Baseball is back.
The opening week of Spring Training can mean something a little different to everyone. Maybe it's seeing those favorite star players "in the best shape of their lives" or looking at how new acquisitions fit the uniform or basking in the glory of calling your team "the defending World Series champions." (What's up, Cubs fans?)
For prospectphiles, there's a multitude of storylines to follow -- players looking to solidify their chance to make the Majors, roster long shots, those just getting their first taste of Spring Training -- muddying any singular, overarching themes connecting them. To help make sense of the possibilities, below are the seven types of prospects to be found in the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues this spring:
1. Sure-fire MLB roster makers: This spring might be one of the last chances we get to call some of the game's best young players "prospects" before they lose eligibility. Red Sox outfielder Andrew Benintendi and Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson, both of whom rank among MLB.com's top four overall prospects, are already penciled in as Opening Day starters for their respective clubs and will likely be excised from prospect lists by the end of April. (Swanson needs only one more at-bat to cross the 130 threshold needed to no longer be considered a prospect.)
Elsewhere, Pirates first baseman Josh Bell (No. 27), Cubs center fielder Albert Almora Jr. (75) and Padres outfielders Manuel Margot (23) and Hunter Renfroe (42) seem like good bets to begin 2017 in the Majors after getting looks at the highest level last season. In the case of all five, this spring will be about showing they haven't made any steps backward and can compete comfortably against Major League competition. (Note: Bell is still recovering from knee surgery but is expected to play in games before camp breaks.) In other words, don't get too worried that this group will be sent back to the Minors, even if the spring numbers aren't stellar out of the gate.
2. Roster contenders: This was covered in-depth as part of our Prospect Projection series a couple weeks back. (Start here in the NL West and work back.) To reiterate, there are several Top-100 prospects who aren't sure bets to crack the Majors on Opening Day but who are under serious consideration. In most cases they're attempting to take the final spot in the starting rotation -- for example, Tyler Glasnow (Pirates), Jeff Hoffman (Rockies), Luke Weaver (Cardinals) and Robert Stephenson (Reds). Or they're trying to show their offensive capability is ready for regular at-bats -- Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge is a leading case study there. (His monster home run last week was certainly a point in his favor.) Cardinals catcher Carson Kelly also fits this group, but it's more likely he's fighting to show St. Louis he's ready to be Yadier Molina's understudy. As much as we hesitate to quote Spring Training stats, strong campaigns in Florida and Arizona could be what puts this group over the edge, especially if they show major improvements in previous weaknesses, such as control with Glasnow or contact rate with Judge.
3. Dreamers: Of course it would be nice to know where top prospects will begin the 2017 season from the moment they arrive in camp, that's not simply the case. For a select few, there's an outside chance they'll surprise with their performance and force their way into the Majors after entering Spring Training off the big league radar. That was the case with Red Sox center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. in 2013 after he hit .419 with a 1.120 OPS in 28 Grapefruit League contests. Last year, Tyler White, a 33rd-round pick in 2013, initially beat out former top prospects A.J. Reed and Jon Singleton for the Astros' starting first baseman job.
Spring Training can be a time for these "dreamers" to achieve their ultimate goal, even if service-time concerns have reduced their chances in recent years. So who could fit that bill in 2017? Perhaps outfielder Lewis Brinson with the Brewers after he homered twice in an exhibition and started 4-for-8 in his first four Cactus League games. (It'd probably take an injury to Keon Broxton to make that happen, however.) Though no longer a Top-100 prospect, middle infielder Gavin Cecchini with the Mets may also fit, given that he's gone 6-for-11 with a homer, double and stolen base as he competes for a bench job. Relief prospects such as Joe Jimenez (Tigers) and Zack Burdi (White Sox) always have a fighting chance as teams try to fill out their bullpens with the best arms possible. (Detroit manager Brad Ausmus called Jimenez an "extreme long shot" this week, but he did say there's a chance.)
Is it easier to choose a more established veteran over a raw but more talented prospect who could better grow into his potential in the Minors? Sure. But that's not going to stop us, or them, from thinking about the possibility of those prospects forcing their way up earlier than previously thought.
4. Hoping to make an impression: Many of our prospect-related stories entering Spring Training revolve around which players earned non-roster invitations to Major League camp. Combine those players with the folks on the back end of 40-man rosters, and you've got a group of prospects in the Major League clubhouse, wearing big league uniforms, hoping they can show the organization that they're not far from becoming a contributor at the highest level. These include Pirates outfielder Austin Meadows, Braves infielder Ozzie Albies, Dodgers first baseman/outfielder Cody Bellinger, Phillies shortstop J.P. Crawford, Rays shortstop Willy Adames, Yankees outfielder Clint Frazier, Reds left-hander Amir Garrett, Reds outfielder Jesse Winker and Brewers left-hander Josh Hader. Basically, this group includes prospects with some base level of Triple-A experience who aren't quite ready for the Majors but want to show top brass they're not far away either. If injuries or slumps strike, they'll be just a level away, whether it's in late April, after the Super Two cutoff in June or even after the All-Star break. This is the time to plant the seeds.
It doesn't necessarily stop with Triple-A-level players either. Prospects slotted for Double-A can show they've grown enough to put a 2017 debut in reach. That's where uber-talented New York shortstops Gleyber Torres (Yankees) and Amed Rosario (Mets) and Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers could shine. Torres, in particular, is off to a good start in that regard by going 5-for-7 with two doubles in five games. Even if these are incredibly small samples, they could be the beginning of the momentum that pushes these youngsters to the Majors.
5. New faces in new places: Please allow them to introduce themselves. ... The members of this group are making their organizational debuts on the fly in spring workouts, giving clubs an opportunity to see what they've got for the first time in their own colors. The White Sox trio of second baseman Yoan Moncada and right-handers Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez are the obvious fits here after coming over in offseason deals involving Chris Sale and Adam Eaton. All three saw their Major League careers get off to rough starts in 2016, but with Chicago clearly in rebuild mode, none of them needs to feel rushed entering the spring and can focus on developing the skills that made them top prospects to begin with.
Rays righty Jose De Leon, acquired from the Dodgers in January for second baseman Logan Forsythe, doesn't necessarily have that same luxury as he competes for a spot in the Tampa Bay rotation during his first trip to the Grapefruit League. If he's going to take that spot from Matt Andriese or Alex Cobb, he'll need to be better than he was Thursday, when he allowed four earned runs to the Red Sox in just two-thirds of an inning.
These new organizations will undoubtedly welcome the new talent entering their systems, but they won't be afraid to test them either.
6. Cameos: If you have the ability to see a Grapefruit or Cactus League game in person or on TV, be prepared for the odd surprise. Yes, even when 40 players are on the roster and several others are given non-roster invites, there are still occasions in which players from Minor League camp are brought up for a couple at-bats or innings. This will usually happen in split-squad games when more roster spots are needed, particularly in road games in which Major Leaguers prefer not to travel. That's how we get to see 19-year-old Nationals outfielder Victor Robles, who has played all of 41 games at Class A Advanced in 2016, suit up in the same game as Miguel Cabrera. Even 19-year-old Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna, who played only 40 contests for Class A Rome last season, is already making the most of his time when called upon, going 5-for-7 in four Grapefruit games. Reds third baseman and No. 2 overall pick Nick Senzel could fill this role as well at some point after not getting a big league invite, even if he looks like the type of player who could climb quickly in 2017.
7. The injured: The return of baseball also means the return of injury news unfortunately. So even if we're talking about the ascent of some prospects in Florida and Arizona, we must be prepared for stories like those of Cardinals right-hander Alex Reyes and Twins outfielder Alex Kirilloff -- both of whom will miss the 2017 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery this spring. But the spring also means the return of the previously injured -- such as right-handers James Kaprielian (Yankees), Walker Buehler (Dodgers) and Cal Quantrill (Padres). Their comebacks are likely going on in the backfields rather than in more highly publicized game action, but it's comforting to know they're back in action in the first place. Spring, after all, is a time for renewal.