Biggest Surprises, Disappointments at 2017 Spring Training Halfway Point
It's often said that what happens during spring training doesn't matter. And that's sometimes true.
Yet it still has the power to surprise. And to disappoint.
For instance, spring training is the time of year when scrubs from the minor leagues play like some of Major League Baseball's biggest stars. It's also a time when supposedly bad teams look good. The inverse of these things can also happen, of course.
Then there are the injuries. Those can put a damper not just on the spring, but on the regular season as well.
On this note, let's take a look at 15 of the biggest surprises (eight of those) and disappointments (seven) from the 2017 spring season so far.
Disappointment: David Price's Elbow Shows Its Mortality
The Boston Red Sox's $217 million ace was set to make his spring debut in early March, but then felt soreness in his left arm. Although he doesn't need Tommy John surgery, he's not out of the woods yet.
"We really won't have any kind of idea until he gets on the mound the first time," said Farrell, "and right now, I don't know when that's going to be."
Believing that the Red Sox are a World Series favorite goes hand-in-hand with believing they have one of the league's best starting rotations. For that, they need Price to get healthy.
Surprise: Pablo Sandoval Is Looking Pretty Good (And Also Playing Well)
And now for a statement straight from bizarro Boston: At least the Red Sox have Pablo Sandoval.
One storyline that kept popping up throughout the winter was the good shape of Kung Fu Panda. Encouraging, to be sure. But best taken with a grain of salt.
Sandoval was supposed to be in looking good last spring but showed up out of shape. Then the former All-Star and World Series MVP lost his job at third base. Then he played in just three regular-season games before having season-ending shoulder surgery.
However, the Red Sox are not in the process of being fooled twice. Sandoval actually arrived ready and has played well. He's hit .333 with an .833 OPS in 10 games and has looked good in the field to boot.
"He's like a new person," left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez told Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal. "He looks way more comfortable. He's playing like a little kid."
Disappointment: The Beginning of the End for David Wright?
As one veteran third baseman makes his way back, another appears to be on his way out.
David Wright's career took a turn for the worse long before he reported to New York Mets camp for 2017. Spinal stenosis and a herniated disc in his neck limited the seven-time All-Star to just 75 games in 2015 and 2016.
At present, [Wright] cannot throw without pain and has not put a timetable on his return. His career, again, is in jeopardy; though he is under contract with the Mets until 2020, it is hard to imagine him ever rehabilitating himself to the point that he can reassume the responsibilities of an everyday third baseman.
This would sound bad even for a younger man. It sounds worse for a 34-year-old. If it hadn't already, the beginning of the end has come for Wright.
Surprise: No Ill Effects for Greg Bird
Speaking of shoulders attached to New York baseball stars, this one's doing a lot better.
Looking at how Greg Bird is performing at New York Yankees camp, you'd never know he missed 2016 following right shoulder surgery. The 24-year-old first baseman has blasted three homers and put up a 1.403 OPS.
Although this is in line with the impressive numbers Bird put up in 2015, it's still worth a sigh of relief. Other power hitters have been slow to recover from lead shoulder injuries (he throws lefty, bats righty). There's also the whole year-off-from-baseball thing.
Except, that was actually a blessing in disguise for Bird.
"I told my mom that the other day, I said, 'I didn't play at all, and everybody talks about at-bats, but I feel better than I was before. Physically and mentally,'" he told Kevin Kernan of the New York Post.
And Bird's not the only Yankee who's looking good...
Surprise: Whoa, the Yankees Look Pretty Good
After the Yankees failed to contend last season, 2017 was supposed to be another year wherein they took a break from the top of the standings.
But, here they are with a 13-5 record this spring. And seemingly everything is going their way.
Besides Bird, Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge, Gleyber Torres, Billy McKinney and Kyle Higashioka are young guys who are hitting. New addition Matt Holliday is also hitting. Jacoby Ellsbury is having a nice spring after a rough 2016.
Meanwhile on the mound, the Yankees have the fifth-best ERA of the spring at 3.72. Masahiro Tanaka has been untouchable, whiffing 13 and walking none in three outings. The vaunted bullpen trio of Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances and Tyler Clippard has yet to be scored on.
What does it mean? As an indicator of how good the 2017 Yankees will be—probably nothing. But it's an affirmation of something that, despite the low expectations, has been true all along: There's hope.
Disappointment: The Tigers Aren't Inspiring Much Confidence
The opposite of the Yankees would be a supposedly strong veteran team that's having a terrible spring. Like the Texas Rangers. Or, even better, the Detroit Tigers.
The Tigers are tied with the Rangers for the league-worst record in exhibition games at 5-12. And it somehow looks worse than that.
The biggest questions are on the mound, where the Tigers have a 6.04 ERA this spring. Anibal Sanchez, Mike Pelfrey and Mark Lowe are not trending upward after rotten 2016 seasons. And the depth beneath them leaves much to be desired.
On the other side of the ball, center field is as big a question now as it was entering camp. Tyler Collins has been hurt for much of the spring. Neither Mikie Mahtook nor Anthony Gose have hit.
The Tigers still have enough talent in the right places to shake this off. But considering that they're projected to chase the Cleveland Indians in the AL Central, they're not exactly raising expectations.
Disappointment: Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar Will Be Fine...Right?
Even after their World Series run last year, it's easy to expect even bigger things from the Indians in 2017.
But that depends largely on two pitchers who were absent last October: Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar. This spring is raising red flags in their neck of the woods.
Carrasco has a 15.75 ERA through four starts, allowing more earned runs (14) and home runs (five) than any other pitcher. And according to Paul Hoynes of Cleveland.com, now the right-hander's elbow is swelling up.
Meanwhile, Salazar is doing better with a 2.61 ERA through four appearances. But he's also walked nine batters in 10.1 innings. Coming on the heels of his control problems in 2016, that's not a good look.
Granted, the Indians didn't need Carrasco or Salazar to make it to the World Series last year. But before they can worry about doing that again, they need to get through the regular season. Carrasco and Salazar will be essential for that.
Disappointment: The Rockies Are Crumbling
At least the Tigers and Indians haven't broken down like the Colorado Rockies have.
Thanks to their stacked lineup and solid pitching, the Rockies were a trendy pick for a National League playoff spot at the start of camp. Now, less so.
Left fielder David Dahl, one of the club's top young hitters, is out with a rib cage injury. Tom Murphy, one of the club's top prospects, has a broken arm. Two-time All-Star Ian Desmond, who was signed for $70 million to play first base, is sidelined with a broken hand.
Most upsetting of all is the status of right-hander Chad Bettis. He seemed to be in the clear following a bout with testicular cancer. It turns out he's not, and he is now undergoing chemotherapy.
The Rockies have been dealt a raw deal. They're still a quality team, but it'll be tough to compete with the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants in the NL West without all hands on deck.
Surprise: Yasiel Puig's New Groove
Elsewhere in the NL West, a fallen star is rising again.
Following two injury-marred and unproductive seasons in 2015 and 2016, Yasiel Puig is opening eyes at Dodgers camp with a 1.025 OPS and three homers through 10 games.
The right fielder picked a good time to start finding his groove again. The Dodgers seem to be running out of patience with him and also have plenty of alternative outfielders in case he disappoints again.
Puig is staving off concerns for now in large part thanks to a new look.
He's changed his batting stance, going from closed to a more open one. This is the right idea. His old stance lengthened his swing, and it was no secret that it made him vulnerable against fastballs.
However, not all swing changes are working so well this spring...
Disappointment: Jason Heyward Has a New Swing, Same Results
Jason Heyward's swing didn't work in 2016, producing a career-low .631 OPS. So, he fixed it.
Or, so everyone was told.
The remaking of Heyward's swing was a big storyline over the winter. At one point, the Chicago Cubs right fielder told reporters he was going for the same swing he had in his career-best season in 2012.
That was enough to get the excitement glands going. But so far this spring, Heyward's bat has done little to keep them going. He's hitting .138 with a .553 OPS through 11 games.
This doesn't necessarily mean his revamped swing is a lost cause. It's one thing to get used to adjusted hitting mechanics in the cage or taking batting practice. It's another thing to actually put them to use in games. He could be working out the kinks.
The Cubs better hope so. Because the alternative isn't a happy thought.
Surprise: Bombs Away from Brock Stassi
Anyone who looks at the top of the spring home run leaderboard might be wondering who Brock Stassi is.
The Philadelphia Phillies farmhand is certainly making a name for himself, launching five homers with a 1.486 OPS. But you can be forgiven if you'd never heard of him before this spring.
When the Phillies drafted Stassi in the 33rd round of the 2011 draft, the first thing Baseball America mentioned was that he had a brother (Max) who was already in the minors. He might as well have been called a non-prospect right off the bat.
That's beginning to change. Stassi won the Eastern League MVP with an .863 OPS and 15 homers for Double-A Reading in 2015. He's continued to hit since then, culminating with his current spring performance.
At 27 years old, Stassi is no spring chicken. But he picked a good time to start finding himself. With the Phillies still emerging from their rebuild, there could be an opportunity for him in Philadelphia.
Surprise: Jabari Blash Blasts Off
Look next to Stassi on the home run leaderboard, and you'll see another unusual suspect: Jabari Blash. He also has five home runs and a 1.484 OPS to boot.
Although Blash is the same age as Stassi, he hasn't followed quite the same career path. He was an eighth-round pick of the Seattle Mariners in 2010 and was counted among the club's better prospects by Baseball America each year between 2011 and 2015.
Blash has power and speed, but strikeouts have long been his vice. Never more so than when he debuted in the majors last year and whiffed in 40.5 percent of his plate appearances.
But as Jeff Sanders covered at the San Diego Union-Tribune, Blash is experimenting with different hitting mechanics. They're having the desired effect. He has almost as many walks (six) as strikeouts (seven).
More so than the power, that could be his ticket to a roster spot.
Surprise: Taijuan Walker Is Back on the Breakout Radar
The chance the Arizona Diamondbacks took on Taijuan Walker is already starting to pay off.
The young right-hander has yet to run into trouble in his first three starts. He's pitched a total of nine innings, struck out 13, walked one and allowed three hits.
This is quite the turnaround from Walker's 2015 and 2016 seasons with the Mariners, when he had a 4.41 ERA in 54 starts. It's also his showing a good recovery from offseason ankle surgery.
The caveat is that Walker has done this before. He dominated with an 0.67 ERA in the spring of 2015. It looked then like he was ready to live up to his billing as one of baseball's best young pitchers. He didn't.
However, you never know what a change of scenery can do for a guy. And Walker is still only 24 years old with a healthy arm. The Diamondbacks have every reason to be optimistic.
Surprise: Sal Romano Continues His Rise for the Reds
If Walker is the spring's brand-name breakout candidate for pitchers, Sal Romano is the off-brand candidate.
The Cincinnati Reds right-hander leads all pitchers with 16 strikeouts this spring. He also has a 1.69 ERA and has allowed only eight hits in 10.2 innings.
Romano has been around since 2011, when the Reds picked him in the 23rd round. He has the build of a power pitcher at 6'5" and 270 pounds and has always had the velocity to go with it. But with a 4.38 career ERA in the minors, his results have been mixed.
That started to change last year when Romano finished with a 2.14 ERA in his final 10 starts for Double-A Pensacola. He earned a spot among Cincinnati's top 10 prospects for Baseball America. C. Trent Rosecrans and Zach Buchanan of the Cincinnati Enquirer reported on how impressed the team is with him now.
Meanwhile, it's a darn shame about another young arm in the NL Central...
Disappointment: Alex Reyes Goes Down
One of the spring's biggest disappointments is Alex Reyes, who will not be seen in 2017.
The St. Louis Cardinals got the bad news on Reyes on just the second day of camp. After a sudden MRI on his right arm revealed a torn ulnar collateral ligament, he underwent Tommy John surgery.
Like that, perhaps the biggest breakout candidate for 2017 was lost for the season.
Reyes left no doubt about his talent when he debuted in the majors last year. He made it in 12 games and posted a 1.57 ERA with 52 strikeouts in 46 innings. Among his weapons were a high-velocity fastball and a hammer curveball.
As executives polled by MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo saw it, Reyes was the best pitching prospect in baseball going into 2017. Baseball Prospectus did them one better, rating Reyes as the best prospect, period.
He'll be back. But it's too bad that there's now a wait.