10 Early Breakout Stars of Spring Training

Rick WeinerFeatured ColumnistMarch 3, 2013

10 Early Breakout Stars of Spring Training

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    Stop me if you've heard this one before: A largely unknown or inexperienced player puts up big numbers in spring training, gets fans excited...and is never heard from again during the subsequent regular season.

    It's a movie that we've seen a thousand times before.

    While putting any real stock into spring training performances is a foolish endeavor, it doesn't stop us from wondering "what if?"

    What if this player can keep this up during the regular season?

    What if this player could be the productive wild card that puts our favorite team over the top, or at the very least fills a hole that seemed destined to remain heading into spring training?

    While the likelihood of most of these players sticking with their respective clubs is slim, you can never say never.

    Should these players continue to produce at a high level, their teams will be faced with a difficult decision as spring training winds down.

    Do they stay or do they go?

    Let's take a look at who has been opening eyes through the first full week of the exhibition season.

Leslie Anderson, 1B, Tampa Bay Rays

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    Spring Training Stats: 7 G, .467/.500/.867, 3 XBH (1 2B, 1 3B, 1 HR), 7 RBI

     

    A reserve outfielder on Cuba's entry in the 2006 World Baseball Classic, 30-year-old Leslie Anderson's play forced Tampa Bay skipper Joe Maddon to sit up and take notice before the first week of spring training games were finished:

    Leslie Anderson is a different player since I saw him. He unequivocally looks good. Other than the 9th inning today was a pretty clean game.

    — Joe Maddon (@RaysJoeMaddon) February 24, 2013

    Anderson has spent the past three seasons splitting time between the outfield and first base for Tampa Bay's Triple-A affiliate, the Durham Bulls, where he's posted a .297/.337/.430 slash line with 29 home runs and 134 RBI.

    Never considered a big-time prospect, Anderson has outplayed veteran James Loney, who was brought in this winter to replace the departed Carlos Pena as Tampa Bay's starting first baseman.

    Is it possible that Anderson, a relative unknown, could break camp as Tampa Bay's starting first baseman?

    Probably not.

Jackie Bradley Jr., CF, Boston Red Sox

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    Spring Training Stats: 6 G, .533/.588/.600, 1 XBH (1 2B), 1 RBI


    If you've ever wondered why some people think that Jacoby Ellsbury doesn't have a long-term future in Boston, the reason has a name: Jackie Bradley Jr.

    Just more than a week into the exhibition season, the 22-year-old center fielder has already forced manager John Farrell to rethink his plans for one of the team's best prospects, as he told The Boston Globe's Nick Cafardo, who asked if Bradley had a chance to make the 25-man roster:

    Good question. The best way to answer it, we didn't have that as a strong possibility and we're four games into the game schedule. He would be served well to get at-bats in the minor leagues before he comes up, but again he's making a strong impression in camp. ...

    It's going to be about how he fares against quality pitching as we go through camp. You're finding out about the person from a maturity viewpoint. Is he going to handle adversity? We have to weigh all of those things.

    As Farrell notes, there's little not to like about what Bradley has to offer:

    Every time he's stepped on the field he's done something very positive. He's sound fundamentally, takes great routes to balls and hits both left-handed and right-handed pitching. For a young player in camp he's done a great job.

    With Shane Victorino headed to the WBC as a member of Team USA, there's a chance we could see Bradley and Ellsbury in the same outfield before camp breaks.

Michael Choice, OF, Oakland Athletics

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    Spring Training Stats:  7 G, .588/.556/1.000, 4 XBH (2 2B, 1 3B, 1 HR), 7 RBI

     

    Considered one of Oakland's top prospects since the team made him the 10th overall selection in the 2010 MLB draft, Michael Choice is making a strong case to no longer be considered a minor league prospect, but a major league rookie.

    Choice, 23, has phenomenal bat speed and power to all fields. He hit .285 with 30 home runs and 82 RBI for High-A Stockton in 2011, his first full season as a professional.

    He got off to a slow start with Double-A Midland in 2012 before turning things on midseason, only to have his sophomore campaign come to an abrupt halt due to a fractured hand at the end of July.

    As MLB.com's Jane Lee points out, Choice is fully recovered from his injury and looks nothing like a player who has never seen the big leagues before:

    Ho-hum. Just another hit for Michael Choice this spring. He's now 10-for-17.

    — Jane Lee (@JaneMLB) March 2, 2013

    With a crowded outfield situation already for the A's, the odds are stacked against Choice breaking camp with the club.

    That said, whether it's due to injury or a trade, Choice figures to be one of the first players Oakland calls up when the need for another outfielder arises.

Evan Gattis, C, Atlanta Braves

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    Spring Training Stats: 7 G, .500/.500/.857, 3 XBH (2 2B, 1 HR), 3 RBI

     

    While Brian McCann continues to work his way back from offseason surgery on his right shoulder and Christian Bethancourt is still viewed as the best catching prospect in Atlanta's farm system, 26-year-old Evan Gattis has made the biggest impression on the Braves thus far in spring training.

    Ranked as the Braves' eighth-best prospect by Baseball America heading into the 2013 season, Gattis has made a legitimate case to break camp with the club, something David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution says the team is trying to make happen:

    #Braves trying to find a spot for Gattis, who homers, doubles in spring debut tinyurl.com/awsragw

    — David O'Brien (@ajcbraves) February 24, 2013

    Gattis, who led the Venezuelan Winter League in home runs and slugging percentage, has a fan in manager Fredi Gonzalez, who was effusive in his praise for the youngster after his stellar spring training debut (per O'Brien):

    We’re just going to have to come up with a spot for him. ... You’ll see him play. You’ll see him play left field, you’ll see him DH whenever we get a chance. You’ll see him behind the plate. Because he’s got to bat, with that kind of bat. ... We know the numbers—the power, not very many strikeouts, some base-on-balls. You’ve got to try to put him in someplace.

    The problem for Gattis is that while he's a tremendous hitter, he's not a very good defensive catcher. 

    He's athletic enough to play a corner outfield spot, but those spots are spoken for by Justin Upton and Jason Heyward.

    His best chance to start the season in the big leagues is likely in a hybrid role as a backup catcher and fourth (or fifth) outfielder, a role he could handle until McCann is deemed ready to return, which is expected to be sometime in mid-April.

Jedd Gyorko, 2B, San Diego Padres

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    Spring Training Stats: 7 G, .278/.316/.833, 4 XBH (1 2B, 3 HR), 9 RBI

     

    Jedd Gyorko was originally drafted as a third baseman, but the San Diego Padres moved the 24-year-old over to second base in 2012, a position where the former second-round pick has thrived.

    Off to a sizzling start in spring training, Gyorko has a legitimate shot at opening the season as the Padres' everyday second baseman.

    As manager Bud Black told Scott Bair of The Associated Press, it's all up to Gyorko (via The Republic):

    We know about his bat, and he's had a good start to the spring, but we've been really impressed with his defense. He's been steady over there, and has made every play that's come his way. ...

    His overall play must be high. That encompasses everything, from how he's swinging the bat to how he's fielding his position. He's a confident guy so it probably won't be an issue, but we need to find out whether he's mentally ready for the everyday grind of the big leagues.

    Named San Diego's best position prospect (and third overall) by Baseball America, Gyorko could be a doubles machine in the spacious confines of Petco Park; while the outfield dimensions were reconfigured, it remains a pitcher's park.

Matt Magill, RHP, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Spring Training Stats: 2 G, 0-0, 0.00 ERA, 0.60 WHIP, 3.1 IP, 1 H, 1 BB, 8 K

     

    Drafted in the 31st round of the 2008 draft, 23-year-old Matt Magill has worked his way through the Los Angeles Dodgers' minor league system and into the rankings of the team's top 10 prospects, ranked ninth by Baseball America and seventh by MLB.com.

    Coming off a solid 2012 that saw the right-hander go 11-8 with a 3.75 ERA, 1.29 WHIP and 2.75 K/BB ratio in 26 starts, Magill has been impressive thus far in spring training.

    The problem for Magill, much like more ballyhooed prospects Zach Lee and Chris Reed, is that the Dodgers have too many pitchers already, with no room for veterans Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang and Ted Lilly in the starting rotation as presently constituted.

    Magill figures to spend the bulk of the season at Triple-A, though a promotion because of injury is certainly possible.

Vidal Nuno, LHP, New York Yankees

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    Spring Training Stats: 2 G (1 GS), 0-1, 1.80 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, 5 IP, 2 H, 2 BB, 9 K

     

    Never considered a top prospect, 25-year-old left-handed pitcher Vidal Nuno turned in a solid 2012 campaign after being made a starter and promoted to Double-A Trenton. In 20 starts, Nuno went 9-5 with a 2.45 ERA and 1.19 WHIP, striking out 100 batters in 114 innings of work.

    His 2012 spring training debut consisted of two solid innings against the Baltimore Orioles, and while he allowed a run, he also sent five Orioles batters down on strikes—all looking.

    As the Yankees' starting rotation is set and the bullpen does not have an opening for a third left-handed reliever, Nuno is likely to open the season as part of the rotation at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

    Should the Yankees need a starter at some point, however, Nuno could be one of the first arms general manager Brian Cashman looks to in the minor leagues.

Ryan Raburn, IF/OF, Cleveland Indians

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    Spring Training Stats:  7 G, .600/.667/1.400, 4 XBH (4 HR), 9 RBI

     

    After spending parts of seven seasons with the Detroit Tigers, Ryan Raburn lost his job as the team's starting second baseman, was demoted to the minors and ultimately was released after hitting only .171 in 66 games for the Tigers last season.

    It certainly looked as if his big league career could come to an abrupt end.

    But the soon-to-be 32-year-old, a career .256 hitter with some pop, landed with the Cleveland Indians this past winter and is trying to make the team as a utility player.

    So far, he's made a strong case to be included on the team's 25-man roster.

    To be fair, this is par for the course when it comes to Raburn and spring training.

    In spring training last year, Raburn was among the league leaders in home runs (six) and RBI (19).

    In 2011, Raburn hit .316 with four home runs and 12 RBI.

    2010? .370 with three home runs and six RBI.

    You get the drift—he's a spring training superstar.

    Yet, while his spring training success hasn't carried over into the regular season, if Raburn continues to rake, it's hard to imagine that he wouldn't break camp with the Indians as a veteran bat off the bench and super-utility player.

George Springer, CF, Houston Astros

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    Spring Training Stats:  6 G, .444/.583/1.111, 2 XBH (2 HR), 7 RBI

     

    Houston's first-round pick in the 2011 MLB draft, 23-year-old center fielder George Springer has quickly worked his way through the Astros' farm system, making it as far as Double-A Corpus Christi for 22 games last season in his first full season as a professional.

    In 128 games between High-A and Double-A last season, Springer hit .302 with 24 home runs, 87 RBI, 32 stolen bases and an OPS of .908.

    Named Houston's third-best prospect by Baseball America, Springer's combination of power, speed and an outstanding throwing arm makes him one of the more intriguing early breakout players this spring.

    Considering the state of affairs in Houston, could Springer open the season as the Astros' starting center fielder? When you consider this tweet from the Houston Chronicle's Brian T. Smith, the thought may not be as crazy as it seems:

    #Astros are very high on George Springer right now and his start isn't a random occurrence. Club wants to give him a full look during ST.

    — Brian T. Smith (@ChronAstros) February 27, 2013

    First-year skipper Bo Porter told MLB.com's Brian McTaggart that Springer and second-base prospect Delino DeShields Jr. were going to be given a legitimate shot to make the club:

    When those guys come into camp, we want to make sure we give them an extended look. If they don't make the ballclub here, we want the whole Major League staff to be able to have their assessment.

    Even if the decision is made to keep Springer down on the farm to start the season, it's hard to envision a scenario where he isn't called up by midseason.

Michael Wacha, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Spring Training Stats: 2 G, 0-0, 0.00 ERA, 0.40 WHIP, 5 IP, 2 H, 8 K

     

    Michael Wacha has no chance of breaking camp with the St. Louis Cardinals, but if early returns are any indication, the Cardinals may have scored one of the steals of the 2012 draft.

    Taken 19th overall last season, Wacha has done nothing but impress at every level, advancing as far as Double-A, where he struck out 17 batters in only eight innings of relief, scattering three hits and one run.

    All-Star catcher Yadier Molina is ready to catch Wacha every fifth day, as he told Jenifer Langosch of MLB.com. "I think that guy, right now, can pitch in the big leagues," Molina said. "That's the way I look at it. He has great stuff. He has a great presence on the mound. He has great command, a great attitude."

    Wacha figures to spend all of 2012 back at Double-A Springfield as a member of the team's starting rotation, with a possible promotion once rosters expand in September.