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Seven things we’re excited to watch during 2021 spring training games

Full squads have reported to spring training, the work is well underway, and the first games will start in just a few days. Here are seven things we are very much looking forward to watching as the sport ramps up for the start of the 2021 season. 

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The Jarred Kelenic show

Remember how Mariners president and CEO — sorry, ex-president and CEO — Kevin Mather said the club had already decided it wasn’t going to start Kelenic with the big club on Opening Day because Kelenic had the audacity not to sign the long-term team-friendly contract? And then how GM Jerry DiPoto said it was crazy to talk service time about a guy who had only played 21 games above Double-A, conveniently ignoring the rave reviews the 21-year-old was receiving at the club’s alternate site while the minors were shut down in 2020? 

Yeah. The spotlight is on Kelenic, and the former Mets first-round pick — he was the key piece heading to Seattle in the deal that shipped Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz to New York — is eager to show everyone why he was very willing to bet on himself, and why Baseball America and MLB.com rank him as the No. 4 prospect in all of baseball. 

Innings magically ending

Three outs per inning is no longer a strict rule, at least when spring training games start. Managers will have the option to end an inning early if a pitcher has already thrown at least 20 pitches and there is no reliever ready to enter the inning. It’s going to be weird to see an inning end with, let’s say, an RBI double that leaves runners on second and third. But that’s the rule through games of March 13. After that, actual baseball rules will be in effect. 

Shohei Ohtani pitching again

If you follow any Angels writers or fans or really any national baseball people at all, you know that on Wednesday afternoon Ohtani told reporters that he hit 97 mph on the radar gun during his work session that day. Any sort of reasonable expectations about what he can do in his return to the mound flew out the window at more than 97 mph. It’s been easy to forget his electrifying talent, what with the injuries — he missed 2019 after Tommy John surgery and was limited to just two starts in 2020 because of a right forearm strain — and the Angels’ struggles to get to the postseason during his time with the club. But if he’s throwing 97 and he starts hitting like he did his first two years in the bigs? This could be a very fun spring in Angels’ camp. 

Albert Pujols’ final spring (probably)

Speaking of Angels camp, this is the last spring hurrah with the club for future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols. He’s likely to retire after 2021 — his Age 41 season — but if he does choose to continue his career after his current contract expires at the end of the season, it doesn’t figure to be with the Angels. So let’s enjoy this spring. He’s not what he once was, and he hasn’t been for a long time. But he can still put a charge into the ball, he still works as hard as ever and watching him play is still watching a future Cooperstown inductee play baseball, and that’s not too bad. 

Ke’Bryan Hayes and hope

For now, he’s still mostly known as the son of Charlie Hayes, the long-time big-league infielder who caught the final out of the Yankees’ 1996 World Series championship. But, wow, Hayes was brilliant in his first foray into big league baseball; in 24 games in the pandemic-shortened season, Hayes hit .376 with a .442 on-base percentage and 202 OPS+. He finished sixth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting, mostly because he only played 24 games, but his bWAR — 1.9 — was higher than any of the other nine rookies who received votes. Not many people noticed because the Pirates were putrid, of course, and the 2021 campaign doesn’t promise to be much better. But Hayes? He’s the guy Pirates fans can watch this spring and get excited about. 

Hunter Greene, on the mound

Who’s ready to see the No. 2 pick of the 2017 MLB draft back on the mound in a baseball game that counts in the standings (hey, spring training standings are still standings, people)? Every Reds fan and every fan of the game’s future, that’s who. Greene made 21 starts in the Cincinnati organization — striking out 95 in 72 2/3 innings — before Tommy John surgery sidelined him for last couple of months of 2018 and the entire 2019 season. He spent the summer of 2020 working at the club’s alternate site, but those games weren’t televised or open to the public, so when he makes his first spring appearance for the Reds this spring, it will be the first time in 2 1/2 years that Cincinnati fans will have the chance to watch the big right-hander take the mound. Greene is still only 21 years old.  

New faces, new places. Thanks, trades!

Francisco Lindor showed up to Mets camp on Thursday morning wearing the same jacket worn by Prince Akeem, Eddie Murphy’s unforgettable character from the classic movie “Coming to America.” Nolan Arenado showed up to Cardinals camp wearing, well, red. Yu Darvish adds a power arm to a rotation for a San Diego team with World Series aspirations. Their new fan bases could not be more in love with those guys. Gotta feel for the Cleveland, Colorado and Chicago fans, though.

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