Tagged: Spring Training

The end is nigh: a GIF goodbye to Spring Training (Part II).

With Opening Day II only one sleep away, it’s time to bid adieu to Spring Training. As always it started out a pleasure, then dragged on for what seemed like an eternity, but we’ve made finally it; only today’s slate remains before we can settle down for the halcyon days of an 162-game summer. Continuing on from Part I yesterday, let us send off Spring Training in style, and celebrate the good, the bad, and the downright ridiculous, in the manner I have arbitrarily deemed best – a GIF review.

Picking up where Part I left off, the 2014 edition of Spring Training provided the accustomed quota of oddities. If it wasn’t Hank the dog signing a contract with Milwaukee (and scoring his own bobblehead night), it was mascots gobbling up foul balls.

Bartolo Colon was seen hustling up to first base to score a hit in his first at-bat as a Met. A bee attack halted a Red Sox vs Yankees match-up – providing some excellent reaction shots. Jake Peavy nearly cut his finger off in a fishing knife accident. Los Angeles Angels infielder Ian Stewart was forced to sit out after his four-year-old daughter innocently head butted him while they were playing. Absurdity was everywhere!

Unfortunately, not every pre-season moment was so amusingly wacky. If this spring will be remembered for anything, it will be the rash of serious pitching injuries which occurred; Texas will be missing their three top starters come Opening Day (Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, and Yu Darvish), though they are all expected to return sooner rather than later. The same can’t be said for Jarrod Parker and Patrick Corbin, two young staff anchors who will be out for the year after both undergoing Tommy John surgery. And spare a thought for Braves pitchers Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen, who went down within days of each other – both will be hitting the operating table for a second time, and are out for the season (Medlen’s post-injury interview was particularly saddening).

The hits just kept on coming elsewhere too – and in horrifying fashion. After protective caps for pitchers were widely panned before Spring Training opened, in a sickening incident, Aroldis Chapman caught a Salvador Perez line drive with his face. The Cincinnati closer had a metal plate inserted after sustaining multiple facial fractures, his ordeal catching the attention of several fellow throwers, José Fernández in particular. Thankfully the Cuban Missile should be okay, and has been tentatively scheduled to return at some point in late May/early June.

On a more positive injury-related note, Grady Sizemore has managed to stay healthy for over a month! Lured to the reigning champion Red Sox by a one year, $750,000 major league deal, the 31-year-old Sizemore has officially beaten out Jackie Bradley Jr. for Boston’s Opening Day center field role on the back of his eye-opening spring display; tomorrow he’ll be making his first appearance in an MLB game since Sept. 22, 2011.

If the healthy return of Sizemore was one of the biggest surprises of the spring, Giancarlo Stanton’s continued crushing of baseballs was altogether predictable. That he will start the season on yet another crappy Marlins team – despite the optimism of some scouts – doesn’t make the biggest power in the game any less entertaining; here’s to hoping we have a full season of ludicrous Stanton bombs ahead, even if a change in zip codes is part of it.

Going nowhere for the foreseeable future, Miguel Cabrera punished pre-season pitching as if it were any regular June game – his .352/.439/.611 spring line pretty much in line with his pre-injury pace of 2013. Miggy’s signing of an 8 year, $248 million extension topped off a pretty wonky offseason for Detroit, but if the crushing that he laid on poor Aaron Harang a few days back is anything to go by, the Tigers are primed for another long postseason run on the back of their newly-minted superstar.

And finally, as the game’s brightest stars should always do during spring (unless you’re Clayton Kershaw that is), Mike Trout shone. My baseball crush did nothing but, well… crush, laying waste to anyone who dared pitch him; on his way to a .407/.458/.796 triple slash line, no. 27 on the Angels led AL players in HRs (5), including smashing a grand slam the day after signing his one-year, $1 million record contract.

Of course, Trout has since (last night actually) agreed to an extension of his own, buying out his first three years of arbitration eligibility and the following three of his free agency; he’ll now be an Angel through 2020, and will hit the market again before his age-30 season. For now though, let’s just enjoy his astounding talents and not worry about the money – not everyone can so casually drill a ball over a hedge after all. Bring on the regular season, and meaningful baseball brilliance!

The end is nigh: a GIF goodbye to Spring Training (Part I).

With Opening Day II right around the corner, it’s finally time to bid adieu to Spring Training. As always it started out a pleasure, then dragged on for what seemed like an eternity, but we’ve made it through the slog nonetheless; only two more rounds of meaningless games (including today’s slate) remain before we can settle down for the halcyon days of an 162-game summer. So on that note, let us send off Spring Training in style, and celebrate the good, the bad, and the downright ridiculous, in the manner I have arbitrarily deemed best – a two-part GIF review.

One of the most exciting aspects of Spring Training every year – without fail – is the first time you see the winter’s big free-agent signings with their new teams. It still seems weird to watch Robinson Cano rope his first hit for the Mariners, but $240 million apparently quickly erases any loyalty to certain laundry. Cano has had an impressive spring, cranking an .435/.480/.522 line, his squad compiling a 17-11 record – but as we all know, Spring Training stats aren’t especially indicative of regular season success.

Seeing Curtis Granderson wearing Mets blue and orange rather than pinstripes wasn’t especially strange; seeing him get hands on with the Cardinals’ first baseman Scott Moore on the other hand… pretty disturbing (though it should be noted they were once teammates in the minor leagues with the Tigers, so perhaps it was just an overly-friendly renewal of acquaintances).

With David Price quietly staying put in Tampa, Masahira Tanaka was the most wildly talked about pitcher of the offseason. The Yankees landed him from his Japanese team, the Rakuten Golden Eagles, thanks to a huge 7 year, $175 million offer (including posting fee), only for Brian Cashman to dub him “a really solid, consistent No. 3 starter.” Judging from his outings this spring, it now seems safe to say the Yankees GM was simply downplaying the ace up his sleeve.

Not everything went so smoothly for the Evil Empire during their spring tune-up however. Their infield is approximately 300 years old – not that Cashman noticed – and apparently, they still have a ton of work to do in regards to the simple tenets of fielding – lest more fantastically amusing collisions occur when the games actually count. Here’s a starting tip: don’t throw your mask down the third base line when going for straightforward pop-ups Brian McCann!

Of course, there were also plenty of moments of fielding brilliance to counter the Yanks’ ineptitude. Josh Reddick – a prime bounce back candidate after a 2013 marred by wrist injuries – bagged himself a pair of home run robberies early on, both at the expense of new Giant Michael Morse. (Only one GIF is necessary, seeing as they were nearly identical Spiderman grabs).

Even Daniel Murphy, legitimately one of the worst defensive second basemen in the Majors, managed one instance of amazing work, somehow throwing out the PED-free Bryce Harper with a throw from between his legs. Don’t hold your breath hoping for more of the same Mets fans, Murphy is significantly more likely to end up at first base once Ike Davis and Lucas Duda inevitably fail than to produce a play like this again.

Finally (for today at least), it wouldn’t be Spring Training without a couple of embarrassing incidents occurring on the grassy knolls that serve as outfield bleachers. Hey, anytime you can let your child careen down an incline while you chase after a baseball, to steal a joke from Bill Simmons, you have to do it! I mean, you’re not seriously there solely to watch the Marlins play right?

At least our father of the year didn’t make a complete fool of himself though, unlike this guy below. I’m not sure which is worse, falling over so pathetically, or the beer-toting bro in the Paul Konerko jersey prancing off prize in hand while the desperate kids look on.

That’ll do it for part I of my Spring Training GIF-cap, check back tomorrow for the second remembrance of the weird and wonderful. My thoughts on more serious matters, ie. the Miguel Cabrera extension, if they weren’t already apparent, can wait a while – Miggy isn’t going anywhere for a long time thanks to Dave Dombrowski’s ignorance of aging patterns.

Might the Yankees finally win the Jesus Montero trade?

After only going 85-77 in 2013 (dramatically outperforming their pythagorean win/loss expectation of 79-83 in the process) despite boasting the ML’s leading payroll ($228.1M), God only knows the New York Yankees needed to shake things up this offseason if they were to return to their accustomed winning ways. Out the door went their top position player by WARP from the year prior, Robinson Cano taking his non-hustling talents to the Pacific Northwest. Unobstructed by the Yankees, so too did the powerful (although free-swinging) center fielder Curtis Granderson leave to earn his fortunes elsewhere – in his case, just across town with the Mets. And of course, the Yanks’ top reliever, and the greatest closer of all time, Mariano Rivera, departed too – albeit through the planned retirement route rather than New York’s apathy. In rapid fashion, help arrived via free agency; Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, and prize capture Masahiro Tanaka were all brought in by GM Brian Cashman for the princely sum of a combined $438M, while Hiroki Kuroda and Brett Gardner were both extended in the hope of further bolstering a squad also returning from injury the big name likes of Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira.

And yet all their offseason activity may be for nought – in the ultra-competitive AL East, such spending may in fact merely have the effect of a plaster on a broken leg; the infield is still a mess. Their outfield is made of glass. C.C. Sabathia, despite his weight loss, looks likely to be the next Roy Halladay-like/Johan Santana-esque breakdown candidate. Alex Rodriguez’s half-man, half-centaur shadow remains looming over the team. The farm system is as unyielding as a pumpkin patch set up in the Sahara. And the team is ancient – all of their projected starting position players are over 30 years old, and the average age of those players is 33.8. The Yankees are going to need help in every area they can find it if they’re to seriously contend once again in 2014. Michael Pineda might just be one forgotten source.

When we last saw Pineda, it was September 2011, and he was in a Mariners uniform. As a 22-year-old, he hadn’t looked out of place aside Felix Hernandez at the top of Seattle’s rotation, posting a 3.74 ERA (3.42 FIP and 3.53 xFIP) over 28 starts after breaking Spring Training with the team, on his way becoming the first rookie to ever throw at least 150 innings with at least a strikeout per inning and fewer than three walks per nine. Armed with a 94-97mph heater and a slider off of which opponents hit only .175/.220/.294 (Pineda threw it 857 times), the imposing righty’s strikeout percentage of 24.9 was 6th best among 94 qualifiers, landing him right between Justin Verlander and the version of Tim Lincecum who won two Cy Young awards. He was so good at such a young age, that when New York landed him in exchange for the no. 4 prospect in baseball at the time, catcher Jesus Montero, as well as the RHP prospect Hector Noesi, the industry consensus was that they had got themselves a steal – despite the high price of losing Montero.

But, as no one at the time predicted, so far the swap has been the ultimate lose/lose trade. Montero is now an overweight first baseman in Triple-A Tacoma after bombing out in Seattle, and Noesi has been sub-replacement level; the pair have thus far combined for a total of -1.4 fWAR, 2 last place finishes in the AL West, and about 40 extra pounds this spring. Pineda on the other hand, showed up overweight to his first Yankees Spring Training back in 2012, and promptly tore the labrum in his throwing shoulder; two years later, he’s still yet to throw a pitch in the majors. Literally nothing good has come from the trade, apart from, as Baseball Prospectus pointed out in their annual, “the 40-man roster spot the Yankees freed up”. With Montero equally a non-factor in Seattle, Yankees fans couldn’t even direct their trade ire at the Dominican Republic native; the once much-hyped Pineda thus has become quite the forgotten man in New York, as other stories (A-Rod, the 189 plan, retirements), have overwhelmed his absence.

That might soon change. Though he returned to minor league action late last summer (in his 40.2 innings he posted a 9.07 K/9 and 3.10 BB/9), an eye-opening Spring Training has the 6’7 Pineda in line to claim New York’s open fifth rotation spot, and thus back under the spotlight. In beating out David Phelps, Vidal Nuno, and Adam Warren for the opportunity, the now 25-year-old Pineda has looked every bit the same as his 22-year-old self; he still has the same mechanics, the late break on the slider, and sub-3 BB/9 control, while similarly lacking the quality third pitch to be truly dominant. The man himself has said so much: “I’m the same Michael Pineda.” His fastball velocity has been somewhat down so far, sitting at around 92mph in Spring Training, though it’s not uncommon for pitchers to ramp it up once regular season games begin. The Bronx Bombers best hope he does so, as Pineda figures to be a large factor in their 2014 success.

Though the Yankees’ starting staff looks the strongest element of the team on paper, in reality questions remain at every spot; can C.C. still do it? Will Father Time finally catch up with Hiroki Kuroda? Is Tanaka the next Yu Darvish, or more like Daisuke Matzusaka? Was Ivan Nova’s second-half performance for real? The youthful impetus a fully-recovered Pineda would provide New York would be immense in terms of shoring up some of the squad’s deficiencies, and a pleasant surprise to those who had forgotten him.

A good performance from the ace up their sleeve, after two and a half years of waiting, could be the difference-maker for the Yankees.

Here’s to health, Grady Sizemore’s in particular.

As a recent inductee into the much-fêted Torn ACL Club, (there’s only one membership requirement, but I wouldn’t recommend it), a subdivision of the Busted Knee Alliance, I’ve a fairly new appreciation of professional sportsmen who come back from serious injury. Mine was fairly innocuous all things considered, and yet still, after one day of rehab work, already my quadriceps have fallen out with me. So whether it be Yasmani Grandal, Tyler Pastornicky, Scott Sizemore, Corey Hart, or even (hopefully) Manny Machado – really anyone who has ever had knee problems – I’m rooting for you to succeed this year regardless of the laundry you wear. Hence why I’ll be crossing my fingers in sincere hope that Grady Sizemore’s health permits him to stick in the Boston outfield mix for the whole of 2014.

I’ve only ever known Sizemore as an injury prone player; that’s how long his various afflictions have plagued him. After all, he’s undergone seven surgeries since 2009 alone, including (amongst treatment for his left elbow, a pair of sports hernias, and in 2012, a herniated disk in his lower back) microfracture procedures on both knees. When he last appeared in a regular season game on Sept. 22, 2011, an 11-2 win for his Cleveland Indians over the Chicago White Sox, Sizemore was apparently a shell of his former self – not that I noticed. My newly-acquired baseball fandom knew nothing of his time as perhaps the most dynamic player in the game.

I’ll leave it to Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs to point out just how good Sizemore was back in the days in which he once played 382 straight games:

Between 2005 and 2008 — Sizemore’s age-22 and age-25 seasons — only Ichiro Suzuki played in more games, and only Ichiro and Jose Reyes batted more times. Between 22 and 25, Sizemore was worth 26.8 WAR, 20th in baseball history. Names around him include Evan Longoria, Barry Bonds, David Wright and Andruw Jones. He was worth 5.5 WAR per 600 plate appearances, 58th in baseball history. Names around him include Hank Greenberg, Hanley Ramirez, Frank Robinson and Reggie Jackson.

Furthermore, as pointed out by Jack Moore of sportsonearth.com:

By the end of his age 25 season in 2008, Sizemore already had 111 home runs, 117 stolen bases, three All-Star Games, two Gold Gloves, a Silver Slugger award and three top-12 MVP finishes… After 2008, Sizemore owned a career .279/.370/.491 over 3,109 plate appearances. His 127 OPS+ made him just the ninth center fielder since integration to post a 120 OPS+ or better in at least 2,500 plate appearances by age 25.

By all measures – entertaining video highlights included – Sizemore was one of the five best position players in baseball, at just the tender age of 25 looking set to be an MVP candidate for years to come. And yet if it weren’t for his Spring Training play for the Boston Red Sox over the last couple of weeks, I’d never have known.

While my Reds were also supposedly in on him, the now 31-year-old Sizemore was lured to the reigning champion Red Sox by a one year, $750,000 major league deal (plus incentives that can take him past $6 million). Even with Jacoby Ellsbury departed to the Yankees, it seemed an odd decision, Boston not only having Jackie Bradley Jr. on the way up to play center, but a gluttony of players for every other outfield spot too – a stellar group consisting of Shane Victorino, Mike Carp, Daniel Nava, and Jonny Gomes. A lottery ticket without a clear opportunity to begin with, the underwhelming performance of Bradley (batting .189 thus far) in combination with flashes of the old brilliance – including two spectacular grabs made in the field against the Cardinals on Monday –  have not only assured Sizemore sticks with the club, but may well have pushed him up through the once-presumed clogged depth chart into a starting role.

Even if he will forever struggle to remain fully healthy, Boston, with their considerable outfield depth, will give him the best opportunity to showcase the offensive skills that once put him in such elite company. As evidenced this Spring, when healthy, Sizemore can still contribute, and could potentially be another monumental bargain for the Sox. Much like former Indians teammate CC Sabathia, I’ll be pulling for Grady Sizemore all year regardless of his performance. Just getting back out onto the field healthy is achievement enough.

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!

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

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. Deciphering which ones are for real (think Giancarlo Stanton’s 2010 showing, Evan Longoria in 2008, or even Yasiel Puig just last spring), and identifying the frauds masquerading momentarily at the top of the statistical leaderboards (Jake Fox being the classic example, with Aaron Hicks running him close in 2013) is therefore always a fun game to play in the dog days of March – and something I’ll be engaging in over the weekend. Today, I’ve looked at this Spring Training’s batting leaders (as of 2PM PST at least), in which I found a few names of interest; can any of them actually make much of an impact in the regular season though?

Guess what you guys? Mike Moustakas is hammering Spring Training pitching! The former No. 2 overall draft pick must finally be ready to live up to the promise that led Baseball America to rank him the 9th best prospect in all of baseball! Let’s go Royals!

If only it were as simple as such a #HotSportsTake… Yes, the man known as Moose is crushing right now – leading the Cactus League with 4 home runs and batting .500/.559/1.036 – but the Royals third baseman did exactly the same last spring, not that it led to anything close to a breakout; after smoking 13 extra-base hits on his way to a .394 average (and 16 RBIzzzz), the once-heralded prospect had himself a stinker of a season, struggling to a .233/.287/.364 line – good(?) for not only a 77 OPS+, but a ton of speculation regarding his future with the Royals.

His statistics so far are undeniably a small sample mirage, but there are encouraging signs beyond the numbers. After swallowing his pride and going to Venezuela in order to play under Kansas City’s hitting coach Pedro Grifol at the Cardenales de Lara club, the 25-year old has radically altered his approach; not only has Moustakas widened his batting stance, but according to Royals legend George Brett, has finally realized (after being one of the most shifted-against players last year) that purely being a pull hitter won’t bring him the success necessary to keep his job. As such, he’s made a concerted effort to hit the ball to all fields so far this spring. Perhaps more importantly so far though, the left-hander has an even strikeout to walk ratio, suggesting that maybe in 2014, we’ll finally see a more mature Moustakas flourish. With recent signing Danny Valencia breathing down his neck for playing time should he falter, the Royals’ leash is certainly shorter on Moustakas should he again fail to translate his spring success into regular season production.

Placing not far behind Moustakas in Spring Training OPS (1.257) is a career journeyman by the name of Miguel Cabrera. Horrible by defensive metrics, Cabrera will need to continue eating pitchers for breakfast to stick with Detro… Of course, I’m kidding. Does this guy ever not hit though, like, just for a game or two, strictly for fun, sometime?

Ranked as the No. 23 prospect in the San Diego Padres organization according to the Baseball America Prospect Handbook for 2014, 25-year old Tommy Medica is making a strong case to start the year in the Padres lineup. After hitting .296/.372/.582 with 18 homers in 280 at-bats for Double-A San Antonio in 2013, Medica put up a .290/.380/.449 slash line in his 69 at-bat September cameo with the Padres, and so far hasn’t let up his assault this spring; through 35 at-bats, Medica has crushed at a .429/.459/.686 clip, a performance leading Bleacher Report to dub him the Padres’ “Next Face of the Franchise.” Somewhere out there, Austin Hedges just cussed out the internet.

The fact is that despite all his hitting, the Padres have nowhere to currently play the defensively-fringy Medica; at his preferred first base, there’s already Yonder Alonso, whom barring injury should remain at the position. With Cameron Maybin out, the Padres are experimenting with Medica at a corner outfield spot just to get him in the lineup – despite already having Will Venable, Carlos Quentin, Chris Denorfia and Seth Smith duking it out for the two available spots. Additionally, it will take much more significant time than occasional Spring Training play for the former catcher to adequately adjust to roaming Petco Park’s spacious ground. So while his sustained performance may warrant a space on the San Diego 25 man roster, Medica will likely end up in Triple-A in order to accrue some outfield reps. Frankly, I’d be surprised if he becomes more than a bench player this year – still, not bad for a system’s No. 23 prospect.

Staying in the Cactus League, Colorado have quite the battle on their hands for the outfield spot vacated by Dexter Fowler this past offseason. With Carlos Gonzalez and Michael Cuddyer occupying two of three outfield slots, Brandon Barnes, Drew Stubbs, Charlie Blackmon, and Corey Dickerson are all fighting for the final role – with varying amounts of success.

The favorite for the job, Stubbs, is a known commodity at this point, no matter what his spring .333 average and .391 OBP say; he’s a career .239 hitter, while his on-base percentage continues to barely scrape over .300 year after year – as a long-time Reds fan, I can tell you now the Rockies will be looking to be rid of him by June – leaving the other three contenders.

After being tripped up by the Spring Training hurdle for the last couple of years, Charlie Blackmon has again faltered so far – at least in comparison to his positional competition. Brandon Barnes, acquired from Houston in the Fowler trade, currently ranks 6th in batting average (.414) and can boast a .934 OPS, while Corey Dickerson can point to a similarly impressive .355/.364/.581 slash line. Barnes, who had a 69 OPS+ in a season and change with the Astros is no doubt a fraud. Dickerson’s performance on the other hand, after he hit .371 with an OPS of 1.046 in Colorado Springs last year, should be considered more bonafide than Bonifacio. He might begin the season in the Minors again, but given both Stubbs’ propensity to underwhelm, and the fragility of both CarGo and Cuddyer, could quickly become a fixture at Coors Field. At just 24-years old too, his impressive Spring Training display could actually be indicative of a breakout to come.

In between watching Oregon take on USC, tomorrow I’ll be writing more of the same. Check back soon for more regarding the leading hitters of spring! 

The case for Noah Syndergaard.

While Spring Training lingers on for the next three weeks or so, I’ll every now and then be interspersing my usual content with award predictions for the 2014 season. Today marks the first such instance of my forecasting, as I plump for a relative outsider in the National League ROY race.

Boy was 2013 a doozy of a year for exciting rookies joining the Senior Circuit; in terms of hitters there was the indomitable Yasiel Puig, overshadowing key contributors such as Jed Gyorko and Nolan Arenado, whereas on the pitching side of things, Shelby Miller, Julio Teheran, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Gerrit Cole all built strong enough cases to claim the award in any other year but for one including the dominant eventual winner – the Marlins’ Jose Fernandez. The 2014 class too, looks like a heated debate waiting to happen; aside from the (currently-blocked) future stars Archie Bradley and Oscar Taveras, names such as Billy Hamilton, Kolten Wong, Kris Bryant, Chris Owings, even Eddie Butler, are waiting in the wings themselves ready to break out. Somewhere in the middle of those two echelons though, is my favorite – the New York Mets’ top prospect, Noah Syndergaard.

Packaged to New York alongside catcher Travis d’Arnaud in exchange for R.A. Dickey prior to the 2013 season, the 6’6 righty simply destroyed the minors in his first year as a member of the Mets organization. Behind – as Baseball Prospectus so aptly put it – “his ungodly K/BB numbers” (he struck out 133 batters in 117.2 innings, walking just 28 along the way), Syndergaard blazed through a season in which he spent time at Single-A, but ultimately finished at Double-A Binghamton. With a “plus-plus fastball that he can throw to a teacup” (H/T to BP again) that regularly flirted with triple digits, a curveball that manager Terry Collins has already dubbed the “hook from hell”, and a potentially plus change up too, the Texas native oozes ace potential – something that has not gone amiss so far this spring.

When Baseball Prospectus wrote “He could probably do a decent Matt Harvey impression at the major-league level right now,” even after his supreme 2013 showing, I was skeptical; the 21 year old hadn’t thrown a single pitch in Triple-A after all. Then came Monday, and his Spring Training debut, after which I quickly changed my mind. In his first Grapefruit League game against the Atlanta Braves, Syndergaard demonstrated exactly why Mets fans are dreaming of a time in the near future in which he, Matt Harvey and Zach Wheeler will all simultaneously occupy the same rotation. He pitched two innings of scoreless ball, striking out both Jason Heyward and Evan Gattis with 98mph fastballs, giving up a solitary single to Ryan Doumit, and generally looked at ease against big-league opposition. When Terry Collins said afterwards “he’s on track to be special,” he wasn’t wrong – Syndergaard is going to be great. When the Mets allow him to be so however, is the question crucial to his ROY case.

The timetable for Syndergaard’s arrival will presumably be much akin to the paths taken by Matt Harvey and Zach Wheeler to The Show; both were delayed somewhat by the Mets’ willingness to delay the inevitable ticking of their respective service time clocks, and were brought up only once their addition wouldn’t cause further financial damage to a low-payroll squad rocked by the Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme scandal. With Jonathon Niese, Bartolo Colon, Zack Wheeler, Dillon Gee, and Jenrry Mejia all healthy so far – the likelihood of Syndergaard being taken back north at the end of the month would appear to be slim; he’d instead spend until late June or even July at Triple-A Las Vegas waiting for his Super-2 eligibility to expire, and spend only a half-season in the majors. Typically, that’s not going to be long enough to stake a legitimate ROY case, no matter how good you are.

However, the reports of Mets GM Sandy Alderson’s internal staff meeting might have ramifications that would see their top prospect arrive sooner rather than later; as John Harper of the Daily News pointed out, “if Alderson really thinks this team is capable of winning 90 games, Syndergaard should be up here sometime in May.” With news of his demands now public, Alderson to some extent owes it to Terry Collins (and the fans too for that matter) to provide him with the best roster possible – a prospective 25-man unit which would easily include Syndergaard. And if he is to crack the rotation early (Collins has said it “conceivable” that the 2010 draft pick makes it straight from Spring), Syndergaard’s case for ROY may well be comparable to Fernandez’s 2013 offering in terms of results.

Though it may seem that I’m banking on the aforementioned Taveras and Bradley encountering similar issues in regard to their service clocks in building my case for Syndergaard, I equally believe in the power righty’s potential. Though he may not spend the year in the majors, I’m all-aboard the hype wagon after the rave reviews he has so far drawn from teammates, managers, and opposition alike this Spring. That, and the fact that Mets fans sorely need a Matt Harvey-like feel-good story replacement to root for this year, is why I’m picking Noah Syndergaard as my 2014 National League Rookie of the Year.