10 Things That Are Most Important to Focus on in Spring Training

Andrew GouldFeatured ColumnistMarch 16, 2014

10 Things That Are Most Important to Focus on in Spring Training

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    Top pitching prospect Archie Bradley has a chance to prove he can hang with the big boys during spring training.
    Top pitching prospect Archie Bradley has a chance to prove he can hang with the big boys during spring training.Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    Spring training is happening, but MLB fans never know how to view those happenings.

    Nobody wants to be that person who is convinced Mark Reynolds is going to hit .300 after witnessing him fire one liner past the infield off a pitcher bound to start the season in Triple-A. Then again, those who remained oblivious to spring events last year missed harbingers to Domonic Brown and Julio Teheran's coming-out parties.

    This isn't the real thing, but it's the closest we have to the real thing at the moment. Might as well make the most of it.

    Other than NFL free agency, the NBA and NHL gearing up for the playoffs and March Madness almost kicking off, what else is going on in the sporting community? We might as well kick back and watch some exhibition baseball games.

    If the scores don't matter, what exactly should interested onlookers monitor during spring training? Consider these factors for your spring viewing pleasure.

     

    Note: All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.

Returning Players

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    Grady Sizemore hasn't played an MLB game since 2011.
    Grady Sizemore hasn't played an MLB game since 2011.Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

    Several familiar faces are beginning their road to recovery before the real games begin.

    Those punished for their Biogenesis involvement will also return to the limelight in hopes of seeking redemption. The artist still known as Ryan Braun leads the way, and he’s off to a hot start after belting two homers during the first week.

    A few weeks of exhibition games will not answer the question of how Braun, Nelson Cruz, Jhonny Peralta and Everth Cabrera (among others) will perform without performance-enhancing drugs, but a fast start would dispel fears of erosion after time off.

    Don’t forget all the big names whose health would give their clubs a major boost. Corey Hart and Mark Teixeira look rusty, but that’s what spring training is for. This is the time for them to assimilate to big league pitching after several months of inactivity.

    Then there’s the man who once said he felt cheated out of an MVP trophy by Braun, per the Associated Press (h/t ESPN). Matt Kemp played just 73 games last year, and a different injury to a different body part popped up whenever he looked to be in the clear. He made his spring debut Wednesday, giving him a chance to play in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ first game in the United States.

    Every year also presents some intriguing comeback stories. This time around, Michael Pineda hopes to pitch in the majors for the first time since 2011, while Grady Sizemore will look to see how many people he can get to say, “Hey, remember Grady Sizemore? Apparently he’s trying to come back.”

    The 31-year-old outfielder has not made a significant impact since hitting 33 homers and stealing 38 bases in 2008. From 2006 to 2008, Sizemore accrued a 21.1 fWAR, the third-highest mark among position players over that stretch. The former star is looking to crack a spot with the Boston Red Sox, who watched Jacoby Ellsbury join their rivals in the Bronx.

Developing Injuries

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    Kris Medlen may need to undergo his second Tommy John surgery.
    Kris Medlen may need to undergo his second Tommy John surgery.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Most organizations wouldn’t lose much sleep if they exited spring without a single win. As long as everyone circumvents the practice run in full health.

    Nobody wants to suffer significant injuries, especially not in meaningless games. How’s a squad supposed to stay standing through 162 games if it's not entering the first bout at full strength?

    Early in spring, the Atlanta Braves are suffering a team’s worst nightmare. Mike Minor, Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy—all pivotal pieces in their starting rotation—are battling arm issues before Opening Day.

    Beachy, who returned from Tommy John surgery late last year only to land right back on the disabled list, suffered elbow ligament damage and bicep tightness. Minor has not pitched this spring due to a sore shoulder, and it’s possible the young ace will begin 2014 on the disabled list.

    After leaving Monday’s start holding his throwing elbow, Medlen’s arm is the biggest concern. Another Tommy John patient, Medlen was also diagnosed with ligament damage. Per MLB.com's Mark Bowman, he’ll receive further evaluation before deciding whether he needs surgery, but his status for Opening Day is murky at best.

    The Braves are not the only playoff squad that must start the season without key members of its rotation. According to the San Francisco Chronicle's Susan Slusser, the Oakland Athletics are expected to begin 2014 with Jarrod Parker (forearm) and A.J. Griffin (elbow) on the disabled list. 

    And these are not the only teams with worries on their plate. Josh Hamilton, Starlin Castro, Mat Latos, Jesse Crain, Zack Greinke, Chase Headley and Doug Fister are among several other big names fighting the injury bug this spring.

Position Battles

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    Dee Gordon could get another opportunity to play every day for the Dodgers.
    Dee Gordon could get another opportunity to play every day for the Dodgers.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Maybe these games mean nothing to a guy guaranteed a starting job, but some players are fighting for their livelihood during the spring.

    Should billion-dollar organizations make decisions based on a few weeks worth of flawed data? Probably not, but many of them do. At the very least, the spring stats will break a stalemate between players jousting for playing time.

    Before eating up Sizemore's redemption story, remember that he must still beat out Jackie Bradley Jr. to land a regular gig. His younger opponent put his name on the map with a tremendous spring last year, but his success did not translate to the real games.

    But with Ellsbury gone, Sizemore and Bradley each have a chance to start anew.

    Although Dee Gordon has notched a .308 on-base percentage through 39 plate appearances, he has kept himself in line for the Dodgers' starting second base job with eight stolen bases. Newcomer Alex Guerrero can win the job with some strong at-bats, but the Dodgers look hesitant to award him a regular role. 

    The Arizona Diamondbacks have some interesting decisions on their hands as well. Despite his defense mastery at shortstop, Didi Gregorious could lose his spot to Chris Owings, a stronger hitter who batted .330/.359/.482 in Triple-A last year. They also could shake up their rotation, with one of baseball's premier prospects, Archie Bradley, pushing for a major league slot.

Prospects Battling for Roster Spots

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    Yordano Ventura is generating some buzz this spring.
    Yordano Ventura is generating some buzz this spring.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Position battles and prospects represent the biggest reasons to pay attention to spring training. Combining both those storylines, a few future stars are within arm's length of making it to the show.

    Archie Bradley starting the season in Triple-A was initially a foregone conclusion, especially after Arizona signed Bronson Arroyo. A Trevor Cahill knee injury and further realization that Bradley is really good has changed that perception.

    Rated by Baseball America as MLB's top pitching prospect behind Masahiro Tanaka—a 25-year-old who worked seven professional seasons in Japan—Bradley possesses a much higher ceiling than any other member of Arizona's rotation.

    A little more seasoning may help the 21-year-old harness his command, but his stuff would keep him competitive on the highest level.

    Meanwhile, flamethrower Yordano Ventura has thrown as fast as 102 miles per hour this March while amassing nine strikeouts through 9.1 innings. As the 22-year-old continues to open eyes, the Kansas City Royals will have a difficult time choosing Danny Duffy for the fifth and final rotation spot.

    George Springer struck out 161 times in 135 games last year, but he also recorded 37 homers and 45 stolen bases between Double-A and Triple-A. The 24-year-old will eventually get plate appearances in Houston, but the Astros may be scared off by the low batting average he'd procure.

    But we shouldn't only focus on the young guns who may crack the Opening Day roster. A few blue-chip prospects will dip their feet in the water before returning to the minors.

Prospects Getting a Chance to Shine

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    Kris Bryant has the potential to wield one of baseball's best bats.
    Kris Bryant has the potential to wield one of baseball's best bats.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Many young spring participants still must climb the ladder to the majors. Some prospects will report to the minors in April regardless of their March results, but we can enjoy the preview.

    Byron Buxton highlights most prospect lists, and the 20-year-old outfielder is getting a chance to show the world why he’s a star in the making. But he hasn’t played higher than Single-A, and the Minnesota Twins are not the Miami Marlins.

    Although Buxton is not a serious candidate to snag a starting role in the big leagues, watching the five-tool talent patrol the outfield should give Twins fans something to smile about before what looks to be another lackluster season.

    With only 238 minor league plate appearances under his belt, Kris Bryant will likely have to wait before seizing third base for the Chicago Cubs. For now, enjoy a sneak peak of a guy one NL executive said has "fifty homer power," via CBS Sports' Jon Heyman.

    He may not win the job with a strong spring, which he began with a homer in his first at-bat, but the young slugger will speed up his promotion date if he continues to wage war on helpless pitchers.

    These exhibition games don’t provide much of a blueprint to success in 2014, but they give everyone a glimpse of the future.

Lineup Configuration

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    Mike Trout can help expedite the trend of superstar hitters batting second.
    Mike Trout can help expedite the trend of superstar hitters batting second.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Players aren’t the only ones dusting off the cobwebs in preparation for the season. Managers are also delving back into their duties after a cold few months without lineup cards.

    A team’s batting order is often overblown, as batting fourth or fifth does not mark a substantial difference. Cramming the top of the order with potent hitters who can reach base, however, can engineer a few more runs along the way.

    You’ll rarely see a squad trot out the projected Opening Day lineup, but some games can give fans a better idea of which way a skipper is leaning.

    For example, Brad Ausmus has had Ian Kinsler batting first for the Detroit Tigers. While the newly acquired second baseman isn’t the ideal leadoff hitter, he notched a .344 on-base percentage last season. He made better contact (at the cost of power), posting a career-high 23.7 percent line-drive rate and career-low 9.6 strikeout percentage.

    It will also be interesting to see how the Los Angeles Angels configure their lineup. The perception of a superstar hitter needing to bat No. 3 is expiring, and Mike Trout is the perfect well-rounded slugger to lead the lineup evolution batting second.

    He’s hit second during the spring, with newcomer Kole Calhoun setting the table before Trout and Albert Pujols. Optimizing Trout’s plate appearances is a shrewd move for the Angels.

Radar Gun

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    If CC Sabathia can't dial up his velocity, it's hard to imagine him coming close to his past productivity.
    If CC Sabathia can't dial up his velocity, it's hard to imagine him coming close to his past productivity.Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    You may not know this, but repeatedly throwing a baseball 90-95 miles per hour is extremely difficult.

    Pitchers need the tune-up games more than their offensive counterparts to regain their arm strengths before April. Even if velocity isn’t everything, it’s one pretty important thing.

    Now that most hurlers have taken the mound once or twice, we have a sense for the early stages of their arm strength. We also can now blare out a warning alarm if the radar gun is spitting out significantly lower numbers.

    CC Sabathia surrendering three runs in a spring start is hardly the end of the world, but his slower offerings should create some concern. He worked with way up to 88-89 mph, which is still well below the 93-94 he fired during his heyday.

    It’s not even as good as the career-low 91.1 he averaged during a year that saw him post a 6.08 ERA after the All-Star break. He has lost more than one mile per hour on his fastball in each of the past two years, and the early signs point to that trend earning a hat trick.

    If that holds up, the New York Yankees ace won’t hold that title anymore.

    Before New York Mets fans start mocking their crosstown foes, Jon Niese began his spring venture with a 79-mph fastball. He worked his way up to the high 80s, but the lefty still lacked an oomph on his heater, failing to record any strikeouts. 

Underlying Numbers

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    David Price is on the right path to upping his strikeout rate in 2014.
    David Price is on the right path to upping his strikeout rate in 2014.Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    Spring numbers are misleading due to the small sample size, but some marks are more informative than the conniving batting average and ERA.

    Nick Markakis is hitting .524, but so what? That obviously unsustainable average has occurred over a brief seven games, and we have a firm grasp of Markakis’ abilities after eight seasons. It only takes a few fortuitous bounces to drastically alter an average.

    All spring stats should be viewed with a skeptical eye, but strikeout and walk rates are slightly better factors for your consideration.

    So while it was nice to see David Price weave five stellar innings Tuesday, it’s nicer that he struck out eight batters with one accompanying walk. After registering a 7.8 K/9 ratio in 2013, Price could use a spring full of strikeouts to put the Tampa Bay Rays at ease over lingering injury issues.

    Rick Porcello foreshadowed his career-high 7.22 K/9 ratio last spring, and he’s at it again this March. Despite allowing 10 runs through 12.1 innings, he has tallied 10 strikeouts with just one walk.

    While Khris Davis' spring struggles aren't enough to write off his breakout candidacy, it should help keep expectations grounded. The slugging outfielder has compiled nine strikeout and no walks through 31 plate appearances. Don't assume the limited sample size foreshadows his failure, but consider it a reminder that he's no sure thing to blast 30 homers.

Your Children

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    Souvenirs are awesome, but fans’ affinity for free stuff has reached rock bottom.

    Want to go nuts over a bland, oversized T-shirt shot out of a cannon? That’s your prerogative. Clamoring for a memento to remember your day at the ballpark is all well as good, so long as you’re not risking your child’s safety in the process.

    Seems obvious, but tell that to the overzealous fan sitting in the outfield bleachers who darted for a ball during Monday’s exhibition between the Mets and Marlins. In his quest for a small ball that’d cost a couple bucks at any sporting goods store, his son’s stroller rolled down the hill.

    Fortunately, it stopped before reaching the outfield fence, and now the young lad has something to hold over his dad’s head forever.

    Just a friendly reminder to parents: Baseball is great, but protecting your children comes first.

It's Just Spring Training

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    Mike Moustakas probably isn't going to become an MVP just because of a good spring.
    Mike Moustakas probably isn't going to become an MVP just because of a good spring.Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Maybe this should have gone before all that stuff about what to watch during spring training.

    The March activity whets our appetite to the season, and it gives us baseball nuts something to do. Anything to prevent fans from going insane isn’t a complete waste.

    But don’t go crazy analyzing spring happenings.

    If a star player hit .240 in August, those who don’t root for his team or roster him in a fantasy league might not even notice. So if an established commodity struggles in March without an injury complementing those woes, don’t give it much thought.

    Maybe Mike Moustaskas’ torrid spring prefaces the third baseman living up to his massive potential. Then again, he decimated pitching last spring before hitting .233/.287/.364 last year. Heck, even Jake Fox became the talk of the town once upon a time.

    Don’t leap to conclusions until the 2014 season ends. Winners and losers don’t matter in spring training, but that doesn’t mean baseball fans can’t enjoy the ride before Opening Day.