MLB Spring Training Stock Watch: Which Teams Are Soaring and Which Are Falling
Depending on what side of the fence your favorite team falls on, spring training results are either a sign of things to come or something that should be ignored completely.
Excellent play during the spring tends to increase expectations as the regular season kicks off, while disappointing results are dismissed as irrelevant. After all, the games don't mean anything, right?
Perhaps, but the games are played—and rosters are created based upon what coaches, managers and general managers see on the field. A minor leaguer with a strong showing still might not break camp with the club, but his play could set the stage for a midseason promotion if a need arises, while an established veteran who struggles could find himself a free agent when Opening Day hits.
The games mean something—and after the first week of spring training, now's as good a time as any to look at some of the best and worst performances by clubs so far.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of MLB.com.
Falling: Atlanta Braves (1-6)
Opening spring training with a six-game losing streak certainly wasn't an ideal scenario, but Atlanta finally picked up its first Grapefruit League victory Tuesday over division rival Washington, which is something that the Braves hope will become a regular occurrence during the regular season.
Pitching and defense have cost the Braves early, and while the bulk of the poor play has come from players not expected to make the roster, some of Atlanta's regulars have significant work to do before Opening Day.
Brandon Beachy (pictured) was roughed up by Houston for two runs and five hits, needing 43 pitches to get through 1.2 innings of work. It was his first game action since undergoing surgery on his right elbow in September—the second elbow surgery he's undergone in the past 19 months.
As he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's David O'Brien, he's not worried.
"At least for the first few (starts), I’m going to be more concerned with (how it feels) tomorrow morning than anything that happens on the field tonight," Beachy said. "So we’ll see tomorrow morning. I’m pretty optimistic."
If Beachy isn't ready for the start of the regular season, 37-year-old Freddy Garcia could take his place in the rotation. Garcia, who made an inspired start for the Braves in Game 4 of the NLDS against Los Angeles last year, has tossed five innings of perfect baseball over two starts this spring, fanning five.
Offensively, the two players under the most pressure to show signs of improvement this spring, center fielder B.J. Upton and second baseman Dan Uggla, are heading in different directions.
Despite showing up to camp with reworked mechanics at the plate and a shorter swing, via MLB.com's Mark Bowman, Upton has mustered only two hits over his first 14 plate appearances, striking out five times.
While Uggla has yet to take extra bases on any of his three hits this spring, the 33-year-old is working deep counts, drawing walks and getting on base far more consistently than he did at any point in 2013. That's good news for the Braves, who need at least that much from Uggla near the bottom of the lineup.
Soaring: Seattle Mariners (6-1)
Despite missing two-fifths of its expected Opening Day rotation (Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker), Seattle sits atop the Cactus League—not only with baseball's best record but its biggest run differential (plus-27).
Only Kansas City (52) has scored more runs than the Mariners (50), putting second baseman Robinson Cano's comments to CBS Sports' Jon Heyman about the team needing another bat to rest, at least for now.
Cano, Dustin Ackley (pictured) and Mike Zunino are all hitting above .500, with the latter two combining for six doubles, a home run and eight RBI in only four games.
On the mound, left-handed prospect James Paxton had a strong spring opener with two perfect innings in his debut against San Diego and is making a strong bid to earn a spot in a rotation that is full of right-handed starters.
New manager Lloyd McClendon walked away impressed with the 25-year-old, as he told the Associated Press' Mike Cranston (via ABCNews.com) after the game.
"It's early in the spring but the young man has talent," McClendon said. "He's capable of doing things. He pounded the zone down and that was pretty impressive."
After years of hype, having Paxton (and eventually Walker) join a rotation that already features one of the best pitchers in baseball, Felix Hernandez, will continue to make Cano's assessment of the team's offense less and less of a factor.
Falling: Philadelphia Phillies (1-6)
A.J. Burnett believes in his new team, the Philadelphia Phillies, as he explained to MLB.com's Todd Zolecki following his inauspicious spring debut against his old team, the Pittsburgh Pirates:
I think guys are real tired of not winning over here, from what I can hear and see. So you have a lot of guys ready to show up, ready to stay healthy the best they can and put a good team on the field every day.
What I see is intensity out there, good times in the locker room, good preparation. Guys seem like they do a good job of preparing. In the dugout guys are pulling for each other. They expect to win.
So far this spring, that camaraderie hasn't translated into success on the field, as Philadelphia sits in the midst of a four-game losing streak, one that has it getting outscored, 21-7, and left the club with a minus-14 run differential for the spring.
Two huge cogs in the lineup, first baseman Ryan Howard and second baseman Chase Utley, have combined for only three singles in their first 20 at-bats of the spring, while a third, right fielder Domonic Brown, has seen his second-half struggles from last year carry over into the spring, with only two hits in his first 14 at-bats.
Soaring: Minnesota Twins (4-2)
Despite the news that one of the team's top prospects, third baseman Miguel Sano, has been lost for the season with an elbow injury and will undergo Tommy John surgery, things are looking up in Minnesota.
Newcomers to the starting rotation, Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes (pictured), have looked strong, surrendering one earned run over a combined 4.2 innings of work, while two holdovers from last year's group, Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey, have been equally as impressive, allowing only two baserunners over five scoreless innings.
For Hughes, who missed all of last year's exhibition season due to a back injury, the time he spends with the Twins this spring is invaluable to him finding regular-season success, as he explained to MLB.com's Andrew Simon:
Everyone says these are exhibitions, and you go through the motions and they don't really count and all that stuff. But for pitchers, it's really important to get these repetitions, build that arm strength.
I don't want to make any excuses for the season I had last year, but I didn't have a Spring Training, and it's definitely difficult. So to hopefully have a healthy spring and be able to build up my pitch count in a normal progression and get those game scenarios, I think it'll help a lot.
If Minnesota's starting rotation can hold up, the Twins' outlook in 2014 may be far brighter than anyone anticipated.
Falling: San Diego Padres (2-5)
The regular season hasn't started yet, and already, my pick for surprise team of the season, San Diego, is making me think twice about my selection, with mediocre performances at the plate and on the mound.
The major culprits for the Padres' minus-29 run differential this spring have been minor league pitchers with little chance of breaking camp with the club. Leonel Campos, Burch Smith and Keyvius Sampson have combined to allow 16 earned runs in only 7.2 innings of relief.
But they aren't alone in their struggles. Eric Stults (pictured, 3 IP, 6 H, 6 ER), Nick Vincent (1.1 IP, 8 H, 5 ER) and Joe Wieland (0.2 IP, 4 H, 4 ER), all expected to contribute at the big league level in 2014, have labored badly as well.
While Petco Park is notoriously one of the more pitcher-friendly venues in baseball, the Padres are going to need a significantly better performance on the mound—and at the plate—than they've gotten this spring if they have any chance of surprising people in 2014.
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