John Harper: 10 storylines to watch as Spring Training 2018 begins


By John Harper - New York Daily News



As Spring Training begins, the real intrigue is as much about who’s not in camp as who is there.

But maybe that will change in a hurry, starting with Yu Darvish going to the Cubs on Saturday for six years and $126 million — the biggest signing of this mostly-stalled free-agent market.

Not that Jake Arrieta is getting a contract that big, but there has been an expectation among baseball executives that once Darvish signed, a run on starting pitchers could follow quickly.

Indeed, teams like the Dodgers, Twins and Brewers, who were reportedly in on the Darvish bidding until the end, could turn their sights quickly to the likes of Arrieta, Lance Lynn, and Alex Cobb.

As for the Yankees, a source on Saturday said they backed off any pursuit of Darvish in recent weeks after having no luck finding a way to trade Jacoby Ellsbury to free up payroll room, with their priority still to stay under the $197 million luxury-tax threshold.

In any case, even if the Darvish signing sparks more activity, there are still 100 or so players looking for jobs, which should make for an especially fascinating spring training, as many surely will begin panicking and perhaps sign team-friendly deals.

Some of those signings will dramatically affect the outlook of one team or another, so while acknowledging that many scenarios could change before Opening Day, here are my Top 10 storylines around the majors going into Spring Training.

1. ALL EYES ON SHOHEI OHTANI

No player will be scrutinized more carefully during spring training than the so-called Babe Ruth of Japan. Not since Ruth, after all, has anyone thrived as both a hitter and a pitcher in the majors, and even The Babe gave up pitching eventually.

Ohtani’s decision to come over now and sign with the Angels, at age 23, rather than wait two years, when he could have signed for $200 million or so rather than $3 million, makes him all the more interesting.

It would be great for baseball if he’s truly good enough to hit as well as pitch, and even better if he helps make the Angels a serious contender, thereby giving Mike Trout a stage worthy of his status as the game’s best player.

2. STANTON/JUDGE AS PINSTRIPED ROCK STARS

It was only a couple of years ago the buzz was gone from George Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Fla., to the point where the spring training workouts were drawing maybe a couple of hundred people. Suffice it to say things will be different this year; I’m guessing Yankee fans will be lining up at dawn to get an up-close look the first day Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge will be taking BP.

The two behemoths will be a must-see spectacle, all right, giving the Yankees star power not seen since A-Rod showed up next to Jeter in the infield 14 years ago.

And, oh by the way, the championship expectations are back as well, after last year’s feel-good run to ALCS Game 7, but win or lose, the Yankees again will be the Beatles of baseball.

3. THE EPIC RED SOX-J.D. MARTINEZ STAREDOWN

The Sox desperately need Martinez’s power to bulk up a lineup that finished last in the league in home runs in 2017. Meanwhile, Martinez desperately wants the $200 million payday that Scott Boras promised him, and is talking tough about holding firm even though there is no sign another team is willing to pay the $125 million the Sox reportedly have offered.

Of all the who-blinks-first staredowns in this free-agent freeze, this one is the most compelling. Have to believe the Sox will bend at some point, as GM Dave Dombrowski is under huge pressure to counter the Yankees’ trade for Stanton.

4. THE BRYCE HARPER COUNTDOWN TO FREE AGENCY

Talk about drama: the Nationals are the great postseason underachievers of this decade, and now they’re on the clock with Harper moving toward the door as the most highly-anticipated free agent since Alex Rodriguez back in 2000.

Is this the year they break through? Barring an improbable contract-extension during the season, the pressure will build as Harper gets closer to free agency, and assuming the Nats reach the postseason for the fourth time in the last six seasons, it could be suffocating come October.

5. CLAYTON KERSHAW’S OPT-OUT CLAUSE

Talk about drama, the west-coast version: Kershaw’s opt-out hasn’t been subject to years of speculation, as has Harper’s pending free agency, partly because it’s hard to imagine the Dodgers, with all of their money, letting him walk at any price.

But who knows? The years of failing to get over the hump in the postseason might be wearing on the best pitcher in baseball, and the Dodgers too, especially if they fall short again this season.

Is it possible LA would draw a line in the negotiating sand, especially considering Kershaw’s back issues the last couple of years, if the bidding gets too high? In a related story, the Yankees will have re-set their luxury tax percentage by then, and have mountains of money to spend.

6. THE MICKEY CALLAWAY EXPERIMENT

The Mets say they were sold on Callaway as a first-time manager largely by his high-energy personality and leadership qualities, but let’s be real: they took a gamble that the Indians’ former pitching coach can be a horse whisperer of sorts to their once-ballyhooed starting rotation.

Callaway is impressive to talk to in person, no doubt. He is bringing forward-thinking, injury-prevention methods from Cleveland, as well as a track record for success with that Indians’ staff, and I can see that combination being a difference-maker for the Mets.

That said, I still think signing Lance Lynn, as much-needed protection against more injuries, is the move that could all but assure the Mets of returning to serious contention.

7. THE ASTROS ARE BUILT TO REPEAT

Or so it would seem, but nobody has done it since the Joe Torre Yankees had their three-peat in 1998-99-2000, so obviously it takes more than talent. It was only a year ago the Cubs seemed a good bet to follow up on their 2016 title, and instead they never really did shake off the hangover that came with it.

Still, with their still-getting-better nucleus of position-player stars, and a starting rotation that now includes Gerrit Cole, in addition to Dallas Keuchel, Justin Verlander, and Lance McCullers, the Astros should run away with the AL West again.

If that leads to a playoff rematch with the Yankees, man, that would be fun.

8. BEWARE THE CUBS

They overpaid for Darvish, going to a sixth year to lock up a guy who is coming off a terrible World Series — pitch-tipping or not. Still, they needed a high-end starter, and Darvish unquestionably has ace-like stuff that will provide enough dominance over 30 starts to all but assure the Cubs of winning the NL Central again.

No less significant, a year removed from ending their 108-year title drought, this still-young team figures to be as motivated again as it was sluggish last year, hungry for another title.

9. MANNY MACHADO IS STILL AN ORIOLE

But for how long? The Orioles don’t look like legit contenders, especially compared to the Yankees and Red Sox in the AL East, and they’ve all but declared they can’t pay what it will take to keep Machado when he hits free agency next winter.

So after shopping him the last couple of months, surely they’ll put Machado up for bid at the July trade deadline unless they prove to be a surprise team. At that point, even if the Yankees would prefer to sign him as a free agent, he’d probably be the most highly-sought player at the trade deadline.

10. DEREK JETER AS A LOSER

The former Yankee captain has known nothing but winning at all phases of a life Joe Girardi once said was more like a movie, but suddenly he finds himself an unpopular owner after trading off Stanton and other Marlins stars, all but ensuring his team will be the worst in baseball in 2018.

It’s all part of his rebuilding plan, but Jeter is already under fire in Miami for the way he’s handled things, and he’s bothered by it, as evidenced by the expansive access he gave to SI’s Tom Verducci recently. So how he handles the heat when the Marlins are 25 games under .500 by July should be quite fascinating.

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By John Harper

New York Daily News