Baseball players are playing baseball. With some different rules this time. And with a World Baseball Classic tossed into the mix this month. But mostly, baseball players are playing baseball, as they will from now until late October. MLB’s 162-game slate creates an overwhelming array of options, and so this is my second annual attempt to help you establish some priorities.
The premise is simple: When push comes to shove, focus your baseball experience on watching the players who are both fun AND good, stars who reside in the center of the sport’s Venn diagram of positivity. Quite a few members of last year’s team remain worthy of inclusion, but for the most part, I made an effort to anoint new Eye Emoji All-Stars.
Let’s get to it.
Catcher: Adley Rutschman, Orioles
After a couple of weeks adjusting to the major leagues, the centerpiece of the Orioles’ rebuild found his footing in 2022 and turned into an elite player for the rest of the season. The boyish, Buster Posey-esque backstop could legitimately contend for an MVP nod this year, thanks to world-beating defense and a mature approach at the plate. The fun part will be seeing exactly how this young Baltimore team coalesces around him and whether he can steer them into the playoff race with at least a few more expectations sitting on their shoulders.
The ebullient hitting machine seems to have settled in with the Dodgers, and with longtime leaders such as Justin Turner gone, Freeman figures to leave even more of his stamp on this year’s team. Already, he has been cited as a connection that brought Jason Heyward to the Dodgers as a reclamation project (with typically promising early returns). Since the start of 2020, Freeman is batting an MLB-best .317 with a healthy dose of power and plenty of grins at first. Last year, in his first campaign with LA, he also added an eyebrow-raising 13 steals at age 32. Does the wily veteran have more tricks up his sleeve?
Speaking of sparkling batting averages, if you want action, McNeil has you covered. The Mets’ “Squirrel” rolled past Freeman late last season to claim the NL batting crown, then signed a $50 million extension to remain in Queens through at least 2026. That means a constant, high-intensity show that plays up under New York’s bright lights. McNeil is eternally either lacing singles into the outfield or slamming his helmet into the ground so hard it bounces into the outfield.
A delightful personality with serious power and serious defensive chops, Adames is worth watching as he looks to build on a career-high 31 homers. Adding to the intrigue? With two years of team control remaining and doubts about whether the Brewers will spend to keep him, Adames could be one of the most important players on the trade block this summer — and no suitor makes more sense than the Dodgers.
He set the foundation for the star-studded San Diego Padres, and now he’s sticking around for the rest of his career. Machado makes everything on a baseball field look effortless.
There might be no more entertaining team than the Padres’ supergroup. And Machado is the frontman of the band.
There aren’t many baseball player career paths that will inspire more universal double takes than Varsho’s. Varsho was a catcher by trade — even named after late Phillies catcher Darren Daulton, his father’s teammate — throughout his minor-league career and his early major-league days, but then the Diamondbacks tried him in the outfield. Lo and behold, he immediately rated as one of the game’s best defenders, a master of reading the ball off the bat and navigating the wall to take away extra bases.
The Blue Jays dealt for him in a fascinating challenge trade, and now he will help upgrade Toronto’s outfield defense in the daunting AL East, where every little bit could make a difference.
Center fielder: Julio Rodríguez, Mariners
The 2022 AL Rookie of the Year announced his status as one of the game’s most thrilling players in just about every way imaginable. He dazzled in the Home Run Derby. He took to center field like a fish to water. He led the Mariners to the playoffs. The Mariners!
This year, the All-Star Game is headed to Seattle, and there won’t be any stars shining brighter than J-Rod.
Right fielder: Ronald Acuña Jr., Braves
Now more than a year removed from his devastating knee injury, Acuña looks like a full go. That could mean another run at 40 homers and 40 steals; he finished within three steals of that exclusive club in 2019. Perhaps most importantly, a 40/40 chase would mean more chances for Acuña to fill up the frame of a camera. He is one of baseball’s most emotional, most watchable stars.
That part of his game was in peak condition this offseason in a cameo in the Venezuelan Winter League and has also been seen at spring training, where he has playfully added his celebratory hand signals to the team’s baserunning practice.
Designated hitter: Kyle Schwarber, Phillies
The vibes in Philadelphia are good. Frankly, the vibes seem to be good wherever Schwarber goes, but his wide-open personality seems particularly well-suited for a city willing to express its unadulterated opinion about … pretty much anything. Schwarber’s 78 homers since the start of 2021 are tops among those currently playing in the National League, and he stands to benefit (at least marginally) from several changes in 2023. The shift limitations might win him a few more points of batting average (though not that many because he simply doesn’t hit many ground balls), and Trea Turner’s arrival in Philadelphia will almost certainly allow Schwarber more run-producing opportunities as he slides into the No. 2 slot in the batting order.
Starting pitcher/designated hitter: Shohei Ohtani, Angels
What? You thought we could leave out Ohtani? The sport’s must-see player will, if anything, take on an even more central role in MLB narratives this season. If the Angels falter again, he will be the talk of the trade deadline. If they contend… that will be new. And no matter how Ohtani’s team fares, there will be louder and louder whispers about where the impending free agent will play in 2024.
Starting pitcher: Zack Wheeler, Phillies
Starting pitcher: Zac Gallen, Diamondbacks
Despite how it might look, this is not name favoritism (neither of them spells it correctly, anyway). Instead, this is about watching pitchers level up in the public consciousness and in the hierarchy of active MLB aces.
Because he starred in the Phillies’ postseason run and previously played for the Mets, Wheeler already carries a high profile, but it’s maybe not as high as it should be. He’s the only starter to post a sub-3.00 ERA each of the past three seasons (min. 10 starts). In that time, which coincides with his tenure with the Phillies, he ranks 10th in park-adjusted ERA+ among pitchers with at least 300 innings, and only five pitchers have thrown more frames than him.
Gallen, understandably less famous because Diamondbacks, is banging down the door of the game’s inner circle. The bearded, begoggled hurler ripped off a lengthy scoreless inning streak in 2023 and posted 184 innings with a 2.54 ERA, 58% better than league average per ERA+, in his first season under the watch of famed pitching coach Brent Strom.
These are legitimate Cy Young contenders, and with the most dominant active pitchers aging into their late 30s or 40s, Wheeler and Gallen could rise to the pinnacle faster than you can say Zac (or Zack).
Starting pitcher: Spencer Strider, Braves
How about the next NEXT generation? Strider and Javier are the young, fire-breathing dragons of the mound. They wield less traditional “starter arsenals” than Wheeler and Gallen, but the high-octane stuff takes care of it. Following in the Jacob deGrom lineage, they each have two nearly unhittable pitchesand the game plan is to keep throwing them and let hitters take their best cuts. Good luck and, usually, good night.
(As a bonus, the short but muscular Strider’s nickname is Quadzilla, which is objectively excellent.)
Starting pitcher: Nestor Cortes Jr., Yankees
No watchability rotation would be complete without a crafty lefty. That’s not pejorative, either. Cortes has rolled together two straight campaigns of pure awesomeness in both the results column and the aesthetics department.
Sporting the athleticism to tinker with his windup on the fly — and make some wild defensive plays — Cortes baffles hitters regularly despite a fastball that typically goes 92 mph or slower.
Relief pitcher: Edwin Diaz, Mets
Come for the trumpets, stay for the legitimate chance he sets the all-time record for strikeout percentage. Last season, Diaz fanned 50.2% of them — third all-time among pitchers with at least 50 innings. The top mark belongs to Aroldis Chapman’s 2014 season, at 52.5%.
On one hand, it’s disappointing that Bautista wasn’t actually a fan of “The Wire” when his spooky, innovative entrance music debuted. On the other hand, his splitter doesn’t need any special effects to warrant your attention.
Relief pitcher: John Duran, Twins
A strapping sophomore reliever for Minnesota, Duran produces some of the silliest swings in baseball. Yes, he throws his fastball over 100 mph. Yes, he also throws something called a “splinker” that goes 97 mph (like a sinker) and drops (like a splitter).
And no, neither one is his best pitch.
One of baseball’s best relievers? Check. A fun pitcher to watch make a pretty serious adjustment to the pitch timer? Also check. Willing to run through (or over) a wall for his teammates? Triple check.
Sign me up.
Relief pitcher: Jose Alvarado, Phillies
Look, pitching changes can get monotonous. And if we’re being honest, the vast majority of guys running in from the bullpen don’t get your blood pumping. Alvarado, on the other hand, should. He is fearsome, feisty and fully himself out on the field.