Buying or Selling 10 MLB Names Who Surprised at Spring Training
At one point or another, we've all fallen for it.
More often than not, spring training statistics are not an indicator that regular-season success lies around the corner.
We know this, yet we have all ignored what we saw with our own two eyes, convincing ourselves that "Player X" is going to have a monster season only because of the numbers he put up in exhibition play.
But we know better now, and with a keener eye and the benefit of hindsight, deciding what's for real and what amounts to little more than an illusion has become far less daunting of a task.
Let's take a look at 10 players whose performances this spring, for better or worse, we are buying or selling.
Buying: Aaron Hicks, Minnesota Twins
Spring Training Stats: .371/.410/.657, 4 HR, 18 RBI
My pick for American League Rookie of the Year, there's a lot to like about Aaron Hicks' overall game.
He has a solid approach at the plate that finds him on base more often than not, enough power in his swing to get the ball over the outfield wall, and speed that allows him to not only be a factor as a baserunner, but to cover a large swath of ground in center field with relative ease.
Hicks is exactly the kind of understated, under-the-radar player that will thrive in a smaller market like Minnesota—I can't help but see a bit of former Twins center fielder Denard Span in his game.
Selling: Joe Blanton, Los Angeles Angels
Spring Training Stats: 4 GS, 0-0, 2.37 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 19 IP, 18 H, 0 BB, 13 K
Sorry, but I'm not buying what Joe Blanton is selling.
That he hasn't issued a walk isn't surprising—if there's one thing Blanton has done well over his career, it's not give away free trips to first base, averaging 2.4 walks per nine innings of work for his career.
But this is the same pitcher who has averaged a 4.79 ERA and 1.35 WHIP since 2010. The last time Blanton finished a season with an ERA under 4.00 was 2007, when he went 14-10 with a 3.95 ERA for the Oakland Athletics.
He's pitched like an ace this spring when, in reality, Blanton is no better than a mediocre fifth starter at this point in his career.
When the regular season starts, Blanton's success will come to an end.
Buying: Jackie Bradley Jr., Boston Red Sox
Spring Training Stats: .441/.521/.644, 2 HR, 12 RBI
One of Boston's top prospects, it's not surprising that Jackie Bradley Jr. has found success—it's just that nobody expected it to come this early.
Like the aforementioned Aaron Hicks, there's nothing to dislike about what Bradley Jr. brings to the game.
Unlike Hicks, Boston's 23-year-old outfielder seems to have that "it factor," which is almost impossible to define, but in watching him play, you just get that feeling that this kid is something special.
While the Red Sox continue to play coy about whether he'll break camp with the club, the team's decision to cut Ryan Sweeney loose seemingly removed the last roadblock from Bradley Jr.'s path to the big leagues.
He's not going to hit .400, but Bradley Jr. has a very bright future ahead of him and will be a consistent contributor for the Red Sox in 2013.
Selling: Ryan Raburn, Cleveland Indians
Spring Training Stats: .357/.481/.833, 5 HR, 12 RBI
Coming off of a 2012 season that saw him lose the starting job as Detroit's second baseman and ultimately be released after hitting .171 with 15 extra-base hits (one home run) and 12 RBI over 205 at-bats, many are surprised by 31-year-old Ryan Raburn's productive spring for Cleveland this year.
We shouldn't be surprised, for Raburn is at the top of his game in March.
Since 2010, Raburn has hit .317 with 13 home runs and 37 RBI in exhibition play, but only once, in 2010, has that spring success translated into quality regular-season numbers.
While Raburn has made Cleveland's Opening Day roster as a utility player, something that likely would have happened even if he hadn't been as productive as he has been—given manager Terry Francona and GM Chris Antonetti's stated affinity for him—expectations should be tempered.
I just can't buy his success this spring as a foretelling of things to come.
Remember, this is the same player who couldn't hold off Ramon Santiago, a career .245 hitter, to keep his starting job last year.
Indians fans who are buying Rayburn's spring should hold onto their receipts, as they're going to be disappointed with the final product.
Buying: Michael Wacha, St. Louis Cardinals
Spring Training Stats: .5 G, 1-0, 0.00 ERA, 0.69 WHIP, 11.2 IP, 7 H, 1 BB, 15 K, 1-for-1 SV
Taken 19th overall by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2012 MLB draft, Michael Wacha won't start the regular season with the Cardinals, and there's a very good chance that we won't see him again until rosters expand in September.
It's not just one or two outings that Wacha looked good in—he got progressively better as spring training went on.
I'm not the only one impressed by his performance this spring, as CBS Sports' Jon Heyman points out:
young player i heard most raves about this spring was #cards rhp prospect michael wacha. plus-plus fastball & changeup.
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeymanCBS) March 27, 2013
All-Star catcher Yadier Molina was not only impressed by Wacha, he's convinced that the 21-year-old right-hander is ready to help the Cardinals rotation right now, as he told MLB.com's Jenifer Langosch:
I think that guy, right now, can pitch in the big leagues. 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.
Molina knows a thing or two about what it takes to succeed as a pitcher in the big leagues, and his stamp of approval only emphasizes the point that Wacha is the real deal. It won't be long before he's starring alongside Adam Wainwright at the top of the Cardinals rotation.
Selling: Kyle Blanks, San Diego Padres
Spring Training Stats: .359/.442/.609, 3 HR, 14 RBI
I'm a big enough man to admit that back in 2009, I was a big Kyle Blanks homer.
I was convinced that Blanks was the next great Padre, and after he hit .319 with four home runs, 13 RBI, six doubles and scored 17 runs in 69 spring training at-bats, I was even more sure of it.
A career .219 hitter with 20 home runs and 63 RBI in 149 games over parts of four seasons in the big leagues, Blanks is a spring training superstar—nothing else.
Since 2009, Blanks is hitting .346 (82-for-237) with 10 home runs, 46 RBI, 21 doubles, four triples and 59 runs scored in 99 spring training games.
Don't be fooled by his big numbers again this spring—Blanks is nothing more than a right-handed bat with some pop off the bench.
Buying: Shane Victorino, Boston Red Sox
Spring Training Stats: .179/.289/.308, 0 HR, 3 RBI
Shane Victorino is still a capable fielder, but his play this spring only confirms what I wrote earlier this month: Victorino's days as a consistent contributor at the plate are behind him, and Boston should be regretting its decision to give him a three-year, $39 million deal.
Coming off of the worst season of his career since becoming an everyday player with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2006, Victorino has done nothing to prove that last year, especially his time with the Los Angeles Dodgers, was a fluke.
In 53 games with Los Angeles, Victorino hit .245 with a .316 on-base percentage, 16 extra-base hits and 15 RBI.
This spring, both with Boston and Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, Victorino's bat simply looks slow. Whether it's mechanics or a physical issue, the "Flyin' Hawaiian" simply isn't getting the bat around as quickly as he used to.
He can still draw a walk and steal a base, but don't expect much more than a batting average between .230 and .250, an on-base percentage around .305, and little in the way of power during the regular season.
Buying: Julio Teheran, Atlanta Braves
Spring Training Stats: 6 GS, 3-1, 1.04 ERA, 0.62 WHIP, 26 IP, 7 H, 9 BB, 35 K
Maybe Julio Teheran's success shouldn't be a surprise, as he's been considered one of the best pitching prospects in baseball for the past few years.
But on the heels of a disastrous 2012 for Triple-A Gwinnett, pitching to a 5.08 ERA and 1.46 WHIP in his second season at the minor league's highest level, that status was beginning to fade.
Teheran has gotten back to the mechanics that made him such a highly regarded prospect, and the results show in the numbers, as the 22-year-old has been one of the most impressive pitchers in baseball this spring and earned himself the fifth spot in Atlanta's rotation.
With three pitches that can get major league batters out and a renewed confidence and swagger that was missing all of last year, Teheran will be a big-time performer for the Braves this season and beyond.
Buying: Lorenzo Cain, Kansas City Royals
Spring Training Stats: .458/.536/.712, 2 HR, 7 RBI
Nobody's ever questioned Lorenzo Cain's natural talent, only his ability to stay on the field long enough to show off what he can do.
One of the key pieces that the Royals received from Milwaukee in exchange for Zack Greinke before the 2011 season, a multitude of injuries (mainly to his legs) have limited Cain to only 67 games for the Royals, where he's hit .266 with seven home runs and 32 RBI.
A legitimate Gold Glove candidate in center field if he could stay healthy, Cain worked on strengthening his legs this winter, refining his running style and, in a sense, learning how to run all over again, something he talked at length about with Bob Dutton of the Kansas City Star.
He's currently slotted to hit near the bottom of Kansas City's lineup, but it wouldn't be surprising to see him bumped up to the second spot in the order so that Kansas City can take better advantage of his ability to get on base and top-end speed.
Buying: Justin Smoak, Seattle Mariners
Spring Training Stats: .418/.468/.782, 4 HR, 14 RBI
If you put videos of Justin Smoak swinging the bat last year and this spring side-by-side, you'd see a far more confident batter at the plate—but you'd also see a much shorter swing.
It's that tweak to his mechanics at the plate that has allowed the switch-hitting 26-year-old first baseman to put up the numbers that he has this spring, finally looking like the big-time prospect Seattle thought it was getting from the Texas Rangers as part of the Cliff Lee trade back in 2010.
As Smoak told John Schlegel of MLB.com, he's convinced that he's finally gotten over the hurdle that was standing in the way of him performing as many believe he should:
"I feel like I have a better understanding of what I need to do, and that's something I haven't had the last couple of years. I've got to just stick to the plan."
While I still have my doubts about Seattle's ability to hit during the regular season (the Mariners, if you haven't been paying attention, lead baseball with 56 home runs and have scored 210 runs, trailing only the Kansas City Royals), Smoak is one player that will carry that spring success into the regular season.
He's locked in, entering the prime of his career and poised to have a big season for Seattle.
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