From Juan Soto as a Yankee to Dodgers-Padres in South Korea: 10 things to watch in spring training

If you think Punxsutawney Phil is a ruse, wait until you hear about spring training.

Hello, everyone. Jake Mintz and Jordan Shusterman here at Yahoo Sports, our shiny, new home for all the insightful baseball analysis and irrelevant gobbledegook you’ve come to expect from Céspedes Family BBQ. It’s an exciting day for us, an invigorating opportunity in a new uniform, with a new group of teammates to meet. If you’re familiar with us, ‘sup; if you don’t know who we are, also ‘sup.

Anyway, enough about us. Let’s get back to MLB’s version of Groundhog Day.

Not to be a Deborah Downer, but the return of pitchers and catchers is pretty much a false hope, the mid in mid-February. Those waves of athleisured-out ballplayers trudging into spring training complexes do not, actually, signal the turning of the season. Ahead of us remain six more weeks of baseball winter, with monotonous exhibition games, depressing injury reports and more waiting than the DMV.

Yet there are reasons for genuine optimism. A lack of consequence does not mean a lack of enjoyment. Spring training is an incubator for the bizarre and wonderful excuse to fully turn our attention to the upcoming campaign. The games might not count yet, but the sights and sounds and smells of baseball are indeed back in some form, and that alone is worth celebrating.

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Here are the 10 spring things we’re most looking forward to, starting with what we’ll be seeing IRL over the next week as we head to Florida and Arizona:

The Yankees. They have so much riding on this season. 2023 was the worst Yankees season since 1992. There were 26 teams in the league at that point. The Rockies, Marlins, Rays and D-backs didn’t even exist!

So much of the 2024 Yankees season, whether or not players and coaches admit it, will be about convincing Juan Soto to re-sign when he hits free agency after the season. As always, money will speak loudest, but the quality of Soto’s experience in the Bronx will play a role in determining what he wants for his future. That dynamic starts right away during spring camp. — Jake Mintz

2. Arizona is the center of the baseball universe

My first stop upon arrival in the desert will be Camelback Ranch. And sorry, as curious as I am about how the White Sox bullpen is going to shake out, I’m talking about the Dodgers. The thing I can’t quite shake about L.A.’s sensational spectacle of an offseason is the fact that this team made three different additions that could stand alone as massive headlines, and we’re now getting used to Shohei Ohtani, Yoshinobu Yamamoto and Tyler Glasnow being on the Dodgers at the same time.

Ohtani rules all, of course, and if his recent, loud batting practice session is any indication, elbow surgery isn’t going to stop him from terrorizing pitchers again this year. Meanwhile, his Samurai Japan teammate Yamamoto shows up with the largest free-agent contract a pitcher has ever signed and isn’t even top billing because of Ohtani. Glasnow is practically an afterthought, yet I can’t wait to hear how he has settled into his new long-term home, one that couldn’t possibly be more different from his first two teams in Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay. Oh, yeah, and Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman are still hanging out there, too. It’s gonna be a lot!

All that said, since I’m sure some people are already somewhat exhausted from hearing about the Yankees and Dodgers, I will add that I am especially looking forward to visiting the Reds and D-backs in Arizona, considering how drastically different the camp vibes — and expectations — should be compared to a year ago, when these teams were coming off 100- and 88-loss seasons, respectively. — Jordan Shusterman

3. It’s our first standard spring training in a while

This is set to be the first “normal” spring training since 2019. Both 2020 and 2021 were heavily impacted by COVID, 2022 was the lockout, and last season included all the World Baseball Classic madness. I’m sure most veteran players are incredibly excited to return to their typical, boring spring routines. Maybe a meteor shower in Phoenix cancels Cactus League games or Ron DeSantis bans baseball in Florida, but this year is certainly looking like a pivot back to normalcy. — J.M.

4. But wait, what about all those top-tier free agents still available? That’s not normal!

It’s true: Cody Bellinger, Blake Snell, Matt Chapman, Jordan Montgomery and J.D. Martinez — all of whom are represented by Scott Boras — are still looking for new teams. You might recall a similar dynamic unfolding the last time we had a “normal” spring training in 2019, when both Bryce Harper and Manny Machado remained unsigned as camps opened. In retrospect, it’s still hard to fathom that either player didn’t have more suitors, but we also know they were seeking truly titanic deals that only a handful of teams would consider.

That wouldn’t seem to be the case with this year’s crop, but Boras has yet to get any bites on his top guys. Let’s not fret too much, though — there’s still plenty of time, and I think we’ll see some action here soon. Five years ago, the majority of teams’ pitchers and catchers reported Feb. 13. Machado agreed to terms with San Diego on Feb. 19 and Harper with Philadelphia on Feb. 28. Having five free agents of this caliber still available might feel strange, but I’m not going to make too much of it unless they remain unsigned into March.

For Bellinger in particular, might we see him pull off a far more extravagant version of Dexter Fowler surprising his Cubs teammates a week into spring training 2016?

Like Fowler, Bellinger was a center fielder wearing No. 24 who endeared himself to the fan base in his first year on the North Side, and he would seem to be a great fit moving forward. He obviously would cost a whole lot more than the $8 million guaranteed Fowler got from Chicago eight years ago, but hey, 2016 went pretty well for the Cubs, didn’t it? This wouldn’t be the worst thing to try to replicate! — J.S.

Four of this winter's top 10 free agents are still looking for their new homes.

Four of this winter’s top 10 free agents are still looking for their new homes.

5. What does it mean to be in good shape?

Nothing says spring training like a player rolling up a few pounds lighter and telling the media he’s in “the best shape of his life.” There have already been photos of a much svelter Vlad Guerrero Jr. making the rounds.

But with advances in technology come advances in jargon, and it’s time to start talking about pitchers coming to camp with “the best pitch shape of their lives.” So many hurlers spend the winter tinkering in labs with high-tech cameras, figuring out how to optimize their pitch mix. Maybe Luis Severino has an elite changeup now. Maybe Kyle Hendricks is throwing 96. Maybe Spencer Strider has a knuckleball. Anything is possible. — J.M.

6. Can I admit something?

I might be comfortably in the 99th percentile of baseball-watchers worldwide in terms of total ball consumed over the course of a calendar year, but spring training baseball makes up a microscopic percentage of that. Sure, it’s comforting to throw a game on in the background and see our favorite stars wearing baseball pants again, but it’s awfully difficult to get invested in any game with zero stakes, especially when all the best players quite literally pack up and go home halfway through the game — not to mention the absolute chaos that unfolds in the box score once the wave of substitutions begins.

Bless those who watch every second of spring training like it’s the last baseball on Earth, but I prefer to spend February and March diving into the early weeks of the college baseball season with games that mean something, rather than watching big leaguers perform a glorified scrimmage. Send me home run highlights and Pitching Ninja .gifs all spring long — that’s fine with me. You just won’t catch me watching many full games. — J.S.

Jake Mintz and Jordan Shusterman are also bringing The Baseball Bar-B-Cast to Yahoo Sports.

Jake Mintz and Jordan Shusterman are also bringing The Baseball Bar-B-Cast to Yahoo Sports.

7. Forget the star players — it’s all about the down-roster battles

Beyond the fact that spring training games don’t count, most clubs already have about 22 of their 26 roster spots sketched out. So if you want high-level drama, check out the back of the roster. Just like on “Hard Knocks,” that’s where the tension bubbles — and we’re not talking about the top prospects whose futures are tremendously bright, whether or not they make the team out of spring training.

No, sign me up for the non-roster invitees wearing numbers like 65 and 92 and going all-out in split-squad games to catch somebody’s attention. Do yourself a favor: Find a non-star on your favorite team hustling on the edge of the roster, and get emotionally over-invested. — J.M.

8. Spring Breakout games are a welcome idea

This spring also brings the introduction of “Spring Breakout” games, a series of contests in March featuring exclusively top prospects from every organization. We get a small taste of this kind of action with the Futures Game during All-Star Week, but I love the idea of giving each team the opportunity to showcase its next wave of talent over the course of an entire game, rather than with a representative or two in a seven-inning exhibition that tends to get somewhat lost considering it takes place amid regular-season games in July.

March is a much better time to intentionally introduce young talent across the league to a broader audience and quite literally let the kids play — guys who relish the opportunity to compete in big-league spring training stadiums far more than the veterans who are going through the motions. These are easily the spring training games I am most looking forward to. — J.S.

Spring training brings renewed optimism, unlikely heroes, star players yet to sign and down-roster drama.

Spring training brings renewed optimism, unlikely heroes, star players yet to sign and down-roster drama.

9. Who will be the king of spring?

Mix together a wildly inconsistent level of competition and a small sample, and you can end up with some pretty hilarious statistical leaderboards by the end of spring training. We’ll never get tired of guys such as Kevin Newman hitting .600 or random journeymen absolutely taking over the Grapefruit League like Jake Fox did with the Orioles in 2011, when he hit 10 HR in 27 spring training games before hitting just two for Baltimore in 27 regular-season games and spending most of the year in Triple-A.

These inexplicable spring hot streaks are just a delicious, goofy appetizer for the regular season. And maybe it’s not all silliness! Matt Olson led spring training in homers last year with eight and proceeded to launch another 54 in the regular season, the most in MLB. (Don’t mind Mike Brosseau and Romy Gonzalez, who tied for second last spring with six homers apiece before combining for seven total dingers in the regular season.) — J.S.

10. Dodgers vs. Padres in Seoul is going to be incredible

Another callback to 2019 will be the return of an overseas series to open the season when the Dodgers take on the Padres on March 20 and 21 in Seoul, South Korea. It won’t quite be the emotional homecoming we saw with Ichiro playing his final games at the Tokyo Dome with the Mariners five years ago, but Ha-Seong Kim (and new reliever Woo-Suk Go) getting to play in the first-ever regular-season MLB games in South Korea should be a treat to watch. Clearly, MLB had that in mind when it announced the Padres’ inclusion in the game last year, and that was absolutely the right call.

At the same time, it’s pretty funny that Ohtani and potentially Yamamoto will make their Dodgers debuts at 3 a.m. in Los Angeles. That said, it’ll be a much easier watch for fans in Japan, a nice consolation considering that tickets to these historic games are expected to be limited primarily to Korean fans. No matter the time zone, it’ll be a fascinating way to start the season, especially with the rest of spring training continuing back home. In fact, the Dodgers and Padres will then play another couple of exhibition games in L.A. and San Diego before the “real” Opening Day on March 28. How weird is that? Our kind of weird, that’s for sure. — J.S.

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