Spring training always signals the start of a new MLB season and the opportunity to start over and get a fresh start is not just limited to teams. Just like those clubs who entered the 2016 season with high hopes only to see opposite results, the same can be said for numerous players.
Whether it was players on new teams not able to get comfortable in their new surroundings, high-priced free agents feeling the pressure of living up to their new contracts, those who got hurt at some point, or some other circumstance, there are plenty of guys to pay close attention to in Florida and Arizona.
Opening Day is still several weeks away, but these players are more than ready to get this season off on the right foot in hopes of different results in 2017.
10 Players to Watch in Spring Training
Andrew McCutchen, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates
There’s a changing of the guard happening in Pittsburgh and it goes beyond a former MVP switching positions. McCutchen is sliding over to right field as the Pirates move fellow All-Star and Glove Glover winner Starling Marte to center.
What’s more, Pittsburgh tried this offseason to trade McCutchen, who only a few years ago seemed destined to be a Pirate his entire career, but never pulled the trigger on a deal. When the end comes is anyone’s guess, but there’s no question that the relationship between the team and its one-time franchise cornerstone has changed. McCutchen also enters this season with a chip on his shoulder, after batting a career-low .256 and with so many suddenly doubting his standing as one of the best all-around players in the game. It may seem hard to believe, but McCutchen is just 30 years old.
Kyle Schwarber, OF/C, Chicago Cubs
Schwarber played all of two games in the regular season before tearing up his knee in an outfield collision. Even though the expectation at the time was he was done for the season, Schwarber proved everyone wrong. Cleared right before the start of the World Series, he promptly led all players with a .412 average while driving in two runs and even stealing a base.
The Cubs got to the World Series without Schwarber, but it’s possible they may not have won it if he wasn’t in the lineup, which emphasizes his importance to this team. The question though is he fully healed from a serious knee injury so that he can play the outfield regularly? Schwarber said he wants to continue to play catcher too, which would only add to his versatility while giving manager Joe Maddon even more flexibility. But what the defending world champions need most from the 24-year-old, sweet-swinging lefty is his bat, as he could take over the leadoff spot with Dexter Fowler now in St. Louis.
Jason Heyward, OF, Chicago Cubs
A World Series champion and Gold Glove winner in his first season with the Cubs, Heyward was an absolute disaster at the plate. He batted just .230 with only seven home runs and 49 RBIs in 142 games in the regular season and a meager .104 (5-for-48) in the postseason.
The Cubs didn’t need Heyward’s bat to get to or win the World Series, but it’s fair to say they were expecting more from him in the first year of his $184 million contract. Heyward’s defense, base-running and other intangibles are plenty valuable, and he’s still just 27 years old, but there’s a reason he underwent a complete overhaul of his swing shortly after the World Series. There’s no doubt every at-bat of his will receive plenty of attention in spring training.
Bryce Harper, OF, Washington Nationals
A year after becoming the youngest unanimous MVP in baseball history, Harper didn’t even lead his own team in home runs or RBIs last season. The Nationals won the NL East in 2016, but Harper saw his run production drop across the board as he went from a .330/.460/.649 slash line to .243/.373/.441.
While teams started pitching around Harper or not pitching to him at all, he also fell into some bad habits at the plate as Washington’s season ended in a five-game NLDS loss to the Dodgers. Only 24 years old, no one is giving up on Harper, but it will be interesting to see how he bounces back, especially with more attention being paid to what will happen in 2019 when he’s eligible to become a free agent.
Pablo Sandoval, 3B, Boston Red Sox
The Big Panda is back, although the Red Sox are hoping he’s not as “big” as he has been. Sandoval played in a total of three games last season before a shoulder injury sidelined him. He has not been the same hitter since his 2011-12 All-Star campaigns in San Francisco, but Boston needs to get more from him than the .245/.292/.366 slash he produced in '15 with just 10 home runs and 47 RBIs. No one knows what to expect from Sandoval with his well-documented issues of staying in shape, but with nearly $60 million remaining on his contract, the Red Sox are hoping the 30-year-old still has something left in the tank.
Matt Harvey, SP, New York Mets
Harvey made 17 starts last season before undergoing surgery in July to resolve thoracic outlet syndrome. This is not an easy surgery to come back from in the first place and then you factor in that he’s already had Tommy John surgery, it only adds to the uncertainty surrounding the one-time ace who finished fourth in the NL Cy Young voting in 2013. The Mets have a championship-caliber starting rotation, but one that has dealt with its share of injuries and other issues. New York doesn’t need Harvey to be its No. 1 starter anymore, but at this point no one really knows where the 27-year-old righty fits in.
Michael Brantley, OF Cleveland Indians
Three seasons ago, Brantley was an All-Star who finished third in the AL MVP voting. Since 2014 he’s played in just 148 games and has undergone multiple surgeries and procedures after injuring his right shoulder late in the ‘15 season, the most recent coming this past August. The Indians almost won the World Series without Brantley, but his return would be a big boost to the lineup. First he has to show he is ready to contribute, which remains an unknown as there’s no timetable for him to return to game action. Chances are he will miss the first several weeks of the season, if not longer, but if he comes back and plays like he did in 2014-15, it will be worth the wait for Cleveland.
Byron Buxton, OF, Minnesota Twins
Buxton is just 23 years old, but he’s no longer a prospect, let alone a rookie. He has 138 games worth of experience in the major leagues, but last season had him getting sent down to Triple-A twice as he continued to struggle against big-league pitching. Once the No. 1 prospect in baseball, there’s still plenty of time for Buxton to maximize his five-tool potential, but he has to improve on making contact at the plate (162 SO in 427 career AB). The Twins are hoping his strong finish – a .287 average with 1.011 OPS, including nine home runs over last 29 games – is a sign of things to come and manager Paul Molitor has already mentioned he may put Buxton in the leadoff spot. Buxton has already shown he has game-changing speed and can play Gold Glove-caliber defense in center field. Now the hope is that the bat catches up and he develops into the star everyone projected him to be not too long ago.
Yasiel Puig, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers are hoping this is the season Puig, affectionately nicknamed the “Wild Horse” by legendary broadcaster Vin Scully, finally is able to harness all of his talent. Only 26 years old, Puig’s has gone from being an All-Star in 2014 to getting sent down to the minors this past August. Puig’s name came up in trade talks around the deadline and in the offseason, but for now he remains a Dodger. But will he be by the end of the season? At this point, nothing is guaranteed, including playing time in a crowded outfield.
Garrett Richards, SP, Los Angeles Angels
Richards made six starts last season before he was diagnosed with a torn ligament in his right elbow. However, instead of undergoing Tommy John surgery, Richards opted to try stem cell replacement therapy, which is a relatively new and unproven treatment. If it works, no doubt others will take notice, but should it fail, Richards will then be forced to have surgery, thus delaying his return even longer. The Angels were beset by injuries to their starting rotation last season, and have already lost one starter (Andrew Heaney) for 2017. They really need their 28-year-old ace to back on the mound and hopefully pitching like he did in 2014 when Richards went 13-4 with a 2.61 ERA.
(Kyle Schwarber photo courtesy of Getty Images)