A mix of high-priced free agents, aging vets, and young guns are among those to keep an eye in Florida and Arizona
The start of MLB’s spring training means different things to different players. Some have moved on from their old teams in hopes of finding October glory with a new squad. Others are trying to find the old form of their prime years, while younger players are jockeying with veterans for a roster spot, chomping at the bit to leave their mark in The Show.
Here is our list of the top 10 players to watch as teams begin their preparations for the 2016 season in Florida and Arizona.
1. Jason Heyward, CF, Cubs
Heyward made waves this winter when he signed a $184 million deal with the Cubs after spending last summer with the archival Cardinals. Some pundits claim that Heyward is overpaid, but the Cubs say that Heyward fits perfectly within their system. Heyward showed up early to spring training last week and instantly began impressing his fellow teammates and coaches with not only his physical abilities, but his intellectual knack for the game. The big test will come when Heyward switches to from right field to center field full time, where the most he has ever played is 20 games in 2013.
2. Hanley Ramirez, 1B, Red Sox
It’s hard to imagine Ramirez once hit .292/.353/.439 and stole 51 bases on his way to the 2006 NL Rookie of the Year honors at only 22 years old. Fast-forward a decade and Ramirez is a shell of his former All-Star self. The once dynamic, power-hitting shortstop is now resigned to playing first base full-time for the Red Sox after last year’s experiment of playing left field proved to be a disaster. Ramirez’s move to first was to be expected with Rusney Castillo coming up, but the continued lack of offensive production was disheartening. The Red Sox are primed to be in contention in the AL East this season, but their chances will take a hit if Ramirez can’t figure out how to play first base — or remember how to hit.
3. Jeff Samardzija, SP, Giants
The former Cubs, A’s, and White Sox pitcher has been looking for a big pay day for the past several seasons. But when he finally put his name on the dotted line, it wasn’t the ace money that Samardzija was wishing for. Last year, his only season with the White Sox, Samardzija saw his walk and home run rates increase while his strikeout rate fell, all while surrendering more hits and earned runs than any other pitcher in the AL. The Giants are taking a $90 million chance that Samardzija finds the same groove that he had before he was traded from the Cubs to the A’s two seasons ago.
4. Christian Yelich, LF, Marlins
Yelich has a chance to be a star in 2016 and a real driving force in the Marlins’ young and talented lineup. Yelich found himself on the DL a couple of times in ’15, and also struggled the first couple of months of the season, hitting only .220/284/.293 before June. From there, however, Yelich produced at a .329/.394/.459 clip until the end of the season. The 24-year-old left fielder will be a vital asset at the top of new manager Don Mattingly’s lineup card along with last season’s NL batting champ Dee Gordon — especially if slugger Giancarlo Stanton returns healthy after breaking a bone in his hand last season.
5. Taijuan Walker, SP, Mariners
Scouts have long praised the potential of the Mariners’ 23-year-old righty and 2016 would be a great time for Walker to tap into that promise. At first glance, Walker’s ’15 numbers don’t look great (29 starts, 4.56 ERA, 4.07 FIP, 1.196 WHIP). But give them a second look and you’ll notice that his walk rate fell by half, and his strikeout and swinging strike rates went up compared to his small sample size from 2014. Walker’s fastball is electric, but he may rely on it too much, as he threw it 64.8 percent of the time last season. If the rest of his “stuff” catches up, his repertoire could rival that of any other pitcher in the AL and would be a fantastic No. 2 option behind Seattle ace Felix Hernandez.
6. Byron Buxton, CF, Twins
Much like Taijuan Walker, the sky is the limit for the Twins’ top prospect. All of the raw athleticism to be a Gold Glove center fielder is there, but his plate skills are unrefined. Buxton was limited in ’15 after a thumb injury sidelined him in the middle of the season, as he only hit .209/.250/.326 in just 46 games, retaining his rookie status for this season. Buxton should receive every opportunity to claim the Twins’ center field job as his own during spring training, but manager Paul Molitor has also said that the 22-year-old could spend some time in the minors to start the season. One thing is for sure, the Twins’ turnaround will only be accelerated with a healthy and productive Buxton on the field and in the lineup.
7. Justin Verlander, SP, Tigers
Verlander isn’t touching 100 MPH-plus in the ninth inning anymore, but he just might be returning to his Cy Young form — or at least close to it. After a disastrous and injury-riddled 2014 and start to ’15, Verlander came back into his own in his final 14 starts last season. His fastball velocity went up and his ERA dropped to 2.27 in the second half. After battling back from core surgery and a triceps injury, Verlander could be poised to be the ace of this rebuilt Tigers staff.
8. Joc Pederson, CF, Dodgers
Pederson started the first half of his rookie season on fire, hitting 20 home runs and earning a spot on the NL All-Star team. However, the second half of ’15 was especially rough, as his drop in power only further exposed his lack of quality contact hitting. By the second half, Pederson’s innings were being taken away by Enrique Hernandez, as he finished the season hitting only .210/.346/.417 with 26 home runs.
The ’16 Opening Day center field spot is Pederson’s to lose, but he is going to have to make better contact this spring. Last season, Pederson’s batting average on balls he put in play was a measly .262.
9. Yasiel Puig, RF, Dodgers
The “Wild Horse” has certainly earned his Vin Scully-given nickname, thanks to his natural athleticism mixed with his erratic play and hijinks. Puig’s potential has yet to be fully realized due in part to his raw skills and his inability to stay healthy. Last season, Puig only played in 79 games and regressed noticeably when he was in the lineup. Puig often times found himself in former manager Don Mattingly’s doghouse. If Puig is going to improve and refine his skills as a ball player, growing under new skipper Dave Roberts will be imperative not only for his career specifically, but also for the immediate success of the Dodgers.
10. Yordano Ventura, SP, Royals
Ventura was supposed to be the ace-in-waiting in the Royals’ rotation after the departure of James Shields two seasons ago. Instead, Ventura posted a 4.08 ERA, 1.30 WHIP and 3.57 FIP in a disappointing sophomore campaign last season that featured a DL stint and a (very) brief demotion to Triple A for roughly 24 hours. Despite his rough 2015, Ventura still had the best fastball (highest velocity) in the AL and still has a nasty curveball that generates lots of swings and misses. With Johnny Cueto leaving for the Bay Area after being a rental, Ventura is now at the top of the defending World Series champions’ rotation heading into 2016. For the Royals to make another October run, Ventura will have to be more consistent on the mound for a full season.