MLB Spring Training 2014: Who's Hot, Who's Not with Just 1 Week to Go
The end of spring training is a thrilling time for everyone in Major League Baseball. Players hate the grind of playing a full month's worth of exhibition games before the real thing starts. Fans build up anticipation in preparation for Opening Day.
There are two sides to the spring training coin. The players who have performed well want to get going so they can carry their momentum into real games, helping their team to a playoff berth and potentially a championship.
On the other side of the equation, players who haven't put up numbers want to get the regular season started so they can put the month of March in their rearview mirror and prove that what happens in spring training is irrelevant.
With just one week left to go before teams set their rosters and the 162-game season starts, we offer a look at the hottest and coldest players in baseball. It's a list that includes a combination of proven veterans and top prospects, to show both sides of the spectrum.
Note: All stats courtesy of MLB.com unless otherwise noted.
Hot: Mike Trout, OF, Los Angeles Angels
Spring Stats: 14 G, .400 (16-for-40)/.455/.850, 2 2B, 2 3B, 4 HR, 14 RBI, 2 BB, 5 K, 3 SB
You may have heard of this guy. His name is Mike Trout, and he's pretty good at baseball.
This spring has been much different from last year, when Trout showed up to camp with extra weight, and there was some concern the bulk would take away the speed element of his game or possibly cause him to slow down late in the season.
We know how foolish those concerns were looking back. This year, there's largely been a lot of silence from the Angels and Trout, though the two sides are reportedly discussing a long-term contract, according to CBS Sports' Jon Heyman.
But until pen gets put to paper, all of the talk about Trout's hot hitting this spring gets shrugged off like business as usual because we have seen what the 22-year-old is capable of doing.
Not: Yasiel Puig, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers
Spring Stats: 14 G, .122 (5-for-41)/.136/.195, 3 2B, 3 RBI, BB, 5 K
Yasiel Puig is a fascinating player to watch. The way he operates means you can see the most incredible thing anyone has ever done on a baseball field in one inning, then one of the dumbest the next inning.
It's no secret Puig plays the game with a reckless abandon that made him a legend upon arriving in Los Angeles last season. But now we are starting to see the other side of the equation.
Puig started to show signs of cracking late last year, hitting .214/.333/.452 in September, and that has carried over into spring games, as evidenced by his dreadful slash line.
He's just 23 years old and two years removed from escaping Cuba. Going from that environment to getting $42 million and living in Hollywood is going to cause culture shock.
As far as on-field performance goes, Puig is still learning to read MLB pitchers and toning down his all-out style. It's clear that pitchers are adjusting to him this spring, throwing more breaking balls away and fastballs on the inner half in games I have seen, so he needs to adjust to them.
So far it hasn't happened, but let's see what goes on when the games count. It's not panic time yet.
Hot: Javier Baez, SS, Chicago Cubs
Spring Stats: 13 G, .308 (12-for-39)/.308/.769, 3 2B, 5 HR, 5 RBI, 7 R, 0 BB, 12 K
That is the most Javier Baez slash line possible. Drafted in 2011 as a player with incredible bat speed, raw power and no patience, the 21-year-old has dazzled throughout the spring with his ability to whip the lumber through the zone and send balls into orbit.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, Baez's most recent homer against Colorado on March 19 went roughly a country mile: "Cubs prospect Javier Baez: 452-foot HR per our @hittracker crew... Baez was the No. 7 prospect in @keithlaw preseason rankings."
The power is legitimate, and the sound the ball has off the bat is special. Baez has unlimited potential with a bat in his hands but needs to refine his approach before arriving in Chicago.
Baez is never going to be a player who walks a lot, which is fine because he'll be able to catch up with velocity in the majors. He just has to tone down some of the aggressiveness against pitches that aren't close to being strikes.
But it's hard to argue with a swing that produces as much power as Baez's.
Not: Shin-Soo Choo, OF, Texas Rangers
Spring Stats: 14 G, .146 (6-for-41)/.234/.268, 2 2B, HR, 3 RBI, 4 R, 5 BB, 10 K
It's natural that when a player gets a big contract, as Shin-Soo Choo did from the Texas Rangers this offseason, to overanalyze everything that happens.
Choo has always been a flawed player, with left-handed pitching being his kryptonite (.680 career OPS), but his ability to destroy right-handed pitching always made his numbers look fantastic. He finished 12th in NL MVP voting last year.
At 31 years old, Choo's going to slow down against right-handed pitching sooner or later. When that skill goes away, the Rangers will be on the hook for a lot of money.
None of this is to say that you should start selling Choo down the river, but his limitations on the field could make him a candidate to fall off quicker than a typical superstar player.
Hot: James Shields, RHP, Kansas City Royals
Spring Stats: 14.2 IP, 0.61 ERA, 7 H, 0 BB, 18 K
Putting James Shields on this particular list was calculated because he's a great pitcher who doesn't get the credit he deserves. Some of that has to do with previously pitching in Tampa Bay, where David Price has been the No. 1 guy for years.
Then Shields was traded to Kansas City for Wil Myers in a deal that was widely derided from Kansas City's side. The criticism of the deal had more to do with giving up six years of control over Myers than anything wrong with Shields.
If you look at FanGraphs' Wins Above Replacement, Shields was a top-15 pitcher last season. He led the American League in innings pitched (228.2) and had nearly the same strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.88) as Detroit's Justin Verlander (2.89).
The Royals have been a franchise on the rise for a couple of years and haven't been able to develop their own starting pitching for various reasons. That figures to change this year, with a pitcher we will talk about later on this list, but small-market teams have to strike when their window is open.
Shields is entering the final year of his contract and doesn't figure to be in Kansas City's price range. If he helps the team get to the postseason this season, shouldn't that be enough to justify the trade?
Not: Ryan Vogelsong, RHP, San Francisco Giants
Spring Stats: 15 IP, 9.00 ERA, 25 H, 5 HR, 2 BB, 10 K
The Giants decided to re-sign Ryan Vogelsong after he missed two months last year with a broken bone in his hand. It couldn't have come at a better time, as the right-hander had an ERA of 7.19 after a May 20 start.
Vogelsong did pitch better after returning in August but still had an ERA of 4.55 with a 1.43 WHIP and 1.35 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the final two months of the season.
If the assumption was an offseason of work would be what cures Vogelsong, his spring performance is destroying that theory. He's been lit up in two of his four starts this month, including an outing against Cleveland where he gave up 11 hits, two homers and nine runs (eight earned) in 2.2 innings.
You keep going. All you do is keep going. He’ll be back out there. Hopefully he’ll be able to keep the ball down more consistently. In that last inning he couldn’t get the third out and it looked like he got a little tired.
The Giants caught lightning in a bottle with Vogelsong in 2011 and 2012 after he was out of Major League Baseball from 2007-10. He's 36 years old and clearly showing the inevitable signs of slowing down.
Hot: Yordano Ventura, RHP, Kansas City Royals
Spring Stats: 15.1 IP, 1.76 ERA, 10 H, BB, 15 K
When discussing prospects in spring training, it's easy to get caught up in service time and delaying arbitration clocks. A club like Houston, for example, which has an MLB-ready prospect in George Springer, isn't going to compete for anything this year, so it makes sense to do what it takes to give itself an extra year of control over him.
Sometimes, though, teams recognize when their window to contend for a playoff spot is open and will give an MLB-ready player with upside his rightful shot. That's what the Kansas City Royals have done with Yordano Ventura, whose brilliance this spring earned him a spot in their rotation.
The Royals built one of the best farm systems in baseball over the last four years, including a 2011 group that was lauded as one of the best ever. They are starting to see the results from it with Ventura joining Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez.
Ventura certainly isn't the last piece of the puzzle, but with his elite-level stuff, the 22-year-old will be an integral component of Kansas City's bright future.
Not: Tyler Skaggs, LHP, Los Angeles Angels
Spring Stats: 14.2 IP, 6.14 ERA, 19 H, 2 HR, 7 BB, 11 K
There are two schools of thought on Tyler Skaggs. On the one hand, the results haven't been pretty this spring. He's been knocked around in his last two starts, allowing 15 hits, two homers and eight runs in 8.1 innings.
The Angels, desperately seeking starting pitching, would certainly like to see better results from the left-hander before trusting him in the rotation.
On the other hand, Skaggs' raw tools have improved dramatically since working with the Angels pitching staff, getting back to where they were when he was a top prospect in Arizona's system two years ago.
ESPN's Keith Law (insider subscription required) listed Skaggs as a breakout candidate for 2014, saying he's "hitting 95 mph again this month with his old curveball back."
Law also notes that Skaggs' changeup needs work before becoming a finished product, but the fact his velocity and old mechanics are back is an encouraging sign. Here's hoping that a poor spring is just the result of some bad luck and small sample-size randomness.
Hot: Jonathan Schoop, 2B, Baltimore Orioles
Spring Stats: 16 G, .406 (13-for-32)/.444/.625, 4 2B, HR, 6 RBI, 3 BB, 10 K
When spring started, Jonathan Schoop wasn't on Baltimore's radar for the second base job. He hit just .256/.301/.396 in 70 games with Triple-A Norfolk last year and hadn't grown into his frame, though the raw tools and upside have always been there.
Now, with just one week of spring games left, Schoop has been the most impressive second baseman in Orioles camp and still has a shot to start the year in the big leagues.
Now a 22-year-old, Schoop will have no problems tapping into his above-average power during games.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter told Brittany Ghiroli of MLB.com that everything is on the table as it pertains to Baltimore's starting second baseman, saying, "I told you before, we came in here with that completely wide open there. Still is."
Nothing in Schoop's spring performance indicates that he isn't ready for the big stage.
Hot: Carlos Martinez, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals
Spring Stats: 15.1 IP, 1.76 ERA, 8 H, HR, 3 BB, 9 K
The competition for St. Louis' No. 5 starter would appear to be a one-sided affair, with Carlos Martinez having a 1.76 ERA and Joe Kelly boasting a 7.71 ERA with 13 hits allowed and four walks in 9.1 innings.
Working in Kelly's favor was his last start, a 5.1-inning outing against Atlanta with four hits and three strikeouts, but that was the first good performance the right-hander has had all spring.
Martinez has been dazzling in each of his three starts this month, allowing just six hits with seven strikeouts in 12.1 innings.
There will always be concern about Martinez's ability to start 30-plus games in a season because he's undersized (6'0", 185 lbs), but when you can whip a fastball up to 100 mph with a slider that can make professional hitters look like little leaguers, it's hard not to imagine what he could turn into starting every fifth day.
Martinez earned the final rotation spot based on his performance this spring, but it's up to the Cardinals to decide what is in his—and their—best interest.
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