Verlander's innings, Olson's at-bats garner spring interest

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FILE - Japan's Seiya Suzuki plays during a baseball game at Yokohama Baseball Stadium during the 2020 Summer Olympics, Saturday, July 31, 2021, in Yokohama, Japan. The Chicago Cubs and star Japanese outfielder Seiya Suzuki have agreed to an $85-million, five-year contract, a person familiar with the situation told The Associated Press on Wednesday, March 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Justin Verlander is one of the greatest pitchers of his generation with eight All-Star appearances, two Cy Young Awards, one MVP, one Rookie of the Year and a World Series title.

Now baseball fans are about to see how much the 39-year-old has left in the tank.

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Verlander is working his way back from Tommy John surgery and has made just one appearance over the past two years. The right-hander was dominant in his last full season, winning 21 games to earn his second Cy Young in 2019.

The Astros and Verlander haven't decided on the pitcher's spring training workload, but when he takes the mound, it'll be sure to garner interest. Verlander said he's “a hair behind” where he'd normally be in spring training and wants to make sure he's not rushing his return.

“The last thing I wanted to do was build up, then pull back, and then build up again,” Verlander said.

Verlander's return is one of many storylines during this abbreviated spring training. Spring games were originally scheduled to being on Feb. 26 but didn't start until Thursday because of a 99-day lockout that pushed the sport's opening day to April 7. Eight teams started games on Thursday while the others begin Friday.

Here are a few more players to watch as games begin in the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues on Thursday and Friday:


OF/3B Kris Bryant, Rockies: Colorado surprised much of baseball when it was able to grab Bryant on a $182 million, seven-year deal on Wednesday. He was the 2016 MVP after hitting 39 homers and leading the Chicago Cubs to the World Series title. He hasn't achieved that level of production since, but he's still undoubtedly one of the sport's top third basemen. His bat should play just fine in the thin air at Coors Field.

OF Seiya Suzuki, Cubs: Chicago continued its rebuild by adding the 27-year-old Suzuki on an $85 million, five-year deal. The Japanese star packs a lot of power into his 5-foot-11, 182-pound frame. He batted .317 with 38 homers for Hiroshima last season. His acclimation to MLB pitching will be closely watched during his spring games in Arizona.

1B/DH Luke Voit, Yankees: The slugger was the AL home run champ during the abbreviated 2020 season, with 22 homers in just 56 games. He struggled with injuries in 2021 and it appears that he's been replaced by Anthony Rizzo, who re-signed with the club on a $32 million, two-year deal earlier this week. But Voit is still an intimidating hitter and a big spring could increase his value for the Yankees or potentially some other team.

3B Matt Chapman, Blue Jays: The third baseman was a sabermetric darling during his 2018 and 2019 seasons with the Oakland A's, combining for 15.3 WAR over those two seasons. His production dropped off over the next two years, particularly at the plate, and the A's dealt Chapman to the Blue Jays for four players. Chapman is still just 28 and has proven he can be an elite player. The Blue Jays are banking on that possibility.

1B Matt Olson, Braves: It's not easy taking over for a franchise icon, but that's the position for Olson, who will man first base after Atlanta lost Freddie Freeman in free agency. Olson's a Georgia native, which should help his acclimation process, but he'll be under pressure to replicate his 2021 season when he hit 39 homers for the Oakland A's in an All-Star campaign. A good tune-up during spring training games would certainly help.

SP Sonny Gray, Twins: Minnesota's trying to bounce back from a disappointing season and adding the right-handed Gray is part of the recovery plan. The two-time All-Star was 7-9 last season with a 4.19 ERA for the Cincinnati Reds. The Twins hope he can return to his 2019 form, when he had a 2.87 ERA and 205 strikeouts during his most recent All-Star season.


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