This spring, I had the privilege to travel to Tampa, Florida and catch 36 innings of Spring Training baseball. Here are some intriguing notes concerning the Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburgh Pirates, New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays, and Toronto Blue Jays that could very well determine the fate of their playoff aspirations.
Aaron Altherr could very well be the next Phillies superstar. He displayed power in the gaps with a missile of a two-bagger to left-center field. After a promising 2017, 2018 could prove to be Altherr’s “coming-out” party.
The Phillies’ young and inexperienced pitching staff is undoubtedly in need of more tools to become competitive once more. A Jake Arrieta would be a dream scenario for the fighting Phills’, but a more realistic option could be Lance Lynn. Either way, Philadelphia could be a scary team moving forward if they decide to spend the money for a quality veteran starter.
Carlos Santana did not travel with the team when they visited George M. Steinbrenner Stadium. I am very curious to see how he fares against NL pitching this year. Will his numbers rise or fall?
Tyler Glasnow, the Pirates’ highly touted young-gun has decided to do away with the windup and pitch exclusively from the stretch. This will help control his lanky six-foot-eight-inch frame and hopefully bring a bit more consistency in his throwing accuracy.
Josh Bell (1B) looks incredible in all facets of the game. Offensively, he looks comfortable from both sides of the plate. From the left-side of the plate against the Blue Jays, he absolutely smoked a ball over the right-center field wall. I swear to you that the ball left the field in about three seconds. Defensively, he looks to be well acquainted at first base after struggles adjusting to his new position. He is picking the ball in a much more fluid motion and making plays that he would not have made last season. Watch out, because this kid is ready to prove himself this season.
Gregory Polanco has changed his stance and “trigger-motion” at the plate. It almost resembles Starling Marte’s pre-pitch bat wave and leg-kick. This will help the talented right-fielder make more consistent contact and hopefully raise a disappointing career batting average.
The Pirates are loaded with young, under-the-radar talent that could make them a potential playoff team in the next few seasons. With the addition of all-star Corey Dickerson, this offense should not be taken lightly. I am excited to see which of these young talents flourishes this season.
Will Austin Meadows receive the long-awaited call-up to the majors? Will Polanco finally put it together this season and be the superstar we all expect him to be? Can Ivan Nova continue his success in the Burgh as the number one starter? Many questions have been left on the table for this young squad to answer.
New York Yankees
As we all know, the Yanks are absolutely loaded with talent. The batting order attacks the opposition with little-to-no relentlessness with stars filling the lineup card game-in and game out.
Giancarlo Stanton will most likely end up splitting time in left field and at DH. In his first two outing of the spring, he looked clueless in left, missing three routine fly-balls. On one deep fly-ball, it looked as if he was expecting to hit the outfield fence, but it never appeared. The ball dropped, and the batter was credited with a double. Whether the sun was to blame or not, Stanton needs to become acclimated to his new position quickly, as the season opens up in a hostile Toronto atmosphere on the 29th.
There have been rumors regarding manager Aaron Boone possibly placing slugger Aaron Judge in the leadoff spot in the lineup. This could prove to pay huge dividends, as the Yankees surely have enough power for two full teams, let alone one. It all depends on Judge’s Achilles-heel from 2017: strikeouts. As much as he walks, he strikes out enough to the point where his only option could be hitting in the cleanup spot.
The Yankees could very well have the best outfield in baseball, but there is still a huge question to be answered: what are they going to do with Brett Gardner, Clint Frazier, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Aaron Hicks? As of today, it would seem that left and right are locks, while centerfield would most likely belong to Aaron Hicks. I am curious to see who the Yankees plug into their potent lineup when Giancarlo Stanton is the designated hitter.
There were many questions regarding Gary Sanchez’s defensive capabilities last season. I am here to tell you that you can put these questions to rest, as Sanchez looks incredible behind the dish. He is giving maximum effort to prove the doubters wrong, dropping and blocking every ball that was thrown in the dirt. With his arm still as dangerous as ever, Gary Sanchez could become the league’s premier defender at catcher this season.
Infielder Tyler Wade (2B & SS) and Brandon Drury (2B & 3B) will look to fill the holes in the infield left by Starlin Castro and Todd Frazier’s departures. Both have impressed thus far and will look to carry this success into the regular season.
This young and energized team could very well bring this franchise its 28th World Series ring. From top to bottom, this team is deep. The scary thing is that they are not done making moves, as Brian Cashman is seeking another arm to add to his already phenomenal starting staff. Could this be CC Sabathia’s insurance in case the aging lefty doesn’t perform to standards? Maybe. But one thing is certain, the dominance of the New York Yankees is back and here to stay for a very long time.
Toronto Blue Jays
In 2016, the Blue Jays exhibited significant potential in their starting rotation with the emergence of Aaron Sanchez and a healthy Marcus Stroman. In 2017, Sanchez only started six games due to injury while Stroman led a promising campaign. Toronto relies heavily on their rotation to get deep into ballgames for Roberto Osuna to close out. For 2018, the Blue Jays will have a complete starting staff with added depth. Jaime Garcia inked a one-year deal with a club, providing them with a solid sixth starter to compliment Stroman, Sanchez, J.A. Happ, Marco Estrada, Joe Biagini, and even Chris Rowley. This rotation is surprisingly deep, and if Sanchez and Stroman can headline it while dodging the injury bug, the Jays could be a dark horse to win the AL East.
Toronto’s farm system is filled with all-star potential. Of course, there is Vladimir Guererro Jr. and Bo Bichette, but there are a few names that have been overlooked. Outfielders Dwight Smith Jr. and Anthony Alford have been raking during Spring Training. In fact, Anthony Alford has been performing so well that some Jays fans want Kevin Pillar traded to free a starting role up for Alford. Infielders Lourdes Gurriel and Richard Urena have also opened some eyes with their play. Urena clubbed a walk-off single against Zach Britton this past season, handing the Orioles closer his first blown save in over a year.
Devon Travis is coming off of his third consecutive year enduring a season-ending injury. This spring, he has shown that he is unfazed. His mobility is back, and the pop in his bat remains. If Travis can sustain health for an entire season, he can become the everyday leadoff hitter/offensive catalyst that this club so desperately needs.
The acquisition of former-Cardinal Randall Grichuk could be the most underrated move of the offseason. He simply has it all: power, speed, arm strength, and a great eye at the plate. With a slightly lower batting stance, Grichuk looks to make more consistent contact with his powerful hack, and it is seeming to pay off. In the two games I attended, he collected a hit in each game while using all fields. This was a huge problem for the young outfielder in St. Louis, which led to losing his starting role and shipping to Toronto. If Grichuk puts all of his tools together this season, he could become this lineup’s X-factor.
There are many new and exciting faces in the Blue Jays’ clubhouse, including the likes of Randall Grichuk, Aledmys Diaz, Yangervis Solarte and Curtis Granderson. I believe that this new-look team will be playing meaningful September baseball if they remain healthy.
Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays’ young pitching staff held the potent Yankee lineup to just one run. I know it’s just Spring Training, but I can’t help but be impressed with the poise shown from Tampa’s arms. With Blake Snell and Chris Archer manning the front end of the rotation, it has the potential to be solid.
Outfielder Mallex Smith was impressive against New York. He singled in his first at-bat and then stole on 2017’s strongest arm from the catcher position, Gary Sanchez. In his next at-bat, he was facing the deadly Aroldis Chapman. Usually, left-handed batters who face Chapman head back to the dugout just as quickly as they walk up to the plate, but not Smith. He took a 99 MPH fastball on the outside part of the plate, squared it up, and lined a base knock through the left side of the infield. This was a savvy veteran piece of hitting from the second-year player. I am extremely excited to see the speedy Mallex Smith perform this season, as I believe he has the potential to become the next Dee Gordon.
As mentioned before, Chris Archer will be the Rays’ opening day starter and will headline their starting rotation. What I am curious about is the future of this phenome, as trade rumors continue to swirl around him. The Rays seem to be indulged in a full rebuild as Evan Longoria, Corey Dickerson, and Logan Morrison have departed. When I saw Archer signing autographs for some children along the first-base line at the Yankee complex, a fan yelled to him, “We would love to see you in pinstripes this season, Chris!” Chris almost seemed to smirk at this comment. What could this mean? Only time will tell. But for now, the Rays hold one of the most coveted trade prospects in the MLB. The question is what they are going to do with him.