MLB spring training 2024: Teams, stars we can't wait to see

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

After a busy baseball winter, spring is in the air again.

The Los Angeles Dodgers spent $1.2 billion this offseason, landing the top two free agents in Shohei Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto. The New York Yankees, after missing the playoffs last year, swung a deal for slugger Juan Soto. Fresh off winning an American League-best 101 games, the upstart Baltimore Orioles dealt for an ace in Corbin Burnes.

With pitchers and catchers reporting, we'll soon see how those moves -- and many others -- translate to the diamond. We've asked ESPN MLB experts to tee up spring training with the stars and storylines they're most excited about ahead of the 2024 season.

What is the one thing you are most excited about as spring training begins?

Buster Olney: The summerlong pressure that will build on a handful of teams facing must-win seasons. If the Dodgers don't win the World Series, their season will be regarded as a failure. The Atlanta Braves are right in the middle of their championship window, just before Max Fried and Charlie Morton depart as free agents. The Philadelphia Phillies should've won the World Series last fall, and that failure will drive them. The Yankees' organization needs to take a big step forward in the postseason. This figures to be the last season of Alex Bregman with the Houston Astros. The Texas Rangers have to hang on until Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer return in midseason -- and we'll wonder then about what deGrom and Scherzer will bear this late in their respective careers, as Texas tries to go back-to-back. Every year, there are teams that hope to win the World Series, but this season, there are a lot of teams that need to win the title.

Jeff Passan: The season-long fight for supremacy in the National League between the Braves and Dodgers. With all due respect to the reigning NL champion Arizona Diamondbacks and their predecessor in the World Series, the Phillies, the Braves and Dodgers are the two most talented teams in baseball, replete with stars and hungry for another championship. Logging the most regular-season wins would secure home-field advantage, and while MLB's postseason is too unpredictable to suggest the Braves and Dodgers will remain in the field by the time the NL Championship Series rolls around, every little advantage counts. These are two superteams, and the two times they meet during the regular season -- three games May 3-5 at Dodger Stadium, four games Sept. 13-16 at Truist Park -- could be precursors for an October series to remember.

Alden Gonzalez: Not so much excited, but I'm intrigued to see how the frenzy that surrounds Shohei Ohtani -- and, to a slightly lesser extent, Yoshinobu Yamamoto -- continues to play out. A dozen or so photographers and camera operators have been hanging out every morning, shortly after sunrise, outside the Dodgers' facility, waiting to catch a glimpse of Ohtani rolling into the players' parking lot. Roughly 70 media members attended his first interview session on Friday. Later that day, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts was asked who on his team could serve as a spokesperson for Japanese media and -- half-jokingly, I presume -- nominated Jason Heyward. The next morning, Heyward held court twice in front of his locker, with more than 10 reporters circling around him each time. Heyward took it in stride, but also noted: "Shohei's the guy to talk about Shohei." The Dodgers have handled all this attention well, but it's early.

Jesse Rogers: Excited might be the wrong word, but I'm wholly invested in how many rabbits agent Scott Boras can pull out of his baseball cap. He has four key free agents. Can he find four teams to match his asking price at this late date? Three? Don't discount the possibility of it all working out for him and his clients, but that would be quite the Houdini act. Let's not forget, Cody Bellinger, Blake Snell, Jordan Montgomery and Matt Chapman are all going to be richer whenever and wherever they sign, but a shorter term deal with opt-outs -- meaning they have to prove themselves to would-be suitors again -- is a consolation prize.

David Schoenfield: We had a great rookie class in 2022 (Julio Rodriguez, Adley Rutschman, Michael Harris II, Spencer Strider, Bobby Witt Jr., Jeremy Pena, Steven Kwan, George Kirby, Oneil Cruz) and another in 2023 (Corbin Carroll, Gunnar Henderson, Triston Casas, Josh Jung, Tanner Bibee, Elly De La Cruz, Eury Perez) and we might have another one in 2024. I want to see how Jackson Holliday, Jackson Chourio, Jackson Jobe and Jackson Merrill look in spring training and especially whether Holliday and Chourio will make the Opening Day rosters for the Orioles and Brewers. And that's just the Jacksons! We have Wyatt Langford, Evan Carter (who we've already seen playing a big role in the Rangers' title run), Junior Caminero, Paul Skenes and Colson Montgomery, among others, to watch. This rookie class might be even better and deeper than the previous two.

Bradford Doolittle: This is going to sound overly sentimental, but here goes: I can't say I'm excited in a way that is unique to the current moment in the sport. I just generally get really amped up with anticipation for the new season during the couple of weeks before spring training begins. Everything is a blank slate right now, and knowing all the checkpoints that lay ahead in the yearly baseball cycle -- those first spring games, Opening Day, the playoff races, emergent players, a new Hall of Fame class, the World Series -- it's all embedded in my life rhythm. Sorting out this new puzzle -- MLB 2024 -- is what it's all about. It would be nice, though, if there wasn't still so much important offseason business yet to be completed, and, sure, there are specific narrative threads I'll be following based on trends and offseason moves. But it's the emergent narratives that we don't yet know about that I enjoy most.

Other than Shohei Ohtani, which player who changed teams are you most interested in seeing in his new uniform?

Olney: Yoshinobu Yamamoto is going to be a fascinating watch following the hyperfocus on him through the winter, his record-setting contract, and whether or not all that squares with how he performs. A number of talent evaluators believe that while he's being paid like a No. 1 starter, he's really more of a middle-of-the-rotation type who got big money because he reached free agency at such a young age. Will he be an ace? Will he turn out to be elite? Will that great competitive arrogance he demonstrated in the past help him to adapt in his first year in the big leagues? Will the production match the expectation? Yamamoto will either temporarily obliterate the bias against smaller pitchers, like Pedro Martinez did, or reinforce that bias if he struggles.

Passan: Perhaps because Juan Soto is set to hit free agency after the season, or because the Yankees are coming off a mediocre 2023 season, the marriage between one of this generation's best hitters and MLB's winningest franchise has flown under the radar this winter. Everything is lining up for a whale of a season, though, and the prospect of Soto and Aaron Judge hitting back-to-back is incredibly tantalizing. Soto loves the spotlight. He relishes the short porch in right field. And coming off a season in which he played all 162 games and hit a career-high 35 home runs, he's smack in the prime of his career: 25 years old, healthy and ready to show why the Yankees giving up a five-player package in a trade with the San Diego Padres for just one year of club control will ultimately be worth it.

Gonzalez: You could make the case that no player changed the dynamic of his new division more than Corbin Burnes (sorry, Juan Soto). The Orioles possess the best young nucleus in the sport. They won 101 games last season while many of those players were still in the developmental stages of their careers. They should keep ascending. But they needed a big move to fortify the top of their rotation. Burnes certainly provides that. He has fallen short of his Cy Young form of 2021 these past couple of years, but he was still really good for the Milwaukee Brewers last year, with a National League-best 1.07 WHIP in 193 innings. He's entering his walk year now, and he'll join Kyle Bradish (already really good) and Grayson Rodriguez (should be better in Year 2). The Orioles are ready to go.

Rogers: I'm with Jeff, but not because this is Soto's free agent season. There were three possible players available this winter who could have transformed the Yankees' offense, and they got one of them. The other two were Ohtani and Bellinger. Brian Cashman has been on a multiyear mission to balance his lineup, with sobering results. Joey Gallo didn't do it. Brett Gardner didn't either. Matt Carpenter ultimately couldn't. The list of lefties goes on and on. Anthony Rizzo helped, but they needed more from the left side of the plate and they got one of the best. It's all or nothing for the Yankees on offense, and with Soto, the Yankees might just be back on top -- assuming they stay healthy.

Schoenfield: Well, Yoshinobu Yamamoto switched teams, from the Orix Buffaloes to the Dodgers, so I'm going with him. His stats from Japan look like something out of the dead ball era: ERAs of 1.39, 1.68 and 1.16 over the past three seasons. With his command and three-plus pitches (mid-90s fastball, splitter and curveball), the Dodgers signed him to a 12-year, $325 million contract, clearly believing he can be a No. 1 starter. He'll face a lot more power hitters than he did in Japan, where the overall levels of offense are much lower than in MLB, so we'll have to see how he adapts to that new environment.

Doolittle: Maybe it's just a contrarian reaction to the predominant style of baseball that's being played in the majors these days, but I've increasingly become enamored of throwback, high-average hitters who control the bat and give strikeout pitchers fits. Thus, Luis Arraez has become one of my favorite active players. Along those lines, I am really looking forward to seeing if Jung Hoo Lee can become that kind of hitter on top of theSan Francisco Giants' daily lineup, possibly with even a little more pop. Over the past two years for the Kiwoom Heroes, he walked 115 times and struck out just 55 times. He hit .340 over seven KBO seasons beginning when he was 18. Not saying that will translate all the way to MLB, but it will be great to see him try.

Which team are you far more interested in today than you were a year ago at this time?

Olney: The Boston Red Sox. A year ago they were drifting on the fringes of contention, but now Boston is a franchise facing a serious transition and serious problems. Forget the polite "adviser" title -- Theo Epstein is going to be the most influential voice in baseball operations, and manager Alex Cora is entering the last year of his contract at a time when the team seems to be facing major money issues. We have grown accustomed to the Red Sox being a financial superpower and a championship contender, but they seem to be as far removed from that kind of stature as they have been in almost a quarter century -- especially while inhabiting the rugged AL East, which has been made even more formidable by the ascension of the Orioles. It'll be interesting to see the first steps of Epstein and chief baseball officer Craig Breslow as they work to restore the Red Sox.

Passan: It might be a year early for the Detroit Tigers to win the American League Central. But if there's any division for an ascendant team to inhabit, the Central is it. The reigning champion Minnesota Twins have signed three free agents this winter (Carlos Santana, Jay Jackson, Josh Staumont) and lost Sonny Gray, who finished second in the AL Cy Young voting. The Cleveland Guardians have done even less. The Kansas City Royals bulked up with a cache of free agents but are coming off a 106-loss season. The Chicago White Sox are rebuilding. Which leaves a relatively clear path for a Detroit team that has a host of young talent already in the big leagues -- led by left-hander Tarik Skubal and outfielder Riley Greene -- with more to come. Colt Keith should start at second base after signing a pre-debut extension. And keep an eye on Jackson Jobe. The 2021 third overall pick will move fast, and him showing up at Comerica Park in 2024 should surprise no one.

Gonzalez: The D-backs, by a lot. I didn't see them as a contending team at this time last year, and they made it all the way to the World Series. But it's how they've since doubled down that has me so intrigued. The D-backs could have taken a back seat in the wake of the Dodgers' staggering offseason. They could have -- like a lot of teams -- used the RSN uncertainty as an excuse not to spend. Instead, they lavished $80 million on Eduardo Rodriguez, a perfect fit for the middle of their rotation, and spent another $50 million-plus to add Joc Pederson and bring back Lourdes Gurriel Jr. They're not better than the Dodgers, but they're a top five team in the National League.

Rogers: The Cincinnati Reds. We could ultimately look back and wonder why we didn't see this explosion coming, as they showed enough signs last year. I'm not convinced it's all going to come together, but of all those second- or third-tier teams out there, I think Cincinnati has the best chance to make a serious leap in a winnable division. It's probably going to come down to that young staff, but when it comes to stuff, Hunter Greene, Nick Lodolo, Graham Ashcraft and Brandon Williamson have it. Now they need to harness it better. The combination of talent on the mound and in the field make the Reds contenders in the NL Central -- and my favorite to win the division.

Schoenfield: The Orioles. A year ago, they were coming off an 83-79 season and looked like a .500 team -- interesting, for sure, but not necessarily compelling. Now they're coming off a 101-win season, are adding Holliday and Burnes to the mix and have a slew of other interesting young players and rookies such asJordan Westburg, Heston Kjerstad and Coby Mayo who could impact the lineup. I can see Grayson Rodriguez turning into an All-Star in his sophomore season, and they have a young catcher in Samuel Basallo who might be a top-three prospect by the end of the season. The glory days are back in Baltimore and I suspect I might be watching them more than any other team in 2024.

Doolittle: The Royals. No, really. Last year I was actually pretty ticked off at them because it just didn't seem like they were doing anything very well as an organization. And I'm not sure that's changed. For one thing, I don't think I've seen a Top 100 prospect list this year that has even one Royal listed on it. How is that possible for a team coming off 106 losses at the big league level? Yet the Royals spent the winter actually trying. They signed players people have heard of. They gave Bobby Witt Jr. an epic-length extension. They are being proactive about making a new ballpark development a reality. None of their acquisitions are game-changers, but as a group, players like Adam Frazier,Hunter Renfroe,Will Smith and Michael Wacha raise the floor of the roster. They'll need all of their young players to level up a tier or two. This includes Witt, who has MVP potential. But if the Royals can hover near .500 -- a very big if -- in the AL Central, that's probably soft contention, and then you can add from there. It's a tiny sliver of hope, but it's more than what seemed possible when last season ended.

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