Spring awakening: 15 players to watch as MLB camps open
Photo illustration by Nick Roy / theScore

Spring training is here, y'all.

Social media is finally awash with sun-splashed photos of dudes in shorts playing catch and grainy videos of bullpen sessions, much of it adorned with captions like #ItStartsHere or the eyeballs emoji. A deluge of stories from understimulated beat reporters about how Player X is in the best shape of his life will soon follow. This is what we waited for all winter. And it is, unequivocally, the good stuff.

So, before the joy of spring training's arrival morphs into monotony, let's identify one player from 15 likely contenders worth keeping an eye on over the next few weeks.

Atlanta Braves - Austin Riley, 3B

The Braves' unwillingness to match Minnesota's contract offer for Josh Donaldson evinces the confidence they still have in Riley despite his disappointing rookie season. They're right to be confident in the former first-round pick: Riley has hit at every minor-league level, often as one of the youngest players in his league, and he's a solid defender with a plus arm at third base. A lousy 80-game sample in the big leagues at 22 doesn't change his outlook. (Riley was displaced at third base in 2019 after the Braves signed Donaldson, bumping him into left field, a position he had never played professionally.)

Riley's starting job isn't guaranteed, as Johan Camargo is also vying for the gig. Riley has the higher ceiling by a not-insignificant margin, and Camargo is best used in a utility role. Still, Riley will need to perform this spring in order to pry the job from Camargo, who has enjoyed more success at the big-league level.

Boston Red Sox - Nathan Eovaldi, RHP

The Red Sox were going to need considerable improvement from their rotation to contend for a playoff spot in 2020 before they traded away Mookie Betts and David Price. Now, that's doubly true. Strong seasons from Chris Sale and Eduardo Rodriguez alone won't suffice to get the Red Sox, as currently constituted, into the wild-card game. As such, their remote postseason chances may well hinge on Eovaldi, the hard-throwing right-hander who played a pivotal role in their 2018 World Series championship and is currently the only other starter in their rotation with a modicum of upside.

Eovaldi, however, is coming off a miserable, injury-marred season in which he fashioned a 5.99 ERA over 67.2 innings. Between health and performance, Eovaldi is about as volatile as they come, but the Red Sox aren't going anywhere in 2020 without a resurgence from the 29-year-old, giving his spring an added layer of significance.

Chicago Cubs - Yu Darvish, RHP

No piece of trivia better sums up how stark Darvish's midseason turnaround was than this: Darvish walked as many batters in his 2019 season debut (seven) as he did from July 3 onward. Thanks to an incredible improvement in command just before the All-Star break, Darvish finished the season a solid 3.98 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, and a 31.3% strikeout rate.

But the disparity between his first and second halves begs the question as to which version of Darvish will show up in 2020. Will it be the dude who walked the yard for the first three months of 2019 and was essentially unstartable? Will it be the ace who managed a better FIP than Stephen Strasburg down the stretch? Or will it be something in between?

Cincinnati Reds - Nick Senzel, OF/IF

"Where is Nick Senzel going to play?" is undoubtedly the biggest question looming over Reds camp, where the former first-rounder has been displaced from the position he was bumped to last year (center field) because his natural position (third base) was - and will remain - occupied by power-hitting stud Eugenio Suarez. Center field now belongs to Shogo Akiyama, whom the Reds signed to a three-year deal this offseason, casting Senzel into positional purgatory. There's no room for him in right field with Nick Castellanos around, nor can Senzel slide in at second, which will be manned by Mike Moustakas.

That really only leaves left field, which would seem a poor use of his athleticism, and shortstop, which he may not be able to play. Senzel is still recovering from shoulder surgery, which may buy the Reds some time to figure this out. But he's already healed enough to take batting practice, meaning he could get into exhibition games at some point. It'll be interesting to see which position(s) he receives the most reps at in the days and weeks leading up to the start of Cactus League games.

Houston Astros - Kyle Tucker, OF

Tucker has nothing left to prove in the minors, having pummeled Pacific Coast League pitching for two years now despite only turning 23 last month. The former first-round pick put his bat on display during his brief stint with the big-league club in 2019, managing an .857 OPS in 22 games as a September call-up. (He was also included on all of the Astros' postseason rosters.) At this point, all that stands between him and an everyday job in the majors is Josh Reddick, who's an inferior hitter but is also owed $13 million this year in the final season of his contract.

Still, given Tucker's pedigree and strong record of raking in the minors, a torrid spring could perhaps compel new manager Dusty Baker to relegate Reddick to the fourth outfielder role - filled in years past by Jake Marisnick - and anoint Tucker the everyday right fielder. Regardless, if he hits, Tucker should make the roster and get opportunities to play somewhere: George Springer has topped 140 games in a season just once since becoming an everyday player in 2015, while Michael Brantley has also been a frequent visitor to the injured list throughout his career.

Los Angeles Angels - Jo Adell, OF

News that the Angels' trade for Joc Pederson had collapsed was, in all likelihood, music to Adell's ears. Now, Adell - a consensus top-five prospect who made it to Triple-A last season as a 20-year-old - heads into camp with a legitimate shot at making the team, as he no longer needs to displace an established veteran to secure an everyday role.

He isn't yet on the 40-man roster, but Adell seems to be in a head-to-head battle with Brian Goodwin for the Angels' third outfield spot. Even if Los Angeles has no intention of putting him on its Opening Day roster - keeping him down for a few weeks would allow the club to control his salary for seven years instead of six - a strong spring could put Adell in line for a mid-April promotion.

Los Angeles Dodgers - Dustin May, RHP

Competition for the last two spots in the Dodgers' rotation will be robust this spring, with several accomplished arms in the mix, but May has perhaps the highest ceiling of the club's starting options. The gangly, 6-foot-6 right-hander breezed through the upper levels of the minors in 2019 and finished his season with the big-league club, impressing enough over his first 14 appearances to earn a spot on the division series roster.

Unlike some of the Dodgers' other rotation hopefuls, May has minor-league options remaining. However, the 22-year-old - blessed with both plus control and a fastball that can touch 100 mph - could force the club's hand with a strong spring. (If he does break camp as a starter, May will have a chance to become the youngest Dodgers pitcher to qualify for the ERA title since Clayton Kershaw in 2010.

Minnesota Twins - Willians Astudillo, Util

Astudillo's oddball mystique wore off in 2019, as the portly utility man was exposed in his three intermittent stints in the majors. He managed a .268/.299/.379 slash line over 58 games before being omitted from Minnesota's division series roster. Now, with the Twins poised to compete for a World Series title in 2020, Astudillo's prospects of landing a big-league job seem grim, his fan-favorite status notwithstanding.

The Twins already have a solid backup to catcher Mitch Garver in veteran Alex Avila, and they don't need another super-utility player, either, with Marwin Gonzalez set to reclaim that job. (The Donaldson signing allows the Twins to move Miguel Sano to first, freeing up Gonzalez to fill in wherever he's needed on a given day.) In all likelihood, Astudillo will start the season in Triple-A and wait there until an injury necessitates a call-up. But another impressive spring - he hit .314/.333/.471 in 17 Grapefruit League games last year - could change that.

New York Mets - Dellin Betances, RHP

In a rare bit of positive news for the Mets, Betances, who signed a one-year pillow contract in December, declared earlier this week that he'll be ready for Opening Day. Still, "ready" isn't the same as "back to his old self," and it's fair to wonder what Betances can offer after a lost 2019 campaign. Relievers are volatile at the best of times, and Betances is currently working his way back from a pair of serious injuries - a torn Achilles and a shoulder impingement - that limited him to just two batters last season.

A healthy, rust-free Betances could give the Mets one of the game's top reliever duos in the majors, provided Edwin Diaz can overcome the home-run problem that spoiled his first season in Queens. But it remains to be seen just how much Betances' body will cooperate. His performance over the next six weeks should provide some sort of indication.

New York Yankees - Miguel Andujar, 3B

It's probably a stretch to say Gio Urshela's unlikely breakout last year rendered Andujar superfluous, but it definitely complicated the youngster's role moving forward. General manager Brian Cashman confirmed in January that Andujar, who missed all but a dozen games in 2019 because of a torn labrum, is now behind Urshela on the third base depth chart. And the DH spot is occupied, too, as Giancarlo Stanton should fill that role most days.

With no clear path to playing time in the infield, Andujar will take reps in the outfield in an effort to increase the opportunities to get his bat into the lineup. But the Yankees' depth out there is solid, too, even with Aaron Hicks expected to miss the first few months of the season. Of course, an injury could always open up a spot for Andujar, and the 24-year-old could also make the roster as a super-utility player (especially with the addition of the 26th roster spot). But Andujar won't be given those opportunities without a solid spring - not after missing virtually an entire season and not when he has minor-league options left.

Oakland Athletics - Jesus Luzardo, LHP

Frankie Montas was the Athletics' most valuable starter in 2019 by fWAR. This year, Jesus Luzardo, another relatively unknown youngster, could emerge as Oakland's best rotation arm. He's only 22, and his big-league resume comprises just a half-dozen relief appearances, but it's no exaggeration to say Luzardo is the most talented pitcher the Athletics have in camp this spring. Armed with a plus fastball and a plus changeup, the stocky left-hander has made mincemeat of the minor leagues, crafting a 2.53 ERA with 234 strikeouts over 195 2/3 professional innings, the bulk of which have come in the minors' upper levels. (He reached Triple-A at 19, which is decidedly not normal.)

Even with the juiced ball and hitter-friendly environs of the Pacific Coast League conspiring against him last year, Luzardo still managed a 3.19 ERA in seven Triple-A starts, wherein he notched 34 strikeouts while allowing just three home runs over 34 1/3 innings. In short, he's a stud - Baseball America recently pegged him as the ninth-best prospect in the game - and nothing short of a disastrous spring (or an injury) should stop him from opening the season in the Athletics' rotation.

Philadelphia Phillies - Jake Arrieta, RHP

Even after adding Zack Wheeler, the Phillies will need at least a modest resurgence from Jake Arrieta in order to field a postseason-caliber rotation in 2020. As such, coming off his worst season since his Baltimore days, the 33-year-old right-hander would be a person of interest this spring regardless, but his elbow surgery in August only compounds that.

Be sure to monitor Arrieta's velocity, which noticeably dipped prior to his surgery, as well as his ability to pound the strike zone. (Only 42.4% of the 2015 NL Cy Young winner's pitches ended up in the zone last season, according to FanGraphs, a career low.)

St. Louis Cardinals - Kwang-Hyun Kim, LHP

Few international pros arrive stateside with a resume as sterling as Kim's, which includes gold medals at the 2006 world junior championship, 2008 Olympics, and 2014 Asian Games, four KBO titles in 13 years with the SK Wyverns, and league MVP honors in 2008.

His production tailed off in the years following his MVP season, but Kim was born anew after undergoing Tommy John in 2017: Over his last two seasons in Korea, the 31-year-old fashioned a 2.68 ERA with a 4.56 strikeout-to-walk across 329 1/3 innings amid considerable improvement in his strike-throwing ability. His competition with Carlos Martinez for the fifth spot in the Cardinals' rotation is one of baseball's most fascinating position battles this spring.

Tampa Bay Rays - Johnny Davis, OF

For a position player who can't hit at all, Davis - owner of a .646 OPS across seven minor-league seasons - arrives at spring training with a decent chance of cracking the big-league roster. Why? Because he can run. Davis, who was seemingly done with affiliated ball until the Rays signed him out of the Mexican League last August, stole 54 bases in 106 games split between Dos Laredos and Oaxaca in 2019. The 29-year-old stretched the limits of Statcast after being summoned to the big leagues in September: His sprint speed was tracked at 30.5 feet per second, which would've ranked second best in the majors (behind Tim Locastro) had he received enough opportunities to qualify for the leaderboard.

While teams have historically been disinclined to carry pinch-running specialists until October, the addition of the 26th roster spot for 2020 means Davis has a legitimate shot at breaking camp.

Washington Nationals - Carter Kieboom, IF

Kieboom is a highly touted 22-year-old who made a brief, underwhelming cameo with the Nationals early in 2019. He arrives at spring training tasked with replacing Anthony Rendon - a franchise icon and one of the best players in the game - at third base. Here's the thing, though: Kieboom has played third base just 10 times in his professional career, having spent the majority of his four years in the minors at shortstop.

The Nationals have a substitute at the ready if Kieboom needs more time in the minors to work on his defensive chops, but the reigning champs would almost certainly prefer to have Asdrubal Cabrera in a utility role rather than an everyday one. The job is Kieboom's to lose, which means the pressure is on.

Jonah Birenbaum is theScore's senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.

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Spring awakening: 15 players to watch as MLB camps open
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