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Toolshed: Spring Training camps to watch

You might be planning a March trip to the dry desert air of Arizona or the warm sunny beaches of Florida. You might be at home, firing up Twitter, Gameday and MiLB.com’s daily prospect updates. There’s no wrong way to follow Spring Training action. 
But the best way is one that requires focus. With all 30 Spring Training camps open and Cactus and Grapefruit League games in full swing, it’s enough to make the head of any prospect fan swivel constantly. Enter this edition of the Toolshed. These are 10 Spring Training camps — five in Arizona, five in Florida — worth following for their prospect-based storylines as we head into March:

Cactus League

Chicago White Sox: Luis Robert’s six-year contract (featuring two team options) might have been the biggest prospect-based news of the offseason and basically locked MLB.com’s No. 3 overall prospect into the Opening Day center-field spot on the South Side. Basically, not definitely. Even coming off a 30-30 season in the Minors, Robert — like any player without any Major League service time — has to use the spring to prove to the Pale Hose that he — and specifically his hit tool, which struggles at times against breaking stuff — is ready for a full-time role in The Show. For what it’s worth, he started in center and batted seventh in all three of his Cactus League games so far, perhaps giving everyone a preview of how manager Rick Renteria intends to use the 22-year-old. Beyond Robert, MiLB.com’s 21-and-under Farm System Rankings made the case that a busy Chicago offseason came in part because the Sox don’t have much talent or depth among its younger prospects. That type of all-in approach on the present could push the club to get aggressive with Nick Madrigal, who is clearly the club’s best second-base option after he batted .311 with a .377 OBP and only 16 strikeouts over 120 games across three levels last season. With Leury García and Danny Mendick also options at the keystone, Chicago could send Madrigal down to Triple-A Charlotte, but a typical performance from the former Oregon State star — lots of contact, lots of hits — would force the club’s hands, especially since it can’t afford to drop March and April games if it wants to catch the Twins and Indians in the American League Central.
San Diego Padres: This is an important spring for the Padres’ identity. The club hasn’t reached the postseason since 2006, and its current rebuild has resulted in one of the deepest and most talented farm systems in the game. How quickly the club wants to push that talent and depth will be tested in the coming weeks. San Diego has already said it will take a cautious approach with its top two prospects in MacKenzie Gore and Luis Patiño, since both only threw more than 90 innings for the first time in 2019. This is also the first trip to Major League Spring Training for both. Fair enough, but they have the potential to join Chris Paddack at the front end of the Padres rotation some day. What if their impressive mixes look Major League ready once they get their first Cactus League cracks? Will they receive similar treatment to Paddack last season? What’s more, Adrian Morejon and Michel Baez, who pitched out of the Major League bullpen in 2019, are expected to get additional looks as starters. All four have difficult roads to take past the likes of Zach Davies, Joey Lucchesi and Dinelson Lamet to get into the big league rotation, but the fact that the questions are worth asking should make for exciting times in Peoria.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Mookie Betts and David Price stole their share of spring headlines with moves from the Red Sox to the Dodgers, but don’t sleep on what’s going on further down the depth chart. No. 2 overall prospect Gavin Lux is the obvious rookie story as he tries to cement his place as the club’s Opening Day second baseman. Lux may not have set the Majors on fire with a .705 OPS over 23 games in the bigs last fall, but Los Angeles knows what it has in the 22-year-old left-handed slugger. Showing his plus hit and plus power tools in the Cactus League should win Lux the job over others such as Enrique Hernández and Chris Taylor. The more interesting race might come on the pitching side. No. 23 overall prospect Dustin May is trying to prove he’s ready for a Major League rotation spot, and well-regarded right-hander Tony Gonsolin is attempting to do the same. Both got big league looks last season, splitting time between starts and relief outings, but they’ve got an uphill battle for starting spots. Julio Urías has already been guaranteed his place in the rotation, and free-agent signing Alex Wood likely has a solid hold on the fifth spot. Still, if Jimmy Nelson’s recent shutdown is any reminder, injuries can shake up depth charts at any time, and it will be on May and Gonsolin to show they can be ready when summoned, whether that’s on Opening Day or later in the season.
Oakland Athletics: No club’s top three prospects are more ready than the A’s trio of Jesus Luzardo, A.J. Puk and Sean Murphy. After relief stints in 2019, Luzardo and Puk look equipped to slide into the Oakland rotation, albeit with potential workload limits. Luzardo is already off to a fine start with two scoreless innings Tuesday in which he topped out at 97 mph without throwing max effort, according to MiLB.com’s Katie Woo. Puk has made two appearances without allowing an earned run over three frames while similarly pumping in the mid-90s. On the offensive side, Murphy has the offensive and defensive chops to carve out the starting catcher spot. But after missing time in 2019 due to knee issues and undergoing additional knee surgery this offseason, he will need to show he can be be at full strength by the end of spring. He’s yet to appear in a Cactus League game as the A’s take a cautious approach for now, so check back in a few weeks on his progress.
Seattle Mariners: This ones goes the other direction. Yes, there are some interesting Major League battles, especially in the rotation where prospects Justin Dunn and Justus Sheffield remain in the running. But the reason to follow M’s camp this spring comes a little lower down the totem pole. Seattle brought No. 11 overall prospect Jarred Kelenic and No. 18 Julio Rodriguez to Major League camp and is allowing them to get legitimate looks in Cactus League games. The excitement starts with the fact that both are talented enough to impact any game in which they play. Rodriguez’s right-handed bat (especially his power potential) are advanced beyond his 19 years of age, while Kelenic has the potential to show off five above-average tools at any point. An extra layer of intrigue comes when anyone considers what this level of exposure means for the pair’s short- and long-term futures. The Mariners have been aggressive with Kelenic and Rodriguez already — pushing them to the middle Minors and the Arizona Fall League well before their 21st birthdays — and that aggression could well continue with impressive springs from both.

Grapefruit League

Detroit Tigers: The club’s kind of sticking to the same theme as the Mariners. The Tigers have no grand designs on competing this season. PECOTA projects them to win 70 games, and that’s assuming they hold onto No. 1 starter Matthew Boyd for all of 2020. There isn’t much intrigue on the Major League side. Instead, the most interesting Grapefruit League games will feature the club’s top prospects, mostly the pitching staff. Top-100 prospects Casey Mize, Matt Manning and Tarik Skubal have already made spring appearances on the mound, and all three will be watched closely to determine their potential Major League readiness. Considering the trio ended 2019 at Double-A Erie, they’re already knocking on the door of Detroit. A couple standout outings — like Skubal’s opener against Southeastern University in which he topped out at 98 mph — could be indications they’re even closer than previously imagined, potentially putting them on track for Major League debuts in the second half of the regular season. And then even on days when that fearsome threesome isn’t pitching, 2019 first-rounder Riley Greene has shown he’s capable of putting on a show on the big league side. As of Thursday, he was the only Tiger with multiple homers on the spring. He’s played in only two games. Talk about making an impression.
New York Yankees: It hasn’t exactly been a banner start to the spring in Tampa, almost entirely because of injuries. The most notable: Luis Severino will miss all of 2020 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. That’s a blow for a club many considered to be the World Series favorites before pitchers and catchers reported. Add in that James Paxton also will be out until likely May due to back surgery, and all of a sudden, there is a bit of a competition for spots in the Yankees rotation. Jordan Montgomery and Jonathan Loaisiga seem the obvious candidates to slot in, but what’s most notable for the purposes of this column are that top Yankees prospects Clarke Schmidt and Deivi Garcia have bigger chances to crack the opening rotation than they did a month ago. Garcia might be closer, considering he ended 2019 at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, where he fanned 45 in 40 innings, but don’t rule out Schmidt on the strength of his mid-90s fastball and above-average breaker. 
Atlanta Braves: The Braves have a contending camp, and yet the farm remains not only a strong one, but one prepared to deliver more players to the Major League level. The group most worthy of attention will be the arms. Atlanta signed Cole Hamels this offseason, but the veteran left-hander is currently shut down with shoulder discomfort, putting his opening spot in the rotation up for grabs. Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson already were set to compete for the fifth spot with Sean Newcomb, Félix Hernández and Touki Toussaint, and one potential extra spot only increases the chances they’ll get it. If they don’t, they could open in the bullpen (where both saw time in 2019) or be sent back to Triple-A. Speaking of Gwinnett, Ian Anderson — the Braves’ top pitching prospect — is likely headed back to the International League, but first, he has a chance this spring to prove he’s capable of shooting past Wilson and Wright on the depth chart. That’s just the pitching. Top-30 prospects Cristian Pache and Drew Waters are in Major League camp aiming to push up their own timelines after ending 2019 at the Minors’ highest level. Pache has the advantage of already being on the 40-man roster, and his glove certainly would help the Braves on the grass. But don’t sleep on Waters’ bat one year after he won the Southern League batting title (.319) by 18 points.

St. Louis Cardinals: This one is rather simple. Ask anyone in the Cardinals organization, and they’ll say Dylan Carlson’s breakout 2019 began during his time as a non-roster invitee to Major League camp last spring. Twelve months and a .914 OPS between Double-A and Triple-A later, the switch-hitting outfielder is back on the big league side, albeit less as a wide-eyed youngster and more as a 21-year-old with a legitimate case to win a spot in the St. Louis grass. That claim got even bolder with Marcell Ozuna, Randy Arozarena and José Martínez departing this offseason, and a 5-for-11 (.455) start in the Grapefruit League is only helping Carlson’s case. It’s likely he’ll still head back to Memphis in favor of more veteran options, but the 2016 first-rounder has every opportunity to make the decision difficult for the Cards. Elsewhere, St. Louis camp features the pairing of Arizona natives and good friends Nolan Gorman and Matthew Liberatore — the latter of whom came over from the Rays in the Arozarena/Martinez trade. Liberatore may have struggled in his first spring outing (five earned runs on three hits and three walks in two-thirds of an inning), but one curveball alone sent Twitter into a tizzy and reminded everyone of the southpaw’s potential. Gorman, meanwhile, is off to a quick start by opening 5-for-13 (.385). He only has one extra-base hit so far (a double), but his power from the left side always makes him worth following, especially for anyone who catches his batting practices.
Tampa Bay Rays: Two days ago, Tampa Bay may not have made this list. After all, top overall prospect Wander Franco wasn’t even a non-roster invite to Major League camp. But on Thursday, the switch-hitting shortstop debuted in the Grapefruit League, and he’s expected to start Friday as well. Manager Kevin Cash has shared his enthusiasm for taking a closer look at Franco, so it’s possible, even likely that more big league game action is likely. It’s worth checking the Tampa Bay box score every day, just to see if and how Franco showed off his 80-grade hit tool. Elsewhere, Brendan McKay had been battling shoulder stiffness earlier in the spring, but is slotted to throw a bullpen Saturday and potentially return to game action next week. The Rays said they would hold him to regular five-day pitching schedule, perhaps tipping their hand that they believe he’s best utilized as a pitcher. But his two-way status remains intriguing, especially with the new 26-man roster rules and two-way player designations. It’ll be interesting to see how many at-bats Tampa Bay is willing to give him once the shoulder gets a full green light. 

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.

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