Currently, the National Football League (NFL) dominates American sports. The San Francisco 49ers will contest the 2024 Super Bowl (Feb 11) against the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs in Las Vegas. Following the professional football title game, many fans will likely shift to supporting their favorite Major League Baseball (MLB) teams.
Spring Training Overview
Baseball players and coaches report to their respective team’s Spring Training home a few days after the Super Bowl. The preseason Grapefruit (Florida) and Cactus (Arizona) League games start following a week of practices, during which teams give their starting players needed playing time and get an up-close look at the emerging young talent bubbling in their farm systems.
The 30 MLB teams split down the middle, with the Houston Astros and all the East Coast teams holding base camp in Florida and most of the Midwest and all West Coast squads removing offseason rust in Arizona. The Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres have to show up a couple of days before all of the other teams as the two division rivals kick off the 2024 season with a two-game series in Seoul, South Korea, on March 20, eight days before other teams’ opening games.
While all 30 professional baseball teams will be worth checking out as they respectively prepare for the grueling campaign, the following five should be particularly enticing to observe.
Ones to Watch
1) Los Angeles Dodgers
The LA Dodgers, arguably the offseason winner, will be the first squad to report to Spring Training, where their new superstars will work on establishing relationships with the rest of the team on and off the field. Most notably, former Tampa Bay Rays’ ace Tyler Glasnow and Japanese sensations Shohei Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto will team up with returning stars Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman for the first time.
Although preseason games don’t mean anything, they will allow Ohtani and Glasnow to get comfortable in their new surroundings and give Yamamoto valuable experience facing Major League hitters before his first MLB season. Expectations are exorbitantly high for the Dodgers this year because of how stacked their roster is, and the Cactus League will be the first opportunity for fans, journalists, and others to check them out.
Over the last few years, the Dodgers have racked up wins in the regular season, only to fall apart in the playoffs. They hope the new additions will lead to a different outcome this fall.
2) Cleveland Guardians
2024 marks a changing of the guard for the Cleveland Guardians as rookie manager Stephen Vogt replaces retired future Hall-of-Famer Terry Francona. Vogt, seen as a future manager during his playing days, ascended the coaching ranks quite quickly, getting this position after serving as a Seattle Mariners coach last year.
The small-market Guardians have made minimal impactful transactions this offseason, keeping ace pitcher Shane Bieber despite all the trade rumors swirling around the former Cy Young Award winner. Vogt’s MLB catching experience could prove pivotal to the future success of talented second-year pitchers Tanner Bibee and Gavin Williams, both expected to be the future leaders of the Guardians’ rotation.
With the Minnesota Twins shedding talent and seemingly taking a step back, the door is open for pitching-led Cleveland to seize the division if Vogt and his coaching staff can squeeze a little more offense out of the team. Their three best hitters–third baseman José Ramirez, second baseman Andrés Giménez, and first baseman/designated hitter Josh Naylor–need more support. Outfielder Ramón Laureano, now playing under his former teammate in Oakland, is a potential x-factor if he can stay healthy and return to the level he was playing at before he got suspended for steroids.
In a weird coincidence, Vogt’s first game as manager will be in Oakland against the team with which he enjoyed the best years of his playing career.
3) Chicago Cubs
So far, the Cubs have patched small holes but have yet to finalize a blockbuster splash in the player market. They bolstered their bullpen by trading for former Dodger Yency Almonte and signing free-agent reliever Héctor Neris. They also landed Japanese free-agent pitcher Shota Imanaga to replace Marcus Stroman in their starting rotation. While these moves look nice on the surface, they need to be topped off by Chicago re-signing Cody Bellinger if the team wants to be taken seriously in 2024. Bellinger was a big part of their offense last year, becoming a fan-favorite in a rebound season.
If the club does manage to bring him back, it would only generate more excitement among fans at Spring Training and going into the regular season.
4) Atlanta Braves
The Atlanta Braves were an exciting team to watch in 2023 as Spencer Strider overpowered opposing batters on the mound, and the team’s offense, led by Ronald Acuña Jr and Matt Olson, became the first team ever to hit over 300 home runs and steal at least 100 bases in one season.
All the key contributors from last year return and are joined by offseason additions outfielder Jarred Kelenic and pitcher Chris Sale, two players at opposite ends of their careers but expected to play significant roles on this year’s Braves squad. Look for the Braves to start showing their all-around potential come Spring Training as they strive to make it seven straight division titles.
5) Oakland Athletics
Unlike these other teams, the Oakland Athletics, often seen as the Triple-A team of the MLB, enter Spring Training with fans who may feel more frustrated than excited. There is a strong likelihood of the “sell the team” chant fans started at home games last year carrying over to preseason and beyond because of the owner John Fisher’s lack of success running this team.
He is still having trouble building a new stadium in his chosen destination of Las Vegas rather than just trying to keep the team in Oakland or selling to someone who will. While the off-the-field drama will continue to plague this franchise, Spring Training will once again serve as an opportunity to see the newest crop of A’s young players (Zack Gelof, Shea Langeliers, Lawrence Butler) in action before they inevitably get traded or not re-signed once they continue to perform well.
Spring Training is a pivotal time on the professional baseball calendar as it allows players (and fans) to prepare for the upcoming season in a fun atmosphere under less-pressure circumstances. This period lays the groundwork for what teams can expect over the next few months, and usually, teams that come in prepared and stay healthy and prepared have successful seasons.
Main Image: Rob Schumacher/The Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK