The Super Bowl is behind us. The groundhog didn't see his shadow. Baseball season is just around the corner, even as we wait for the rest of the hot-stove season to play out. With pitchers and catchers a week away from kicking off spring training under the Arizona and Florida sun, we asked ESPN.com's Sam Miller, Eddie Matz and David Schoenfield what they're most looking forward to when baseball finally comes back.
What are you most excited about seeing when spring training begins?
Sam Miller: The combination of hitters' ballparks, disinterested pitchers, uneven competition and small samples can turn spring training into a super-catalyzed hype test -- sometimes hilariously misguided (2011 Jake Fox) and sometimes prophetic (2013 Yasiel Puig). The simple answer is: I'm excited about seeing Vlad Guerrero Jr. hit .560 in 40 at-bats, and I'm excited about then selling my house and buying a van and joining the other Vladheads who drop out of society to follow him from city to city.
Eddie Matz: The icebreaker circle at Reds camp, where everyone has to say their name and something they're bringing to the picnic that begins with the first letter of their name. ("Hi, my name is Yasiel, and I'm bringing a yuca.")
David Schoenfield: Heck, just give me a week in Florida, and I'll be happy. I can start off in West Palm Beach and check in on Juan Soto taking some BP. Then I'll shoot up to Lake Buena Vista to see if Ronald Acuna Jr. is looking like a potential MVP candidate (and maybe I'll hang around a few days to catch some of that young Braves pitching). I'll head over to Dunedin to watch the Vladdy Jr. show and finish up in Port Charlotte to get my first viewing of Rays prospect Wander Franco. I don't know if he'll be on the back fields with the minor leaguers, but it won't be long before he's with the big boys.
How much does the number of free agents still available impact your excitement for spring training?
Miller: It's not great! Spring training is all about the process of turning the imaginary (all your offseason thoughts about the team) into the real (the Opening Day lineup). Ideally, the metaphor is of a sculptor taking his giant block of marble in February and chipping away here and there to find the beautiful statue within by April. With a few dozen unsigned free agents, the metaphor breaks down: The statue isn't yet there to be found. We're all still just waiting, stuck in the imaginary. It's hard to assess a roster on its own merits when Bryce Harper might or might not end up on it.
Matz: Um, a lot. Sure, the fact that huge names are still out there and unsigned adds an element of titillation. But the fact that baseball is enough of an individual sport (contrary to what I thought when I was a wee lad filled with naïveté) that teams can get away with not being fully assembled and having very important players-to-be-named-later simply working out on their own ... well, that's kind of depressing. That would never fly in football or basketball.
Schoenfield: Well, no matter who remains unsigned, it's still spring training ... which means the games don't count. But the weather is great, it's a tease to the season ahead, and once the games begin, we'll at least have daily updates and video highlights of our favorites teams and players. All of that is good, and we can start dreaming about what will happen once the regular season kicks in.
Do you think Manny Machado and Bryce Harper will sign before pitchers and catchers report?
Miller: Until 12 seconds ago, the answer was definitely "yes," but I've just flipped the switch and joined Team Inertia. My best guess is that nothing will change until it does.
Matz: I'm 100 percent certain that both of them will sign -- just so long as the young child asking for the autograph remembers to say please and thank you and addresses them as Mr. Machado and Mr. Harper.
Which teams are you most intrigued by heading into camp?
Miller: Whichever ones are still talking to Manny Machado and Bryce Harper.
Matz: Cincy, and it's not even close. Everything about its offseason screams 2015 San Diego Padres. All those bold moves might not translate to the win column (see: 2015 San Diego Padres), but at the very least, it should make for fascinating theater.
Schoenfield: Well, I guess the teams that had the most active winters are intriguing by default, so that would mean the Mets and Reds (and the Reds are still involved in the J.T. Realmuto trade rumors). My under-the-radar, fascinating team to watch this season, however, is Tampa Bay. Maybe the Rays lack a superstar -- at least until Franco arrives in a year or two -- but I love the depth on the roster, and it will be interesting to see how Kevin Cash and the front office sort out the logjam in the middle infield (at both the major league level and in the minors). Then there's the whole opener thing, which Cash already said the team will continue. You have the reigning Cy Young winner and a host of prospects to watch.
Which players are you most excited to see this spring?
Miller: Manny Machado and Bry -- oh, OK. I'll say prospects Jo Adell, Alex Reyes, Alex Kirilloff and Chris Paddack. And Joey Votto and Ichiro.
Matz: Same guy I was most excited to see last spring. (Hint: His name rhymes with Schmadimir Schmuerrero Schmunior.)
Schoenfield: I guess I answered that above -- the super sophs and incoming freshmen head my list. Paul Goldschmidt seems like he was born to be a Cardinal. Robby Cano will look strange in a Mets uniform. Yu Darvish, who might have as much pressure on him as any player in the game this season as he comes off his injury-filled debut season with the Cubs. Harper and Machado, of course, wherever they end up. Harrison Bader just because.
Which players have the most to prove during spring training?
Miller: Ultimately, almost everybody is going to have to "prove" themselves in the regular season, and spring training doesn't really matter. But there will be perhaps subtle pressure on some of the players big-market teams have stuck with instead of signing Harper and Machado: Troy Tulowitzki and Miguel Andujar (as a defender) on the Yankees, Kole Calhoun on the Angels, and Joc Pederson and A.J. Pollock on the Dodgers come to mind as possible storylines if they struggle.
Matz: Closer battles are always the most fun to watch. I'm curious to see how things unfold in the Boston bullpen, where Matt Barnes has huge shoes to fill (Craig Kimbrel), and 2018 revelation Ryan Brasier is lurking in the shadows. Kelvin Herrera (White Sox) and Seranthony Dominguez (Phillies) are two others who could use strong springs to wash away confounding campaigns and cement closer status.
Schoenfield: Darvish, for starters. His Cubs teammate, Kris Bryant, is coming off the shoulder issue. I'll be intrigued to see if Kyle Tucker and hard-throwing Josh James can win starting jobs in Houston. Chris Sale, who clearly wasn't 100 percent at the end of the season, will certainly be brought along slowly by the Red Sox, but let's see how he looks. Is Mariners pitcher Yusei Kikuchi the real deal? How about Dexter Fowler trying to win his starting job back in St. Louis after a miserable 2018?
Which young player who is unlikely to start the season in the bigs are you most excited to see?
Miller: Brendan McKay, the Rays prospect who is still holding on to two-way ambitions. One (Shohei Ohtani) is a glitch, but two (Ohtani and McKay!) would be a movement.
Matz: Schmad Schmunior.
Schoenfield: I mentioned Franco. Does Vlad Jr. count? Because you know the Blue Jays will hold him back a week or so at the start of the season to "work on his defense." Angels outfielder Jo Adell is a top prospect who has the size, ability, work ethic and charisma to become a huge star if he puts it all together. Astros pitcher Forrest Whitley might be the top pitching prospect in the minors and could join the rotation before the All-Star break. Chris Paddack is one of my favorite prospects, a fastball/changeup righty with plus-plus control who could be up in San Diego before long. Let's see how fast Casey Mize, last year's top overall pick, can go from Auburn to the Tigers' rotation.
Now that gambling is legal, what is your favorite spring training prop bet?
Miller: How many intentional walks will be issued? These have been getting rarer just about every year this decade, and last year there were only four. Still: Four! Four intentional walks in games that exist only so that pitchers can pitch and hitters can hit. Can you imagine?
Matz: What happens first: Red Sox name their Opening Day starter or Rays name their Starting Day opener?
Schoenfield: Who will lead the Cactus League in home runs? We had a four-way tie last year: Yonder Alonso, Ian Happ, Dan Vogelbach and a guy named Frank Schwindel of the Royals. I had never heard of him before typing his name just now. He went on to hit 24 home runs for Triple-A Omaha. Your co-leader from the year before was Peter O'Brien, then with the Royals. The tip here: Go with a Royals first baseman. Ryan O'Hearn. Thank me later.