At some point during Spring Training, fans will be treated to a unique sight: seeing established baseball players—many of whom make millions on millions– actually collect their equipment and walk off the field in the middle of a game. Although this gives baseball’s most important and expensive assets a chance to get electrolytes, work out, and scroll social media, it certainly doesn’t dispel the notion that Spring Training is boring and unnecessary. As with anything boring or unnecessary, spring training brings out boring and unnecessary stories by beat writers looking for any angle they can find. “Yoenis Cespedes not wearing a watch today”; “Buster Posey’s five o’clock shadow appears at 4:21 PM”; “Padres players and staff offer positive 2017 outlook on the record”.
That’s what happens when a sport has as grueling a schedule as Major League Baseball does: with 162 games in about 180 days, it’s no surprise that, in the olden days, players (who looked more like regular people than athletes) would often leave their gloves with the equipment manager in the offseason, and actually indulge over the winter months. Now, however, there are GDP-of-developing-nations levels of money at stake, and so baseball players—who now look more like Carl Lewis than Carl Sagan—began arriving in the best shape of their lives so they could make a team, or inspire a contract extension.
However, Spring Training might be the best fan experience of the year, with its promise of good weather, affordable tickets, and far more opportunities to see and possibly touch players, if you’re into that sort of thing. Even if you’re watching at home, there are a handful of legitimate storylines involving Latino players this Spring, from up-and-comer peloteros trying to make teams to stars moving to new clubs. We’re proud to report that none of these stories revolve around Pablo Sandoval, who battled a torn labrum last season while everyone in Boston was fat-shaming him (mind you, he won a World Series MVP with a larger-than-average waistline). With that in mind, here are six stories you should be keeping an eye this spring.
The Swaggiest Team in MLB Lost Its Best Home Run Celebrator
The most bombastic team in baseball lost their best offensive performer to free agency this winter, as former Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Edwin Encarnacion took his talents to Cleveland. His production will not just be missed on the field, where he hit 42 homers and knocked in a career high 127 runs, but in the clubhouse as well. Encarnacion brought a certain “yo no se que” to the team, an invaluable counterpoint to what can occasionally be a normy, Under-Armor-football-ad kind of swag in Toronto.
Just take a look at his home run celebrations (you have plenty of chances to do so): Encarnacion likes to “take the parrot on a walk” when he hits dingers, and that’s as ridiculous as it sounds. He receives the imaginary parrot from the first base coach when he rounds first, and runs with his right arm flexed at a 45 degree angle as he rounds the bases.
In the absence of their wannabe pirate, Toronto signed Kendrys Morales to a three-year deal, and the team also resigned Jose Bautista to a one-year deal that should motivate him to put up huge numbers ahead of his (deferred) free agency.
Yoan Moncada Has The Weight of Expectations on His Shoulders
After trading away their ace Chris Sale, the most exciting part of the Chicago White Sox should be watching the development of perhaps the best prospect in baseball, new switch-hitting shortstop Yoan Moncada. The White Sox may slow-play Moncada, who they received from the Red Sox in the Sale blockbuster, in the Minor Leagues, regardless of whether or not he performs well in Spring Training. After all, the recent Kris Bryant grievance taught us anything can happen to a mega-prospect who has a monster spring.
If the White Sox will are to compete any time soon, though, Moncada will have to factor heavily in their plans, and he’ll have to perform better than he did for his old team. Like Xander Bogaerts in 2013, the Red Sox gave Moncada the chance to play third base during their postseason push last year. Where Bogaerts performed brilliantly and helped the Red Sox to a championship in 2013, Moncada struggled playing out of position and didn’t make the postseason roster.
Is There Room in Atlanta for Ozzie Albies, the 5'9" Next Big Thing?
At 5 foot 9 inches, Atlanta Braves second base prospect Ozzie Albies might be Jose Altuve (5’6″) all over again. Albies dominated both AA and AAA in style last season, but he could run into the same issues as Moncada in trying to make the Opening Day roster of a bad team at such a young age. Like the White Sox, the Braves also have a better chance of losing 90 games than they do winning 90.
However, unlike Chicago’s South Side squad, the Braves are opening a new stadium this year, so their front office may actually try to fill said stadium with the best players they have. After all, Atlanta certainly didn’t trade for 2B Brandon Philips to have him sit on the bench for a rookie. Their hand was forced after a Florida man stole a police cruiser and crashed it into a car containing Sean Rodriguez and his whole family this winter. The Rodriguez family survived serious injuries, and Sean had to undergo surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff he suffered in the accident, which will sideline him this season. Since Rodriguez was a utility man, he was the perfect option to hold down 2B until Albies was “ready”, but with a decorated veteran like Philips who only plays 2B now blocking Albies, something’s gotta give.
The World Champions Might Be TOO Stacked
The World Champion Chicago Cubs have too many good players. Barring injury, there’s virtually no opportunity for a player to crash the roster of an elite team like the Cubs. That, along with the aforementioned Kris Bryant precedent, should depressurize OF prospect Eloy Jimenez’ first Major League Spring training, where he is heralded as the center of the Cubs next young core. That the Curse was broken last season should also help the Cubbies be more patient with their next superstar.
When it comes to the infield, there might also be a logjam affecting Javier Baez. Joe Maddon prioritizes defense, but the team’s best defensive alignment would make last year’s World Series MVP Ben Zobrist the odd man out, which is unacceptable. That being said, Baez is not only a better second baseman, but he might also be the team’s best all-around player. If Kyle Schwarber plays left, and Bryant primarily plays third base, the logical place to play Zobrist is in right field…which is where defensive wizard Jason Heyward plays. Heyward’s salary could make a bench role unsettling for Cubs General Manager Theo Epstein, but ending a 108 year-long title drought renders everything rose-colored, even a positional logjam.
Christian Bethancourt Is Baseball's Most Versatile Prospect
Utility men are in vogue in large part because of Maddon, who turned virtually all of his regulars into utility men last season. Baseball rules have always allowed a manager to send a pitcher into the outfield for a batter or two, only to bring him back in to pitch, but it was only a fearless hippie like Joe that would be unafraid to do it, as he did with Travis Wood last season.
In Christian Bethancourt, the San Diego Padres have the potential for a super-duper utility man of their own: a catcher by trade, who is also athletic enough to be a proficient outfielder. As if that wasn’t enough, the Panamanian’s arm proved so electric in an emergency pitching appearance last season that the team mandated he train with the pitchers this spring. In other words, they’re serious about making him a defensive superhero. Though San Diego should compete for the worst record in the league, Bethancourt could spark a minor revolution in the game and inspire the coming generation of players to resist labels. At the very least, it gets us talking about the Padres for a fun reason.
Wily Mo Peña Should Turn Spring Into a Home Run Derby
The Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm (PECOTA; yes, that’s a thing) projects the Dodgers to have the best record in baseball. Just behind them, however, are the Cleveland Indians, last year’s American League champs that almost won the World Series without three of their best players: Danny Salazar, Carlos Carrasco and Michael Brantley.
In case the Indians weren’t good enough already, they also nabbed the aforementioned parrot fanatic, Encarnacion. The new first basemen/designated hitter is also bringing an old friend with him, as he convinced Indians scouts to travel to the Dominican Republic to have a look at journeyman slugger Wily Mo Peña. The 35-year-old Dominican hasn’t played in MLB since 2011, but he’s still capable of hitting a baseball as far as anyone on the planet. Expect a show from the Peña in the Cactus League: the ball flies in Arizona’s dry air and tends to produce football scores that inflate hitters egos and keep pitchers awake at night.