To the old adage that spring training statistics don’t mean anything – well, it’s pretty much true. They can signal great things to come. Last spring, Nolan Arenado hit .542 before turning in an MVP-type season. They also can tease with impish delight. See: Maikel Franco, 2016 spring training home run leader. And then come the times they’re just dead wrong. Before an oblique injury, Matt Carpenter’s OPS was nearly double the .507 he put up in Florida.
Point is, trying to turn a month’s worth of statistics from exhibition games in which the quality of pitching ranges from the best in the world to guys who will be unemployed before March ends is, at best, inexact. So understand, the following is not as much a prediction of Major League Baseball’s 2017 season as it is an accounting of this last month and where some of baseball’s best and brightest slot in.
Getting boldfaced, of course, necessitates a sway in one direction or the other, and …
1. Bryce Harper finds himself on the right side of the ledger after his disappointing 2016 season. It’s crazy to think Harper is still only 24 years old, still full of so much more after hitting .330/.460/.649 in his MVP-winning 2015 season. And yet chasing that with a .243/.373/.441 line was like following a shot of Bailey’s with some lime juice.
This spring has offered something closer to the 2015 version of Harper. His eight home runs lead baseball, and they came in just 56 at-bats, the sort of ratio that would make Babe Ruth jealous. Know what else would make him jealous? Getting to hit off Sean Gilmartin, Cy Sneed, Stephen Fife, Mike Leake, Reymin Guduan, Zack Wheeler, Seth Lugo and Paul Sewald. Those were the eight pitchers who surrendered Harper’s octet.
Sorry to be all Debbie Downer. It’s just that no one needs a great show of spring power to say that, if healthy, Bryce Harper’s going to be phenomenal. It’s like saying …
2. Mike Trout should win another American League MVP award. Some truths are just obvious.
In Trout’s five major league seasons, he has won the MVP twice and finished second the other three times, the first two of which he deserved to win and the third of which was more or less a coin flip. Perhaps the most amazing part of Trout’s run is his consistency. His batting average always leveled between .287 and .326, his on-base percentage between .377 and .441, his slugging percentage between .550 and .590. He is who he is, even in spring training, where his line this year is a positively Troutian .309/.424/.527.
Trout’s kung-fu-grip hold on best-player-in-baseball status isn’t primed to relent anytime soon, not with his prime fully blossoming. Age 25 is a special season. It was Babe Ruth’s finest. Same with Mickey Mantle. Derek Jeter deserved the MVP at 25. Harmon Killebrew never hit better. Vladimir Guerrero, too.
All of which is to say what we know already: Baseball is Mike Trout’s world, and everyone else is subletting. That includes …
3. Greg Bird, he of the spring training-leading 1.582 OPS. It’s easy to forget that coming into the spring, the plan for Bird was a first-base platoon with Tyler Austin. Bird had missed all of last season with a torn labrum in his shoulder. Concerns about his ability to hit left-handed pitching dogged him. A month of crushing mediocre pitching, and all the whispers about Eric Hosmer wearing pinstripes in 2018 seem to have died down.
The Yankees featured the best pitcher this spring as well, with Masahiro Tanaka doing the sort of things New York expected when it guaranteed him $155 million on top of the $20 million it spent on his rights. One earned run across 23 2/3 innings will play. He’ll start the first game of the season Sunday afternoon, as MLB goes to a staggered opening day, with Yankees-Rays at 1 p.m. ET, Giants-Diamondbacks at 4 and Cubs-Cardinals at 8:30, before the remaining 24 teams play Monday. In the meantime, here are that first slate of games’ pitching matchups, worst to best:
Jeremy Hellickson (Phillies) vs. Scott Feldman (Reds): Nothing says opening day like Scott Feldman.
Ricky Nolasco (Angels) vs. Kendall Graveman (A’s): One regret from Yahoo! Sports’ preseason predictions is not making Graveman the AL breakout pitcher. Scouts absolutely love him.
Jon Gray (Rockies) vs. Junior Guerra (Brewers): Gray has a chance to be the best pitcher in Rockies history. Guerra was the best 31-year-old rookie pitcher in baseball history. We all have our roles.
Marco Estrada (Blue Jays) vs. Kevin Gausman (Orioles): Canadian opening day is actually April 8, when the Blue Jays’ best pitcher, Aaron Sanchez, makes his first start.
Danny Duffy (Royals) vs. Ervin Santana (Twins): One pitcher coming off his breakout season against another who could be among the hottest prizes at the trade deadline.
Edinson Volquez (Marlins) vs. Stephen Strasburg (Nationals): The Nationals’ season may well depend on the healthy return of Strasburg from yet another injury.
Felix Hernandez (Mariners) vs. Dallas Keuchel (Astros): Would’ve been a lot more desirable a matchup in 2015.
Gerrit Cole (Pirates) vs. Rick Porcello (Red Sox): Future Cy Young winner against current one? That it’s middle of the pack shows you how great the opening day duels really are.
Jhoulys Chacin (Padres) vs. Clayton Kershaw (Dodgers): Can’t wait to see Chacin.
Julio Teheran (Braves) vs. Noah Syndergaard (Mets): Thor gets his first opening day nod as he tries to dethrone Kershaw as the best in the game.
Masahiro Tanaka (Yankees) vs. Chris Archer (Rays): Between Tanaka’s spring and Archer’s WBC, both threw well this spring.
Justin Verlander (Tigers) vs. Jose Quintana (White Sox): The guy who should’ve won the AL Cy Young faces the steadiest pitcher in baseball. First to one wins.
Jon Lester (Cubs) vs. Carlos Martinez (Cardinals): The Cubs’ march to a dynasty starts in the ballpark of their rival against its ascendant young pitcher.
Corey Kluber (Indians) vs. Yu Darvish (Rangers): Yes please.
Madison Bumgarner (Giants) vs. …
4. Zack Greinke: Not just because Bumgarner is a monster among men but because the disappearance of 2 mph from Greinke’s fastball this spring makes his $206.5 million deal look all the more troubling for an organization that is spending more than a third of its payroll on one arm that throws every five days.
Now, it’s worth recognizing that if there’s a pitcher out there who can survive with diminished velocity, it may well be Greinke, whose knowledge of the game and dedication to the craft of pitching is unparalleled. He is the thinking man. And so long as his command and control don’t disappear, the idea of Greinke tweaking his grips and finger pressures to affect greater movement that makes up for a lack of velocity makes too much sense not to happen.
This all could be temporary. Velocity can disappear during the spring and return in a game. The Diamondbacks have more than cursory concerns, though, more because executives these days mistrust every arm instead of something directly related to Greinke. It’s what made the …
5. Chris Sale trade such a risk for the Boston Red Sox. The Chicago White Sox did cartwheels upon striking that deal, not only because they got Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech in return but because every pitch Sale threw scared the living bejeezus out of people throughout the organization who even after seven years of watching him throw still couldn’t get themselves to believe his delivery was doing anything but shredding his arm.
Any problem with Sale is now the Red Sox’s, though they scoff at the notion that anything about him is even the least bit problematic. David Price? Yeah. His elbow is an issue, and his long acclimation to Boston hasn’t given the organization much solace, either. Sale is exactly what the Red Sox wanted, what they needed: a No. 1 whose desire to pitch in October drives him to the greatness he achieves.
Without a whole lot of hope most years, Sale managed to do the same with the White Sox. Seeing the …
6. Chicago Cubs build themselves into a juggernaut did not sit well with him, a feeling shared in the NL Central, the NL altogether and most of the others who spent their time wondering how, exactly, they’re going to beat this team.
Because if spring training is any indication – it’s not, dummy, so stop using false premises! OK, fine. Let’s just take what’s happened with the Cubs for what it is: two guys not even in the MVP conversation showing out all spring. Catcher Willson Contreras and shortstop Addison Russell lead the Cubs with six home runs apiece, and prospect Ian Happ tied for the spring lead with 20 RBIs, and neither of the three is in Chicago’s top, what, three MVP candidates?
Kris Bryant is the reigning winner. Anthony Rizzo puts up MVP numbers annually. Kyle Schwarber is the pick here. Now there’s the 24-year-old catcher with 30-homer power and a monster arm and the 23-year-old shortstop with 30-homer power and the best feet in the game and, oh yeah, the 24-year-old Leatherman, Javier Baez, named as such not only because he’s so versatile but because of the continuous feats of excellence with his glove.
So, yup, the Cubs scoring the most runs and hitting the most home runs this spring sounds about right. The only surprise is they didn’t finish with the highest OPS. That honor belongs to the …
7. Milwaukee Brewers, who – hold on. That’s a typo, right?
Nope. No typo. The Brewers this spring have hit .299/.374/.512, led by the breakout star of the spring, Jesus Aguilar, who’s got an awful lot of Nelson Cruz in him, from the height (6-foot-3) and weight (250 pounds) to the glorious eyebrows and desire to turn Milwaukee into the launch pad for his career. The Brewers let Cruz go, only to see him turn into one of the most feared sluggers in baseball with Texas.
Nelson Cruzes come along only every so often, and the Brewers are committed for three years to Eric Thames at first base, so the possibility of an Aguilar breakout is remote. Whether it’s him or another hefty right-handed slugger in Jose Osuna with the Pirates, spring does offer some enjoyable performances. Among the best:
Mitch Haniger, OF, Seattle: The Jean Segura-for-Taijuan Walker trade wasn’t just Segura for Walker. Haniger went to Seattle and won an outfield job, hitting .389/.436/.653
Mike Dunn, RP, Colorado: The most criticized contract of the offseason, at three years and $19 million for a left-handed reliever? Over nearly 10 innings, he allowed one hit and struck out 12.
Ian Kennedy, SP, Kansas City: If there was one pitcher better than Tanaka, it was Kennedy, who didn’t allow a run in 17 1/3 innings and punched out 19.
Others: Pirates RP Juan Nicasio (14 strikeouts, zero walks in eight innings), Tigers SP Matt Boyd (23-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio), Indians 3B Yandy Diaz (out of nowhere to win the job until Jason Kipnis’ return) and the resurgent …
8. Pablo Sandoval, he of the slim waist and jaunty bat. Remember Ian Happ was tied for the spring lead in RBIs? That’s with Sandoval.
While Panda still doesn’t walk, three of his five home runs this spring have come off legitimate major league pitchers (Aaron Nola, Blake Snell and Ervin Santana). One scout said he has the bounce back in his step that made him an average third baseman even in his plumper days.
Anything from Sandoval at this juncture is a gift, not only because the Red Sox see the final three years of his contract as sunk cost but because third base has vexed Boston since Kevin Youkilis last manned the position. Once upon a time they did have …
9. Adrian Beltre there. He’s the one that got away, much to the benefit of the Texas Rangers, who this year will get to celebrate his 3,000th hit.
Beltre is at 2,942, and barring an injury, he’ll reach the hallowed number sometime in June. Maybe then will the remaining holdouts on the Beltre-is-a-Hall-of-Famer train jump aboard. It’s not just the 3,000 hits. He’s at 445 home runs. Five Gold Gloves. More than 90 wins above replacement. Beltre isn’t just a Hall of Famer. He’s a no-doubter. The one knock on him is he wasn’t considered among the best players in baseball over a significant period of time. To which the proper response would be: Maybe those doing the considering weren’t very good at it.
Perception does matter, and perhaps no one can attest to that quite like …
10. Bryce Harper, who has been judged by the baseball world since he was a teenager. Blessing, curse, etc.
If Harper were Rich Hill (issuing 14 walks in 12 1/3 innings after signing a big-money deal with the Dodgers) or Tyler Thornburg (a big Red Sox acquisition who put up a 47.25 ERA this spring) or, god forbid, Sandy Lugo (a 23-year-old Reds non-prospect whose ERA this spring was 189, as in 189.00, not 1.89), he would be getting ripped mercilessly for being all hype, no substance.
He’s not Matt Wieters (5 for 33, zero walks, homers or RBI) or Victor Martinez (5 for 36) or Cameron Rupp (6 for 41) or Stephen Piscotty (8 for 53), either. Harper has as many homers as any of them have hits, and all he gets opening day is the starter who gave up more earned runs than any pitcher in all of baseball last season.
The prospect of Harper launching one, of making the president wish he’d gone to Nationals Park to throw out the first pitch, is real enough to get the juices flowing for Monday. Because the following four words never lose their magic: Opening day is here. Amen.
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