The Astros, WBC and NL East: What to watch as spring training begins


By recent standards, Major League Baseball spring training will be downright routine this year. No new pandemic threatens to keep fans out of the stands. No owner-initiated lockout will truncate spring training or push back Opening Day. For the first time in years, the usual February rhythms are intact.

The only thing that will interrupt spring training this year is the World Baseball Classic, which has not been played since 2017. Games begin March 7, and the final is set for March 21 in Miami. But most major leaguers will be in camp as usual starting this week as the six-week climb to Opening Day begins.

Here are five storylines to watch as another baseball year begins.

Will the World Baseball Classic alter regular season fates?

The good news for MLB’s ongoing efforts to solidify the WBC as a treasured event is that many of its biggest stars are planning to play in it this year.

All-stars from Mookie Betts to Shohei Ohtani, Mike Trout to Julio Rodríguez, and Clayton Kershaw to Juan Soto are on rosters for the event, meaning the teams representing favorites such as the United States, Japan, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela are oozing star power. But that those stars are playing high-intensity games in March — weeks before they usually flip their on switches for regular season play — undoubtedly stirs more anxiety than excitement in front offices around the majors. If a big star were to get hurt in the WBC, potentially altering his team’s fate in 2023 . . . well, let’s just say that, for most people in the industry, a successful WBC will be one in which all of the players return to their spring training facilities intact.

Speaking of stars whose participation in the WBC could dramatically alter their franchises’ 2023 hopes, Ohtani will play for Japan. He will travel to Tokyo with the team as it hosts group play there in early March. His routine — so crucial to his unprecedented success as a two-way player with the Los Angeles Angels in recent years — will be interrupted. And it will all happen about six months before he becomes the most fascinating (and perhaps best compensated) free agent in MLB history.

From the archives: Forever seeking a transcendent star, baseball already has one in Shohei Ohtani

Ohtani’s health is always a focus. He is the game’s biggest star on the field, a once-in-a-century talent for whom every game lost to injury feels like a missed opportunity. But he is also entering a season that probably will determine his future in the sport, a year that could reassure big-market suitors who might once have been skeptical that they can, indeed, bet on him as a two-way player for the long term.

This season will almost certainly mold the Angels’ odds to keep him, too. Ohtani has yet to play in a postseason game, and he has not been shy about publicly sharing his frustrations. If his team sputters out of contention by midsummer as it has in recent years, the greatest two-way player in baseball history is likely to go elsewhere as a free agent. And to avoid the midsummer sputter, the Angels almost certainly will need Ohtani at his best.

Who is the favorite in the NL East?

After another offseason of spending in New York and Philadelphia, and another winter of seemingly effortless contract extensions with franchise stalwarts in Atlanta, the National League East is teeming with talent again. The Mets added 2022 American League Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander and Japanese star Kodai Senga to a rotation anchored by Max Scherzer. The Phillies signed Trea Turner. The Braves traded for catcher Sean Murphy and have just about their entire lineup signed long-term.

Each of those teams will begin the season with a payroll of at least $194 million, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. All three will begin spring training with legitimate World Series aspirations. And they will be crossing their fingers that they emerge from March with the rosters they envisioned ahead of another exciting and expensive summer in a division that has yielded the pennant winner in three of the past four years.

Can anyone catch the Houston Astros?

At times in October, the Astros looked unbeatable, as inconvenient as that was for those who still resent them after the franchise’s sign-stealing scandal. And they begin this season with their World Series roster nearly intact, if not improved, with former AL MVP José Abreu joining them at first base and the return of beloved veteran Michael Brantley, who missed their October run with an injury but is one of the game’s better left-handed contact hitters when healthy.

The only major change came at the top, where owner Jim Crane parted ways with general manager James Click after an awkward contract standoff. The Astros hired longtime baseball man Dana Brown, a key part of the scouting and front-office teams that built the Washington Nationals and Braves juggernauts in recent years, to run things. His first big swing as GM was to sign starter Cristian Javier to a long-term deal — no shake-ups, nothing crazy. On paper, the Astros look like World Series favorites again. Can anything stop their gears from turning?

Bally Sports goes bankrupt

Diamond Sports Group, owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group and owner of the Bally Sports regional networks, is expected to declare bankruptcy this week after struggling to weather the financial strains of widespread cord-cutting in recent years. MLB sold Diamond exclusive rights to 14 teams and partial rights to two more in 2019, but the company reported losses of more than $1 billion in the third quarter of 2022 alone.

Commissioner Rob Manfred told reporters last week that MLB will be prepared to take over telecasts if Diamond cannot broadcast the games. “Our goal would be to make games available not only within the traditional cable bundle but on the digital side as well,” he added.

Exactly what an MLB-run version of local telecasts would look like remains to be seen. Still, the situation presents MLB with an opportunity to rethink the regional sports network model that yielded massive revenue for organizations over the past few decades but has succumbed to cord-cutting. Manfred said in December that the model is not sustainable, but untangling broadcast rights from big contracts is not easy, meaning the model is not easy to rethink or reshape quickly. It might give MLB a pathway to start solving the issue of local blackouts experienced by fans who do not have cable and try to watch games via streaming by paying for a subscription to

Either way, change is coming to the way MLB delivers its product to customers. That change — and the financial ramifications it has for the game — might be here by Opening Day.

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