Playing 'Reality or Mirage' with MLB's Top 15 Mid-Spring Training Phenoms
There's no bigger tease in baseball than the spring training phenom.
These players' torrid performances draw us into a love affair with the numbers and turn us into hopeful optimists, waxing poetic about how "Player X" is going to break out and lead our favorite team to the Promised Land in October.
More often than not, those visions of grandeur never come to fruition, remaining nothing but a mirage that soon fades away.
But every once in a while, those visions become reality, and believers are repaid not only on the field, but with all the glory that comes with being able to say "I told you so" to those who had little faith.
Which of this spring's phenoms are the real deal?
Let's take a look.
*Spring training statistics courtesy of MLB.com.
*All other statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.com.
Reality: Dustin Ackley, LF, Seattle Mariners
Spring Stats: 13-for-28 (.464), 7 XBH (1 HR), 9 RBI, 7 R
After playing his way out of the major leagues and back to Triple-A last season, Dustin Ackley got some good advice from then-Seattle Mariners DH/OF Raul Ibanez. Ibanez's advice for his young teammate was simple: Read a book.
After picking up a copy of Harvey Dorfman's The Mental Side of Baseball, Ackley felt like a different person, as he explained to The Seattle Times' Larry Stone earlier this spring: “It was like the book was reading to me the whole time."
What the book told him was to stop thinking, to simplify things and just get back to playing baseball, something that Ackley believes is the key to him finding success from this point forward:
I’ve told people, I don’t care how good your swing is, if you’re thinking about stuff, and if your mind’s not 100 percent all in to what you’re doing, you’re not going to be successful.
That’s pretty much a good example of me last year. My swing, it might have been a good swing, but my mind wasn’t right, and that’s really what screwed me up.
Ackley saw results upon making his return to Seattle, hitting .304 with an .809 OPS after the All-Star break, and after making some adjustments to his swing this winter, the 26-year-old has continued to see his numbers—and his confidence—move in the right direction.
"I'm letting the ball get deep, I'm hitting the pitches where they need to be hit," he told MLB.com's Greg Johns. "That's as good a sign as I need right now. I didn't expect to be this far along, but I'm excited about it and am just going to try to keep it going."
His head is right, his swing is right and, unlike last season, when he bounced around the diamond, Ackley knows where he'll be playing everyday—in left field.
All those things have contributed to Ackley putting together a torrid spring—and they'll work together to finally elevate his play to the level the Mariners expected from the first player taken after Stephen Strasburg in the 2009 draft.
Reality: Archie Bradley, RHP, Arizona Diamondbacks
Spring Stats: 2 G, 6.1 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 4 BB, 9 K
Widely considered to be the best pitching prospect in baseball (not counting Masahiro Tanaka), Archie Bradley has done nothing but live up to the hype this spring.
Armed with three above-average pitches, including a devastating mid-90s fastball with late life that makes batters look foolish, Bradley has dominated the competition this spring, scattering three hits across 6.1 innings of work while striking out nearly 35 percent of the batters that he's faced.
Bradley has been so impressive, in fact, that the 21-year-old right-hander has seemingly tied the team's hands when it comes to his chances of cracking the Opening Day rotation, as Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers recently told Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci:
In a perfect world it would be good to get him more innings down in the minors, but if he keeps throwing like he [has], how can you? We don't have anybody on our staff who has his stuff. With him and Corbin, that's a pretty good left-right combo.
Whether he breaks camp with the Diamondbacks or not is largely irrelevant. The reality is that he's going to become a fixture in Arizona's starting rotation at some point in 2014.
Reality: Bryce Brentz, RF, Boston Red Sox
Spring Stats: 9-for-22 (.409), 3 XBH (3 HR), 7 RBI, 5 R
When a prospect heads into spring training with little chance of playing his way onto a team's Opening Day roster, the best thing he can do is to make an impression. Bryce Brentz has done just that, as Boston manager John Farrell explained to NESN's Ricky Doyle.
“Right-handed power is a rarity," he said. He’s by no means a finished product, but there’s a lot of raw skills there that certainly translate and makes him a strong prospect.”
Brentz's power is real, with 71 home runs over parts of four minor league seasons, and he's shown the ability to drive the ball to all fields this spring. His lack of speed limits his range in right field, but he makes up for it with a strong, accurate throwing arm.
Should the injury bug hit Boston's outfield during the regular season, Brentz figures to get the call.
Reality: Nick Castellanos, 3B, Detroit Tigers
Spring Stats: 12-for-30 (.400), 6 XBH (2 HR), 13 RBI, 6 R, 2-for-3 SB
Few first-year players are facing as much pressure to perform immediately as Detroit Tigers third baseman Nick Castellanos, back at the hot corner after experimenting in the outfield for a season.
The 22-year-old hit .276/.343/.450 with 18 home runs, 76 RBI and a .793 OPS in 134 games for Triple-A Toledo in 2013. Scouts have talked about him as someone who would hit for both average and power in the big leagues, and he's done little to disprove that theory this spring.
While new Tigers manager Brad Ausmus has been impressed with what he's seen from Castellanos thus far, he's trying to avoid putting unnecessary pressure on the youngster, who, in a roundabout way, is replacing Prince Fielder's bat in Detroit's potent lineup:
“We really like the swing. It certainly looks like he’s trying to use the whole field, Ausmus told The Detroit News' Lynn Henning. “But make no mistake, there are very few Mike Trouts.”
Castellanos is sure to have his growing pains this season, both at the plate and in the field, but his talent is real—as are his chances of taking home AL Rookie of the Year honors at the end of the season.
Mirage: Jesse Chavez, RHP, Oakland Athletics
Spring Stats: 3 G, 8.2 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 9 K
After a decent showing out of the Oakland A's bullpen in 2013 (3.92 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 8.6 K/9 over 57.1 innings of work), Jesse Chavez has entered the discussion as a potential back-end starter in Oakland's rotation this spring.
It's a conversation that, despite his performance thus far, Chavez doesn't belong in.
Owner of a career 5.48 ERA and 1.47 WHIP over 191 major league appearances, Chavez has made only two starts over his six-year major league career, allowing 10 hits and 10 earned runs over 8.1 innings of work while a member of the Toronto Blue Jays in 2012.
He's thrown more than 100 innings as a professional ballplayer twice—in 2004 and again in 2012—and the A's have younger options with upside, like A.J. Griffin and Dan Straily, who have substantially more experience as starters than Chavez does, to fill out the back end of the rotation.
Chavez belongs in Oakland's bullpen as a long reliever, and that's where he'll be once Opening Day rolls around.
Mirage: Grant Green, 2B, Los Angeles Angels
Spring Stats: 11-for-29 (.379), 5 XBH (0 HR), 4 RBI, 5 R, 1-for-2 SB
Acquired from Oakland last August in exchange for Alberto Callaspo, Grant Green filled in admirably for the injured Howie Kendrick down the stretch in 2013, hitting .280 with a .720 OPS over 40 games with the Los Angeles Angels.
A pure hitter who has an easy, line-drive stroke that allows him to square up and make hard contact to all fields, Green's biggest problem is that he's a man without a position.
Blocked at shortstop by Erick Aybar, at second base by Kendrick and at third base by David Freese, Green's best chance of making the cut on Opening Day is as a utility player, and the Angels have bounced him around the diamond this spring in an effort to get him comfortable at multiple positions.
"I'm getting used to the view off the bat, and the throw across the diamond is a different angle," Green told Mike DiGiovana of the Los Angeles Times after a recent game at third base. "It's more of a reaction position, but as long as you get in a good ready step, you're going to be fine."
So if Green is confident with the glove and producing with the bat, why is his performance this spring a mirage and not a dose of reality?
Because he's guaranteed nothing but inconsistent playing time as a utility player. And a lack of consistent at-bats is always a detriment to any player's production, especially one with a total of 140 major league at-bats under his belt.
Reality: Drew Hutchison, RHP, Toronto Blue Jays
Spring Stats: 2 G, 5.0 IP, 3 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, 9 K
Back after missing all of the 2013 season as he recovered from Tommy John surgery, Drew Hutchison has been impressive as he tries to earn a spot at the back of Toronto Blue Jays starting rotation.
"Any time you get an opportunity you make the most of it and if you don't have opportunities you try to create them," Hutchison told MLB.com's Gregor Chisholm after making his first start of the spring against Baltimore on March 1. "That's something I've always tried to do regardless of what situation I'm in. So I continue to battle and go out there and perform."
Once considered one of Toronto's most promising pitching prospects, Hutchison is a control pitcher who relies on his ability to successfully locate his three-pitch arsenal, something he's been able to do with relative ease this spring.
While he's been one of Toronto's better starting pitchers this spring, his chances of cracking the Opening Day rotation depends more on whether the Blue Jays sign free agent Ervin Santana and less on what the 23-year-old is doing on the mound.
Also working against him is the fact that he has minor league options remaining, while many of those that he's competing with for the final spot in the rotation, including Dustin McGowan, Todd Redmond and Esmil Rogers, do not.
Hutchison's talent is real; his chances of breaking camp with the club are not.
Reality: Tommy Medica, 1B, San Diego Padres
Spring Stats: 15-for-34 (.441), 5 XBH (2 HR), 6 RBI, 5 R, 2-for-2 SB
While he may not be a household name, Tommy Medica has hit at every level at which he's played over the course of his four-year career, which includes a successful 19-game run with the San Diego Padres at the end of last season.
Blocked by Yonder Alonzo at first base, the former catcher is faced with making another position switch, this time to the outfield. Padres manager Bud Black told U-T San Diego's Dennis Lin that he's optimistic Medica can make the switch, but he admitted "there’s still a lot of work to do" before he's ready.
He has certainly played well enough to merit a spot on Black's bench to start the season, but he needs consistent playing time in the outfield to learn the position. He's not going to get that as a part-time player in the major leagues.
Medica's bat is for real, but visions of him on the Opening Day roster are a mirage.
Reality: Mike Moustakas, 3B, Kansas City Royals
Spring Stats: 13-for-26 (.500), 7 XBH (4 HR), 13 RBI, 5 R, 1-for-1 SB
We should know better than to trust Mike Moustakas' spring training numbers. After all, it was only last spring that he hit .394 with 13 extra-base hits and 16 RBI, which he followed up by hitting .233 with 12 home runs, and 42 RBI, raising legitimate questions about his long-term future.
But after spending the winter working with Kansas City Royals hitting coach Pedro Grifol, who managed the 25-year-old with Cardenales de Lara in Venezuela, Moustakas looks like a different player.
He's widened his stance in the box and given up on the premise that he's purely a pull hitter, something that Royals legend and Hall of Fame third baseman George Brett believes will pay off in droves, as he told MLB.com's Dick Kaegel:
You can't pull the ball every time, you've got to go with the pitch. These pitchers in the big leagues can put it where they want to and if they keep putting it down-and-away and you keep trying to pull it, you're going to hit ground balls to second base.
Now, if for instance he goes out there on Opening Day and somebody throws a ball down-and-away -- that's how they got him out last year -- and he just hits a rocket to left center, and next time they throw him down-and-away and he hits a rocket to left-center or a line drive to left and they say, 'Now we've got to come in.' They throw a ball in and, boom, he pulls it. Now they're going, 'Now what do we do?'
While Brett certainly paints a best-case scenario, with the way Moustakas is hitting the ball this spring, that's not a difficult scenario to picture.
He may not reach the All-Star level of play that many predicted for him as he rose through Kansas City's farm system, but the changes that Moustakas has made will see his career take a big step in the right direction this season.
Reality: A.J. Pollock, CF, Arizona Diamondbacks
Spring Stats: 12-for-31 (.387), 7 XBH (1 HR), 5 RBI, 7 R
All A.J. Pollock has done this spring is prove that Arizona was wise to trade Adam Eaton to the Chicago White Sox, if for no other reason than it removed one more obstacle in the way of Pollock playing on a daily basis.
The 26-year-old has reached base safely in nine of the 12 games in which he's played this spring, has continued to play outstanding defense in the outfield and has made a believer out of veteran infielder Cliff Pennington, who spoke about the lack of a hole in Pollock's game with AZCentral.com's Nick Piecoro:
You look at (Mark) Trumbo and he’s got massive, massive pop. You look at (Tony) Campana, whose speed is incredible and it’s different from the rest of his game. Whereas Pollock, he’s really good, but it’s across the board, so it makes it’s more like you don’t look at him and label him with one specific tool that excels above the rest. They’re all good.
Poised to build upon a successful rookie campaign in 2013, Pollock looks like he could be one of 2014's breakout stars.
Mirage: Seth Rosin, RHP, Los Angeles Dodgers
Spring Stats: 3 G, 8 IP, 0 ER, 5 H, 1 BB, 10 K
Seth Rosin has opened eyes this spring with the Los Angeles Dodgers, not only for his impressive size (6'6", 250 pounds), but for his performance on the mound, yet to allow an earned run while striking out 10 batters over eight innings of work.
While the Dodgers have been stretching him out to be a starter, Rosin lacks the quality secondary pitches needed to find success in a major league rotation. Whether he winds up as a starter or a reliever is really the least of his worries, however.
There simply isn't a roster spot available on the Dodgers' crowded pitching staff, and unless someone ahead of him on the depth chart suffers an unfortunate injury—or the Dodgers finally rid themselves of the mistake that was re-signing Brandon League—he'll be left on the outside looking in.
Should Rosin not spend the entire season on Los Angeles' 25-man roster, the team must offer him back to Philadelphia, an offer that the Phillies aren't likely to turn down.
Rosin's performance this spring, as well as his chances of sticking in Los Angeles, are nothing more than a mirage.
Mirage: Jerry Sands, LF, Tampa Bay Rays
Spring Stats: 9-for-20 (.450), 7 XBH (3 HR), 6 RBI, 5 R
If you're looking for an example of a mythical "Quadruple-A" player, look no further than the Tampa Bay Rays' spring training complex and focus your eyes on Jerry Sands.
A career .276 hitter with 128 homes runs and an .892 OPS across parts of six minor league seasons, the 26-year-old has never been able to translate that success to the major leagues, hitting .244 with a .701 OPS over 271 plate appearances, all with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
It's why he finds himself playing with his fourth franchise in the past two years.
That he's hitting the ball with confidence this spring is nothing new. In 2011, Sands hit .313 with four extra-base hits and a .999 OPS over 32 spring at-bats for the Dodgers, only to hit .253 with a .727 OPS over roughly 200 at-bats during the regular season.
Could he break camp with the Rays as a fourth outfielder and reserve first baseman? Absolutely.
But to expect his spring training success to carry over into the regular season, where he wouldn't be getting regular at-bats, is foolish.
He never has before, and there's no reason to believe that he's going to be able to do so now.
Mirage: Hector Santiago, LHP, Los Angeles Angels
Spring Stats: 3 G, 11 IP, 7 H, 2 ER, 3 BB, 14 K
Don't take the mirage label as a knock on Hector Santiago—it's not.
Without question, Santiago represents a massive upgrade for an Angels rotation that desperately needed one. And, entering his prime—and his first full season as a starting pitcher—he could be one of 2014's breakout stars.
But the 26-year-old southpaw, while talented, isn't a front-of-the-rotation arm—which is exactly what he's performed like so far this spring.
Historically, Santiago has struggled with his command and control at every level he's pitched at, as evidenced by a career 4.5 BB/9 in the big leagues and a slightly better 4.1 BB/9 over six minor league seasons. There's no reason to expect those numbers to deviate from the norm once the regular season begins.
Make no mistake about it, Santiago is a very good pitcher. He's just not this good.
Reality: Yangervis Solarte, IF, New York Yankees
Spring Stats: 12-for-19 (.632), 2 XBH (2 HR), 6 RBI, 7 R
Athletic, motivated and versatile, 26-year-old Yangervis Solarte has made as strong a case as anyone in camp with the New York Yankees to be one of the 25 players that heads to Minute Maid Park in Houston for the team's season opener against the Astros.
The non-roster invitee leads New York in nearly every major offensive category this spring and has recorded hits in eight of the 10 games in which he's played, reaching base safely in nine.
Coupled with his solid defensive play at multiple positions, he has left manager Joe Girardi with little choice but to seriously consider Solarte for the final spot on his bench.
"I've said, if you have a uniform on and you can play different positions, you have a chance," Girardi recently told MLB.com's Greg Johns.
He looks a lot like the player that the Yankees thought they had in Eduardo Nunez, one with less speed, more power and substantially better defense.
Solarte's bat—and his chances of breaking camp with the Yankees—is for real.
Mirage: Neftali Soto, 1B, Cincinnati Reds
Spring Stats: 9-for-25 (.360), 6 XBH (1 HR), 2 RBI, 3 R
After a less-than-auspicious major league debut in 2013, when he went without a hit in 12 at-bats while striking out six times, 25-year-old Neftali Soto arrived at the Cincinnati Reds' spring training with one goal in mind, as he explained to the Cincinnati Enquirer's C. Trent Rosecrans.
"It's a dream to be in the big leagues, especially the first time," he said. "I've come back trying to do my best, to show people I can play there."
While Soto has above-average raw power, the rest of his tools are lacking—and he's blocked at first base by a perennial MVP candidate in Joey Votto. New manager Bryan Price was brutally honest when talking about Soto's future:
I think he's got to have a prolific season in Triple-A. He's been a solid player for us in Louisville, but if you're going to play first base, you've got to be able to do some real damage.
A career .261 hitter over parts of three seasons at Triple-A, asking Soto to deliver a prolific season is asking too much. He is a one-dimensional slugger whose major league future is likely as a designated hitter or right-handed bat off of the bench—if he has one at all.
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