In normal years, spring training is already a time in which fans hyper-focus on their own team, and for good reason. Between position battles, the first glimpses of new free agent and trade acquisitions, and the allure of top prospects playing alongside the big leaguers, there’s no time to look around and see what else is going on.
This rings true even more so than usual in 2021, as the travel limitations have meant that the Yankees have only faced five other teams in spring training games this winter — the Toronto Blue Jays, Baltimore Orioles, Philadelphia Phillies, Detroit Tigers, and Pittsburgh Pirates — limiting the opportunities to learn what news is buzzing around other teams’ camps.
So, what has been going on with the Yankees’ division rivals? Let’s get up to speed.
The O’s are, once again, not looking forward to a very competitive season, but they have the best feel-good story of spring training: Trey Mancini, who missed the entirety of the 2020 season due to Stage 3 colon cancer, is back. The 29-year-old first baseman/corner outfielder said upon his return two weeks ago, “There were times, especially when I was diagnosed early on where I wasn’t totally sure if I was ever going to play baseball again...just being able to feel like myself, feel great and participate in everything fully is something I’m very appreciate of and I don’t take for granted at all.”
Mancini received a very nice ovation just before his first spring training at-bat:
While there are several Yankees who could be candidates for the AL Comeback Player of the Year Award, I can’t help but root for Mancini here.
Outside of that, there’s not all that much to report. Cedric Mullins and Austin Hays have both impressed in the battle for the starting center field job, which has prompted manager Brandon Hyde to discuss the possibility of putting both in an outfield rotation along with Anthony Santander and Ryan Mountcastle. Chris Davis, meanwhile, has a back strain, and may start the season on the injured list; given how poorly Davis has played in recent years, and given that general manager Mike Elias said that back injuries can “linger,” don’t be surprised if he ends up staying on the injured list quite awhile, similar to Jacoby Ellsbury.
For the second straight season, the narrative in Boston’s camp is, quite firmly, “What went wrong?” Just three years ago, the Red Sox were on top of the world, winning 108 games en route to a World Series championship with an outfield trio of Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi, and Jackie Bradley Jr. that looked like it could give the division headaches for a generation. Just two years later, however, that entire outfield is gone, and with David Price joining Betts in Los Angeles and Chris Sale recovering from Tommy John surgery, the rotation is projected to be only a slight improvement over last year’s, which was the worst in the majors according to fWAR.
Still, there are some exciting storylines coming out of Boston’s camp. The Red Sox rotation has some potential upside, with Eduardo Rodríguez, Nathan Eovaldi, Garrett Richards, and Martín Pérez looking to be their top four guys at the start of the year. In another feel-good story, Rodríguez, who missed the entirety of the 2020 season due to COVID-related myocarditis (a heart inflammation), has been pitching well enough to be in the conversation to be the team’s Opening Day starter.
Other than that though, Boston is in a strange boat, as a team trying to reinvent its identity, having lost so many key pieces over the last few years. The only lineup regulars still in town from 2018 are Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, Christian Vázquez, and J.D. Martinez. More than anything else, the most common refrain that seems to be coming out of the Boston blog sphere has been some variation of, “Who are the new Red Sox?”
Last season cannot be described in any other way but as a resounding success for the Rays. They won the division easily, seemed to have the Yankees’ number all year, and only fell short because they faced an absolute buzzsaw in the Los Angeles Dodgers. With a top of the rotation trio of Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, and Charlie Morton, a potential breakout star in Randy Arozarena, and an elite farm system, they looked like a team poised to start a run as one of baseball’s goliaths.
And then they decided to ... well, they didn’t exactly tear things down by trading Snell and letting Morton walk in free agency, but they didn’t go all-in, either. For the most part, the winter was spent shopping in the bargain bin, making a run at several starting pitchers — including both Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon — but ultimately settling on Michael Wacha, Rich Hill, and old friend Chris Archer. Luis Patiño, who they acquired in the Snell deal, should contend for a rotation spot as well. That said, these are the Rays, and somehow, they always seem to build a mansion out of rusty nails and Post-it Notes, at least when it comes to pitching.
The only other big storyline seems to be top prospect Wander Franco and how he will fit on the team. Significantly, according to Sports Illustrated, it appears that second baseman Brandon Lowe has been taking reps at third base for precisely this purpose.
Toronto Blue Jays
At this point in time, is there a more exciting division rival than the Toronto Blue Jays? Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, they will be opening the season not in Canada, but at their newly-renovated spring training site in Dunedin, Florida, where they will call home for at least the month of April. Additionally, due to the fact that several spring training games are not broadcast anywhere, they’ve installed a “Field Cam” that will livestream non-broadcast games.
Oh, and their on-the-field product is exciting, too. The team was incredibly active in free agency, and although they whiffed early and often, they nonetheless reeled in their big prize, outfielder George Springer, and a pretty good sidekick for him in infielder Marcus Semien.
With a dominant lineup even before these latest two additions and an ace atop the rotation in Hyun-Jin Ryu, the Blue Jays took the same strategy as the Yankees and Red Sox did in building their 2021 rotation, mixing together some high-risk free agent and trade acquisitions (Robbie Ray and Steven Matz) with prospects (Nate Pearson) in the hope that some good comes about. Unfortunately for Toronto, Pearson looks like he will miss Opening Day due to a groin strain.
Aside from the optimism that always comes after a young team’s arrival and a big-name acquisition though, Toronto’s spring training has been mostly quiet. Well, other than perhaps Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s bat.