Playing 'Patience or Panic' with MLB's 15 Biggest Mid-Spring Training Flops
Searching for concrete results in a Major League Baseball spring training game is going to lead to disappointment. You can evaluate individual performances for days, but once the games count, everything changes.
Players are going through the motions in March. As much as we love baseball, spring training is a drag for the guys on the field. They aren't going to ramp up their game until they start to count at the end of the month and into April.
However, for all the talk about how little spring games matter, there are certain things to look for when determining if a player's numbers right now are just one of those fluke things in a small sample size or a sign of bigger problems to come.
As we scour box scores and evaluate the games we have seen thus far, there are a number of players whose performances—good and bad—have jumped out at us. Here, we look at the players who have struggled out of the gate and tell you whether to believe what your eyes are seeing.
Some players with bad numbers right now, like Arizona's Paul Goldschmidt, aren't going to be on the list because they're going to be fine. But focusing on prospects, second-year players and aging veterans, you can find a wide array of answers on the panic/patience spectrum.
Here are our takes on 15 players with high expectations who have tripped on the banana peel, along with an idea of what to make of their performances.
Note: All stats courtesy of MLB.com unless otherwise noted. Games through March 12, 2014.
Yasiel Puig, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers
Spring Stats: .172/.188/.276, 3 2B, 3 RBI, BB, 4 K
You are always of two minds with Yasiel Puig. On the one hand, his reckless, all-out style of play is what makes him so fun and exciting to watch. It worked well for him as a rookie, as he hit .319/.391/.534 with 19 homers and 11 stolen bases in 104 games last year.
But it's also the thing that holds him back.
For instance, look at the video embedded above. It was one of the most talked-about plays of spring training, featuring a Mike Trout liner into center field that dies under Puig's glove and rolls all the way to the wall.
Puig recovers and throws a strike to the cutoff man, who then fires to the plate to get Trout out before an inside-the-park homer.
The most shocking thing about that play was Puig actually hit the cutoff man; however, the whole thing started because of a mistake he made. He took a bad route to the ball, tried to make a spectacular play instead of keeping the ball in front of him and wound up getting bailed out in the end.
Puig's impatience at the plate is still very prevalent. He's going to have to be a BABIP machine to post a solid average and on-base percentage. The power is legit because of the bat speed and raw strength, but the other things are still concerning.
Of course, I thought the same thing last year, and that turned out well for Puig and the Dodgers, so perhaps he's just one of those players whose raw abilities can overcome a limited baseball IQ.
Ryan Howard, 1B, Philadelphia Phillies
Spring Stats: .185/.267/.259, 2 2B, 2 RBI, 3 R, 3 BB, 11 K
How do you correct a problem like Ryan Howard? If you are the Phillies, you give him $125 million over five years just two seasons before he hits free agency.
That deal has quickly turned into a disaster, as Howard has played 151 games the last two years and hit just .244/.307/.445, with no signs of hope.
Cliff Corcoran of Sports Illustrated wrote about injured stars looking for a bounce-back year, with Howard making the list, but he didn't have very flattering things to say about Philadelphia's big first baseman:
Howard has hit the disabled list just two other times in his career, but those two also were the result of left leg injuries. Now 34, that left leg looks to be the weak part of the foundation that has been carrying around a 240-pound slugger for ten years. Without a regular opportunity to rest at designated hitter, it seems very likely that Howard’s left leg will give out again in some way, large or small, this season.
This spring is indicative of the problems Howard has displayed over the last two years. He struggles to make contact—especially against anything soft—and hasn't hit lefties since 2010 (.221/.283/.400).
It's no wonder the Phillies have explored the idea of a platoon partner for Howard, even though he's too stubborn to accept the reality of the situation around him.
On the positive side, only three more years until the Phillies are out from under that contract!
George Springer, OF, Houston Astros
Spring Stats: .190/.370/.190, R, 6 BB, 8 K, 4 SB
If I had to predict a spring stat line for George Springer, it would look a lot like the one he has put up. There might be a little more average and a couple extra-base hits, but the high strikeout and walk totals, as well as handful of stolen bases, are exactly what you get from him.
Eight strikeouts in 21 at-bats aren't going to cut it, though. As talented as Springer is, his one huge flaw has always been making contact. He's been punched out 317 times in 998 at-bats the last two years.
Despite this gaping flaw, Springer has hit over .300 with 61 homers and 145 walks. He's going to need time to adjust against MLB pitching, where he will get exploited on the inner half of the plate.
Sirius XM radio host Ray Flowers provided an update on Springer's status with the Astros and when fans can expect to see him in the big leagues:
Considering what Springer has shown this spring, more time in the minors will serve him well. He's going to be a low-average, high-OBP/power guy, so these numbers are nothing to be alarmed about.
Maikel Franco, 3B, Philadelphia Phillies
Spring Stats: .207/.258/.207, 4 R, 2 RBI, 2 BB, 5 K
Maikel Franco is a prospect you run hot and cold on so easily it's a wonder that he's as highly regarded as he is. Bleacher Report Lead Prospect Writer Mike Rosenbaum ranked him as the 37th-best prospect entering 2014, writing:
A physically strong right-handed hitter, Franco’s strong wrists and plus bat speed fuel his plus-plus power projection, which could manifest in the form of 30-plus home runs at maturity. While he continued to feast on fastballs last year, his improved secondary recognition helped him control the strike zone and strike out less often.
There are a lot of offensive tools Franco has that make him an exciting prospect, but he's so one-dimensional as a player that he has to hit a ton to have value.
Signed as a third baseman, Franco has been dreadful at the hot corner this spring. Eric Karabell of ESPN provided commentary on Twitter about one of Franco's more memorable plays:
Maikel Franco just fielded a bunt, airmailed it and the ball struck the right field ball girl. Because of course it did. LOL.— Eric Karabell (@karabellespn) February 26, 2014
Despite the limited defensive value and lack of speed, Franco still warrants patience because the bat looks so good in practice, if not execution, this spring. He's got an innate ability to barrel the ball and showed a lot of power last year. He can be Ryan Howard's replacement by the end of the season.
Christian Yelich, OF, Miami Marlins
Spring Stats: .208/.296/.208, R, 3 BB, 7 K, 1 SB
Christian Yelich was a surprise call-up for the Marlins last season. Not that he lacked the tools to be an impact player, but the then-21-year-old started 2013 on the disabled list and only played 49 games at Double-A before heading to Miami.
Youth showed in his performance, as Yelich didn't display much power despite posting a strong .288 average and .370 on-base percentage in 62 games. He did strikeout too often (66 times in 240 at-bats) and was dreadful against left-handed pitching (.476 OPS).
Yelich has always had issues hitting left-handed pitching, so this wasn't an alarming, out-of-nowhere problem, but it does limit his upside if it's not something he can correct.
This spring, Yelich has looked like a lesser version of the player we saw in Miami last year. He's got just five hits—all singles—and has been caught stealing two times in three attempts. One of those came against Yadier Molina, so you can't fault him entirely for that.
With an incredible feel for hitting, above-average raw power and a keen eye at the plate, Yelich has the makings of an impact hitter. He's also got above-average speed and a good glove for center field.
Hopefully the issues against left-handed pitching come around, otherwise Yelich is going to end up turning into a platoon player. He's just 22, so there is no need to panic right now.
Avisail Garcia, OF, Chicago White Sox
Spring Stats: .208/.240/.333, 2B, 3B, RBI, 5 R, 7 K, SB
A big part of Chicago's rebuilding plans, Avisail Garcia has always been, and remains, comprised of more raw tools than he is a true baseball player. He's often been compared to Miguel Cabrera, usually for lazy reasons (Venezuelan, big body, right-handed).
Unfortunately when that comparison gets thrown around, fans naturally assume that Garcia will turn into the best hitter on the planet. It's not going to happen.
ESPN's Keith Law (Insider subscription required) saw Garcia in a spring game recently and noted that a lot of the problems he's displayed in the past (poor plate discipline and approach, fringe-average speed, poor baserunning) are still very prevalent before noting he could benefit from more time in the minors.
With that scouting report, it's hard not to be alarmed by Garcia's spring stat line. He's got more extra-base hits than George Springer, whom I preached patience with, but Springer is also a better baseball talent.
Garcia has yet to walk in 24 spring at-bats and has just 12 free passes in 291 career MLB at-bats. That means he has to hit for average and a lot of power to have value as a corner outfielder. More seasoning in the minors would do him some good.
Victor Martinez, DH, Detroit Tigers
Spring Stats: .276/.290/.345, 2 2B, 4 RBI, 3 R, BB, 3 K, SB
Of the position players on this list, Martinez is hardly the biggest flop. He's hitting a respectable .276 and has the most impressive track record among the players we've already discussed.
Martinez also alleviated any fears that his surgically repaired knee was going to cause problems with a brilliant second half in 2013 (.361/.413/.500) and even better postseason (.405/.432/.571).
Because Martinez is such a good hitter, with the ability to hit balls anywhere on the plate to any part of the field, seeing him hitting just .276/.290/.345 for any period of time is going to raise some red flags. Add to that his age (35), you start to wonder how long he can keep up his high level of hitting.
However, when taken in a small sample, it's hard to criticize Martinez.
About the only concerning thing for Martinez was Brad Ausmus' announcement that the Tigers are going to play him at catcher this spring to get ready for the regular season, via Chris Iott of MLive:
Brad Ausmus said he plans to get Victor Martinez into parts of three games at catcher to prepare for the season.— Chris Iott (@Chris_Iott) March 10, 2014
Given the state of Martinez's knees and his poor defensive acumen behind the plate, the Tigers don't stand to gain anything by having him play even one game at catcher during the season.
A.J. Burnett, RHP, Philadelphia Phillies
Spring Stats: 9 IP, 12 H, 10 ER, 2 HR, 2 BB, 4 K
A.J. Burnett wanted to pitch closer to home, which is likely a big reason he signed with the Philadelphia Phillies.
Philadelphia isn't exactly a warm, embracing city when it comes to athletes. The fans will love you if you perform but can be vicious if problems arise. That doesn't bode well for Burnett, who has had issues under the bright lights in his career.
Burnett told Mike Sielski of The Philadelphia Inquirer that his past issues in New York are going to help him in City of Brotherly Love:
I tried to do more than I was capable of doing, to prove to myself and the world that I was worth it. After playing with Doc (Roy Halladay in Toronto), I got away from the one-pitch-at-a-time theory in New York. It didn't matter if I didn't hit on a pitch or if my mechanics were off - I've got to make another pitch. That wasn't on my mind. It was, 'What's happening? I've got to fix this.'
He also turned into a ground-ball machine in Pittsburgh, ranking second in ground-ball percentage since 2012.
With his spring training numbers looking less than ideal, it's easy to assume that leaving Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage will cause Burnett to regress.
But without reading too much into these numbers, considering how late in the offseason he signed, Burnett's probably a little behind schedule and will catch up in time to be close to where he was in Pittsburgh.
Trevor Cahill, RHP, Arizona Diamondbacks
Spring Stats: 11 IP, 19 H, 12 ER, 3 HR, 2 BB, 10 K
Trevor Cahill has always been a frustrating pitcher to watch. He was the 11th-rated prospect in baseball prior to the 2009 season by Baseball America, ahead of Buster Posey and Giancarlo Stanton.
That hype has never been backed up by Cahill's MLB performance. He's never developed into a big strikeout pitcher, averaging just 5.9 per nine innings, with a 1.72 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Being a ground-ball pitcher (55.3 percent in his career), he gives up a lot of hits and baserunners.
Cahill's spring has been as bad as it could possibly be. He's given up nearly two baserunners per inning, has an ERA of 9.82 and has allowed three homers in 11 innings.
He's just 26 and has the ability to keep the ball in the park, but nothing else he does works that well on the mound. It's because of that inconsistency—as well as a fastball that continues to average less than 90 mph—there is real reason to panic.
Unless Cahill can magically learn to miss more bats, or at least stop walking more than three hitters per nine innings, the numbers will continue to get worse.
Marcus Stroman, RHP, Toronto Blue Jays
Spring Stats: 9 IP, 13 H, 8 ER, 2 HR, 3 BB, 7 K
The Toronto Blue Jays have said Marcus Stroman is competing for a spot in the rotation out of spring training. With mediocre numbers thus far, it would appear those hopes are dwindling.
However, according to Gregor Chisholm of MLB.com, Stroman's numbers haven't put him out of the mix for the No. 5 spot:
It's very likely that Stroman would be best served with a little more seasoning in the Minor Leagues before making his debut, but he still remains in the mix for one of the club's final two spots in the rotation.
It's hard to see a scenario where Stroman isn't in the minors when the season starts, though that's more a function of not playing above Double-A than anything wrong with him. He's still got two plus pitches (fastball, slider) and an above-average changeup.
Stroman's limited size (5'9") does work against him, because it limits the plane he can get on his fastball, but that's never stopped him from having success. He's a bulldog on the mound, displaying excellent control of his entire repertoire.
The Blue Jays need impact in the rotation if they want to compete in the AL East, which is why they were reportedly in on Ervin Santana until he eventually signed with the Braves. Stroman is their best and most MLB-ready starter in the minors.
Eventually he will be up, even if the spring numbers warrant more seasoning in Triple-A.
Hiroki Kuroda, RHP, New York Yankees
Spring Stats: 8.1 IP, 12 H, 6 ER, BB, 8 K
Hiroki Kuroda's spring was going along nicely until a start against Detroit on March 12. The 39-year-old got lit up by the Tigers, to the tune of 10 hits and six earned runs in 3.2 innings.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi told reporters (via Paul Hagen of MLB.com) after the game that everything Kuroda was doing looked normal, but the off-speed stuff wasn't being located:
He was off with his offspeed stuff, which is not really that unusual this time of year. That's what they're trying to find. They're trying to find a feel. His offspeed stuff just wasn't sharp, and that's why he got hit.
This isn't an unusual trend for Kuroda. He started out last season like a pitcher still in his prime, posting a 2.65 ERA and 1.053 WHIP. However, he fell apart in the second half (4.25 ERA, 1.319 WHIP), allowing 37 earned runs and 74 hits in 61.2 innings across August and September.
At some point, though, the wheels are going to come spinning off right out of the gate. This isn't a young pitcher having problems we are talking about. Kuroda is entering his age-39 season. The fact he remains a viable starter at this age is remarkable.
The Yankees are desperate for depth in the starting rotation. CC Sabathia may have lost a lot of weight in the offseason, but the fastball remains in the 88-89 mph range. Masahiro Tanaka is 25 and playing his first season in Major League Baseball. Ivan Nova is a back-end-of-the-rotation arm.
Michael Pineda is a wild card that you can't depend on until he proves otherwise. Kuroda was supposed to be the one safety option for Girardi and the Yankees. It's not easy to put your trust in a 39-year-old pitcher.
Matt Garza, RHP, Milwaukee Brewers
Spring Stats: 5.2 IP, 19 H, 12 ER, HR, 3 BB, 4 K
Of all the single-game spring training performances so far this season, Matt Garza carved up a doozy against the Angels on Wednesday. He allowed 10 runs (six earned) on nine hits with one walk and one strikeout in 1.2 innings.
Matt Garza allowed 10 runs, got 5 outs ... had this been regular season he'd have been 1st Brewers P to allow that many & get so few outs— Mark Simon (@msimonespn) March 13, 2014
As bad as that start was, it wasn't far and away Garza's worst performance of the spring. He gave up 10 hits and seven runs (six earned) with two walks and three strikeouts in four innings the first two times he pitched.
Complicating matters is Garza's injury history. Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports reported in November that the right-hander's elbow was given a clean bill of health, but it's clear that something isn't right.
Garza's performance issues may not be related to an injury, but you would almost prefer if they were because it could help explain what's going on right now. Otherwise, he's just a pitcher the Brewers guaranteed four years to who can't get anyone out.
Trevor Bauer, RHP, Cleveland Indians
Spring Stats: 7 IP, 12 H, 8 ER, 2 HR, 5 BB, 8 K
A lot of talk around the Indians at the start of spring training surrounded Trevor Bauer. The No. 3 pick in the 2011 draft bombed in his first year with Cleveland, walking 89 in 138.1 innings across Triple-A and MLB.
Bauer spent the offseason reworking his delivery, according to Alex Speier of ESPN.com (Insider subscription required), and earned the praise of Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway:
His stuff was better than I saw it throughout the season last year. Even this early, before spring training starts, his stuff is back, and that's really what we wanted to see, and his command was really good.
The results have been mixed so far this spring. Bauer had two appearances on March 2 and 6 in which he had six strikeouts and one walk. He followed that up with an outing on March 10 with seven hits, two walks and six earned runs with one strikeout.
On the plus side, according to Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports, Bauer's velocity has ticked back up to his college days:
Trevor Bauer's fastball back with a vengeance. Gave up two runs in first IP but went 97, 96, 96, 97, 97, 97, 97, 96, 97, 96, 96, 96, 96, 96.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) March 10, 2014
Bauer has, for the most part, shown much better control this spring than he did at any point in 2013. As long as that continues and is coupled with a mid-90s fastball, this could be a nice bounce-back year for the UCLA product.
Alexi Ogando, RHP, Texas Rangers
Spring Stats: 8.1 IP, 14 H, 8 ER, HR, 2 BB, 5 K
Alexi Ogando is the kind of pitcher who can't get settled into a role because the needs of Texas always keep shifting. That's unfortunate, as the right-hander has looked much better in the bullpen (2.46 ERA, 3.06 strikeout-to-walk ratio) than the rotation (3.40 ERA, 2.38 strikeout-to-walk ratio).
This spring has been mixed for Ogando. He's been knocked around twice, including allowing six earned runs in 3.1 innings against the Angels on March 12.
Due to Derek Holland's injury, Ogando figures to be in Texas' rotation at the start of the season. He told T.R. Sullivan of MLB.com that starting is somthing he would prefer to do:
If I continue to feel the way I do now, I can handle the workload and throw 200 innings. I've been working hard this winter to do just that.
Durability has always been one of Ogando's biggest obstacles. He hasn't pitched more than 169 innings in a season and only started 19 games the last two years.
Rangers manager Ron Washington wanted to make sure the world knew that Ogando getting his work in is important, "but you always want to see better results," per Gerry Fraley of The Dallas Morning News.
If he were preparing for a season strictly as a reliever, even a two- or three-inning guy, patience would be the name of the game. As a starter, he's a little more of a liability.
Danny Duffy, LHP, Kansas City Royals
Spring Stats: 7 IP, 10 H, 6 ER, 4 HR, BB, 6 K
One reason that Kansas City was able to let Ervin Santana walk away without making a formal offer, excluding the qualifying offer to ensure the team would get a draft pick when he signed somewhere, is a wealth of young pitching in the minors.
Danny Duffy isn't a prospect anymore, but his return from Tommy John surgery late last season gives the Royals one more option to choose from.
This spring hasn't been kind to Duffy, who has given up four homers in seven innings. That's not entirely an accident, as he allowed 15 homers in 105.1 innings in 2011. It shouldn't be a long-term issue for a pitcher his size (6'3") with a minor league track record of keeping the ball in the park.
More important is the way Duffy keeps getting better as spring goes on. He's not yet two years removed from elbow reconstruction surgery, so the command is going to be spotty, but as long as his velocity remains intact and the performance improves, the lefty should be fine.
The Kansas City Star's Andy McCullough tweeted recently:
He gave up a run and a few hits, but that's the best Danny Duffy has looked all spring. He was efficient and stayed in the zone.— Andy McCullough (@McCulloughStar) March 9, 2014
This will be a big development year for Duffy. He hasn't had any setbacks and pitched well down the stretch last season, save for a few too many walks, so let's hope he's on track for a big year.
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