Death, taxes, and overblown Spring Training statistics – Part II.

It’s an annual tradition at this point. With two weeks of Spring Training in the books, the exciting young prospects are mostly cut, the superstars are going through the motions, and most everyone just wants the regular season to get underway. With little else to focus on then, the number of stories focusing on potential breakout performers increases exponentially, most of which are based off a ridiculously impressive, but ridiculously small sample size of Spring Training statistics. Yesterday, I added to that already large number, looking at the hot starts of Mike Moustakas and Tommy Medica in addition to the battle for Colorado’s final outfield slot. Today, I continue on with some more of Spring Training’s offensive leaders, and whether anything meaningful can be gathered from their performances so far.

The No. 2 overall pick from the 2009 MLB draft, Dustin Ackley has thoroughly disappointed in his brief tenure with the Seattle Mariners. After posting a combined .669 OPS at the dish while also failing to stick defensively at either second base or center field during his first three years with the team, Ackley will be starting in left for the Mariners in 2014, pretty much by default (S/O to Seattle GM Jack Zduriencik on his outfield construction). Much like Mike Moustakas, the lefty’s status as a regular figures to be in serious jeopardy should he again fail to hit, especially so given Seattle’s soon-to-be deep pockets could presumably quickly source an alternative. His strong .441/.472/.735 Spring Training line though, rather than a fluky aberration from a busted prospect, might actually have some real significance in regard to Ackley’s long-term future with the club.

After batting just .205, Ackley was demoted to Triple-A Tacoma in May last year in order to re-work his swing and learn how to play the outfield again. With the Rainiers, the former top prospect not only raked .365 in 25 games, but apparently got his mindset right again – an epiphany he credited to Raul Ibanez’s book recommendation. Upon his return to the Majors after the All-Star Break, the 26-year old hit .304/.374/.435 in 53 games, looking just as comfortable as in his 2011 rookie season, after which stardom was expected. His numbers so far this spring then, though admittedly a small sample size, might be seen to indicate that the oft-maligned North Carolina product has legitimately turned a corner in his development, and is ready to contribute in a meaningful way this season.

The organization’s first round pick in 2009, A.J. Pollock began 2013 behind Adam Eaton on the Diamondback’s depth chart, but quickly assumed the starting role when Eaton’s troublesome elbow held him out of action. In 131 games, Pollock proved himself to be a roughly league average hitter, but a tremendous defender – ranking fourth in the NL in Fangraphs UZR and UZR/150 fielding ratings. He was so impressive in fact, that Eaton was traded away (at his lowest value – S/O to Kevin Towers) this past offseason, leaving the 26-year old Pollock Arizona’s center field job all to himself.

Rather than being content in his new role, Pollock so far seems out to prove that Towers made the right decision in keeping him over Eaton. His Spring Training stat line – .417/.475/.778 – though a small sample size, certainly would suggest that the former No. 6 prospect of the D’Back’s system is ready to bust out from his under the radar status. After all, it’s hardly unexpected for 26-year olds to suddenly make the leap – so his spring showing can’t be taken with the usual pinch of salt. If his bat ever comes close to matching his glove, Arizona might have a future star on their hands in Pollock. He’s making a valiant case for such a designation anyway.

As a brief aside, fellow Spring Training batting champion contenders Marwin Gonzalez (.462/.442/.654, 26 ABs), Matt Long (.455/.486/.667, 33 ABs), and Rajai Davis (.393/.469/.500, 28 ABs), are all undoubtedly doing it with smoke and mirror shows at the moment. Davis though, with Andy Dirks sidelined to begin the year, will be Detroit’s Opening Day left fielder, and a fantasy sleeper if there ever was one. If he can keep up some level of average production at the plate to go with his blazing speed on the basepaths and increased opportunity for counting stats in the potent Tigers lineup, he’ll be worth much more than a late-round selection by seasons end.

Acquired from Oakland last August in exchange for Alberto Callaspo, Grant Green hit .280 with a .720 OPS over 40 games down the stretch for the Los Angeles Angels, filling in more than capably for an injured Howie Kendrick at the keystone. That he had a BABIP of .391 in doing so however, made the winter speculation about Kendrick’s future with the club seem ridiculous. Green has so far posted another seemingly impressive .387/.364/.548 slash line this spring, but once again, the superficial numbers are undermined by poor peripherals; Green has yet to draw a walk against pitching judged 7.9 on the OppQual scale (for reference, a rating of 10 is ML level opposition, 8 is Triple-A), but has struck out 6 times. Green’s performance thus far is giving off all the signs of an impending regression should he face better pitching, and with better infield incumbents, it would be foolish for Los Angeles to talk themselves into Green as a more valuable asset than a utility infielder at the present moment.

After putting up a -7 DRS season at second base last year though, even that might be a stretch; his weak glove is an additional reason for Green not to receive time over Kendrick, Erick Aybar at short, or newly acquired David Freese at third base. A man without a position, and relying on inflated offensive stats then, Green’s status with the Angels is a troubling one. Still just 26, there’s still time for the USC product, but his immediate future will consist of bouncing between Triple-A and the Angels’ bench – especially if they’re intent on carrying an additional relief pitcher to back up their shaky rotation.

And so wraps up my weekend of looking at Spring Training’s early offensive leaders. I think we can all safely judge that early statistics are far from truly reliable in terms of indicating future performance, but sometimes, just occasionally, something meaningful can be taken from them. Either way, I’ll be glad when this time next week we’ll have a real regular season game to overreact to, and I can stop writing about mostly insignificant Grapefruit/Cactus League matchups. Bring on the season already!

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