Baseball is back! Pushed up by the return of the World Baseball Classic, the spring exhibition schedule (non-college edition) kicks off on Friday with a quartet of games in Florida plus one in Arizona.
The starters may not play more than three innings and the result may prove completely irrelevant even to the players themselves, but these games nonetheless mark the welcome return of intersquad action for baseball fans starved for the return of their favorite sport.
To further whet your appetite, here is a closer look at Friday's five actual, real-life Major League Baseball games, with some notes about each team.
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Orioles at Tigers, 1:05 pm ET, Joker Marchant Stadium, Lakeland, Fla.
The O's wrapped up their 2016 season by failing to get dominant closer Zach Britton into an 11-inning, winner-take-all American League Wild Card Game. Britton won't pitch in this one, either, due to the oblique soreness that followed his bullpen session on Monday. Fortunately for Orioles fans, that injury isn't expected to impact Britton's availability for Opening Day.
The same can't be said for AL Wild Card Game starter Chris Tillman, who hit the disabled list late last year with shoulder inflammation, had a platelet-rich plasma injection in his shoulder in late December and is far enough behind the other pitchers in camp that a DL stint to start the season seems likely. That could open up a fifth-starter competition in camp. Tyler Wilson, who will start this game for Baltimore, will be the first to throw his hat in that ring.
The big competition in Tigers camp will be for the center field job, with lefty Tyler Collins the favorite, righties JaCoby Jones and Mikie Mahtook vying for a potential platoon role, and lefty Anthony Gose trying to regain the job as a non-roster invitee to camp.
Two other veterans who won't appear in this one are Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy (back) and Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez (October hernia surgery), but both are expected to be ready for Opening Day.
Mets at Red Sox, 1:05 pm ET, JetBlue Park, Fort Myers, Fla.
Were this the regular season, this would be the best matchup of the day, with the Mets coming off a pair of playoff berths and the Red Sox looking like the team to beat in the AL heading into the 2017 season.
The Boston player to watch in these early games will be Pablo Sandoval as he attempts to reclaim the third-base job after losing that job in camp last spring then missing all but three games of the 2016 season due to left shoulder surgery. Sandoval spent the winter working on his right-handed swing with Miguel Cabrera and shed a significant amount of weight, but despite those efforts and his massive contract, the team has promised him nothing coming into camp other than a chance to reclaim his job from utility man Brock Holt.
The big stories in Mets camp are the comeback attempts by third baseman David Wright, and right-handers Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler, but none of those three will appear in this game. Instead, Seth Lugo will get the start as he begins his battle for a back-end spot in the New York rotation. He'll be opposed by former prospect Henry Owens, who would need several other BoSox starters to get hurt for him to have any chance of making Boston's Opening Day rotation.
Phillies at Yankees, 1:05 pm ET, George M. Steinbrenner Field, Tampa, Fla.
Of the two starting pitchers in this game, Philadelphia's Alec Asher and New York's Bryan Mitchell, it is Mitchell who has a better chance to make his team's Opening Day rotation, though both are on the outside of the depth chart looking in as the exhibition schedule begins.
This game marks Yankees first baseman Greg Bird's first Major League action since 2015, and he and fellow Baby Bomber Aaron Judge will be among the more intriguing players in Yankee camp as Bird looks to reestablish himself as the Yankees' first baseman of the present and future while Judge battles to win the right-field job.
The Phillies were expected to have a closer battle this spring, but manager Pete Mackanin announced on the first day of camp that the job will be Jeanmear Gomez's to lose. Jacoby Ellsbury, who reported late to camp due to the birth of his second child, is unlikely to appear in this game.
Steinbrenner Field has been undergoing renovations this offseason, which remain ongoing as the exhibition schedule begins.
Reds at Giants, 3:05 pm ET, Scottsdale Stadium, Scottsdale, Ariz.
The Giants have ace Madison Bumgarner penciled in to start this game, with Matt Cain scheduled to follow in relief. That provides a nice combination of star power and intrigue, as Cain will be competing for the fifth spot in the Giants rotation this spring.
Position battles abound for the Giants, who expect to have competitions in left field, at third base, for fifth starter and for Denard Span's right-handed platoon partner in center. Particularly intriguing among the candidates for those positions is Korean import Jae-gyun Hwang, a 29-year-old non-roster third baseman who hit .330/.391/.558 with 26 home runs and 24 steals in the Korea Baseball Organization last year and will try to encroach on the playing time of 2016 All-Star Eduardo Nuñez at the hot corner.
The most compelling battle in Reds camp is likely to be the jockeying for the closer role with converted starter Raisel Iglesias, free-agent addition Drew Storen and last year's opening day closer Tony Cingrani among the top candidates. Cingrani, a fastball pitcher with one of the least diverse repertoires in the Majors, reportedly added a cutter in the offseason. There will also be an open competition for the final two spots in the Cincinnati rotation, with the Reds' starter in this game, 24-year-old Rookie Davis, part of the return in last winter's Aroldis Chapman trade, among the candidates.
Among those you won't see in this game will be Reds catcher Devon Mesoraco, who is easing his way back into action after missing most of last season due to hip and shoulder surgeries, Giants lefty Will Smith, who has experienced elbow inflammation in camp, and San Francisco's 1A ace Johnny Cueto, who has been tending to his ailing father in the Domincan Republic and is currently trying to get his father a visa so he can bring him to Arizona. Cueto has been throwing in the D.R., however, and should be on schedule to start the season barring injury.
Rays at Twins, 7:05 pm ET, CenturyLink Sports Complex, Fort Myers, Fla.
Kyle Gibson, who spent the offseason rebuilding his mechanics, will start this one for the Twins against Rays righty Austin Pruitt, a 27-year-old rotation longshot.
It has been a quiet camp for both teams thus far, which is good news for both. My eyes in this game will be on the defensive skills of Miguel Sano at third base for Minnesota and the double-play combination of Brad Miller and Matt Duffy for the Rays, assuming all will be in the lineup. Miller didn't play a single game at second base last year, while Duffy played just 18 at shortstop. Phil Hughes, who is attempting to comeback from thoracic outlet syndrome, will draw Saturday's start for Minnesota against the Red Sox.
Source: Sports On Earth