The Biggest Surprises and Disappointments from Spring Training 2014
As spring training winds down—it's already concluded in Arizona and Los Angeles—baseball allows time for reflection before the regular season becomes a reality, pennant races heat up and fans forget all about the narratives of Cactus and Grapefruit League play.
Occasionally, though, spring training surprises and disappointments are precursors to tangible results when the games begin to count.
For example, Yasiel Puig was a surprise of the 2013 Cactus League slate. Months later, he became one of the biggest surprises of the baseball season, soaring into stardom, controversy and the national spotlight.
The fun part of this type of list: Meaning is in the mind of the beholder.
If you believe in a pleasant surprise, bet big on regular-season success. If disappointing results in exhibition games are meaningless, then players who've underperformed could still be on track for big results over the next six months.
With Opening Day ready to arrive, six narratives and performances stood out among the slew of names and numbers that spring training baseball provided for the last six weeks.
Here are the biggest surprises and disappointments of spring training 2014.
Surprise: Mike Moustakas, Kansas City Royals
Let's be honest: To this point, Mike Moustakas has been a disappointing and unproductive hitter for the Kansas City Royals.
Heading into spring training, the 25-year-old third baseman owned a career slash line of .244/.296/.385 across 1,493 plate appearances since 2011.
Although it was too soon to write off this player as a bust, time was running out for a slugger once expected to be a major reason for the Royals offense becoming a strength of the team and leading the franchise out of the doldrums of losing.
If this spring was any indication of Moustakas' growth, 2014 may be the breakout campaign for Kansas City's left-handed slugger.
Over the last six weeks, Cactus League pitchers didn't stand a chance against the improving and surprisingly dominant Moustakas. In 64 plate appearances, he posted an absurd slash line of .431/.531/.784 and accumulated more walks (11) than strikeouts (eight).
Talent was never an issue, but production had become one in Kansas City's infield.
This spring, that changed in a big way.
Disappointment: Pitching Injuries
Jarrod Parker. Brandon Beachy. Kris Medlen. Bruce Rondon.
One by one, pitchers—from veterans attempting comebacks to key rotation cogs on contending teams—dropped like flies, often the result of torn-up elbows in need of major reconstruction, also known as Tommy John surgery.
As Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe looked for answers, he reached out to Hall of Fame lefty Tom Glavine. The durable, sturdy winner thinks abuse is the reason for the recent injury epidemic.
“I think pitchers are getting abused at a younger age,” Glavine said. “Most of them are max-effort guys, so it reaches the point where the stress finally causes a breaking point.”
We all search for answers, but that doesn't stop a disturbing trend: The more teams seek methods to protect pitching, the further they seem to get from generating results.
Regardless of why elbows are rupturing, it's bad for the game and disappointing for baseball.
Surprise: Michael Pineda, New York Yankees
Three years ago, Michael Pineda was the toast of baseball in Seattle and poised to reprise his role as an American League All-Star for years. With a 97 mph fastball and diving slider, the sky was the limit for the then-22-year-old rookie.
In baseball, three years is a long time. For Pineda, the winding path from phenom to bust to injury-prone former star to spring sensation has likely felt even longer.
After dominating the Grapefruit League (15.0 IP, 1.20 ERA, 16 SO, 1 BB), the Yankees named Pineda their fifth starter for the upcoming regular season, per Bryan Hoch of MLB.com.
With big league success under his belt, the idea of a healthy Pineda generating outs isn't surprising. Yet, when factoring in two lost seasons due to complications from shoulder injuries and surgery, the level of dominance becomes staggering.
The road back has made Pineda grateful just to make the rotation, per Wallace Matthews of ESPNNewYork.com.
“I'm so happy, so happy today," Pineda said. "I feel as excited as I did when I was a rookie with Seattle in 2011, and I was so happy because I was playing in the major leagues. The same thing today. This is a big day for me."
For a Yankees team in need of quality innings from the rotation, the surprise was overwhelmingly positive.
Disappointment: Tyler Skaggs, Los Angeles Angels
In 2013, the road to disappointment in Los Angeles started and ended with starting pitching depth.
While the struggles of Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton created talking points, the Angels missed out on a chance to compete for a postseason berth when injuries and ineffectiveness forced them to give 64 combined starts to a group that included Jerome Williams, Joe Blanton, Tommy Hanson, Michael Roth, Billy Buckner, Barry Enright and Matt Shoemaker.
With an eye on improving the rotation, Los Angeles shipped away slugger Mark Trumbo in an offseason deal that netted starting pitchers Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs.
If spring training results are any indication of the kind of season ahead for Skaggs, the Angels might want to reconsider their investment.
Across 20 innings of Cactus League play, the 22-year-old pitched to a 4.95 ERA, walked 10 batters and posted a meager 1.30 SO/BB mark.
If those numbers don't improve mightily in the regular season, Skaggs won't be the improvement necessary in Los Angeles.
Surprise: Marlins Pitching
In baseball, the quickest way to contention is through dominant starting pitching. For the Miami Marlins, that could mean big things in 2014 and beyond.
While acknowledging that spring results aren't a lock to carry over into the regular season, it's time to take notice of what Marlins pitchers did this spring. A quick look at the numbers, per MLB.com, tells a surprising tale: Miami has shutdown arms.
As a team, Miami ranks fifth in ERA (3.52) and strikeouts (225), fourth in WHIP (1.24), third in opponents' OPS (.653) and tied for seventh in fewest home runs allowed (18).
Led by Jose Fernandez, baseball fans knew the Marlins had an ace. Now, after a spring of excellence, names like Henderson Alvarez, Nate Eovaldi and Jacob Turner are poised to become well known in pitching circles.
Due to run-suppressing ability, ESPN's Jerry Crasnick sees sleeper potential in this team. Per Crasnick's column:
Put it all together, and it's no wonder talent evaluators, writers, opponents, front-office people and the Miami players think this team has dark-horse/sleeper potential. Although the Marlins are probably a year from playoff contention, they can take heart in the examples set by the 2012 Baltimore Orioles, 2013 Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals and other recent clubs that made a pronounced jump in the standings ahead of expectations.
Expecting a postseason berth for this team in 2014 is a fool's errand, but the sky is the limit if that 3.52 ERA carries over into April and beyond.
Disappointment: Ryan Howard, Philadelphia Phillies
When spring training began, Phillies slugger Ryan Howard was confident in his ability to prove doubters wrong, reclaim his status as a 40-plus-home-run hitter and conquer his career-long inability to hit left-handed pitching.
During a media question-and-answer session in Clearwater, Fla., on the eve of workouts in February, Howard gave Phillies fans this quote to dream on, per Ryan Lawrence of the Philadelphia Daily News.
You can’t doubt yourself. If I doubt myself, no one else will believe. I’m more than capable of hitting 58 home runs. I believe it every year. It’s just a matter of going out there and letting the game come to me, do what i do, and 58, whatever. I remember after hitting that people were like, ‘hit 70.’ You never know what might happen.
In 61 Grapefruit League at-bats, Howard hit three home runs. If the 34-year-old first baseman brings that type of power profile into 600 regular-season at-bats, 40 home runs won't happen. Soon, the ridiculous notion of 58-plus bombs from the former MVP will become an unrealistic goal.
Furthermore, Howard struck out a whopping 24 times in just 67 plate appearances. Even if his legs and power are still intact after years of injuries, that type of contact rate won't allow him to put enough balls in play to have a productive season.
On a positive note, Howard is healthy for the start of the season. Unfortunately, performance and health haven't gone together this spring.
What are your biggest surprises and disappointments of spring training?