milwaukee Brewers
I’m not sure if you heard, but the Brewers made a couple of bold moves that effectively revamped their outfield. That was an area where they potentially already had some depth built in, but adding Lorenzo Cain via free agency and Christian Yelich via trade certainly complicates things from a roster construction standpoint.
With a need for some reinforcements in the rotation, it made sense to hear Domingo Santana‘s name thrown into the trade rumor mill after a career year. But what if no trades are made and they’re carrying all the outfielders they had last year, plus two new additions?
That’s where veteran Ryan Braun comes into play. While he hasn’t played anything other than the outfield since his rookie season in 2007, he’s willing to play wherever the team needs him, which includes both first base and second base. Seeing how he progresses at either position will help Milwaukee gain some clarity on what their lineup could look like on a daily basis.
Shohei Ohtani, SP/DH, Los Angeles Angels
There’s no way this dude wouldn’t be on here, right?
Ohtani’s Spring Training debut on the mound over the weekend was exciting since he flashed a 97 mph fastball and a 69 mph curveball (nice), but it did take him 31 pitches to get through 1.1 innings of work against the Brewers. Still, it’s not a bad start for a 23-year-old playing in his first game since coming over from Japan.
Like most pitchers, it’ll take him a little bit to build up his endurance for the regular season, but while he’s doing that, we get to watch him hit occasionally, too.
Yes, it’s just batting practice and there are probably a handful of pitchers that can put on a show in the cage if they want to, but this is still rather eye-opening. His debut at the plate Monday went pretty well, too — Ohtani walked twice while also collecting an RBI single.
Watching how he prepares himself both at the plate and on the mound throughout the next month will be fascinating to watch.
Manny Machado, SS, Baltimore Orioles
It really looked like the Baltimore Orioles were going to trade young superstar Manny Machado this winter, but a deal to their liking never materialized. The 2018 season is going to be a big one for the 25-year-old for a handful of reasons.
After spending his entire big league career at third base, he’s moving back to shortstop, which is his natural position. He did enjoy his third consecutive 30-homer campaign last year, but a slow first half led to his overall numbers taking a step back (102 wRC+, .328 wOBA, .782 OPS, 2.8 fWAR in 690 plate appearances). So, Machado will look to return to his 2015-16 form (133 wRC+, .368 wOBA, .869 OPS, 13.5 fWAR in 1,409 plate appearances).
If the Orioles fall out of contention before summer rolls around, he’ll have to do this with his name undoubtedly being thrown around in trade rumors. And did we mention he’s due to hit free agency next winter with a chance of seeing his next contract go north of $400 million?
Matt Harvey, SP, New York Mets
Like Machado, Matt Harvey is also slated to hit free agency this winter, but 2018 is a vital piece to that puzzle because the Dark Knight needs to show he’s worth more than a one-year deal. Since returning from Tommy John surgery in 2015 and dominating like he was prior to the procedure — a 2.71 ERA, 3.23 SIERA, and 4.4 fWAR in 189.1 innings — he hasn’t at all been the same.
Having to surgically correct his Thoracic Outlet Syndrome certainly complicated things, but 2017 was by far the worst of his career. Since that 2015 campaign, his strikeout rate rate, walk rate, homers allowed per nine innings rate, ERA, SIERA, and hard-hit rate allowed (just about anything you look at, basically) progressively got worse.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, his 6.70 ERA was the worst single-season mark in franchise history among pitchers to throw at least 90 innings. Manager Mickey Callaway and pitching coach Dave Eiland are confident they can get Harvey to being productive again, but with a number of options for the rotation (along with new acquisition Jason Vargas), an opportunity to start every fifth day is far from guaranteed.
Kyle Schwarber, OF, Chicago Cubs
We hear about guys being in the best shape of their life every spring. It’s a phrase uttered so much that we chuckle each time a player proclaims such a thing. But there’s no other way to describe Kyle Schwarber’s current physical condition. I mean, just look at how this guy has changed!
After struggling through a first half last year in which he posted an 82 wRC+ and .302 wOBA, Schwarber turned it on at the plate following a brief demotion to Triple-A. The left-handed slugger improved those numbers drastically to 129 and .373, respectively, following the All-Star break. And despite the growing pains he experienced, he still hit 30 homers on the year.
This physical transformation is more to do with the outfield now that his days as a catcher appear to be over. He’s aspiring to be a Gold Glover out there, and while it remains to be seen if he’ll ever get his defense to that level, you have to think he’ll at least improve from last season, when he cost the Cubs 9 runs in 821 innings.
A fortunate byproduct could be increased aggression on the bases, which he’s already showcased with a couple stolen bases.
Felix Hernandez, SP, Seattle Mariners
King Felix is only 31 years old, but he’s got a lot of mileage in that right arm of his. He’s thrown 2,502.1 innings since debuting in 2005, and it seems as if that wear and tear is catching up to him. Once able to ramp up his fastball into the mid- and upper-90s, his average velocity over the last two seasons has been 90.5 miles per hour.
A change in his arsenal means he’ll have to make some adjustments, and it just hasn’t happened yet. Check out how certain statistics have progressed since a dominant 2014 season.
The most concerning trend going on here is the consistent decrease in innings pitched. The Mariners used a record number of pitchers in 2017, and general manager Jerry Dipoto didn’t make any significant additions to the rotation this past winter.
James Paxton must lead the way for this staff if Seattle wants a shot at breaking baseball’s longest current postseason drought, but having a healthy and effective Hernandez right behind him is crucial. That was already tested Monday in his spring debut, which led to him leaving early after getting hit with a line drive. Seattle has dodged a bullet for the time being, as x-rays came back negative and he’s listed as day-to-day.
Miguel Sano, Minnesota Twins
When the Twins’ offense went on a second-half power surge (.194 ISO and 111 wRC+ as a team), Miguel Sano wasn’t a huge part of it — he only collected 138 plate appearances while hitting seven homers after the All-Star break. The 24-year-old is getting himself back on the field after November surgery to repair a stress reaction in his left leg, but is a little behind schedule.
It’ll be interesting to not only see how Sano hits, but also how he handles third base after missing a significant chunk of time and spending most of his offseason rehabbing. If he needs more time at designated hitter, that’ll also impact how often Minnesota’s new acquisition in Logan Morrison gets into the lineup.
Sano is also still waiting to hear from the commissioner’s office over a potential punishment based off the league’s domestic abuse policy, so his status for Opening Day could be up in the air on a couple different levels.
Adam Wainwright, SP, St. Louis Cardinals
While he’s been the ace of the Cardinals’ staff for a long time, it’s been a number of years since Adam Wainwright’s performance lived up to the reputation he’s built.
After winning 20 games and posting a 2.38 ERA in 227 innings during the 2014 season, it’s been tough sledding for the veteran hurler. An ankle injury limited him to just 28 innings the following year, and he hasn’t registered an ERA below 4.60 in either of the last two seasons (4.62 in ’16, 5.11 in ’17) before getting arthroscopic surgery on his pitching elbow at the start of this past winter.
St. Louis is trying to get themselves back to the playoffs in 2018 and will need their long-time right-hander to at least be a sturdy and consistent presence in the rotation behind Carlos Martinez. It certainly won’t hurt to get his signature curveball back to its old levels of effectiveness — opposing hitters have mustered just a 37 wRC+ against that pitch during Wainwright’s career, but that number jumped up to 86 in 2016 before settling in at 111 last year.
Command and effectiveness of his fastball is imperative to how his curveball ultimately performs, so Waino has his work cut out for him this spring as he prepares for the regular season.
Gregory Polanco, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates
After taking a rather significant step forward in 2016 by setting new career-highs in homers (22), ISO (.205), OPS (.786), and wRC+ (102) in his age-24 season, Polanco took a troubling step back in 2017. He only hit 11 homers in 411 plate appearances, but his walk rate (6.6%) and wRC+ (81) both sunk to single-season career lows.
Possibly the most concerning trend of all is that his quality of contact took a huge dive. His 22.8% soft-hit rate was a new career-worst mark, while his 25.9% hard-hit rate was his worst since a 24.3% mark through 89 games as a rookie in 2014. The frequency of his hard contact dropped nearly 10 percentage points from the year prior.
While 2018 may be a bit of a reloading year more than anything else for Pittsburgh, how Polanco bounces back from a poor campaign will be crucial when looking towards the future.
About Matt Musico
Matt Musico currently manages Chin Music Baseball and contributes to The Sports Daily. His past work has been featured at numberFire, Yahoo! Sports and Bleacher Report. He’s also written a book about how to become a sports blogger. You can sign up for his email newsletter here.