When spring training kicked off a year ago, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado remained unsigned. The drama this year will center around the Houston Astros: their cheating scandal, reactions from other players about the Astros' cheating scandal, the possibility of other teams throwing at Astros hitters in spring training, the counter-reaction from Astros pitchers and the reaction to the counter-reaction. Fun times!
Oh, and Gerrit Cole is with the Yankees, Anthony Rendon is with the Angels and Mookie Betts is (we think) headed to the Dodgers. For now, Francisco Lindor is still with the Indians, Nolan Arenado with the Rockies and Kris Bryant with the Cubs. We'll see if those three stars exit camp with those teams.
As pitchers and catchers report, let's look at one major spring training story or player to watch for each team, along with the level of enthusiasm (graded 0-5) for the club entering the season.
National League East
Atlanta Braves: What happens at third base? The Braves signed Cole Hamels, Marcell Ozuna and Travis d'Arnaud as free agents, but wouldn't dig deep to bring back Josh Donaldson. Austin Riley and Johan Camargo will compete for the job at third. Riley hit .324 with nine home runs in his first 18 games as a rookie, but pitchers exposed his aggressive approach after that and he hit .192 with nine home runs over his final 203 at-bats. Camargo played well in 2018 with 3.7 WAR, but he struggled in a bench role last season (minus-0.7 WAR). There could be a platoon here with the right-handed Riley and switch-hitting Camargo.
Level of excitement: 5. Coming off two straight division titles and a 97-win season, the Braves feel like this is their best team since Greg Maddux was in the rotation and John Smoltz was closing in 2003. With Ronald Acuna Jr., Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies, the fans have a compelling core to root for. Now the Braves just need to snap a string of eight straight losses in the division series.
Miami Marlins: Jorge Alfaro, Isan Diaz and Lewis Brinson. The Marlins brought in some veterans -- Jonathan Villar, Corey Dickerson, Jesus Aguilar -- to help provide support to what was a historically awful offense. The key for the future, however, is the development of the younger hitters. These three all struggled mightily with controlling the strike zone a year ago -- Diaz and Brinson both hit .173 -- and spring training will give some early insight into whether they're showing any improvement.
Level of excitement: 1. Things should get a lot more interesting in 2021, when top prospects such as Sixto Sanchez, JJ Bleday, Jesus Sanchez and Jazz Chisholm should reach the majors.
New York Mets: Edwin Diaz, Dellin Betances and Jeurys Familia. Yes, all eyes will be on new manager Luis Rojas, who moved up from quality control coach to manager after previous new skipper Carlos Beltran was let go in the wake of the Astros scandal. More interesting, however, will be the early signs on what the Mets hope will be one of the best bullpens in the majors -- after having one of the worst in 2019. In 2018, Diaz, Betances and Familia combined to pitch 212 innings with 322 strikeouts and a 2.58 ERA. The Mets traded for Diaz and signed Familia, and both were terrible last season. Betances threw just two-thirds of an inning for the Yankees last year and has to come back from a partial tear of his left Achilles tendon, after missing time earlier in 2019 with shoulder and lat injuries. If those three regain their form alongside Seth Lugo, watch out.
Level of excitement: 4. Mets fans, as always, are an emotional blend of relentless pessimism and rabid enthusiasm. This is a fun team, with a powerful lineup led by Pete Alonso and super-ace Jacob deGrom to head the rotation.
Philadelphia Phillies: Joe Girardi. The Phillies signed Zack Wheeler and Didi Gregorius, but the most intriguing move was bringing in Girardi to replace Gabe Kapler as manager. The criticism of Girardi in his final year or two with the Yankees was that he had tuned out and wasn't completely engaged with his players. We'll see if two years away from managing will change that and if he can help figure out -- along with new pitching coach Bryan Price -- how to get a Phillies team that many believe underachieved last year into the 2020 pennant race.
Level of excitement: 3. Phillies attendance increased from 2.16 million in 2018 to 2.73 million in 2019 after the additions of Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto and Andrew McCutchen. The only way to get a similar increase in 2020 is to win a lot more than 81 games.
Washington Nationals: How does the infield sort itself out? The key player to watch is rookie Carter Kieboom, MLB.com's No. 21 prospect after hitting .303/.409/.493 at Triple-A. A shortstop in the minors, he struggled at the plate and in the field during his brief MLB stint in 2019, but will get the chance to start at third base or second. Otherwise, it will be a revolving door of veterans: Asdrubal Cabrera, Starlin Castro and Howie Kendrick in the mix at second and third, and Kendrick, Eric Thames and Ryan Zimmerman at first. You can't replace Rendon, but it's the most depth the Nationals have ever had.
Level of excitement: 5. The champs bring back Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Anibal Sanchez as they try to defend their title and dethrone the Braves in the division. Oh, and what will Juan Soto do at age 21?
Chicago Cubs: Will Kris Bryant be traded? Bryant lost his grievance on service time, so the Cubs now control his rights for two more seasons instead of one. That obviously increases his trade value, but it may also mean the Cubs end up keeping him for 2020. While the Cubs are coming off a disappointing season with 84 wins, remember that they were just two games out of first place until that nine-game losing streak in late September. They underperformed their Pythagorean record by seven wins -- a 19-27 record in one-run games and 4-9 record in extra-inning games didn't help. There's talent here, but trading Bryant would be a loud signal that the Cubs have other interests than trying to win in 2020.
Level of excitement: 3. Trading Bryant will create an even bigger groan of disgust from Cubs fans, who after four straight great seasons (2015 to 2018) now expect greatness every season.
Cincinnati Reds: Who plays center field? It has been a big offseason for the Reds, but the most interesting thing to watch in spring training will be the battle for center field between Nick Senzel and Shogo Akiyama. Senzel moved from the infield to center as a rookie and hit .256/.315/.427, below expectations, and was average -- at best -- in center. He also ended the season on the injured list after a partial tear in his labrum that required surgery. Akiyama, meanwhile, played center field in Japan, but he'll be 32 in April, old for a center fielder, and some scouts are skeptical he has the range to still play there. Reds president of baseball operations Dick Williams said Senzel is not a temporary option at third base (Eugenio Suarez will miss the start of the season) or shortstop, so he'll have to prove himself in center.
Level of excitement: 5. Coming off six straight losing seasons, the Reds have made the push for 2020, adding Akiyama, Nick Castellanos, Mike Moustakas, Wade Miley and Pedro Strop (plus a full season of Trevor Bauer). The most moves do not guarantee success, but the NL Central looks winnable.
Milwaukee Brewers: How does the starting rotation unfold? You don't see this too often: The Brewers made the playoffs and then traded away the two pitchers who started the most games for them (Zach Davies and Chase Anderson). The one rotation lock is Brandon Woodruff, who had a breakout season interrupted by an oblique injury in August. Two to watch closely are Josh Lindblom and Corbin Burnes. Lindblom last pitched in the majors in 2017, but he remade himself as a starter in Korea the past three seasons. Burnes was a top prospect as a starter after a big year in the minors in 2017 and pitched well in relief in 2018, but had a disastrous 2019 with an 8.82 ERA in 49 innings (although he did manage to strike out 70 batters).
Level of excitement: 4. Replacing Yasmani Grandal and Mike Moustakas won't be easy, but the Brewers have made a lot of secondary-type moves. Oh, and having Christian Yelich to anchor the lineup means a third straight postseason trip is possible.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Who are Trevor Williams and Mitch Keller? Well, we know who they are, but the question is how good are they? Williams won 14 games in 2018 with a 3.11 ERA, including an amazing run in which he had a 1.29 ERA over his final 13 starts. He couldn't replicate that success in 2019 (5.38 ERA). Keller was a hotshot prospect who got blitzed in his first MLB test, with a 7.13 ERA and 72 hits allowed in 48 innings over 11 starts.
Level of excitement: 0. No fan base is more disillusioned with its ownership than Pirates fans. Attendance has plummeted by a million since 2015. I doubt it will increase in 2020.
St. Louis Cardinals: Carlos Martinez. Two issues regarding Martinez. He underwent a platelet-rich plasma injection on his right shoulder after the season, considered a minor procedure, and he should be ready for a normal spring training. Still, keep an eye on his health. The other issue is whether the Cardinals will return him to the rotation. He was very good in that role from 2015 to 2017 with 42 wins and a 3.24 ERA before splitting duties in 2018 and making all 48 appearances in relief in 2019. The Cardinals did sign Korean lefty Kwang-Hyun Kim to compete for the rotation, but Martinez arguably has the most upside of any starter besides Jack Flaherty.
Level of excitement: 4. Cardinals fans aren't happy about the club failing to bring in a big hitter to help what was a mediocre offense in 2019; Arenado certainly felt like a potential fit. Still, they're coming off a division title and will draw 3 million fans for the 17th consecutive season.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Madison Bumgarner in black, teal and Sedona red. It will look weird seeing Bumgarner in a different uniform, but there are also legitimate concerns about how good he'll be away from the pitcher-friendly confines of San Francisco. We won't learn anything about that in March, and the Cactus League is notoriously hitter-friendly anyway. We'll also start to see what kind of positive influence he may have on guys such as Robbie Ray and Zac Gallen, who give the Arizona rotation a lot of upside.
Level of excitement: 4. The only thing holding this down is the Dodgers seem virtually unbeatable in the NL West, but this is an exciting team with rotation depth, good defense and a breakout star last year in Ketel Marte.
Colorado Rockies: Will Nolan Arenado be traded? This seems much less likely now than it did a few weeks ago, but when Arenado shows up and meets the media for the first time, he'll be asked: Do you want to stay in Colorado? He'll almost certainly say "yes," and that he's fully committed to helping the Rockies win in 2020 ... but what if he says no?
Level of excitement: 3. Rockies ownership is talking like 2019 was just a fluky bad season after the success of 2017 and 2018. The fans aren't as optimistic.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Julio Urias. Yes, Mookie Mania will be of immense interest, but that will play out more in the regular season. For spring training and beyond, I'm curious to see if the Dodgers finally take their foot off the brake on Urias. He threw 79 innings in 2019, mostly in relief, but minus Hyun-Jin Ryu, Kenta Maeda and Rich Hill, the Dodgers are down 68 starts. They will presumably lean on David Price to help fill that gap, but Urias should be slated for 25 starts or so.
Level of excitement. 5. Let the good times roll once again. At least until October puts the fear in every Dodgers fan.
San Diego Padres: The young pitchers. How does Chris Paddack look after his impressive rookie season? How about Dinelson Lamet, now even further removed from Tommy John surgery? Will MacKenzie Gore show he's ready -- similar to Paddack a year ago -- to make the leap from Double-A to the majors, if not at the beginning of the season, perhaps soon enough? Or Luis Patino, another top pitching prospect with premium stuff? Or young lefty Adrian Morejon? And flame-throwing reliever Andres Munoz? Can I just spend spring training at Padres camp?
Level of excitement: 4. This was a 5 a year ago with the signing of Manny Machado and the pending arrival of Fernando Tatis Jr., but I get the feeling that enthusiasm has cooled a little after the disappointing 70-win season and failure to add a big name after all the rumors that included Betts.
San Francisco Giants: The comeback attempts in the rotation. Let's see, you have Johnny Cueto, who did return last September. Kevin Gausman will try to bounce back from a 5.72 ERA in 2019. Tyler Anderson made 32 starts for the Rockies in 2018, but just five last year after knee surgery (he's not expected to be 100% in spring training). Tyson Ross is a non-roster invitee.
Level of excitement: 2. Attendance dropped under 3 million for the first time since 2009. It's still an old team, with the best prospects at least or a year or two away.
American League East
Baltimore Orioles: Adley Rutschman. The No. 1 overall pick is a non-roster invitee, and while he might not get a lot of time in big league camp before being reassigned, it will be the first extended look at the player the Orioles hope becomes the face of their franchise. His stats at Oregon State were ridiculous: .411/.575/.751, with 17 home runs in 185 at-bats, 76 walks and 38 strikeouts. He's already polished behind the plate and will be on the fast track to the majors.
Level of excitement: 0. The Orioles lost 108 games, traded their best position player (Jonathan Villar) and their second-best pitcher (Dylan Bundy). So, umm, yeah.
Boston Red Sox: Chris Sale and Nathan Eovaldi. While the Betts/Price trade finally was completed, we're still waiting for a manager to be named. And we're still waiting for the penalties from the investigation into Boston's sign-stealing scandal to be revealed. Once the dust settles, however, the biggest story of the spring will be the health of Sale and Eovaldi. Sale made his final start on Aug. 13. Eovaldi did return to start the down the stretch, but had a 6.21 ERA over those eight starts.
Level of excitement: 3. Red Sox fans are not happy about Betts' departure and the apparent punt on 2020 to save money. The team isn't without hope, however. The lineup should still score plenty of runs, and the fans will still show up.
New York Yankees: Guys returning from injuries. The news that James Paxton is out several months after spinal surgery to remove a cyst is a reminder of the long list of Yankees coming back from injuries: Miguel Andujar (shoulder), Giancarlo Stanton (knee), Luis Severino (shoulder, lat), Luke Voit (abdominal), Mike Tauchman (calf), Aaron Hicks (Tommy John surgery), Jordan Montgomery (Tommy John surgery). Stanton, Severino and Montgomery did return late in the season, but will be closely monitored. Hicks will still be rehabbing and will join Paxton on the IL to begin the season. Andujar is the key guy to watch, as he undoubtedly will get a lot of action at first base.
Level of excitement: 5. Of course, the biggest spotlight -- even in spring training -- will be on Gerrit Cole. World Series or bust, Gerrit. Good luck.
Tampa Bay Rays: Wander Franco. There is SO much that is interesting about the Rays. Where will everyone play? Is Brendan McKay ready to make the leap and give the Rays another front-line starter? Do they have anybody in the bullpen who doesn't throw 97? But we're talking spring training, and if there's one thing you want to watch in spring training, it's the game's No. 1 prospect. The Rays have not announced Franco as a non-roster invitee, but you have to think he'll get called up from minor league camp for some Grapefruit League action. Franco finished last year in high-A and while the Rays traditionally advance their players slowly, Franco may force his way into the big leagues later in the season.
Level of excitement: 4. It should be a 5, but I'm not sure Rays fans know how to get that excited (beyond the die-hards). They won 96 games last year and their attendance was lower than it was in 2017.
Toronto Blue Jays: Sophomore sensations. What will Year 2 look like for Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio? The interesting part about their rookie seasons is that Bichette (.930 OPS) and Biggio (.793) both outhit Vladdy Junior (.772). We saw Guerrero's raw power on display at the Home Run Derby, but he ranked in just the 46th percentile in hard-hit rate (percentage of balls hit at 95-plus mph). When he does make contact, it's too often on the ground. His defense remains, umm, a work in progress as well.
Level of excitement: 3. They have the exciting young core to watch and added three-fifths of a new rotation in Hyun-Jin Ryu, Tanner Roark and Chase Anderson. There is surprise potential here if hitters besides Biggio can learn a little more patience. Check the spring stats to see how that's going.
Chicago White Sox: Luis Robert and Nick Madrigal. The White Sox signed the multitooled Robert to a six-year deal with two option years, paving the way for him to start the season in the majors after hitting .328 with 32 home runs in the minors. Madrigal, the fourth overall pick in 2018, should be in the majors soon after. Both will see extensive action in the Cactus League.
Level of excitement: 5. With the additions of Robert and Madrigal, plus the free-agent signings of Yasmani Grandal, Edwin Encarnacion, Dallas Keuchel, Gio Gonzalez and Steve Cishek, and the hopeful return of hard-throwing Michael Kopech from Tommy John surgery, enthusiasm is sky high on the South Side for what should be an exciting team.
Cleveland Indians: What happens in the outfield? It seems the Francisco Lindor trade rumors have died down for now after the Dodgers, Reds, Padres and Mets reportedly pursued him over the winter. At the team's recent Tribe Fest, Lindor told reporters, "If they don't think I can stay here because of the money situation, then I won't be here," and later adding, "The front office tries to put a team together to win, not to save money. They're supposed to try to put a team together to win. I'm here to try to win." Now, about the outfield ...
Level of excitement: 3. The Indians have won 94, 102, 91 and 93 games the past four seasons. The Dodgers are the only other team with active streak of four straight 90-win seasons. Still, the Lindor rumors have disillusioned a fan base still upset over last offseason's inactivity.
Detroit Tigers: The minor league pitchers. The Tigers have an even more impressive group than the Royals as Casey Mize and Matt Manning are consensus top-25 overall prospects and Tarik Skubal came out of nowhere to reach Double-A last season -- even outperforming Mize and Manning at that level with 82 strikeouts in 42⅓ innings. All three are in big league camp and could certainly arrive in Detroit at some point in the regular season.
Kansas City Royals: Also the minor league pitchers. The Royals' hope of turning things around in two or three years hinges on the development of the young starters in the minor leagues. Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch and Kris Bubic are all non-roster invitees to spring training. Singer and Kowar reached Double-A last year, while Lynch and Bubic topped out at high-A. All four have impact potential.
Level of excitement: 2. The big league club is still a long way away, and a third straight 100-loss season is certainly possible. The Royals already have lost 15,000 fans per game from their 2015 attendance figures. Rebuilding is not easy.
Minnesota Twins: Rotation battles. With the late addition of Josh Donaldson, the lineup is set, and it's impressive, perhaps even more powerful than last year's group that set the single-season home run record. The spring storyline to watch, however, is the rotation. Jose Berrios, Jake Odorizzi, Kenta Maeda and Homer Bailey are locks, but with Michael Pineda suspended for the first 39 games of the season and Rich Hill out until he comes back from elbow surgery, there are still things to be sorted out, with youngsters such as Randy Dobnak, Lewis Thorpe and Sean Poppen in the mix.
Level of excitement: 5. Last year's division series flameout left a bitter taste after such a fun regular season, so give the Twins credit for adding Donaldson and more depth to the rotation. The Twins have one series victory in the wild-card era, the 2002 ALDS over Oakland. It's time to go deeper into the postseason -- and figure out how to beat the Yankees because they've lost 16 straight playoff games ... 13 of them against New York.
Houston Astros: The fallout. It will be interesting to see how Astros hitters respond to the throng of national media that will descend upon West Palm Beach. Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve didn't exactly apologize when questioned a couple of weeks ago at the team's fan festival. Will that tone strike a different chord now? While AJ Hinch took ownership during his interview on MLB Network for his own failures in stopping the sign-stealing scheme in 2017, will the players do the same? How will they respond to the accusations that they used buzzers in 2019, which Hinch didn't exactly categorically deny? And that's before we even get to the games and how opponents will respond. That first day of spring training is just the beginning of what will be a long season for Houston.
Level of excitement: 4. But not necessarily an unsuccessful one. Even with the loss of Cole, the Astros project as a powerhouse. Indeed, the current projections at FanGraphs forecast the Astros as four wins better than the Yankees. Playing with a chip on their shoulder creates another intriguing motif.
Los Angeles Angels: Shohei Ohtani on the pitcher's mound. It's going to be a fascinating spring for the Angels -- not just the big signing of Rendon, but the other new faces (Jason Castro, Julio Teheran, Dylan Bundy). We'll also get a look at top prospect Jo Adell, although he may start the season in Triple-A given his struggles there in 27 games last season (.264/.321/.355, no home runs and 43 strikeouts in 131 PAs). The Angels plan to bring Ohtani along slowly from Tommy John; he may not join the big league rotation until May. Keep in mind that he has thrown just 77 innings the past three seasons.
Level of excitement: 4. Angels fans wanted Cole. But Rendon is a pretty nice Plan B. Getting 20 starts from Ohtani is a nice wish, but they should consider that a bonus.
Oakland Athletics: Jesus Luzardo, A.J. Puk and Frankie Montas. The A's have a position battle at second base, a rookie catcher in Sean Murphy, and Khris Davis trying to regain his power stroke, but I want to see the three young starting pitchers. Montas is returning from a PED suspension after an All-Star-caliber first half, and Luzardo and Puk are finally ready for their shots in the rotation, which could be one of the best in the majors with the two rookies and full seasons from Montas and Sean Manaea.
Level of excitement: 5. With the cracks potentially showing in the Astros' foundation, the AL West is ripe for the A's to win it. They won 97 games with the four pitchers mentioned above making just 21 starts.
Seattle Mariners: The kids? By that, we really mean outfielders Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez, who have both cracked top-10 overall prospect lists this year -- the first top-10s for the Mariners since (cough) Jesus Montero in 2012. Before that, you have to go all the way back to Felix Hernandez in 2005. Both are non-roster invitees to camp and Kelenic, who ended 2019 in Double-A, has the ability and confidence to reach the majors this year.
Level of excitement: 1. The farm system is fun. The big league roster? Not as fun. Young players such as Evan White, J.P. Crawford, Shed Long, Kyle Lewis and Justus Sheffield will at least get the chance to prove themselves, but it projects as a possible 100-loss season.
Texas Rangers: Corey Kluber. Of all the injury returnees, Kluber is right at the top. The Rangers didn't address their offense in the offseason -- although perhaps a Bryant or Arenado trade can still happen -- so they're counting on Kluber, Mike Minor and Lance Lynn to be one of the best 1-2-3 trios in the majors. Kluber's injuries were a broken forearm and an oblique, so nothing with his elbow or shoulder. He did, however, struggle at the start of 2019, so he'll have to reestablish himself as a staff ace.
Level of excitement: 3. The move to the new park will help ramp up enthusiasm, but on paper the Rangers are still a long way behind the Astros and A's. Adding another star bat would help, but so far the front office has shied away from that additional move.