Players To Watch
1. Mookie Betts: Last season was a revelation for the Red Sox center fielder, who hit well (.291, with 18 homers and 77 RBI in 144 games), played the outfield with a flair that drew comparisons to Willie Mays and used a perpetual smile to win over both teammates and fans.
2. Giancarlo Stanton: Before breaking his hand last June, the Miami slugger was on pace to hit 50 home runs — more often than not moon shots. Owner of the richest contract in sports history ($325 million over 13 years), Stanton will be mentioned in trade rumors involving teams with deeper pockets than the Marlins.
3. Kyle Schwarber: Called up from the minors last summer by the Cubs, the rookie took little time establishing himself as a cult figure at Wrigley Field. And though Schwarber’s defensive liabilities were exposed in the playoffs, Cubs manager Joe Maddon sees him as a left fielder with the ability to serve as a back-up catcher.
4. Yoenis Cespedes: You can’t take your eyes off the Mets’ basher when he steps to the plate or, for that matter, when the ball is hit to him in left field. Cespedes has the arm to throw a homeward-bound dart from the warning track, but he’s prone to the misplays that turn singles into inside-the-park home runs.
5. Taijuan Walker: The Mariners’ 23-year old right-hander appeared overwhelmed through the first two months of last season. Then he figured things out, going 10-3 with a 3.62 ERA in his last 20 starts.
Teams On The Rise
1. Arizona Diamondbacks: They won 15 more games in 2015 than they did in 2014 and bolstered their rotation by obtaining Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller over the winter. Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock are as formidable a hitting duo as any in the league.
2. Washington Nationals: Touted as division favorites a year ago, the Nats were derailed by injuries and never achieved the September momentum required to make a run at the Mets.
3. Cleveland Indians: Michael Brantley and Jason Kipnis anchor a lineup with some holes, but the moment shortstop Francisco Lindor was called up last summer, the Tribe’s defense went from indifferent to competent.
4. Atlanta Braves: Trading Miller to Arizona produced an infusion of talent (prospects Dansby Swanson and Aaron Blair and outfielder Ender Inciarte) that will put the Braves in position to contend long after they relocate to suburban Atlanta in 2017.
5. Seattle Mariners: Despite a barren farm system, general manager Jerry Dipoto was able to retool his team with several cost-effective moves designed to provide a home-field advantage.
Teams On The Decline
1. Baltimore Orioles: When they’re not swinging and missing, they’re prone to hitting 400-foot home runs that turn 8-3 defeats into 8-6 defeats.
2. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: Mike Trout is a future Hall-of-Famer in his prime, Albert Pujols will be a threat as long as he’s capable of swinging a bat without wincing, and Kole Calhoun is a rangy right fielder who’s got power. Otherwise, there isn’t a lot to suggest the Angels are trending in the right direction.
3. St. Louis Cardinals: Against all odds, they managed to win 100 games last season. But the Cards had no juice left in their batteries during the playoffs, and there’s reason to suspect the team’s October struggles will carry over into 2016.
4. San Francisco Giants: Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija add starting-pitching depth behind Madison Bumgarner, but the outfield is aging and it’s fair to wonder if the window hasn’t closed.
5. Tampa Bay Rays: Starter Chris Archer might be on the cusp of superstardom, but the bullpen is shaky, the lineup has trouble scoring runs, and few nights are easy in the balanced AL East.
Rookies To Watch
1.Corey Seager: The ballyhooed Dodgers’ shortstop prospect looked like the real deal during his 27-game call-up last season.
2. Joey Gallo: He’ll never hit for average in Texas, but his home-run potential is unquestioned. As a third baseman whose road to the bigs has been impeded by Adrian Beltre, Gallo might have to be patient as the Rangers ponder his potential in left field.
3. Steven Matz: The New York native made three postseason starts for the 2015 Mets, yet remains a rookie.
4. Trea Turner: At 22, the Nationals figure they don’t need to put their future everyday shortstop on a fast lane to the big club. He’ll open the season at Triple-A.
5. Jose Berrios: The Twins pitching prospect, a two-time starter in the Futures Game, led the minor leagues in strikeouts last season.
1. Barry Bonds will not make it to the finish line as the Marlins’ hitting instructor.
2. Nats outfielder Bryce Harper, 23, will become the youngest Triple Crown winner since Ty Cobb in 1909.
3. The idea of reviving Havana, former spring-training home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, will gain some traction.
4. Vin Scully’s last call, after 67 seasons in the Dodgers’ broadcast booth, will become the most remembered call of his career.
5. The Cubs will win the World Series, transforming them from lovable losers into insufferable champions.