PLAYERS TO WATCH
1 Eric Thames: Released from the 2013 Rainiers so the Mariners could clear room on their 40-man roster for Franklin Gutierrez, the 30-year-old journeyman put his power-and-speed game together in South Korea’s KBO league. Thames’ 2016 numbers -- .321, with 40 homers and 121 RBIs -- intrigued the Brewers to the point they signed the left-hand hitting first baseman to a three-year, $16 million contract.
2 Andrew Miller: Thanks to Cleveland manager Terry Francona, who last season called upon Miller to help the Indians escape from mid-game jams, the lefty has changed the belief that a conventional closer must be saved for the save. Miller made three playoff appearances out of the bullpen in the fifth inning, finishing with a 1.40 ERA over a postseason-record 19 innings in relief.
3 Pablo Sandoval: A Giants fan favorite known for his clutch hitting and less-than-Greek physique, “Kung Fu Panda” signed a five-year, $95-million free-agent contract with Boston in 2015. The deal backfired, as the third baseman expanded from panda to walrus. He showed up at spring training conspicuously slimmer, with a swing that suggests he’s on the cusp of a dramatic comeback.
4 Jason Heyward: Another potential comeback saga involving a “What We’re They Thinking?” contract worth $184-million. Heyword’s abysmal batting production was one of the few things that went wrong for the 2016 Cubs, but with the help of hitting instructors, he made some adjustments over the winter. Heyword’s dedication to his craft never was in doubt.
5 Kevin Kiermaier: Outfielders with a lifetime .258 batting average and 32 career home runs must excel at something. Kiermaier excels with his glove. He was credited with 25 defensive runs saved last season.
All items on this page by staff writer John McGrath: firstname.lastname@example.org
1 Colorado Rockies: After six consecutive losing seasons, the Rox will celebrate their silver-anniversary campaign by contending for the playoffs. Manager Bud Black is a former pitcher who’ll make all the right moves with a quality starting staff, and he’ll have fun posting a monster lineup built around MVP candidate Nolan Arenado.
2 Tampa Bay Rays: The bar isn’t set very high after 68 victories. If the Rays can improve on their 13-27 record in one-run games last season -- make it, say, 20-20 -- they’re flirting with respectability. And if they turn 13-27 into 27-13, they’re contending for the playoffs.
3 Minnesota Twins: The numbers crunchers at Baseball Prospectus figure the Twins winning 80 games. It sounds like a stretch, but there’s some young talent on this team ready for prime time.
4 Oakland Athletics: Was it all that long ago when general manager Billy Beane had a reputation as a genius? Beane remains a baseball visionary who sees bullpen depth as the wave of the future. There might not be a better one-two punch than Sean Doolittle and Santiago Casilla.
5 Arizona Diamondbacks: The front office was fractured last year, as was the elbow of All-Star center fielder A.J. Pollock. Both appear to be healed.
1 Baltimore Orioles: They’ve qualified for the playoffs three times in the past five years, but relying on home runs to outscore opponents becomes a perilous tactic in October, when the air turns cool and damp. It’s all about pitching at some point, and the O’s don’t have enough.
2 New York Mets: Some of the most dominant arms in the business belong to the Mets, but the name that keeps resonating in any discussion about the star-crossed rotation belongs to a junk-ball throwing lefty who retired in 1989: Tommy John.
3 St. Louis Cardinals: Redbirds are NL Central’s version of the Mets: Perennial contenders whose talented starting pitchers can’t stay healthy. PECOTA projections of a 76-win season might seem harsh, but you get the idea. If the Cards come close to duplicating their 86-76 record, Mike Matheny is a frontrunner for Manager of the Year.
4 Texas Rangers: They won 95 games in 2016 with a run differential of 765-757, which in theory translates to an 82-80 record. All those last at-bat heroics were magical, but nothing in baseball is less sustainable than magic.
5 Miami Marlins: The opening day starter is Wei-Yin Chen, whose 2016 numbers -- 10-12, with a 4.16 ERA -- would profile the lefty as the fourth of fifth starter in a more competent rotation.
1 Dansby Swanson: Braves shortstop is a “rookie” only in technicality. He got called up for 38 games last season and hit .302.
2 Hunter Renfroe: Padres outfielder tore up the PCL in 2016, then hit four homers in 11 games with the big club.
3 Andrew Benintendi: Another rookie who’s not really a rookie, Benintendi made the most of his late-season promotion to Boston last year, driving in 14 runs over 34 games.
4 Yulieski Gurriel: A 32-year-old defector from Cuba, the Astros third baseman looked major league ready last September.
5 Yoan Moncada: Obtained by the White Sox in their trade of pitcher Chris Sale to the Red Sox, the second baseman has found scouts likening him to a speedier version of Robinson Cano.
1 Although Tim Tebow has next to no chance of advancing to the majors, he’ll hang tough in Class A, and his pro baseball career will last longer than Michael Jordan’s.
2 The Rays might draw a sellout crowd for their June 10 date against the A’s in Tampa Bay, where fans will be lured by an extinct promotion: A single-admission doubleheader, MLB’s first since 2011.
3 In the spirit of Phil Umber, a pitcher whose name you’ve never heard before will throw a perfect game.
4 Despite cutting the minute or so it used to take pitchers to execute the now-automatic intentional walk, average time of game will increase as fifth inning calls to the bullpen become more frequent.
5 Mariners outfielder Mitch Haniger will receive enough Rookie of the Year votes to finish in the Top Five.