We’re a little under two weeks into the MLB season, and there have already been quite a few surprises, from a still-undefeated team to a powerhouse struggling to get going. What has grabbed our attention enough to become must-see TV? Even if you’ve already settled into your routine with your go-to teams and players, get ready to expand your horizons.
We asked MLB experts Bradford Doolittle, Alden Gonzalez, Kiley McDaniel, Jeff Passan, Jesse Rogers and David Schoenfield to give us the rundown on who has our full attention whenever they take the field and what makes them worth your time.
The teams we can’t get enough of right now
Passan: Yes, the Rays’ 9-0 start came against the dregs of MLB in Detroit, Washington and Oakland — teams Tampa Bay should beat. And yet it’s impossible to ignore just how thoroughly the Rays thumped them. They are the first team since 1884 with a run differential of more than 50 over their first nine games of the season. They’ve scored the most runs (75) in baseball and allowed the fewest (18). Their 21 home runs lead the big leagues, and they have the fewest strikeouts with 51. They have generated more ground balls and walked fewer hitters than any team in the American League.
The Rays play an eminently enjoyable brand of baseball. They are simultaneously clean and powerful, exciting and efficient. They are loaded with ballplayers’ ballplayers. And with Shane McClanahan, Jeffrey Springs, Drew Rasmussen, Zach Eflin and, soon enough, Tyler Glasnow, they will be just fine pitching their way through a schedule that goes full nightmare — Yankees, Orioles, Yankees, Mets, Brewers, Blue Jays, Dodgers — starting May 5.
Doolittle: There’s something special brewing in Milwaukee, and I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether the pun was intended. The Brewers are underappreciated for their consistent winning in recent years, even if they missed the postseason last season. This year’s team is fun. You have great resurgence stories (Brian Anderson, Jesse Winker) and a trio of rookies in Garrett Mitchell, Joey Wiemer and Brice Turang, all friends who have infused the team with energy, ability, enthusiasm and cheesehead-related celebration. And they are just the vanguard, because wait until Sal Frelick and Jackson Chourio join the party. This is a really good team that has a chance to be the best yet in the Brewers’ run of winning. And the emergent personality of this revitalized roster is one of pure joy.
Schoenfield: Baseball fans like offense, and the Braves are my bet to lead the majors in runs scored — and they’ll do it with a dynamic core of young and in-their-prime players. Ronald Acuna Jr. and Michael Harris II have a reasonable shot of becoming just the third pair of 30-30 teammates in MLB history (joining Howard Johnson and Darryl Strawberry of the 1987 Mets and Dante Bichette and Ellis Burks of the 1996 Rockies). Austin Riley is coming off back-to-back top-10 MVP finishes. Matt Olson is up there like he’s ready to stop chopping wood, with his hands high and outstretched from his body, daring pitchers to go inside on him. Ozzie Albies is a slugger in a No. 9 hitter’s body. Travis d’Arnaud and Sean Murphy add depth.
That’s just the lineup. Every fifth game you get one of the most electric starters in the game in Spencer Strider, coming off a rookie season in which he averaged an absurd 13.8 strikeouts per nine innings and finished second in the National League Rookie of the Year voting — behind his teammate Harris. The Braves might have another pop-up ROY candidate in lefty Dylan Dodd, who pounds the strike zone. And when he returns soon from the injured list, they have a Cy Young contender in the coolly efficient Max Fried. The Braves are good — and nothing is more fun than winning.
Gonzalez: It remains to be seen whether these Padres will have the depth and the precision to live up to lofty expectations and bring San Diego its first major professional championship — but there’s no doubt they’re going to be exciting. Beginning April 20, we’ll get to see Fernando Tatis Jr., Juan Soto, Manny Machado and Xander Bogaerts hitting back-to-back-to-back-to-back on a semi-regular basis, and that alone might be enough to make them baseball’s most exciting team. We’re talking, respectively, about arguably the most electrifying player in the sport, followed by arguably the best pure hitter in the sport, followed by a potential Hall of Fame third baseman in his prime, followed by a potential Hall of Fame shortstop in his prime. The drama surrounding Tatis’ return from a PED suspension, while being among many Padres players learning a semi-new position, only adds to the intrigue.
McDaniel: The O’s are leading the majors in stolen bases after finishing middle of the pack last season, which speaks to their speed and ability to make adjustments, both things that tend to come with youth. If that wasn’t enough, they’re also in the top five in the AL in slugging percentage after finishing in the middle of the pack last year in that stat as well. Power and speed and youth are all fun, but there are swing-and-miss waiver claim types who can technically do that.
These O’s have the best farm system in baseball, and half of those best young prospects are on this team right now. Baltimore has one of the best systems at developing position players, and we might be seeing that happen at the big league level, too. The pitching is behind at the moment, but that just means there’s more scoring, upping the fun factor (if you aren’t a die-hard fan).
Rogers: The Diamondbacks are hitting just .253 as a team — not exactly exciting stuff — but that only makes their National League-leading 12 stolen bases that much more interesting. Just imagine if/when they start to roll at the plate. They can turn any game into a track meet with their speed and will likely win a lot of contests using that skill. And heading into the season, the Diamondbacks organization had the second, fourth and eighth overall prospects among Kiley McDaniel’s top 100. By definition, that makes for an exciting franchise.
The hitters whose at-bats you can’t miss
Doolittle: Franco has been the next big thing in hitting since the day he was tagged with an 80-grade hit tool as a prospect. This season, he looks like a super-talented young player who might be embodying his superstar potential. He’s getting pitches to hit, hitting the ones he swings at and mashing the ball when he makes contact, which is almost always. Franco isn’t the only reason the Rays have looked almost unbeatable over the season’s opening days, but he has been the avatar for that dominance. If you love hitting, you won’t find a hitter doing anything more special than Franco is right now.
Schoenfield: Let’s not overthink this. Don’t get too cute. It’s Rodriguez, the 22-year-old superstar with the smile that lights up the Space Needle. He missed a year of development time in 2020. He skipped past Triple-A last season with only 46 games above High-A. No problem. He was one of the best players in the league in 2022, finishing seventh in the MVP voting as he became just the third rookie with at least 25 home runs and 25 steals. Yeah, some guy named Mike Trout was the last one to do it. Rodriguez hit 27 home runs over his final 99 games, a 40-homer pace over a full season. The Seattle Mariners also plan to let him run again, making a 40/30 or even 40/40 season a possibility.
Oh, and last season he ranked in the 98th percentile in speed, 95th in outs above average on defense and 96th in arm strength. Beyond all that: J-Rod has the “it” factor that only a few players possess, an attribute that makes his watchability soar even beyond whatever numbers he puts up.
Passan: If the threshold of this exercise is to hunt fun, there is no better example than someone capable of finishing the top half of an inning on the mound and hitting the ball harder than all but a handful of players in the bottom half. Ohtani’s exploits by now are so clear that we almost take them for granted. Do yourself a favor and don’t be that person. Savor Ohtani’s at-bats as they warrant. He is big and powerful and laced with muscles that fire off exit velocities bested only by Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Put those four in a footrace and Ohtani will dust the field, with his off-the-charts physical ability playing outside the batter’s box, too. Saying Ohtani is exciting is like saying water is wet. Some truths are immutable.
Ronald Acuna Jr.
Rogers: How many players have the potential to lead the league in triples, stolen bases and even potentially home runs? It can’t be many but count Acuna in that group, as he possesses the speed and slug to be at the top of the leaderboards. In fact, his sprint speed ranks eighth in baseball this season — and that stat alone makes him an exciting player. Add his 40-home run strength and Acuna is near the top of the list of must-watch players.
Gonzalez: Carroll packs so much action into a 5-foot-10, 165-pound frame, and we’ve gotten only a glimpse of it. We’ve already seen all five of his tools materialize at the major league level, and he’s just a 22-year-old who has played in fewer than 50 career games. In other words, he’s going to keep getting better. MLB’s efforts to bring more action into the sport are in many ways epitomized by Carroll, who covers a ton of ground in the outfield, runs the bases with havoc, slugs like hitters twice his size and doesn’t seem to have many holes in his swing. He also plays with an infectious energy that draws you in. If you haven’t seen him play yet, do yourself the favor.
McDaniel: There’s something special about the trance that falls over a stadium when there’s a tense moment and one of the best hitters in the game comes to bat. You can argue East Coast bias or that the new Yankee Stadium isn’t the same as the old place, but Judge was the deserved 2022 American League MVP, the New York Yankees are essentially always in playoff contention and Judge has the most raw power on the planet. The silence before the ball is delivered is dripping with anticipation, as he gets ever closer to making a ball literally explode on contact.
The pitchers we drop everything to see on the mound
Doolittle: He’s mesmerizing. He attacks, attacks, attacks, with filthy stuff and pinpoint location — always challenging hitters, but with precision and intelligence. This is an elite pitcher who remains on top of his game. His ability to zip into the late innings with a low pitch count is so organic that you wonder why all pitchers don’t do what he does. But if you saw Alcantara whitewash the Minnesota Twins in less than two hours (1 hour and 57 minutes, to be exact) last week, you would be reminded why they can’t. There is only one Sandy Alcantara, and if you aren’t tuning in to watch when he’s on the mound, that is a day you have wasted.
Schoenfield: Maybe I am overthinking this one. Manoah is built like a 500-year-old oak tree, so you would expect him to throw triple-digit blazing fastballs, but he instead works off a rather pedestrian fastball with league-average velocity. So maybe he’s a little less awe-inspiring than some other starters, but I love his old-school approach of trying to outthink batters rather than just overpower them.
What makes Manoah extra entertaining, however, are two things that rub opponents the wrong way: (1) He throws inside — a lot and sometimes with a little purpose, leading the AL in hit batters in both 2021 and 2022; (2) He’s, shall we say, a little demonstrative on the mound and talkative off it, which has led to a few chirping incidents with teams — most notably with the Boston Red Sox last season and when he referred to Gerrit Cole as “the worst cheater in baseball.”
Boston outfielder Alex Verdugo ripped Manoah’s antics last week on a local podcast when he said, “Like I’ll say it right now, I think Alek Manoah goes about it the wrong way, 100 percent I think he does. … So it’s like, s— like that just pisses me off. It’s not the way it should be played.” Manoah’s response: “Coming from him? I don’t give a s—.” So, umm, yeah, Manoah’s starts are worth watching — especially against the Red Sox and Yankees.
Passan: For the second consecutive year, Duran is my choice, and I’m perfectly comfortable with that because we’re seeing a new version of him. The stuff is still the same. He throws the hardest right-handed fastball in the big leagues, sitting at 101.5 mph. His splinker, a hybrid sinker-splitter, is a one-of-a-kind pitch. But Duran’s curveball might be the best of the lot, an 88 mph knee-buckler he’s now throwing nearly 50% of the time, up from 31% last year. This is as close as we’ve been to a fully formed version of Duran, and he has established himself as much more than a radar goof. He’s right there, alongside Emmanuel Clase and Andres Muñoz, as perhaps the premier raw-stuff guy in the big leagues. Even though Duran goes just one inning at a time, that inning is bound to be a show.
Gonzalez: Lately, I’ve been most intrigued by watching the way Ohtani navigates starts when he doesn’t have his A-plus command. It happened in his most recent outing, on a frigid Wednesday afternoon in Seattle. Ohtani had a hard time landing his breaking balls and used up 68 of his pitches to record the game’s first nine outs. Somehow, though, he completed six innings, gave up only one run and got the win. As the outing prolonged, his stuff got better, more precise.
The fastball-splitter combination used to be Ohtani’s bread and butter, but the slider — often called a sweeper — has developed into arguably his best pitch, top among the six or so he throws. Keep in mind that when Ohtani was finally able to take on a two-way role full time in 2021, he had compiled less than 80 innings over the previous four years. He’s still developing as a pitcher. And it’s so much fun to watch his growth in action.
McDaniel: Maybe your nightmares have Michael Myers or the Predator in them. Mine, however, is that I wake up and I’m in the box facing a wild-eyed Scherzer late in the game and I can’t tell if it’s time for a dastardly slider that I can’t lay off or a brushback heater that will make my life flash before my eyes. Naturally, it’s fun for me to be eating snacks on my couch while I watch a well-paid professional be forced to live my nightmare, often with the same result in the box score as if I were hitting.
Rogers: If strikeouts are your thing, then Cease is your guy. His slider is as sick as they come, leaving hitters shaking their heads as they march back to the dugout after another K. He’s at the top of the leaderboard again this season after finishing second in the AL in strikeouts last year. And he made some history in his 2023 debut when he became just the fourth AL pitcher to ever strikeout at least 10 without issuing a walk on Opening Day. Even when ill — as he was in start No. 2 this season — he was a must-watch, navigating around five walks over five innings. He gave up just a run, and of course, struck out eight. He’s the real deal on the mound.