As teams ready themselves for their spring sojourns and beat reporters pack their cargo shorts and press credentials, there is the smell of something distinctive in the air: the hope and promise of captivating storylines, heated positional battles and wacky winter anecdotes to pass the time as clubs whittle down their rosters.
Following a historic finish to the 2016 season, there is blithe optimism that 2017 could have just as much to offer, both to seamheads and casual fans alike. Which player will become the talk of the spring, carving out a roster spot and elbowing out a veteran on the bubble? Which player will see his preseason stock take a precipitous fall? Who will show up in the sexiest sports car? And what type of exotic mascot will Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon employ as a rallying cry for the world champs this year?
Our writers answer these pressing questions and more as camps start to open.
What circus animal will Joe Maddon have make an appearance at spring training?
Jim Bowden: I think Joe Maddon will go out of the box as usual, and instead of having another circus animal, will have a pink flamingo flown in from Florida. After all, he likes flamingos so much that he has plastic ones in his manager's office at Wrigley Field.
Jerry Crasnick: An elephant. Maddon has already done cheetahs, snow leopards, sloths, penguins and flamingos, so it's time to go big or go home. I just feel sorry for the groundskeepers who have to clean up after whatever he brings in next.
Andrew Marchand: The layup answer is a goat, right? That is too easy, so I don't think Maddon will go there. I'll go with a giraffe. His message to his team will be to stand tall in the face of repeating. I don't know.
Eddie Matz: Flamingo would be the easy answer here. He's got them all over his office, brought one into a news conference last September and is generally infatuated with them. But Maddon rarely goes the obvious route, which is why he'll pay homage to his alma mater (Lafayette) and opt for a leopard. Who knows, if things go well, he might even give the creature, um, a spot start.
David Schoenfield: It obviously has to be a lion, the king of the animals, as the Cubs are now kings of the baseball world.
Rizzo and his new friends pic.twitter.com/VJ61cWZ7BO
— Jesse Rogers (@ESPNChiCubs) March 25, 2016
What car will Yoenis Cespedes show up in on the first day of spring training?
Bowden: I think Cespedes once again will go with an Alex Vega customized car from the Auto Firm in Miami. This time around, I think he'll debut in a white Porsche 911 Turbo souped-up bad boy.
Crasnick: A DeLorean DMC-12 from "Back to the Future.''
Marchand: I'm sure it will be something fancy, but I would recommend this one. The Mr. Met Mobile would show his commitment to his team, while being fuel-efficient. If he doesn't go with that -- and he won't -- I'd go with a mid-'80s classic, the DeLorean, since 1986 was the last time the Mets won the World Series.
Matz: A vintage 1973 BMW 3.0 CSL with full aero package, including wings. On the race circuit, it was nicknamed the Batmobile. On the second day of spring training, Matt "Dark Knight" Harvey will have an identity crisis and claim that the hot rod is his. Cespedes and Harvey will spend the rest of camp bickering over who gets to drive the thing.
Schoenfield: You know, we get it, Yoenis: You make a lot of money and have to spend it on something, so you've gone the predictable route of fancy cars. OK, your cars are pretty awesome. But how about surprising everyone and showing up in a true classic collectible: a 1970 AMC Gremlin.
What or who are you most excited to watch in spring training?
Bowden: I am most excited to see shortstop Trea Turner in spring training. His blazing speed, incredible backspin on his surprising power swing and baseball instincts make him an up-and-coming future star in the big leagues and potentially one of the game's most exciting players since left fielder Rickey Henderson.
Crasnick: Andrew Benintendi. I talked to a scout last year who compared him to Fred Lynn. Now I see that he's spent the winter bulking up and will arrive at spring training 15-20 pounds heavier. It's always interesting to see the impact that type of weight gain has on a hitter. If Benintendi has added more power to his already impressive skill set, watch out.
Marchand: I'm interested in seeing how the Mets' rotation bounces back. A year ago, they looked as if they had the makings of a dynastic run; now they are a bit in disarray. They could be incredible, or they may be another lost generation in Flushing.
Matz: Trea Turner, Nationals. You know that saying about a great actor reading the phone book? Well, it's the same thing with Turner. It doesn't matter whether it's March or October -- the dude is electric. He has the kind of speed that folktales are made of; last year, he hit a line drive to left field and somehow turned it into a triple. As if that weren't enough, now he moves from center field to shortstop.
Schoenfield: Seeing those kids the White Sox got in their two trades. How good is second baseman Yoan Moncada? Let's see if Michael Kopech is throwing 100. Is Lucas Giolito ready for a major league rotation? Can Reynaldo Lopez earn a rotation spot?
Which prospect will force his way onto a major league roster this spring?
Bowden: The prospect that will force his way onto a major league roster this spring will be Cody Bellinger of the Los Angeles Dodgers. He's one of the best bat prospects in baseball, and his bat is probably second only to shortstop Corey Seager in the entire Dodgers organization. All the Gold Glove-caliber first baseman has to do is prove to the Dodgers that he can play left field adequately, and he'll beat out the competition.
Crasnick: Yoan Moncada. The White Sox might as well get a jump on their future and break camp with their top prospect. Moncada smells an opportunity, and my guess is that he tears it up in Arizona.
Marchand: I'll say shortstop/second baseman Gleyber Torres makes a run at a roster spot this spring. He may not make it all the way to the Bronx, but Torres is on the fast track. He is scheduled to begin the year at Double-A Trenton, but the Yankees won't hold him back if he proves he is ready.
Matz: Center fielder Manuel Margot, Padres. Matt Kemp, Melvin Upton Jr. and Jon Jay have all skipped town. If you're scoring at home, that's San Diego's entire 2016 Opening Day outfield. In other words, the speedy Margot -- who came over from Boston in the Craig Kimbrel deal and hit .304 with 30 steals in Triple-A last year -- should have plenty of opportunity to patrol the Petco pasture right from the get-go.
Schoenfield: Teams like to keep their top prospects in the minors to start the season to save on service time, but one obvious candidate is Tigers reliever Joe Jimenez, who has a career 1.59 ERA in the minors. Among bigger names, Moncada may need time in Triple-A after struggling in his brief major league stint with the Red Sox, but a big spring could earn a starting spot with the White Sox.
Who is the player with the most to gain or lose this spring?
Bowden: Red Sox third baseman Pablo Sandoval is the player with the most to gain and lose this spring. He has the most to gain because historically, no one can eat more. He has the most to lose because no one can outwork him on the field. He has the most to lose because if he loses third base to Brock Holt this spring, his career will be practically over. He has the most to gain because if he can bounce back, he could end up being the AL Comeback Player of the Year.
Crasnick: Andrew McCutchen. I think he'll be fine this year. But he's adjusting to a new position and he'll have to deal with a lot of questions this spring on the heels of all that trade speculation. It can only benefit him to come out of Florida feeling good and in a positive frame of mind.
Marchand: Matt Harvey is at a career crossroads. He was supposed to be a $300 million ace one day. Now, it is unclear if his injury proclivity will allow him to even be a regular starter. He gets to show what he is made of this spring. He is also the New York City Bureau Chief, so if the pitching thing doesn't work out, at least he has a fallback.
Matz: Last summer, Lucas Giolito was the future of the Nationals' rotation and the No. 2 prospect in all of baseball. Suddenly, following an underwhelming debut (6.75 ERA, 1.78 WHIP in 21 IP) and a head-scratching trade to the White Sox, the 6-foot-6 righty who underwent Tommy John surgery in high school has folks wondering why exactly the Nats were willing to part with him.
Schoenfield: I'm thinking of interesting position battles here. How about first base for the Astros? Everybody loved A.J. Reed a year ago, but he hit .164 in 45 games with Houston, and now everyone wants to hand first base to Yulieski Gurriel, the former Cuban star who is now 32 and still has to prove he can hit major league pitching after a so-so debut.
How many reporters will attend Tim Tebow's first spring training news conference?
Bowden: Tim Tebow's first news conference at spring training will have 74 different reporters, of which only 49 will be covering baseball.
Crasnick: 50-75. If Tebow could attract 30 or 40 print and TV reporters to watch him take batting practice in the Instructional League in September, he should easily eclipse that total with his first spring training news conference.
Marchand: There won't be enough, as far as I am concerned. Some may call it a farce, but I think it is great. A former Heisman Trophy winner is trying to make it in baseball after his NFL career dies. That's a good story, even if we probably know the ending won't be at Citi Field. I'll say 45 reporters, since you asked.
Matz: Exactly 173 reporters. Or one for every completion in Tebow's NFL career.
Schoenfield: Let's see, there are 14 teams in the SEC. Let's say an average of five reporters per team. That's 70. Plus, the local reporters who cover the Mets. Some of the national guys will be there. I'll go with 103.