MLB spring training 2024: Key storylines, breakout teams

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Believe it or not, the 2024 MLB regular season begins in one week -- when the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres open play in Seoul, Korea on March 20 and 21 before all 30 teams take the field on March 28.

Before we turn our focus to the long season ahead, we asked ESPN MLB reporters who have been all over Arizona and Florida to break down what has stood out most to them during spring training.

From stars in the making to big names raking, here's what has caught our eyes.

Who is one player who has impressed you most in spring training?

Jorge Castillo: There's a guy named Juan Soto the New York Yankees acquired over the offseason, and he is smashing baseballs in spring training. We all expect Soto to rake. But he's made quite the impression on the Yankees in less than a month -- on and off the field. Gerrit Cole said he loves watching Soto in the batter's box. Aaron Boone said he expects Soto to kill the ball every time he's at the plate. Everyone seems to be raving about him.

Hitting in front of Aaron Judge should, on paper, give Soto plenty of pitches to hit. Playing at Yankee Stadium should provide him the intense environment he covets. It could be the recipe for an MVP performance -- and the ideal platform season entering free agency.

Alden Gonzalez: I know he isn't necessarily lacking in coverage, but still -- what Shohei Ohtani is already doing, less than six months removed from another major elbow surgery, is quite impressive. He was wowing Dodgers coaches and teammates with his first few rounds of on-field batting practice in early February, and he has been locked in throughout Cactus League play, with four walks and 11 hits -- including two homers, a double and a triple -- in 23 plate appearances.

Keep in mind: Ohtani missed the season's first month coming off his first Tommy John surgery in 2019. Now there is no question he'll be the Dodgers' designated hitter when they open up in South Korea, even though they'll start a week early.

Buster Olney: Reynaldo Lopez threw three hitless innings in our exhibition broadcast against the Red Sox and his stuff was absolutely filthy. Lopez was an under-the-radar signing with the Braves, who moved aggressively in locking him down for $30 million over three years even before Thanksgiving turkeys went into the oven.

Lopez bounced around last year among three teams, from the White Sox to the Angels to the Guardians, and he seemed to get better at every stop; in Cleveland, he didn't allow any runs in 12 appearances. He seems poised to play a significant role for the Braves, who are expected to ramp up his innings in a hybrid role this year.

Jesse Rogers: Eloy Jimenez has always been a slugger but he hasn't been able to stay healthy. Now fully ensconced as the Chicago White Sox designated hitter, this is his chance to put together a career year. His timing is in midseason form right now and the only concern is if he can keep it up until the season starts.

Jimenez has been slowed by myriad ailments during his career, some fluky, so keeping him out of the outfield might get him in the lineup often enough to form a dynamic offensive duo with Luis Robert.

David Schoenfield: James Wood was the top prospect acquired by the Nationals in the 2022 Juan Soto trade and he has blasted three home runs this spring -- including one mammoth moon shot in first at-bat. The 6-foot-7 outfielder will likely always be strikeout-prone (he fanned 173 times in the minors last season), but he's drawn as many walks as K's this spring.

What one team are people sleeping on that they shouldn't be for the season?

Castillo: Teams coming off a pennant run usually aren't overlooked, but the Arizona Diamondbacks haven't been getting much love. Yes, their run to the World Series was improbable -- some would even argue fluky -- after a 84-win regular season. Yes, the mighty Dodgers are in their division. But the D-backs still have Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly atop the rotation. Franchise cornerstones Corbin Carroll and Gabriel Moreno are back after shining as rookies in 2023. And Arizona is even better than last season with the additions of Eduardo Rodríguez, Joc Pederson and Eugenio Suárez. Put it all together and Diamondbacks could again be a dangerous club in October.

Gonzalez: Perhaps it's overly optimistic, but one thought seemed to hover over the Padres as they navigated what became a cost-cutting offseason: They'll definitely be less talented in 2024, but perhaps they'll actually be better. The Padres missed the playoffs despite a plus-104 run-differential last year, the product of a head-scratching inability to produce in clutch situations and win one-run games. Some of that (a lot of that?) might be luck. If those numbers improve and they get better performances from five-star players who are certainly capable of more -- Manny Machado, Fernando Tatis Jr., Xander Bogaerts, Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove -- they can win more than 82 games. A.J. Preller still needs to make moves, particularly in the outfield, but there's bounce-back potential here -- even without Juan Soto, Blake Snell and Josh Hader.

Olney: The Seattle Mariners, who might have put us to sleep a little this winter because of how they had to find creative ways to generate payroll flexibility. But they have arguably the best rotation in the division -- maybe in the whole sport -- and if the likes of Mitch Haniger can stay healthy, Seattle could be very dangerous.

Rogers: The Cincinnati Reds. Their confidence is bubbling over and their offseason additions could be sneaky good. At the very least, there's a ton of new, veteran leadership in the room to help a talented but young roster. Plus, they have more depth than a lot of teams in the division. The end of last season should also help as Cincinnati battled until the final weekend while waking up a sleeping giant in the stands. Great American Ballpark was rocking. If they get off to a good start, watch out.

Schoenfield: I'm not saying they're going to win the AL East, but don't write off the Boston Red Sox -- even with Lucas Giolito's injury. This team will score some runs, especially given what we saw from Triston Casas in the second half and if they get anything from a healthy Trevor Story. Obviously, the pitching is thin: Maybe they go out and sign Jordan Montgomery or Michael Lorenzen.

What is one thing that has surprised you this season?

Castillo: How nobody -- absolutely nobody -- is talking about the rules implemented last season. A year ago, the topic dominated the spring training discourse. Some people hated them. Others loved them. It was a grand experiment that would surely ruin the game in some eyes. Now the rules are just part of the game, having converted plenty of the haters from a year ago.

Gonzalez: Nothing is more surprising than the amount of free agents who remain unsigned. We're into the second full week of March and Blake Snell, the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner, doesn't have a team. Neither do the likes of Jordan Montgomery, J.D. Martinez, Michael Lorenzen, Brandon Belt and Tommy Pham. Cody Bellinger and Matt Chapman didn't sign until well into spring training.

Several teams have blamed uncertainty over their regional sports networks as a reason for cutting costs; many others have noted that Scott Boras, notorious for his willingness to prolong free agency, represents so many of the aforementioned players. Whatever the reason, players and agents everywhere are concerned.

Olney: I am most surprised by the optimism oozing out of Toronto Blue Jays camp, in the spring after a really frustrating and brief appearance in the playoffs last fall. On paper, they didn't seem to do that much this winter, beyond teasing with their Shohei Ohtani flirtation, and they really need upgrades to their every-day lineup. But Vladimir Guerrero reported to camp in excellent shape and maybe that is the source of a lot of optimism. Toronto needs the incumbent position players to perform better, and Vlad's offseason effort fueled a belief that he and Daulton Varsho and others can make this happen.

Rogers: Seeing the hysteria around the Dodgers is actually quite jolting. It's an all-out party in the Cactus League when L.A. takes the field. If you plan on coming, leave your hotel early: the wait to get into the parking lots is nearly as bad as a Taylor Swift concert. OK, maybe it's not that bad but hordes of fans are following every move made by Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto. They are undoubtedly the show to watch this season.

Schoenfield: It's not necessarily a surprise, but definitely a "pay attention" situation with the Yankees' rotation: Gerrit Cole is getting an MRI on his elbow as he's had discomfort recovering from his outings; Carlos Rodon is still trying to find his form and velocity after a lost 2023 and has served up three home runs in 5⅔ innings; Nestor Cortes, returning from shoulder issues, has allowed 17 hits and nine runs in 10 innings. Is there enough concern here to push the Yankees to sign Blake Snell or Jordan Montgomery?

What is one position battle you are watching closely from your time at spring training?

Castillo: It's not necessarily a position battle, but the Yankees' backup-infielder situation is something to keep an eye on. On Saturday, manager Aaron Boone said Oswald Peraza will be shut down for at least six weeks because of a shoulder injury. Peraza, once a highly touted prospect, was projected to make the team's Opening Day roster -- but the Yankees were already seeking to improve the spot before Peraza's injury. Super utlityman Kiké Hernández said he chose to sign with the Dodgers over the Yankees in late February. Amed Rosario, another free agent infielder, picked the Rays over the Yankees. Peraza's injury could push the Yankees back into the search for a veteran addition, whether via free agency or trade.

Gonzalez: I'm wondering what the Baltimore Orioles are going to do with their wealth of position-player talent, much of which seems ready to matriculate to the major leagues. It has been fascinating to see whether Jackson Holliday -- the 20-year-old infielder who is the team's third consecutive No. 1 prospect in the sport -- can win the everyday second base job out of spring training. But Baltimore's outfield picture is interesting too. Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins and Anthony Santander are locked into starting roles, but Heston Kjerstad, Colton Cowser and Kyle Stowers -- all young, talented outfielders who bat left-handed -- are gunning for one or two potential open backup spots.

Rogers: I'm interested in seeing how the Reds' infield depth chart shakes out. This feels like a situation where how they start the season isn't likely to be how they finish it, especially with a few early injuries and now a suspension for highly touted prospect Noelvi Marte. At full strength, the Reds might have an enviable problem: too many talented players with too few spots for them all. Cincinnati stressed a need for depth during the offseason, and they are already needing it.

Schoenfield: Dodgers shortstop. Gavin Lux booted the first two grounders hit to him and he had some throwing-accuracy issues even when he played second base -- so now L.A.'s shortstop apparently is ... former right fielder/second baseman Mookie Betts (with Lux sliding over to second). As if we need further testament to Mookie's greatness. Still, this feels like a question in progress and it wouldn't surprise if Miguel Rojas, a better defender, ends up playing the most innings at shortstop.

Olney: I agree with Dave -- we are all on Dodgers shortstop watch after Lux's long absence last year and the questions of whether he can hold down a crucial position on this dynamic team. At the very least, the Dodgers need someone who catches the ball and makes routine plays, and so it'll be interesting to see how Lux progresses this spring. Rojas is a good fallback for a team with a massive payroll, but there is already speculation in other front offices that the Dodgers could make a move for Willy Adames if the Brewers punt on 2024, as some evaluators expect.