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Top storylines for MLB spring training

Matt Johnson
Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Spring training is finally here. The words baseball fans waited to hear for months during the offseason. Now the moment arrives with players reporting to begin their preparation for the 2020 MLB season.

The 2020 offseason played a significant role in how the upcoming season will be remembered. From the Los Angeles Dodgers landing Mookie Betts to the Houston Astros’ cheating scandal, drama defined everything that got us here. While Opening Day is more than a month away, many of the headlines that dominated the offseason will carryover into spring training.

Spring training is about more than just the marquee names. It’s an opportunity for young players to leave a lasting impression on their peers and coaches, potentially setting the scene for a breakout season. This time of year also provides a chance for new managers, which there are a lot of coming into the season, to make their early mark in the new gig.

Most importantly, this time of year signals that we are closing in on baseball’s return. Now, here are the top storylines as players report for spring training and the MLB season draws closer.

Astros’ role as public enemy No. 1

The Astros were already hated before they arrived for spring training. They cheated the game, hurt the careers of their peers and altered the course of baseball history. The franchise, somehow, then found a way to make matters worse with an embarrassing “apology” press conference to open the spring. Oh, this is also the team that initially defended the inexcusable actions of its former executive before finally firing him.

There aren’t many people outside of Houston that feel anything less than disdain for the Astros. Their peers across the sport are angry and might want revenge. Meanwhile, MLB fans are disturbed by the game they love being rocked by the scandal. Even hiring Dusty Baker, one of the most beloved people in baseball, might not save this team. The Astros’ handling of being this hated and how they are treated this year, will be a fascinating storyline in the spring and in 2020.

Yasiel Puig’s free-agent status

While we saw MLB teams dish out plenty of money this offseason to top free agents, Puig remains without a team on the open market. The 29-year-old certainly carries a reputation, shaped in part by moments like getting into a brawl on the day he was traded. He also comes with frustrating inconsistency with the glove and bat, flashing All-Star talent at times and looking like a fourth outfielder on other days.

He is still a good player that teams like the St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds, Detroit Tigers and Colorado Rockies could use. He posted a .297/.377/.423 slash line in 49 games with the Cleveland Indians and hit 22 home runs in 100 games with the Cincinnati Reds. Puig likely needs to settle for a one-year deal, but he can be an impact addition whenever he’s signed.

Workload for Nationals’ pitchers after World Series run

This is about more than a “championship hangover” for the Nationals. Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin threw nearly 60 percent of Washington’s total postseason innings and each averaged nearly 100 pitches per game. In the regular season, Corbin and Strasburg exceeded 200 innings with Scherzer hitting 172.2 after missing time with a back injury.

That’s a lot of mileage on pitchers in their 30s. Washington must approach spring training cautiously and ease its pitching trio into the spring with lighter work. It’s a necessary precaution given their arms could still be recovering from the heavy workload. The Nationals’ training methods with this trio, along with any potential reports of soreness, will be a major storyline in Washington D.C. this year.

Is another blockbuster trade on the horizon?

Chicago Cubs star Kris Bryant remains on the trade block and the Colorado Rockies don’t seem to be hanging up the phone on Nolan Arenado. Both stars have the potential impact to turn a good team into a World Series contender.

It all just comes down to whether the Rockies or Cubs decide to pull the trigger. The relationship between Arenado and Colorado’s general manager is ugly. While Bryant likes Chicago, ownership wants to trim payroll. Rumors will fly around in spring training and we wouldn’t be surprised if one of the stars is moved.

Battle for Yankees’ No. 5 rotation spot

The Yankees went into February confident their rotation was set. Unfortunately, James Paxton then underwent a rare spinal procedure that could sideline him until June. Meanwhile, Domingo Germán will miss the first 63 games of the season serving his ban for domestic violence.

It creates an interesting battle for the No. 5 rotation spot. Jordan Montgomery, who missed 2019 recovering from Tommy John Surgery, is likely the favorite to claim the role. However, Luis Cessa and Jonathan Loásiga will also challenge for the spot. Fans might be most interested in Deivi García, New York’s top pitching prospect that dominated at Double-A last season. It will be a fun battle to watch throughout the spring and it highlights this team’s pitching depth.

How will new managers fare with their teams?

There are 10 new managers in place for the 2020 season. It’s remarkable to see one-third of the league’s skippers replaced in an offseason, but it’s also the result of the Astros’ cheating scandal. Mike Matheny (Royals), Gabe Kapler (Giants), Derek Shelton (Pirates) can ease into spring training with far less pressure.

The same can’t be said for Baker (Astros), Joe Girardi (Phillies), Joe Maddon (Angels), David Ross (Cubs), Jayce Tingler (Padres) and Luis Rojas (Mets). They are all taking over for teams with a fan base and front office that has playoff aspirations in 2020. Maddon, Baker and Girardi have done this before, but the steps they take early in the spring will be watched closely. For Tingler, Ross and Rojas, the responsibilities of being a manager kick in now and how they handle them will be fascinating.

Rookies looking to make an early impression

This is one of the best aspects of spring training. MLB teams invite their top prospects to compete, learn from major-league coaches and to play regularly in the spring. We see young players take the first steps in their breakout seasons in the spring, too.

Nationals third baseman Carter Kieboom, Chicago White Sox outfielder Luis Robert and Los Angeles Angels outfielder Jo Adell are among the top names to watch. Each will have a chance to earn a spot in the Opening Day lineup. There will certainly be a few other surprises as well and we can’t wait to see it happen.

Potential consequences from Red Sox’ sign-stealing investigation

The moment MLB finished its investigation into the Astros, the league opened a new investigation into similar allegations against Boston. While the Red Sox didn’t use a trash-can banging system, they’ve already been disciplined once for electronically stealing signs. Boston already parted ways with Alex Cora for his substantial role helping the Astros cheat in 2017, too.

MLB fined the Astros $5 million and stripped them of their first- and second-round picks in the 2020 and 2021 MLB Drafts. The Red Sox are likely to face a lighter punishment than that. However, this will hang over the team in spring training and MLB’s report could lead to hostility toward them. Losing draft picks would also be a blow for a team with a rather underwhelming farm system. Let’s hope the Red Sox don’t increase ticket prices for spring training games, too.