Signs of Spring

A Siberian easterly wind is bringing cold air off the North Sea, sending temperatures plummeting and heavy snow to the UK’s shores, but I don’t care because my television and the At Bat app are bringing me the sights and sounds of springtime from sunny Arizona and Florida.

Besides the palpable excitement of having live baseball on our screens and airwaves once again, there is still a long way to go before the actual action gets going in earnest. Lest we forget, once the initial thrill wears off, the realisation that spring training is something of a damp squib kicks in again and we are back to where we started from – counting down the days to the real action.

There are always things to look out for though, and little juicy nuggets to get your teeth into. Below, in no particular order, are five things I’m looking forward to seeing unravel this spring.

Shohei Ohtani
Ohtani has the potential to be the most exciting two-way player since Babe Ruth, and if that isn’t worth keeping an eye on over the next few weeks then I don’t know what is. He has reached base in half of his six plate appearances so far, and whilst his first outing on the mound was underwhelming he is not going to be judged on that. Indeed, it will take a while before any kind of judgement can be made, but in the meantime, we are allowed to get excited. I first heard about Ohtani via the Effectively Wild podcast about 18 months ago and the excitement about him playing in MLB gradually reached a crescendo this offseason, as pretty much all clubs clambered for his signature. His signing has made the Angels much more interesting, and his chemistry with Trout has looked great from the outside. Projection systems have him making more of an impact as a starting pitcher, but I can’t wait to see him get the bat swinging.

Steven Duggar
The Giants outfield prospect has a lot of hype surrounding him in San Francisco, mostly because he is their most likely debutant of 2018. He slugged a respectable .445 in three minor league formats last year but he struck out twice as often as he walked, and he’ll be looking to work on his eye this spring. It looks like the best chance he’s got of making the 25-man roster is as a platoon option with Austin Jackson in centre field, but management might decide it is too soon for him and keep him in Sacramento for a couple of months to iron out his timing and pitch selection. The Giants top brass are possibly wary of getting their fingers burned like they did with last year’s top prospect Christian Arroyo, who was solid defensively but not quite ready for big league pitching. He ended up hitting .192 in 125 plate appearances and was ultimately used as a makeweight in the Evan Longoria trade with the Rays. So far he has struck out in 6 of his 16 plate appearances, but he’s walked a bit and hit a nice double to drive in a run at the weekend. I’ll be keeping a close eye on him because with an injury-prone Hunter Pence in left and the underwhelming Jackson in centre field, the Giants outfield is going to need some depth this season.

Steven Duggar batting lefthanded
Duggar in Spring Training action

The Yankees Outfield
Everybody loves to hate the Yankees, and for good reason. Comfortably the most successful franchise of all time, they have also historically been the biggest spenders in the sport, and have tended to carry themselves with either a swagger or an arrogant strut, depending on your point of view. This incarnation is markedly different to Yankee teams of old, however, as they’ve assembled a hungry, young, likeable core and sprinkled in a touch of free agent stardust to complement it. Steamer projections have the Yankees outfielders contributing 142 home runs this year. That is not far off the total San Francisco Giants output from 2017. Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge could conceivably both break the Roger Maris Yankees record this year, and I’m looking forward to seeing them go through the gears this spring. If Judge can hit anything as hard as he did against the Phillies this time last year then it’ll be worth seeing.

Shed Long
Long is the Cincinnati Reds minor leaguer around whom the excellent Great American Dream podcast centres, and he has been invited to Spring Training again this year after being added to the 40-man roster in the autumn. The Reds are looking for a second baseman after the departure of Zack Cozart as Jose Peraza will move to shortstop. Long is effectively competing with Scooter Gennett and Dilson Herrera for the job, and whilst it is perhaps unrealistic to expect him to make the 25-man roster, I do expect him to make major league at bats this season at some point. “I am here to have fun and let my ability take over,” Long said, per the Dayton Daily News. “I’m not going to put any pressure on myself, but the goal is to be in the big leagues this year for sure. There’d be no point in playing if that wasn’t your goal.” In three plate appearances on Saturday in a defeat to the Rockies, he struck out twice and reached base on balls. Since then he’s had a hit, another walk and a couple of strikeouts. He’s not exactly hit the ground running, but there’ll yet be plenty more opportunities to impress with the bat.

The Cubs Bite Back?
It speaks volumes to the success of the Cubs rebuild that 2017 that culminated in an NLCS defeat is considered a disappointment. Nothing less than a second World Series in three years will be enough, however, and the Cubs have made enough of the right noises in the run-up to spring training to suggest that they expect to improve on last year. The hunger is back, and they have a point to prove again, so expect to see clubhouse leaders Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo forcing things in the NL Central. I want to see if Darvish can put consecutive nightmare World Series starts and get back to consistently beating bats again this spring, and how they go about their business in general in anticipation of the likely increased threat of the Cardinals and the Brewers.

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