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5 MLB storylines that aren't springtime fluff

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Early spring is a time of hope and renewal in MLB camps. This is when reports are plentiful about players arriving in the best shape of their lives, when coaches and players speak of new or improved skills they believe will make all the difference.

While many of these storylines will fade over the next six weeks, some will matter. Let's take a look at a few that could be big deals throughout the season.

Holliday in a hurry

I first came across Jackson Holliday, the sport's consensus No. 1 prospect, at the Orioles' minor-league dining hall in Sarasota, Florida, last spring while reporting a piece about Baltimore's player-development machine.

Waiting in line for food, Holliday intently watched Gunnar Henderson on a nearby TV showing the major-league team's spring training game.

"When Jackson showed up (after being drafted in 2022), the first meeting we had, we were going through some of our process, and they had Gunnar on the screen," Baltimore's player development director Matt Blood said. "He asked a question: 'What did you do with him? Whatever you did with him is what I want to do.'"

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Henderson enjoyed a breakout rookie season in 2023, and Holliday may be next in 2024. Will Holliday go north with the club right away?

Holliday possesses tremendous talent and rare bloodlines as the son of longtime star Matt Holliday. He played at four levels last year, rising from A-ball to finish at Triple-A, and remained hungry after the season. Holliday told The Baltimore Sun he spent the offseason getting stronger: he's now squatting 455 pounds, bench-pressing 315 pounds, and box-jumping 55 inches.

Holliday also revealed how he benefited from the family's indoor batting cage:

Holliday could be yet another young star on the Orioles' roster, arriving ahead of schedule for a team that jumped ahead of its expected timeline last season.

Tarik Skubal, emerging ace?

Full camps opened this week and Detroit Tigers left-handed starting pitcher Tarik Skubal already hit 100 mph during live batting practice Tuesday. That's a remarkable reading for a starting pitcher, but it's even more interesting considering what Skubal did in the second half of last season.

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If you stopped paying attention to the Tigers halfway through last season - or the AL Central, for that matter - we don't blame you.

But from July 1 through the end of the season, Skubal was the most valuable pitcher in baseball by FanGraphs WAR (3.3), a tick ahead of Spencer Strider (3.2). His strikeout-minus-walk rate (28.4%) ranked third and his 2.80 ERA ranked 18th. His average fastball jumped a full mile to 95.5 mph.

The question is whether the 27-year-old, who's already endured two major elbow procedures and is yet to crack 150 innings in a season, can hold up. FanGraphs' various projections average out to predict 142 innings in 2024. If he reaches that number, the Tigers could suddenly become interesting in a division where few teams attempted to improve this offseason.

Top Tigers pitching prospects Jackson Jobe and Ty Madden could reach the majors this year. First baseman Spencer Torkelson broke out in the second half last year, Riley Greene can be a force if he can avoid injuries that cost him two months in '23, and top position prospect Colt Keith agreed to a long-term deal this spring. There's hope in the Motor City.

Strider adds a new trick

It's odd to think that Strider - perhaps the best pitcher in the game - has another level to reach.

But Strider may reach new heights this year, coming off a season in which he led the majors in strikeouts and garnered Cy Young consideration.

What's remarkable about Strider is that he's become a dominant pitcher primarily by throwing only two pitches: 93% of Strider's offerings were either fastballs or sliders last year.

But Strider's demonstrating a new pitch early this spring: a curveball.

Consider how it pairs with his fastball during a live at-bat against star teammate Matt Olson in Atlanta Braves camp this week:

As we explored last spring, few pitchers pay more attention to the science of their craft than Strider, who rebuilt his delivery following Tommy John surgery at Clemson through his own study. To date, Strider believed his slider and fastball were all he needed to disrupt timing and miss bats.

But if Strider gives batters a different pitch shape and velocity to think about, it's possible he reaches another level, wins a Cy Young Award, and helps the Braves advance deeper into October.

A new league-wide pitch?

Every few years, a new pitch makes its way through the league. In the last couple of seasons, it was the sweeper, which is a slider with more horizontal movement.

New pitches are easier to learn with today's technology. High-speed cameras allow pitchers to see exactly how subtle grip changes alter spin and movement. Velocity and spin tracking offer immediate feedback in bullpens.

This year's new pitch may be the splitter.

For pitchers who've struggled to find a pitch that offers fading, arm-side movement action like a changeup to pair with a breaking ball, it could be a game-changer.

I spoke to Driveline Baseball instructor Chris Langin last spring for a piece on Minnesota Twins pitcher Joe Ryan adding a splitter. Langin thought the splitter was underutilized in MLB because of fear.

"You'll have four, five guys throwing a splitter, three of them have success, and one runs into normal, 30% injury risk, and everyone blames the splitter," Langin said. "Until that stops, it's probably not going to be optimized."

Ryan's 2023 splitter:

Major League Baseball

Splitters are frequently thrown in Japanese pro baseball: an 11% rate last year, compared to 2% in MLB.

"We have one country that doesn't give a shit and all they throw is splitters," Langin said. "We've got another country that thinks it's going to break everyone's arms."

Perhaps that'll change this spring.

A hidden ace in New York

The New York Yankees added Juan Soto earlier this winter, the most impactful addition in the game east of Los Angeles. And they remain connected to big-name free agents like Blake Snell.

But the biggest improvement the Yankees can make is having their holdover players be healthy and on the field. And, yes, they brought some of this on themselves by adding injury-prone players to their roster.

They need Aaron Judge to remain healthy, of course, and perhaps Giancarlo Stanton's altered physique can recapture some magic. But the biggest de facto addition the Yankees could benefit from is a major signing they made last season: Carlos Rodón. New York hoped he'd be a co-ace with Gerrit Cole but instead got 14 ineffective starts when he returned in July from a forearm issue.

Rodón's touching 97 mph early this spring. He was sitting in the high 80s this time a year ago. If that's an indication of improved health, it could be a big deal.

When Rodón finished second in the majors in pitching WAR (6.2) in 2022, striking out more than 11 batters per nine innings, he averaged 95.5 mph with his fastball. He's bounced back from injury before.

His upside's undeniable. He's a hidden ace card for the Yankees.

Travis Sawchik is theScore's senior baseball writer.

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