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Monitoring spring training: One player from each American League team to watch for the next month

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Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Somehow, spring training games are almost upon us.

The Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres open the Cactus League season on Thursday with a game aired at 3:10 p.m. (ET) on ESPN. A full slate of spring games begins Saturday.

In a month – March 20 and 21 – the Dodgers and Padres will kick off the 2024 regular MLB season with two games in Seoul, Korea. Opening Day for most others is March 28.

You don’t have much time to prepare for the regular season, so here is a quick guide of whom to watch for the next month. I’ve selected one player from each team that could be a focal point this spring, whether they are trying to make the roster, have switched clubs or are coming back from injuries or disappointment.

Today, it’s 15 players in the American League:

AL EAST

Baltimore Orioles Jackson Holliday, INF

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Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

There are plenty of choices on this young Orioles team, but the biggest buzz surrounds Holliday, the consensus top prospect in baseball. The former No. 1 pick in 2022 skyrocketed through four levels in his first full minor league season in 2023, finishing at Triple-A Norfolk. Orioles general manager Mike Elias said that the 20-year-old middle infielder has a chance to make the big-league roster out of camp, and, trust me, he has the tools to do it.  

Tampa Bay RaysINF José Caballero, INF

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No organization in the game is better at plucking quality, under-the-radar talent from other teams as the Rays. Caballero, 27, made his big-league debut with the Seattle Mariners last year, and hit modestly (.221/.343/.320 in 280 plate appearances). He does, however, play strong defense up the middle, runs well and draws walks. The Rays acquired him in January for outfielder Luke Raley, and Caballero is expected to be their Opening Day shortstop.

Toronto Blue Jays Alek Manoah, RHP

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Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps no one’s stock is worth monitoring more this spring than Manoah, who was one of the three best starters in the AL in 2022 and one of its worst in 2023. Manoah began last season as Toronto’s Opening Day starter and was so lost he was demoted to the Florida Complex League in June to attempt to find his control. Overall, Manoah made 19 starts and posted a 5.87 ERA, more than doubling his 2.24 ERA from 2022. The massive 26-year-old will get every chance this spring to prove he can throw strikes again, and that must begin in March.

New York Yankees Carlos Rodón, LHP

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I thought Rodón was an excellent pickup for the Yankees last winter despite his enormous, six-year $162 million contract after two strong seasons following a lengthy career of injuries and mediocrity. Instead, Rodón imploded in New York last year. Hampered by back and arm injuries, he didn’t debut until July and ultimately made 14 starts, posting a 6.85 ERA. The Yankees need Rodón if they are going to make noise in the East, and he is reportedly hitting 97 mph with his fastball so far this spring.

Boston Red Sox Trevor Story, INF

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Credit: Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Here’s another hyped veteran who signed a big deal – six years, $140 million before the 2022 season started – and has been felled by injuries. Story, 31, has played only 137 games for the Red Sox since signing that deal and has delivered an awful .685 OPS. Story won’t turn around the fortunes in Boston by himself, but he can be a force offensively and on the base paths when healthy – which he is supposed to be starting 2024.

AL CENTRAL

Minnesota Twins Joe Ryan, RHP

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Credit: Matt Blewett-USA TODAY Sports

The Twins won the Central in 2023, partially thanks to a rotation in which five pitchers made at least 20 starts. Gone from that group are Sonny Gray (St. Louis Cardinals) and Kenta Maeda (Detroit Tigers). Pablo López is the ace, but who settles in behind him will be hashed out this spring. Ryan, 27, has a spot sewn up after going 11-10 with a 4.51 ERA while posting career highs in starts, innings and strikeouts. He was good in the first half (3.70 ERA in 18 starts) but struggled in the second (6.09 ERA in 11 starts). The talent is there, but Ryan needs to maintain consistency from month to month and ballpark to ballpark. There’s a huge opportunity for Ryan to take the next step in 2024, which bleeds into his first arbitration-eligible year.

Detroit Tigers Riley Greene, OF

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Greene, 23, showed how dynamic he could be in 2023, with a .796 OPS in 99 games and excellent defense in center field. Injuries, though, robbed him of a full season; he underwent Tommy John surgery on his right, non-throwing elbow in September and the hope is he’ll be ready for Opening Day. He’s participating in baseball activities now and shouldn’t be that far behind his teammates when games start, but how the elbow responds to swinging a bat will be a spring-long concern.

Cleveland Guardians Shane Bieber, RHP

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Bieber only made 21 starts last year and posted his worst ERA (3.80) since his rookie year. He was a hot trade topic during the winter, given that the 28-year-old former Cy Young Award winner is a free agent at season’s end. That Bieber has made it to camp gives the impression he will be with the Guardians at least until the trade deadline. If he stays healthy, he’ll be a major target this summer and next winter.

Chicago White Sox Dylan Cease, RHP

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Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

It seemed to be 50-50 at best that Cease would start spring training with the rebuilding White Sox, but he has. He admitted to reporters earlier this month that he heard the trade murmurs and is now thrilled he can simply focus on pitching again. After finishing second in 2022 AL Cy Young voting, Cease survived a rough campaign last year, with a 4.58 ERA in 177 innings. He made 30 or more starts and fanned 200 or more batters for the third consecutive season, however. He also has two full seasons left before free agency, which makes him the most intriguing trade chip in the game. It will be interesting to see how his spring and early season go.  

Kansas City RoyalsBobby Witt Jr., INF

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Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

At 23, he’s already the best player on the Royals. Now he is the richest in franchise history, too, agreeing to an 11-year, $288.7 million extension this offseason. The Royals made some nice under-the-radar moves this winter to improve the roster, but inking Witt long-term is by far the most significant. He certainly can back it up offensively; Witt hit 30 homers and stole 49 bases while playing 149 games at shortstop in 2023. With this kind of money, however, more will be expected from Witt off the field, too. The kid seems fazed by nothing, but he is now the face of this franchise for a decade. That officially starts now.

AL WEST

Houston Astros Justin Verlander, RHP

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The future Hall-of-Famer turned 41 Tuesday and has slow-played the beginning of spring training due to shoulder inflammation in the offseason. Verlander and the Astros don’t seem too concerned, and no one in the game knows what it takes to get ready for a season’s grind more than Verlander. At this point, Opening Day is still a goal, but he is over 40 and has had arm issues in the past; maybe this issue lingers longer than it would have a decade ago. Verlander remains an integral part of Houston’s success, as he showed following his Aug. 1 trade from the New York Mets (7-3, 3.31 ERA in 11 starts).

Texas RangersCorey Seager, INF

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Credit: Rob Schumacher-Arizona Republic

If it weren’t for the otherworldly Shohei Ohtani, Seager, the 2023 World Series MVP, would have been the 2023 AL MVP, too. It can be argued that no one in the AL has a better chance at a monster 2024 than the 29-year-old shortstop. But his start of this season has been complicated by sports hernia surgery in January. He hasn’t begun baseball activities, and the Rangers aren’t going to rush their star’s return. His progress will be one of the league’s biggest storylines in March.  

Seattle MarinersJorge Polanco, INF

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Credit: Matt Blewett-USA TODAY Sports

I love this move for the Mariners, who traded two minor leaguers — reliever Justin Topa and starter Anthony DeSclafani — for Polanco. He has played only 184 games in the past two seasons due to injury, but, when healthy, Polanco can be impactful offensively and defensively. The Mariners needed second base defense and some extra pop, and he should provide both. Polanco, 30, has played his entire career for the Twins, with whom he debuted at age 20 in 2014. It’ll be an adjustment for him, but the payoff for the Mariners is intriguing.

Los Angeles AngelsMike Trout, OF

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Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a shame that one of the most exciting players to watch is on a team that has almost no curb appeal – and even less now that Ohtani is with the Dodgers. Trout, 32, was limited to 82 games last year and has missed a chunk of the past three seasons due to injury. And, on his first day in spring camp, he was asked about whether he’d welcome a trade to a contender. The guy is the ultimate pro, and I have a strange sense he’s gonna have a bounceback year in 2024. It’s the only way the Angels stay relevant.

Oakland AthleticsMason Miller, RHP

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Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

This is a dart throw. It’s hard to name five Athletics; try picking out one to monitor in the spring. Zack Gelof and Shea Langeliers probably qualify, but how about Miller? The big right-hander made his MLB debut last year and held his own, posting a 3.78 ERA in 10 games (six starts) and striking out 38 batters in 33 1/3 innings. He walked 16 batters while allowing only 24 hits, so he needs to work on his command. But the A’s have a history of finding and producing rotation talent and Miller, 25, is a former third rounder with a solid upside. He’ll compete for a starting role this spring.

Dan Connolly is the MLB Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.

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