Major League baseball kicked off their Spring training game schedules this weekend. It might have been snowing and blustery outside my door, but the sights and sounds of professional baseball on television put the smell of freshly manicured grass and the face-warming sensation of the sun back into my world.
Winter has left the kingdom.
There was precious little drama in the MLB off-season to keep fans excited about their favorite pastime. No one had clinched an NFL playoff spot before the New York Yankees pulled off the biggest transaction. Putting Giancarlo Stanton in the lineup next to Aaron Judge assured there will be no talk of the Yankees as anything less than favorites to win the American League East.
Pitchers and catchers were getting tuned and tanned before the Boston Red Sox finally threw their counter-punch, signing JD Martinez. Last year’s speculation that Toronto, Baltimore, or Tampa Bay might finally crack the annual Boston-New York title chase will be entertained by absolutely no one this season.
The American League West is assured of getting large amounts of national television exposure thanks to the Los Angeles Angels’ addition of two-way phenom, Shohei Ohtani. The slugging pitcher-outfielder from Japan is technically a minor-league invitee at this point, but there is little doubt he will make the major league roster.
Ohtani humbly claims he “hopes” to adjust his play enough to make the team; but after knocking his first two batting practice pitches well over the outfield fence and producing the loudest pops in the catchers’ mitts, he is already being touted as the next Babe Ruth.
An Angels’ challenge to the AL West (and World Series Championship) title of the Houston Astros will be difficult after the Astros added Gerrit Cole, arguably the best free agent pitcher on the market, to the most potent roster of 2017.
Despite the seemingly quiet offseason, there are enough changes to warrant checking rosters and paying attention to Spring Training games. The San Francisco Giants responded to last season’s humiliating finish by adding Evan Longoria, Austin Jackson, and Andrew McCutcheon to their lineup.
San Diego added first baseman Eric Hosmer to their young team. That probably won’t be enough to make the Padres a serious contender against the Giants and 2017’s three NL West playoff teams (Dodgers, Rockies, and Diamondbacks), but it does give the National League West the nod as the most powerful division in Major League baseball.
One of last season’s surprise contenders, the Milwaukee Brewers, will trot out Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain in hopes of fixing their outfield production woes. The Chicago Cubs will use new addition Yu Darvish and comeback player candidate, Jon Lester, to quiet their opponents’ bats and retain their mastery of the NL Central.
In the East, the Philadelphia Phillies made the strongest roster moves, but local sports writers concede their best hope is that Philadelphia improves enough this season to draw the interest of 2019’s best free agents, especially Bryce Harper.
Meanwhile, the Mets re-signed their best threat of last season in Jay Bruce, hoping the improved health of new yoga enthusiast, Yoenis Cespedes, will make Bruce their second-biggest threat of 2018. Speaking of health, a return to form by three or four of their starting pitchers will be necessary for the Mets to keep pace with the division-favorite Washington Nationals and the dark-horse wild card contender, Atlanta Braves.
Much more is happening in Major League Baseball. As Spring Training progresses, we’ll see how the six new team managers set their players up for 2018. With multiple free agents still available and several big names rumored to be on the trading block, there are sure to be more players with new addresses soon.
We’ll all follow what’s going on and make our best guesses about how the 2018 season might play out. But right now, I’m just going to enjoy the fresh air of Spring Training for a while.