The past six weeks in baseball have been dominated by two stories: The first is the Mookie Betts trade, an unprecedented transaction that has shifted the balance of power on both coasts and in both leagues, with titanic repercussions not only for two of the most prominent franchises, but for fans’ relationships to those teams in general. The second is the Astros’ sign-stealing fallout, which, in addition to being baseball’s biggest scandal since the PED era, sticks all the more tenaciously to the headlines because of the man-bites-dog quality of the story’s details.
The juiced ball? Gerrit Cole’s record contract? The Washington Nationals’ World Series afterglow? Those story lines might as well have happened in 1983 in the eyes of the modern news cycle. This is a hell of a time to be a baseball fan, and it’s also a hell of a time to be a national baseball writer, particularly one who’s carved out a niche examining the sport outside the strict chalky boundaries of the diamond. The Astros and Betts stories fairly cry out to be connected to larger economic and social trends, with a heaping spoonful of What This Means for Baseball or What This Says About America, and they take place in a climate cranked to boiling by labor unrest and consumer dissatisfaction.
And frankly, I could use a break. Since the commissioner’s report on the Astros came out on January 13, I’ve written one baseball story that wasn’t at least tangentially related to the Betts trade or the banging scheme. I’ve written about Lou Diamond Phillips more recently than the Yankees or Nationals, and with the season set to start in just 29 days, it’s time to take a look elsewhere, if only for a reprieve.
But where to look? Spring training baseball is great if you’re traveling to Arizona or Florida from some snowbound Northern waste, or if you just need to hear the comforting background noise of bats cracking and peanuts being shelled. But it’s mostly useless as a vehicle for casual fans to learn about the upcoming season, as the stats mean nothing and the results mean even less.
So if you’re watching baseball on TV between now and Opening Day, here are five sets of players to watch this March if you want to prepare for the 2020 regular season.
1. The Phillies’ Infielders
Under Gabe Kapler, the Phillies struggled to cobble together a viable infield. Third baseman Maikel Franco struggled to contribute offensively, second baseman César Hernández regressed from his solid production, and youngsters J.P. Crawford and Scott Kingery played out of position and couldn’t quite bed in at the big league level. That improved somewhat in 2019, as Crawford was traded for Jean Segura, and Kingery took a step forward with the bat. But even then, Segura underperformed his career expectations and Kingery cooled off after a hot start.
This season, Philadelphia has a new manager, former Marlins and Yankees skipper Joe Girardi, and a new-look infield to go with him. Hernández and Franco were both nontendered, and the team brought in free agent shortstop Didi Gregorius on a one-year contract. That means Kingery and Segura will play second and third in some combination, and while Kingery has played both positions, Segura has never spent so much as an inning at third base in his 13-year professional career.
The Phillies will also give extended playing time this spring to Alec Bohm, their top position prospect and the no. 3 pick in the 2018 draft. At 6-foot-5, Bohm is about Kingery’s size if Kingery sat on Segura’s shoulders, and his right-handed power is expected to supplement Bryce Harper and Rhys Hoskins in the middle of the order as early as this summer. In this scenario, Bohm would take over at third, leaving Segura at second and moving Kingery to center field. But it’s still not a sure thing that Bohm can play a competent third base at the big league level; also unclear is whether he’d have to move to first base (currently occupied by Hoskins) or left field. That will make his defensive reps at the hot corner as much of a story as Segura’s.
A potential logjam over a new-look infield for a contending team is newsworthy enough, but this group is also leading the league in Best Shape of His Life chatter. Segura not only showed up to camp down some 14 pounds from his 2019 playing weight, but also held forth to reporters on the lifestyle changes he’d made in a monologue that’s a spider away from being the lyrics to Radiohead’s “Fitter, Happier.” Kingery, meanwhile, is so yoked right now he can barely put his hands in his pockets.
And we thought Scott Kingery looked big last year... this guy shows up to camp looking absolutely MASSIVE.— Alex Carr (@AlexCarrMLB) February 11, 2020
I’m expecting big things from him this year. pic.twitter.com/OVuCygXIng
Can Kingery keep his spot in the lineup once Bohm comes up? Who knows? What we do know is that Kingery can bench-press Bohm.
2. A.J. Puk and Jesús Luzardo
Oakland’s top two pitching prospects both debuted late last season out of the bullpen, though if not for injuries both would have been part of Oakland’s rotation far sooner. Puk missed the 2018 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, while Luzardo suffered a rotator cuff strain in early 2019, then a lat strain in July, after a promising 2019 Cactus League that had him looking like a sure bet to be a starter.
While both Puk and Luzardo are hard-throwing, late-blooming lefties drafted out of schools in Florida, they differ quite a bit in terms of skill set and physicality. The 24-year-old Puk matured into a top-10 pick at the University of Florida, but his physical gifts have always been obvious: At 6-foot-7, with a plus fastball, wipeout slider, and penchant for baggy uniforms, it’s not too hard to look at Puk and see the next CC Sabathia. Though when Randy Johnson showed up at A’s camp this spring to talk shop with the red-headed lefty, a different obvious comp came to mind.
At 6 feet and 209 pounds, Luzardo is more compact than Puk, though so is the USS Nimitz, so take that for what it’s worth. Luzardo was a third-round pick of the Washington Nationals in 2016, at which point he had great polish for a high school pitcher but was still a work in progress physically. After the A’s acquired him in the Sean Doolittle trade in 2017, Luzardo has grown into his frame and developed a mid-90s fastball, while continuing to exhibit the same command, intelligence, and guile that made him an enticing prospect when he had still yet to develop.
The A’s have made the postseason two years running because some of the best relief pitching in baseball has covered up for an improvised rotation. That could change if Puk and Luzardo pitch to their potential in 2020; between those two and Sean Manaea, the Athletics have so many exciting lefties they should change their name to the Congressional Progressive Caucus. And what had been the team’s weakest unit could become one of the best rotations in the American League almost overnight.
3. Tampa Bay’s 1,000-Piece Jigsaw Puzzle
Last year’s Tampa Bay Rays didn’t exactly have a set lineup; apart from Willy Adames, who played shortstop no matter the situation, nobody played more than 125 games at a given position. Even everyday starters like Tommy Pham and Austin Meadows moved from spot to spot to suit the situation, while injuries and Tampa Bay’s characteristic roster churn mixed up manager Kevin Cash’s toolbox even further. This year, the Rays’ setup somehow might be even more convoluted.
Pham is gone, off to San Diego in a trade that brought back right fielder Hunter Renfroe, who’s a good defender and hits for power but sported a .289 OBP last year with a massive platoon split—he hit lefties better than righties to the tune of more than 170 points of OPS. The Rays also added former Cardinals slugger José Martínez, another right-handed corner guy who hits for even more power, has an even more severe platoon split, and plays zero defense. Those two will fit somehow with Meadows, incumbent first basemen Nate Lowe and Ji-Man Choi, and fellow newcomer Yoshitomo Tsutsugo—all four of whom are left-handed hitters. The Rays also look set to platoon in center field, where they’ve added a righty who can’t hit (Manuel Margot) to go along with their lefty who can’t hit (Kevin Kiermaier).
This puzzle would be simpler if the Rays’ roster were expanded to 32 players and not 26, but perhaps the next month will provide some insights into how, exactly, Cash aims to set up his lineup.
4. Nick Solak
The Rangers picked up Solak, a 2016 second-round pick out of Louisville, in a midseason trade last year for reliever Peter Fairbanks. In a 33-game MLB cameo, Solak impressed, hitting .293/.393/.491. Solak was an infielder in college, and made half his starts last year at DH, but the Rangers simply don’t have a spot for him in the lineup at any defensive position he’s conceivably capable of playing. The Rangers’ logjam is so bad that Solak can’t even move to a corner outfield spot because both of those positions are already occupied by converted infielders—Joey Gallo and Willie Calhoun.
So the Rangers, God bless them, are going to try Solak in center field. What a reversal this is from the days of Leonys Martin and Craig Gentry, who were ace defenders but could not hit at all. If Solak continues to hit and can play even marginal defense, it would be a coup for Texas. If not, well, full credit to the Rangers for thinking outside the box.
5. The Three-Way Race for the No. 1 Pick
Spring training is usually pretty low-intensity; fortunately it’s not the only game in town this month. Most major-conference college baseball games are being streamed on fairly accessible platforms. The 2020 draft is heavy on college talent, and Austin Martin, Emerson Hancock, and Spencer Torkelson are the cream of that particular crop.
Hancock is a University of Georgia right-handed pitcher who’s spent the past two years tickling 98 miles per hour with his fastball and showing two plus off-speed pitches. Torkelson, a first baseman at Arizona State, broke his school’s freshman home run record in 2018, which would be notable even if that record hadn’t been set by Barry Bonds. Since then, he’s attracted accolades from sources as far-ranging as Ringer staff writer Ben Lindbergh, who ordinarily refuses to even watch college baseball, and basketball Hall of Famer Bill Walton, who took batting practice with Torkelson on a recent trip to Tempe:
Tork & Bill's Excellent Adventure pic.twitter.com/4hmNlwdxuT— Sun Devil Baseball (@ASU_Baseball) January 17, 2020
Both of those players could end up losing out on the no. 1 draft spot to Martin, a Vanderbilt shortstop who lacks Torkelson’s power but provides exponentially more defensive value and athleticism. Any Vanderbilt shortstop with no. 1 overall potential will draw obvious comparisons to Dansby Swanson, and FanGraphs lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen compared Martin favorably to the 2015 no. 1 pick at this point in their careers. Going out of your way to watch Martin carries an added bonus: His teammate Kumar Rocker, who threw a 19-strikeout no-hitter in last year’s NCAA tournament, is the current favorite to go first overall in 2021, so make sure to tune in when Rocker’s pitching.