After a fascinating MLB offseason of record-breaking contracts and free agency musical chairs, spring training camps have opened and games are about to start with Grapefruit League and Cactus League action beginning this weekend.
As our brains start to refocus toward the action on the field, I’m thinking of 30 of the most intriguing players for the upcoming season, one for each team. Some are proven stars, some are up-and-coming young players, some are simply guys I’m focusing on for one reason or another. I tried to stay away from rookies and prospects, as rookies and prospects are always intriguing, although I did include a couple. Let’s get to it — starting with the American League, followed by the National League.
Jump to a team:
AL East: BAL | BOS | NYY | TB | TOR
AL Central: CHW | CLE | DET | KC | MIN
AL West: HOU | LAA | OAK | SEA | TEX
NL East: ATL | MIA | NYM | PHI | WSH
NL Central: CHC | CIN | MIL | PIT | STL
NL West: ARI | COL | LAD | SD | SF
Baltimore Orioles: Adley Rutschman
Switch-hitting catcher, high draft pick, solid defense, good leadership skills … yes, Rutschman is strikingly similar to Matt Wieters, the former Oriole who made four All-Star Games but didn’t turn into the huge star once forecasted. We tend to project young players to the biggest, brightest futures possible, and Wieters could be viewed as a cautionary tale for Rutschman … except there’s no need for caution. Rutschman is going to be a regular top-10 MVP candidate. He’s coming off a terrific rookie season in which he finished 12th in the MVP voting and, for me, his exemplary plate discipline separates him from Wieters as a hitter. Of note: After hitting .176 without a home run in his first 20 games, Rutschman hit .272/.384/.488 the rest of the way.
Fun fact: The Orioles have had five All-Star catchers in their history: Gus Triandos, Andy Etchebarren, Terry Kennedy, Mickey Tettleton and Wieters. The franchise’s all-time leader in WAR by a catcher, however, is Chris Hoiles with 23.5. Rutschman is already 15th and that’s including years the franchise spent as the St. Louis Browns. The best individual season is Hoiles’ 6.8 in 1993 (when he posted a 1.001 OPS). Rutschman’s 5.2 is tied for second.
Chris Sale might be the most important player on the roster, but Casas is the most intriguing. A hulking first baseman — he’s listed at 6-foot-4, 252 pounds — Casas has been a top-100 prospect for several years now. He has an interesting profile, however, as he hasn’t hit for high averages nor for huge power in the minors (career minor league average of .269), so there is still a lot of projection feeding into his evaluation. Kiley McDaniel ranked him 37th on his 2023 Top 100 list, and Casas did showcase a nice approach (19 walks, 23 strikeouts) in his 27-game stint with the Red Sox at the end of 2022. Kiley also made an Anthony Rizzo comp — minus the good defense — and that’s certainly a best-case scenario as a power/walks guy with a high on-base percentage, but I’ll be honest: I kind of see Justin Smoak here.
Fun fact: The Red Sox have really struggled at first base in recent seasons. The last 2-WAR season by a first baseman came from Hanley Ramirez in 2016. The last 3-WAR season was Mike Napoli in 2013.
We have to go with Judge, right? Reigning MVP, historic season, fat new long-term contract that means he should play his entire career in pinstripes. What will he do for an encore? Obviously, it’s not fair to expect 62 home runs and 10.6 WAR again, although the projection computers still forecast something like a 7-to-8 WAR season with around 45 home runs. Judge led the majors with an estimated 87 more runs created than an average hitter (via Baseball-Reference) last season, the highest total since Barry Bonds in 2004.
Of the best hitters in estimated batting runs each year since 2005 (skipping the seasons affected by the shortened 2020 season), this group declined an average of 19 runs the following season. In Judge’s case, a 19-run decline would mean he still would have been the best hitter in the majors in 2022. On the other hand, several batters were repeat leaders: Miguel Cabrera, Albert Pujols and Mike Trout appeared multiple times.
Can Judge match their consistency? Actually, he has been consistently excellent. Judge has averaged plus-51 runs per 150 games since 2017. Even that total would have trailed only Paul Goldschmidt and Yordan Alvarez in 2022. If Judge is healthy, he’ll be great. Now let’s see how great.
Fun fact: The Yankees led the American League in runs scored in 2022. However, even though Judge was on fire in the second half, the offense declined from 5.40 runs per game in the first half to 4.42 in the second half.
The Rays giving Eflin a three-year, $40 million deal — the largest free agent deal in franchise history — was the most surprising signing of the offseason. What do the Rays see in a pitcher with a 4.49 career ERA who has pitched more than 128 innings just once?
But there is good reason to trust the Rays here. In recent years, they’ve acquired Drew Rasmussen and Jeffrey Springs, two relievers, and watched both post sub-3.00 ERAs as starters in 2022. Shane McClanahan was the 31st overall pick in 2018 and has become one of the best starters in the majors.
The Rays know pitching. Buried in Eflin’s so-so numbers with the Phillies in 2022: Excellent control and elite ability to limit hard contact. In front of a better defense than he had in Philly, he may be primed for another Tampa Bay success story.
Fun fact: There were nine players named Zach in the majors last year … and nine named Zack. It’s a standoff, at least unless Zac Gallen changes his spelling.
Toronto Blue Jays: Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Will the real Vladdy please stand up? Is he the awe-inspiring superstar from 2021 who hit .311 with 48 home runs and finished second in the MVP voting or the mere All-Star from 2022 who hit .274 with 32 home runs? Those are vastly different players in terms of value: 6.8 WAR versus 3.9 on Baseball-Reference and 6.3 versus 2.8 via FanGraphs. Certainly, many players realized power spikes in 2019 and 2021 — what we gently refer to as the juiced-ball years. Is Vladdy one of those? It would seem that he’s so strong that he could hit a bag of sunflower seeds 400 feet, but maybe 2021 was a career year. Let’s hope not. I prefer 48-homer, .300-hitting Vladdy.
Fun fact: Guerrero led the majors with 26 double plays grounded into — a reflection of his ability to hit the ball hard, but not always at the optimal launch angle (which decreased in 2022, one reason he hit fewer home runs). In fact, it’s not out of the question that Guerrero might eventually challenge Albert Pujols’ record of grounding into 426 double plays. Pujols had 54 GIDPs through his age-23 season; Guerrero is at 69.
Chicago White Sox: Dylan Cease
There is a 3-minute, 42-second video on YouTube of Dylan Cease and his cats. Mostly the cats. There’s another video titled, “A Day in the Life of Dylan Cease” that is, again, Dylan Cease and his cats. The White Sox posted these videos and, yes, a cat dad is unusual in a sport that prefers dogs. I certainly haven’t seen any minor league teams using cats as bat boys.
What makes Cease even more intriguing is that he finished second in the Cy Young voting after going 14-8 with a 2.20 ERA and 227 strikeouts. The scary thing, at least for opposing hitters and dog lovers: There’s room for improvement if he can cut down on his league-leading 78 walks allowed.
Fun fact: Cease averaged 11.1 strikeouts per nine but had only four double-digit strikeout games. He actually had eight such games in 2021. The team record is Chris Sale’s 13 in 2015.
Cleveland Guardians: Steven Kwan
Can he do it again? Kwan hit .298/.373/.400 and scored 89 runs in a sublime, better-than-expected rookie season. He had more walks than strikeouts. He was a throwback to a couple decades ago, producing nice offense despite not hitting the ball very hard as he ranked in the first percentile in hard-hit rate. I don’t think it’s silly to suggest that if Tony Gwynn played today he would look a lot like Kwan. In some fashion, Kwan breaks modern metrics, as his expected batting average based on quality of contact was just .268. The projection systems see him hitting in the .275-.285 range. Let’s hope it’s a .300 season; we need more players who can play this style of game.
Fun fact: Kwan was the seventh rookie position player in Cleveland history with a 4.0-WAR season. Two of the previous six are Hall of Famers (Joe Sewell and Earl Averill). Kenny Lofton and Francisco Lindor could get there. The other two are two of the great what-if stories in MLB history: Al Rosen, whose career ended early due to back problems, and Hal Trosky, who hit .317 while averaging 30 home runs and 126 RBIs from age 21 to 26 but was forced out of the game due to debilitating migraines.
Detroit Tigers: Spencer Torkelson
Yeah, I’m a little worried. The No. 1 pick in 2020, Torkelson reached the majors with the fanfare expected for a No. 1 pick and promptly discovered that major league pitchers are terrifyingly good. He hit .203 with an OPS+ of just 77. He went back to Triple-A for 35 games and hit .229 there.
Let’s be positive here. It’s spring training, and we want to feel good about young players. Here are some other players who batted at least 400 times in their age-22 season and posted an OPS+ between 70 and 77: Robin Ventura, Nolan Arenado, Jose Reyes, Dale Murphy, Edgardo Alfonzo, Ron Santo, Roberto Clemente and Johnny Damon.
Fun fact: The Tigers were last in the American League in home runs. They were also last in 2018 and 2019. In related news, the Tigers announced they are moving the center-field fence 10 feet closer to home plate and lowering the wall height in center field, right-center and right field this season.
Kansas City Royals: Bobby Witt Jr.
Witt had an exciting — if flawed — rookie season, flashing the power/speed tools that made him one of the best prospects in the game. It took him a while to get going, as he hit just one home run in his first 29 games, and then tired in September when he went homerless in his final 27 games — but he still finished at .254/.294/.428 with 20 home runs. He showcased his blazing speed, tying for second in the majors for the top sprint speed.
On the negative side: Horrid defensive metrics and an aggressive approach that led to a poor 135-30 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Witt rated among the worst defenders in the game via both defensive runs saved and Statcast’s outs above average, so the systems agree that Witt has work to do. It’s a little surprising, as the scouting reports on his defense in the minors were always positive, he has a strong arm and he certainly made some highlight-reel plays.
The Royals should give Witt another year at shortstop to see if the instincts improve, but defense does usually peak early in a player’s career. I’m less concerned about his hitting. The overall strikeouts aren’t a major problem, as Witt finished middle of the pack in both strikeout rate and swing-and-miss rate, but the high chase rate on pitches outside the zone led to too much weak contact (his max exit velocity ranked in the 92nd percentile, so the raw power is there).
The Royals need Witt to turn into a star, so his improvement is a key storyline for them in 2023.
Fun fact: Witt became just the fifth rookie with 20 home runs and 30 stolen bases, joining Mike Trout, Devon White, Mitchell Page and Tommie Agee — the other four are all outfielders, which does make you wonder if Witt ends up moving there. I wonder if the best comparison is Howard Johnson, the former Mets third baseman who had four 20/30 seasons (and three 30/30 ones) but wasn’t exactly a Gold Glove defender.
We could list Carlos Correa after that build-his-own-adventure offseason or Byron Buxton or flame-throwing reliever Jhoan Duran, but let’s go with Lopez. He came over from the Marlins for Luis Arraez in an old-fashioned kind of trade of proven talent for proven talent.
Lopez is a fun pitcher to watch, a guy who tries to outthink batters with his five-pitch repertoire rather than just overpower them with pure stuff. Last year was his first full healthy season, and he pitched 180 innings over 32 starts. He did benefit from a pitcher-friendly home park during his time in Miami, as his career ERA was more than a run lower at home — although Target Field isn’t the most homer-friendly park either. With a better defense behind him, especially in the outfield, I think he can beat last year’s 3.75 ERA.
Fun fact: In the wild-card era (since 1995), the only Twins starter to qualify for the ERA title with an ERA under 3.00 in a full season has been Johan Santana. He did it three times (Kenta Maeda did it in the shortened 2020 season). And the only starter to post a sub-3.50 ERA since 2008 is another Santana — Ervin had a 3.38 ERA in 2016. This team really needs Lopez, Joe Ryan or Tyler Mahle to step up as a top starter.
Houston Astros: Yordan Alvarez
I know, I know … Alvarez is now an established superstar after hitting .306/.406/.613 with 37 home runs in 135 games last season. I believe there’s even more in the tank, though. Alvarez was slugging .653 on July 9 — outhitting Judge in OPS up to that point — when he went on the injured list with a hand injury that had been bothering him. He made another trip to the 10-day IL in late August when the hand was still an issue and he had a 20-game homerless streak. He still finished with the second-highest OPS in the majors behind Judge. He cut his strikeout rate more than 5% from 2021, and his unintentional walk rate increased by 4.6%. He’s getting better. With apologies to Judge, my bet for best hitter in baseball in 2023 is Alvarez.
Fun fact: Alvarez’s 187 OPS+ was the second highest in Astros history behind Jeff Bagwell’s preposterous 213 in 1994. Alvarez understandably gets compared to David Ortiz for his size and left-handed power. Well, Ortiz never had a 187 OPS+.
Los Angeles Angels: Shohei Ohtani
There are so many intriguing questions here entering the new season. What else can Ohtani do? Can he raise his pitching to yet another level? Will the Angels contend? If not, will they trade him? Did Arte Moreno decide to stick around as owner to re-sign Ohtani? If Ohtani is too easy of a call here, I’ll go with Trout, because, well, he’s Mike Trout.
In the non-Ohtani, non-Trout category, I’ll go with Tyler Anderson, signed as a free agent after a career year with the Dodgers. His new changeup grip not only added more movement — it changed the spin axis of the pitch, lowering the velocity and creating more soft contact. If he’s the real deal, this could be a sneaky good rotation.
Fun fact: Ohtani had three or more hits in a game 12 times in 2022. He allowed three or fewer hits as a pitcher 10 times.
Oakland Athletics: Esteury Ruiz
Ruiz’s first year in pro ball was in 2016 with the Royals. Since then, he has been traded to the Padres, then to the Brewers, and now to the A’s as part of this offseason’s three-team Sean Murphy deal. He had never hit enough above rookie ball to be viewed as a legitimate prospect until this past season, when he hit .332/.447/.526 with 16 home runs across Double-A and Triple-A with the Padres and Brewers. Oh, and he swiped 85 bases, the most in the minors. And he drew 66 walks while keeping his strikeouts in check (94). Some scouts are skeptical about how the power plays at the major league level, but with his plus-plus speed, the A’s will put him in center field to see what he can do.
Fun fact: Ruiz’s 85 steals were the most in the minors since Mallex Smith swiped 88 in 2014.
Seattle Mariners: George Kirby
Not Julio Rodriguez? This is no knock against the Topps baseball cards cover star. He’s the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The comet flashing across the night sky. The Chateau Lafite Rothschild of young center fielders. I know Julio is going to be a big-time star. But I’m super intrigued to see what Kirby can do in his sophomore campaign. He had a 3.02 ERA in the second half, cutting his home runs allowed from 12 in 64 innings to one in 65 innings after the All-Star break. As the Lookout Landing blog explained last week, Kirby changed the shape of his slider in the second half and that pitch played better off both his four-seamer and two-seam fastball, increasing the effectiveness of his entire arsenal.
Fun fact: Among rookie pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched in the wild-card era (since 1995), Kirby had the third lowest walk rate, behind Josh Towers and Masahiro Tanaka (who wasn’t really a rookie). He draws Greg Maddux comparisons because of his control, but he’s a completely different pitcher. Maddux threw the sinker that moved back across the outside corner. Kirby throws both his four-seamer and two-seamer up in the zone. But, yes, like Maddux, he doesn’t walk many batters.
The Rangers lost 94 games, but after adding deGrom, Nathan Eovaldi, Jake Odorizzi and Andrew Heaney to the rotation, they harbor beliefs of a rapid turnaround into playoff contenders. That arguably makes deGrom the most important player in the sport and certainly one of the most intriguing pitchers to watch after his past two seasons that saw him dominate with the Mets but make only 26 total starts. The intrigue will only build even more after deGrom missed his first spring workout because of side tightness. The Rangers played it down, saying he would pitch through it if were the regular season. Still, the Rangers were worried enough to take precautionary action. Over/under on the number of deGrom starts?
Fun fact: Since 2018, deGrom has held batters to a .188/.233/.297 line — a .530 OPS. He’s turned the average hitter into 1981 Alfredo Griffin or 1988 Rafael Belliard or 2013 Brendan Ryan or 2021 Austin Hedges.
Atlanta Braves: Ronald Acuna Jr.
Acuna’s career has been one interruption after another. In his rookie season in 2018, he missed a month because of a sprained knee. In the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, there was a wrist injury. In 2021, he tore an ACL and played just 82 games, missing the Braves’ World Series run. The knee surgery delayed the start of his 2022 season, and he had other nagging injuries that limited him to 119 games. In his one healthy season in 2019, he was a 21-year-old force of nature — hitting 41 home runs and leading the NL in stolen bases and runs. His power numbers were down in 2022, and his launch angle dropped significantly, perhaps related to the knee surgery. With Michael Harris II around now, it’s game on for the best outfielder on the Braves.
Fun fact: Acuna is entering his age-25 season, and he and Harris are both capable of 5-WAR seasons. Get this: Only 13 teams have ever had two outfielders 25 or younger both post 5-WAR seasons, the last team being the 1992 Expos with Larry Walker and Marquis Grissom.
It didn’t work out in Oakland for Luzardo, a former top prospect with the A’s who appeared in the top 10 on some lists, and the Marlins acquired him at the trade deadline in 2021 for Starling Marte. After struggling the rest of that season (6.44 ERA in 12 starts), it started to come together for Luzardo in 2022. He missed a couple months because of a forearm strain, but when he returned in August, he posted a 3.03 ERA over his final 12 starts with supporting peripherals. That stretch included nine outings of six-plus innings with a much better first-pitch strike percentage, allowing him to use his changeup and curveball in favorable counts. If that was the start of his breakout, he lines up as a strong No. 2 starter behind Cy Young winner Sandy Alcantara.
Fun fact: The Marlins were eighth in the majors in rotation ERA (3.70), but against the Braves and Mets it was 4.83, as they went 12-26 against those two teams.
We’re not supposed to pay attention to RBIs in this analytics age (though, it’s OK to admit that you still do), but they’re still a fun stat to track. Alonso tied with Judge for a major-league-leading 131, setting a Mets record in the process. Most team RBI records were set either in the 1920s and ’30s or in the steroid era — the highest-scoring era in MLB history — so kudos to Alonso for a nice RBI season. Indeed, the only other team record set since 2009 is Giancarlo Stanton in 2017 with the Marlins.
On a team with many intriguing players to watch, I’m curious to see if Alonso can be the first hitter to crack 140 RBIs since Prince Fielder and Ryan Howard in 2009. It’s possible that could happen if the Mets hit their top OBP guys, Brandon Nimmo and Jeff McNeil, 1-2 more often than they did last season (McNeil hit leadoff five times but never hit second). Manager Buck Showalter didn’t like to go with two lefty hitters at the top of his lineup, but it might make sense to move McNeil up and put him in front of Francisco Lindor and Alonso instead of in an RBI slot (where he doesn’t drive in many runs anyway).
Fun fact: Alonso excelled with runners in scoring position in 2022, hitting .300/.424/.675, compared to .271/.352/.518 overall. Over his career, he has been about the same, however, hitting .264 with runners in scoring position and .261 overall.
Philadelphia Phillies: Aaron Nola
Some of the intrigue here surrounds Nola’s potential contract extension — which he and the Phillies have started discussing as he heads into his walk year. The Phillies haven’t been afraid to open the wallets of late, so this feels like a must-sign for Dave Dombrowski. Nola has been extremely durable over the past five seasons, which makes him a relatively safe bet, at least as far as pitchers go (unlike, say, the Chris Sale contract with the Red Sox that Dombrowski gave in 2019 when Sale was coming off shoulder issues). Nola is arguably coming off his best season with a career-best 8.10 strikeout-to-walk ratio after issuing just 29 walks in 32 starts. If he doesn’t sign, that certainly makes for an intriguing season; if he does sign, I think he’s primed for a sub-3.00 ERA season and — with better luck in run support — a much better win-loss record than 2022’s 11-13.
Fun fact: Nola ranks third in Baseball-Reference WAR among pitchers since 2018 — behind Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom. Teammate Zack Wheeler is fourth.
Washington Nationals: Joey Meneses
Originally drafted back in 2011, Meneses made his major league debut last August at age 30 and promptly mashed for two months, hitting .324 with 13 home runs in 56 games. That’s a pretty good Freddie Freeman impersonation. There’s nothing in his track record that suggests that was for real — his OPS with the Nationals was 100 points higher than it had been in Triple-A — and certainly the list of 30-year-old rookies suddenly turning into elite hitters is a short one. On the rebuilding Nationals, however, he’ll get the opportunity to prove it wasn’t a fluke and, heck, maybe even represent the Nationals at the All-Star Game.
Fun fact: It’s hard even coming up with a comp for Meneses. Somebody mentioned Steve Pearce to me. Pearce had a career OPS+ of just 87 through age 29 and then broke out at age 31 — and had a 124 OPS+ from 31 to 35. The Nationals would take that from Meneses for the next few years.
I have no idea. The Cubs have no idea. They are, however, willing to spend $17.5 million to find out if a change of scenery will help the former MVP rediscover his swing. Certainly, his progression from MVP to struggling hitter while still in his young prime years is unprecedented. Bellinger has hit .193/.256/.355 the past two seasons, although he was a little better in 2022 than the year before. One key area, aside from the mechanical tweaks he has been working on: His chase rate since 2019 (his MVP year) has gone from 23.8% to 27.9% to 30.7% to 31.7%. Swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone will be step one. Step two: Better contact in the zone.
Fun fact: Bellinger will at least help in center field, where the Cubs were last in the majors in defensive runs saved in 2022 and 27th overall over the past three seasons. But if the Cubs just wanted defense, they could have traded for Michael Taylor.
Cincinnati Reds: Hunter Greene
If it all comes together, Greene’s ceiling remains as stratospheric as when the Reds drafted him second overall in 2017, the rare high school pitcher to go that high. Over his final eight starts — spread out from early July to the end of the season — Greene’s command improved. He had a 1.75 ERA with 66 strikeouts and just two home runs over 46⅓ innings, after severe long-ball issues plagued him in the first half. That dominance is what we can dream of as baseball fans. Tommy John surgery and COVID-19 meant Greene didn’t pitch in 2019 or 2020, so keep in mind that he had just 186 innings in the minors. The question: Can he make it work with just a fastball/slider combo, or can he continue to develop a changeup to give him a third pitch against left-handed batters?
Fun fact: Greene threw 337 pitches at 100 mph last season, second in the majors to Twins reliever Jhoan Duran.
Milwaukee Brewers: Corbin Burnes
Burnes’ comments after losing his arbitration case to the Brewers cast a bit of a shadow over the season. “There’s no denying the relationship is definitely hurt,” Burnes said. “There’s really no way of getting around that.” Not that it means it will affect Burnes’ performance, but it certainly suggests he’s less likely to sign an extension with the Brewers before he reaches free agency after the 2024 season. It also suggests that if the Brewers aren’t in the playoff race, Burnes could be a prime trade candidate at the deadline. Of course, if Burnes is pitching as well as he has the past two seasons, there’s a likelihood the Brewers are still in it.
Fun fact: The only other starter in Brewers history with two seasons of a sub-3.00 ERA is Teddy Higuera. In fact, the Brewers have had only 13 such seasons in franchise history (since 1969). So, yeah, angering your best pitcher in nearly 40 years to save $750,000 maybe wasn’t the best strategy.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Oneil Cruz
Sure, the whole Bryan Reynolds trade demand saga is mildly interesting — amusing? — but I’m going with the scintillating, explosive, breathtaking Cruz. His tools are fiction: He ranked in the 100th percentile in max exit velocity, 98th percentile in sprint speed and 97th percentile in arm strength. Alas, he was also in the first percentile in strikeout rate, so his range of outcomes is wide. Keep in mind that he’s not as young at 24 as some other recent stars.
I think there’s hope he can lower that strikeout rate. In Triple-A, it was 22%, and studies have shown that major league rates eventually map pretty close to minor league rates. Cruz was at 34.9% as a rookie, so you want to see him get under 30% this year and eventually to 25%. Cruz said he wants to go 30-30 this season — or even 40-40. Both are possible if he improves the swing-and-miss rate.
Fun fact: The last Pirates player with 40 home runs: Willie Stargell in 1973. The team with the second-longest drought is the Giants (Barry Bonds in 2004). So, yeah, the Pirates are due for a 40-homer guy.
St. Louis Cardinals: Lars Nootbaar
My favorite sleeper breakout candidate, Nootbaar revamped his swing before 2022 and had impressive underlying metrics in 2022: 80th percentile in hard-hit rate, 98th percentile in walk rate and an above-average strikeout rate. So he hits the ball hard and has elite discipline. That will work. Oh, he also has a strong arm and above-average speed. He was up and down between Triple-A and the majors the first few months of 2022, but once he was in the lineup on a regular basis he hit .252/.374/.514 over his final 257 plate appearances. The Cardinals have a crowded outfield competition, but Nootbaar should start the season in right field — Jordan Walker notwithstanding — and I’m predicting big results.
Fun fact: Nootbaar is the second “Lars” in MLB history, after Lars Anderson. He is, however, the first “Nootbaar.” His great-grandfather, Herbert Nootbaar, was a wealthy businessman and philanthropist who lived to 108. The Hall of Fame and baseball offices at Southern Cal (where Lars played his college baseball) are named in his honor.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Corbin Carroll
I can’t wait to see what Carroll can do over a full season after his impressive September call-up. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and then a shoulder injury in 2021, Carroll entered 2022 with just 49 games of pro experience, yet he still reached the majors at the age of a college junior after hitting .307 with 24 home runs and 31 steals in the minors. That included stops in Amarillo and Reno, two hitters’ paradises, but Carroll belted out 15 extra-base hits among his 27 hits in the majors. It’s his speed that you will notice first — he clocked the top sprint speed in the majors in 2022, which allows him to stretch singles into doubles and doubles into triples. He is ESPN’s No. 2 prospect, and suddenly the Diamondbacks look a lot more compelling.
Fun fact: OK, considering stolen bases might go up this season, the Diamondbacks have two potential 40-steal guys in Carroll and Jake McCarthy (23-for-26 in 2022 in part-time play). Only four teams in the wild-card era (since 1995) have had two 40-steal players, the 2013 Brewers being the last one with Carlos Gomez and Jean Segura.
Whether you’re a Rockies fan or considering Bryant for your fantasy league, he is one of the biggest wild cards of the season. He played just 42 games in his initial season with the Rockies and hit .306 — but didn’t hit a single home run at Coors Field.
If he can stay healthy, I could see him competing for a batting title, as Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer won ones for the Rockies at the tail ends of their careers. On the other hand, Bryant’s average exit velocity — though it was never elite — hit a career low 85.0 mph last season. That’s Adam Frazier and Steven Kwan territory, which doesn’t map for a player who has hit for some power in the past.
Fun fact: The Rockies averaged 4.31 runs per game in 2022 — lowest in franchise history. That is what we call an unfun fact.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Dustin May
The tall redhead returned late in the season from Tommy John surgery, still pumping upper 90s smoke, albeit without the same command he had displayed early in 2021 before getting injured. The Dodgers lost Tyler Anderson and Andrew Heaney in free agency and will be without Walker Buehler — he had his own TJ surgery — so May projects as a vital cog in the rotation. But questions abound: Will he regain his command? Was the strikeout rate he showed in those five starts in 2021 the sign of a breakout? Can he handle a starter’s workload? How much will the Dodgers push him? We’ve seen only scattershot samples of his potential over four seasons. I’d love to see 30 starts and 160 innings.
Fun fact: The Dodgers led the majors in rotation ERA in 2022 (2.75) and 2021 (2.93), were second in 2020 (3.29), first in 2019 (3.11), second in 2018 (3.19) and first in 2017 (3.39). You have to go back to 2016 for the last time the Dodgers weren’t in the top five.
San Diego Padres: Fernando Tatis Jr.
We could go with Manny Machado, who has already declared that he’ll exercise his opt-out option after the season. We could go with Juan Soto, who came over in the midseason blockbuster trade, saw his power evaporate and hit .242 overall, down from .322 over 2020-21. We could go with the newly acquired Xander Bogaerts. Except Tatis, who is eligible to return from his PED suspension on April 27, is perhaps the most intriguing player in the majors this year. The last time we saw him he led the NL with 42 home runs in 2021 — in just 130 games. Now he’s coming back not just from the suspension but from shoulder surgery in September and surgery on his left wrist in October. He has been cleared for all baseball activities and arrived early to camp, willingly ready to move to right field. No player has more to prove.
Fun fact: As a reminder, Tatis was fifth among position players in bWAR from 2019 to 2021 — even though he played just 84 games as a rookie in ’19.
San Francisco Giants: David Villar
Villar will take over at third base from Evan Longoria, and while Villar is 26 and was never a top prospect, he bashed 36 home runs between Triple-A and the majors (where he hit a solid .231/.331/.455 in 181 plate appearances). His exit velocity numbers are not elite, however, and all nine of his home runs with the Giants came on the road, which is a weird oddity. I watched video of all nine home runs, and a few of them were wall-scrapers, including one that bounced off an outfielder’s glove and over the wall. He also crushed lefties in his short stint in the majors while struggling against righties. He has earned the opportunity, but he could be anything from a 30-homer bat to a platoon player.
Fun fact: From 2018 to 2022 — the Longoria years — the Giants were middle of the pack in offense at third base, ranking 16th in OPS and 13th in home runs. The last time they had an .800 OPS from their third baseman was 2011.