The Most Scrutinized Player in Every MLB Camp
Nobody likes being under the microscope.
However, in MLB spring training camps across Arizona and Florida there are tons of players under all sorts of scrutiny for all sorts of reasons.
Some are stars who find themselves facing extra pressure because they're tying to live up to the expectations that come along with signing big-money contracts. Others are top prospects who are being asked to step up and make an immediate impact in their rookie campaigns. And finally, there are the veterans looking to rebound from terrible seasons a year ago.
With those considerations in mind, here's a look around the league at the most scrutinized player in every MLB camp.
Note: All stats courtesy of MLB.com unless otherwise noted.
Arizona Diamondbacks: RP J.J. Putz
J.J. Putz has not been sharp so far in Cactus League action. In four innings of work, the veteran right-hander has allowed three runs on six hits and three walks.
Kirk Gibson, the manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, remains unfazed by Putz's early scuffles, per Nick Piecoro of The Arizona Republic:
"The thing about J.J. is, he's pitched a lot of games, he's been through a lot of spring trainings, he saved a lot of games, and I think that when the season starts it will be a whole different game for him. He's one of those guys."
Gibson is likely spot on in his analysis. However, as Piecoro notes, Putz's velocity has been down this spring, which is definitely a trend to keep an eye on as Opening Day approaches.
Atlanta Braves: 2B Dan Uggla
After posting a .671 OPS in 2013 and getting left off the Atlanta Braves' NLDS roster, Dan Uggla is in serious need of a bounce-back season.
In early Grapefruit League action, though, the results have been less than promising. In his first 19 spring at-bats, the second baseman has just one extra-base hit. Even more ominous for Uggla is the fact that the Braves finally appear to have a viable replacement on the horizon.
Tommy La Stella has caused quite the buzz this spring, as he's hitting .323 (10-for-31) with a pair of doubles in his first 11 contests. Last season, the second baseman hit .343 with an .896 OPS in 81 games for the club's Double-A affiliate.
General manager Frank Wren gave the 25-year-old a vote of confidence, via Andrew Hirsh of Forsyth County News: "I think [La Stella] is a player we can count on at the big league level. I don't know exactly when yet, but I think his skill set would be a welcome addition and compliment the lineup."
A welcome addition, indeed, for everyone not named Dan Uggla.
Baltimore Orioles: SP Ubaldo Jimenez
The Baltimore Orioles inked Ubaldo Jimenez to a four-year, $50 million deal in order to bolster the top of the club's rotation.
That appeared to be a reasonable enough signing based on the numbers that the veteran right-hander put up in 2013. Last season, Jimenez went 13-9 with a 3.30 ERA and an impressive 9.6 K/9 ratio for the Cleveland Indians. The problem, of course, is that Jimenez was absolutely brutal back in 2012.
That season, Jimenez went 9-17 with a 5.40 ERA and a 72 ERA+. In 2012, while splitting time with the Indians and Colorado Rockies, Jimenez was nearly just as bad, going 10-13 with a 4.68 ERA and a 93 ERA+.
So just which version of Jimenez should the Orioles expect to get in 2014? Adam Berry of MLB.com asked pitching coach Dave Wallace if he believes Jimenez can be a frontline starter for Baltimore.
"We'll find out. But certainly he has the ability with what he's done," said Wallace.
Boston Red Sox: CF Jackie Bradley Jr.
Will Middlebrooks is definitely worthy of consideration for the title of most scrutinized player in the Boston Red Sox spring training camp, but ultimately the nod has to go to Jackie Bradley Jr.
Bradley is battling with Grady Sizemore to win the starting spot in center field, and through the opening weeks of the Grapefruit League season, the 23-year-old is off to a slow start. In his first seven games, Bradley is batting .190 (4-for-21) with just one extra-base hit.
Meanwhile, Sizemore is hitting .364 (4-for-11) in his first four games for the Red Sox. The center fielder also appears to be holding up well health-wise, with manager John Farrell describing the way he's been running the bases as "really encouraging," per Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe.
Chicago Cubs: SP Edwin Jackson
The early results have been less than stellar for Edwin Jackson, as he's sporting a 7.20 ERA through his first two spring training appearances.
In his most recent outing on March 7, the right-hander allowed three runs on four hits in three innings of work. As Patrick Mooney of CSN Chicago reports, the 30-year-old threw 50 pitches and all 50 were fastballs.
That's not terribly unusual for a starter to work on a specific pitch during a spring training outing. What is unusual, however, is that Jackson told Mooney that pitching coach Chris Bosio had "no clue" about the game plan.
Chicago White Sox: 1B Jose Abreu
Jose Abreu is the most scrutinized player in the Chicago White Sox's spring training camp simply because he's one of the most enigmatic players in all of baseball.
The first baseman produced monster power numbers while playing in Cuba's Serie Nacional. During the 2011-12 campaign, Abreu slugged 35 home runs in 71 games, according to Ben Badler of Baseball America.
That remarkable output prompted the White Sox to dish out a six-year, $68 million deal to Abreu. Of course, there's no guarantee that Abreu's prolific pop will translate to MLB, where he'll be facing far more advanced pitching.
For that reason, everyone in the White Sox spring training camp, and plenty of others from around the league, will be watching each one of Abreu's at-bats to see just what type of player the Cuban slugger will become.
Cincinnati Reds: CF Billy Hamilton
When it comes to Billy Hamilton, all the focus will be on the burner's ability to get on base.
The 23-year-old is slated to take over as the Cincinnati Reds' new leadoff hitter, but there are serious concerns about just how frequently Hamilton will reach base. Last season. Hamilton posted a .308 OBP while playing for Cincinnati's Triple-A affiliate.
Clearly that OBP will need to go up if Hamilton is going to succeed atop Cincinnati's lineup. That's exactly why the center fielder has been busy mastering his bunting skills this spring, as Mark Sheldon of MLB.com reports.
So far, the results have been promising, as Hamilton explained via Sheldon: "If I do my job, I feel like I can get safe every time."
If Hamilton is correct, the rest of the league is in a lot of trouble.
Cleveland Indians: 3B Carlos Santana
To this point in the spring, Carlos Santana's transition to third base has been far from smooth.
According to Paul Hoynes of The Plain Dealer, Santana appears "uncomfortable" at the hot corner, and he has been outplayed defensively by every other third baseman in camp. He's made two errors so far in Cactus League play.
The 27-year-old has also been slumping at the plate, as he is batting just .158 (3-for-19) in his first six games. Should his move to third base fall through, Hoynes suggests that Santana could return to the designated hitter's spot, while backing up the corner infield positions.
Colorado Rockies: 1B Justin Morneau
Justin Morneau's career as a Colorado Rockie hasn't gotten off to a fortuitous start.
The first baseman has only appeared in two games this spring, as he's been sidelined by a neck issue, according to Troy E. Renck of The Denver Post. The 32-year-old has a history of neck injuries dating back to his time with the Minnesota Twins. During the 2011 season, Morneau underwent neck surgery to remove a herniated disk fragment, per The Associated Press (via USA Today).
Morneau went 0-for-2 in his return to the lineup, and clearly the Rockies will need to exercise extra caution to ensure that the neck issues don't become a recurring problem.
Detroit Tigers: 3B Nick Castellanos
There's no way for Nick Castellanos to avoid the scrutiny this spring.
First of all, Castellanos is indirectly replacing Prince Fielder in the Detroit Tigers lineup. Last year, in what amounted to a down season, Fielder still crushed 25 home runs and posted an .819 OPS. That's a lot to ask of a 22-year-old rookie, even one as talented as Castellanos.
There's also the consideration that Castellanos is re-adjusting to the demands of playing third base. As Chris Iott of MLive.com notes, the first-round pick from the 2010 MLB draft didn't play the hot corner at all last season in the minor leagues.
To help speed up the process, Castellanos has been working extensively with Omar Vizquel, the club's first base and infield coach.
Houston Astros: 1B Japhet Amador
As you can see in the video above, Japhet Amador has a ton of pop.
The Houston Astros signed the Mexican first baseman, who stands 6'4" and weights in around 330 pounds, last August. In his first two games of spring training action, Amador is 1-for-4 with an RBI.
As Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle reports, the slugger will have a difficult time cracking the Opening Day roster after arriving late to camp. Still, considering he clubbed 36 home runs in the Mexican League last season, Amador is certainly a player who will attract all sorts of attention in the remaining weeks of spring training.
Note: Video courtesy of YouTube.
Kansas City Royals: SP Danny Duffy / SP Yordano Ventura
This one is a tie between Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura, the two pitchers competing for the No. 5 spot in the Kansas City Royals' starting rotation. According to Andy McCullough of The Kansas City Star, Ventura seems to have the edge early on, but there's still plenty of time for Duffy to change manager Ned Yost's mind.
Duffy has posted a 7.71 ERA in his first three outings, but his most recent appearance on March 9 was his strongest performance yet. The left-hander allowed one run in three innings of work, and Yost noted that he had "good stuff," per McCullough.
Meanwhile, in two games, Ventura has let in just two runs across five frames. However, Yost pointed out per McCullough that the right-hander is still "struggling" with his secondary pitches.
Los Angeles Angels: 1B Albert Pujols
It's easy enough to understand why Albert Pujols is under all sorts of scrutiny this spring.
The slugger still has eight years remaining on his monstrous 10-year, $240 million deal, and he's coming off by far the worst campaign of his entire career.
As Pujols sees it, returning to his old form is simply a matter of staying healthy, as he explained via Jerry Crasnick of ESPN: "To me, it's about being healthy. I've got that gift and talent."
Pujols is absolutely correct. He does have that "gift and talent." However, as Crasnick notes, the first baseman has struggled with plantar fasciitis since 2004. With such a chronic injury history, there will be plenty of eyes watching to see just how long Pujols can maintain his health.
Los Angeles Dodgers: 2B Alex Guerrero
When the Los Angeles Dodgers signed Cuban Alex Guerrero to a four-year, $28 million deal in the offseason, the plan was for the 27-year-old to take over as the team's everyday second baseman.
With the Dodgers' abbreviated spring training rapidly drawing to a close, that plan is definitely not working out. According to Ken Gurnick of MLB.com, Guerrero "has shown rust" after not playing at all in 2013, and the former shortstop has "struggled" to adjust to second base.
Gurnick notes that Dee Gordon is running away with the second base job, although the left-handed batter would likely be involved in a platoon with either Justin Turner or Chone Figgins. In such a scenario, that would leave Guerrero beginning the season in Triple-A.
Miami Marlins: 2B Rafael Furcal
In the offseason, the Miami Marlins signed Rafael Furcal to a one-year, $3 million deal, and so far it's unclear whether that modest investment will end up paying off.
The 36-year-old has endured a slow start to the Grapefruit League campaign, as he's hitting .125 (2-for-16) in his first six contests. There's also the consideration that Furcal is transitioning to a new defensive home. After playing just 36 games at second base in 13 big league seasons, the long-time shortstop will need to prove that he's capable of handling the position if he's going to be in the Marlins' lineup on Opening Day.
Milwaukee Brewers: 2B Rickie Weeks
Rickie Weeks has been the Milwaukee Brewers' Opening Day second baseman for eight seasons in a row, but there's no guarantee that he'll extend that streak to nine.
Last August, Weeks went down with a torn left hamstring, and in his place Scooter Gennett stepped up to seize the job. In 213 at-bats, Gennett hit .324 with an .834 OPS.
This spring, however, it's actually been Weeks who's out-hit Gennett. In his first seven games, Weeks is batting .353 (7-for-17) while Gennett is hitting .095 (2-for-21).
However, after batting .230 in 2012 and .209 in 2013, it's difficult to know if a strong couple of weeks in Cactus League play will be enough for Weeks to win back his job.
Minnesota Twins: SP Phil Hughes
Last year, the Minnesota Twins' starting rotation let in the most earned runs in all of baseball, per ESPN.com.
That underwhelming performance prompted the club to bring in free-agent starters Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes. While the addition of Nolasco made sense, the signing of Hughes to a three-year, $24 million deal was puzzling.
In 2013, Hughes went 4-14 with a 5.19 ERA and a 78 ERA+ for the New York Yankees. However, in early spring action the right-hander is off to a promising start. In two outings, Hughes has allowed just two runs in 5.2 innings of work. Obviously that's much too small of a sample size to draw any meaningful conclusions, but a bounce-back season from Hughes would be a major boast for the Twins' starting staff.
New York Mets: SS Ruben Tejada
Ruben Tejada is off to a rough start this spring.
The shortstop has only appeared in four Grapefruit League games, as he has been slowed by a hamstring issue, per Anthony Rieber of Newsday. In that limited time, Tejada has batted just .111 (1-for-9), while making a pair of errors.
GM Sandy Alderson isn't reading too much into the early struggles, per Rieber: "I don't want to put a microscope on Ruben at this point."
However, according to Adam Rubin of ESPN New York, "It's no secret the Mets would like to upgrade at shortstop." Rubin notes that manager Terry Collins plans to utilize Wilmer Flores at shortstop in a game this week. Ultimately, though, the club will likely need to look outside the organization to shore up the position.
New York Yankees: SP Masahiro Tanaka
There's absolutely no doubt about this one.
Masahiro Tanaka isn't just the most scrutinized player in the New York Yankees' spring training camp, he's the most scrutinized player in all of baseball. Of course, that's what he signed up for when he joined the Yankees on a seven-year, $155 million megadeal.
HardballTalk's Craig Calcaterra provided a glimpse of the postgame press conference after the right-hander's first outing as a Yankee back on March 1:
Just a small bit of interest in Tanaka. pic.twitter.com/uERcNK8fp4— Craig Calcaterra (@craigcalcaterra) March 1, 2014
One can only imagine what the crowd of reporters will look like once the regular season is underway.
Oakland Athletics: SP Scott Kazmir
There were plenty of raised eyebrows when the Oakland Athletics signed Scott Kazmir to a two-year, $22 million deal in the offseason.
The left-hander is coming off a season in which he went 10-9 with a 4.04 ERA for the Cleveland Indians after not pitching at all in the big leagues in 2012. The 30-year-old also takes over the rotation spot that previously belonged to Bartolo Colon, who went a remarkable 18-6 with a 2.65 ERA a season ago.
Kazmir has made just one appearance so far this spring and pitched three scoreless inning while striking out a pair.
Philadelphia Phillies: 1B Ryan Howard
Ryan Howard is definitely not off to a hot start this spring, as the first baseman is batting just .182 (4-for-22) in his first eight games.
On March 10, manager Ryne Sandberg dropped Howard into the No. 5 spot in the lineup, which is really no big deal considering it's still the exhibition season. Sandberg explained via Matt Gelb of The Philadelphia Inquirer that he was simply trying to "separate" the left-handers in the lineup.
However, as Gelb points out, that was the first time that Howard batted out of the No. 4 spot since June 29, 2008. During that game, Jamie Moyer, who is now one of the team's broadcasters, was the starting pitcher.
Pittsburgh Pirates: SP Edinson Volquez
If Edinson Volquez plans to become this year's version of Francisco Liriano for the Pittsburgh Pirates, then the right-hander is going to need to salvage his spring training fast.
Through his first three Grapefruit League outings, Volquez has posted a 14.28 ERA, as he has served up nine runs in 5.2 innings of work. In his most recent start on March 9, the right-hander turned in his worst performance to date. While pitching against the Baltimore Orioles, Volquez allowed seven hits and six runs (five earned) in just 2.2 innings.
San Diego Padres: SP Josh Johnson
Josh Johnson is a solid pick as the the most scrutinized player in the San Diego Padres' spring training camp because the veteran right-hander has the potential to be one of the better low-risk, high-reward signing of the entire offseason.
The Padres signed the pitcher to a one-year, $8 million deal after a disappointing 2013 season with the Toronto Blue Jays that was interrupted by an elbow injury. In his first two outings with the Padres this spring, Johnson has allowed three runs on five hits in five innings of work.
The 30-year-old has also picked up a few tips from former San Diego closer Trevor Hoffman on how to throw his changeup, according to Corey Brock of MLB.com. Johnson's progress with that pitch will definitely be a storyline to follow as the Cactus League wears on.
San Francisco Giants: 2B Marco Scutaro
With Opening Day rapidly approaching, Marco Scutaro has yet to appear in a single spring training game for the San Francisco Giants as he struggles with chronic hip and back issues.
That's definitely a cause for concern, as manager Bruce Bochy explained over the weekend via John Shea of The San Francisco Chronicle: "If you ask me, at the end of next week if he's not playing or very close to playing, we certainly are going to have to have another plan here."
Just what that plan would be remains to be seen. The in-house candidates to step in for Scutaro include Nick Noonan, Tony Abreu, Joaquin Arias and Ehire Adrianza.
Seattle Mariners: 2B Robinson Cano
There's no debate when it comes to who is the most scrutinized player in the Seattle Mariners' spring training camp. It's Robinson Cano, the club's new $240 million second baseman.
In early Cactus League play, the five-time All-Star is off to a torrid start as he's batting .600 (9-for-15) with three RBI. That's almost a perfect start for Seattle's new superstar, but the true test and the real scrutiny will begin when the regular season gets underway.
St. Louis Cardinals: 2B Kolten Wong
Ideally, top prospect Kolten Wong will be the starting second baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals on Opening Day.
However, through the opening two weeks of spring training, Wong has hardly looked the part of a big league starter. The 23-year-old is batting .200 (3-for-15) through his first seven Grapefruit League contests.
The Cardinals, of course, have options when it comes to who will play at second base in the upcoming season. The steady veteran Mark Ellis is more than capable of taking over at second if Wong proves unready. Plus, the team has just brought in Cuban infielder Aledmys Diaz on a four-year deal, per Jenifer Langosch of MLB.com. As Langosch notes, though, Diaz is expected to start the year in the minor leagues.
Tampa Bay Rays: SP Jake Odorizzi
Jake Odorizzi is competing with Cesar Ramos, Erik Bedard and Nate Karns to earn the No. 5 spot on the Tampa Bay Rays' starting staff.
Though his first three outings of the spring, the right-hander is off to an excellent start. In 4.1 innings of work, Odorizzi has allowed just one run while striking out three.
As if making a run at the final spot in the rotation wasn't enough, the 23-year-old has placed added pressure on himself by making the effort to learn a new pitch, according to Spencer Fordin of MLB.com. Fordin writes that the pitch "acts like a chanegup with late downward break." Meanwhile, Odorizzi explained via Fordin that he thinks the new breaking ball could help elevate his pitching to "the next level."
Texas Rangers: RP Neftali Feliz
Neftali Feliz earns the title as the most scrutinized player in the Texas Rangers' spring training camp, as he looks to lock down the job as the club's closer.
The right-hander is vying along with Joakim Soria and Tanner Scheppers to claim the top spot in the bullpen. Through his first four spring training games, Feliz has worked four innings, allowing two runs on six hits while recording just one strikeout.
Building up velocity remains a work in progress for Feliz, whose fastball is "sitting in the 90-92 mph range," per Drew Davison of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. It will be worth watching to see just how much life Feliz can add to his fastball between now and the start of the season.
Toronto Blue Jays: 2B Ryan Goins
Ryan Goins' glove is definitely big league-ready, as manager John Gibbons explained via Rosie DiManno of The Toronto Star: "At the end of the season, Goins was playing as good of defense as any second baseman in baseball."
However, the 26-year-old still needs to prove that he has the bat to become the club's everyday second baseman. In his first seven spring training games, Goins is batting .200 (4-for-20) with zero extra-base hits.
That's a small sample size to be sure, but the results weren't much better in 2013. In a 34-game stint with the Blue Jays at the end of last season, Goins posted just a .609 OPS. While playing in 111 games for Toronto's Triple-A affiliate, the left-handed hitter batted just .257 with a .679 OPS.
Washington Nationals: RP Rafael Soriano
It has not been a crisp start to the spring for Rafael Soriano.
The veteran right-hander has appeared in two Grapefruit League games, and in 1.2 innings of work he has allowed seven runs on eight hits. In his most recent appearance on March 10, Soriano punched out two batters but also served up five runs on five hits as he lasted just two-thirds of an inning.
Of course, it's still early in the spring, especially for a 12-year veteran like Soriano. Manager Matt Williams provided his take on the rough outing, via James Wagner of The Washington Post: "I'm not concerned with the results right now but that his arm strength is improving and that he's upping his pitch counts and he's ready to go when it matters."
If you want to talk baseball, find me on Twitter @KarlBuscheck.