MLB Spring Training 2017: Ranking the Most Alarming Superstar Performances

Joel ReuterFeatured ColumnistMarch 24, 2017

MLB Spring Training 2017: Ranking the Most Alarming Superstar Performances

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Nothing like the double standard that is spring training performance.

    When a player puts together a huge spring, it's often dismissed as meaningless and by no means a sign of big things to come during the regular season.

    However, when a superstar player struggles during the preseason, everyone wants to know what's wrong, and fans can be quick to panic.

    Let's do some panicking, shall we?

    Ahead we've singled out 15 star-caliber players who have had a rough go of it so far this spring.

    Then we ranked them based on the level of concern that should accompany their early struggles.

    In some cases, a player is dealing with an injury. In others, he's trying to stave off potential regression. And in a few instances, a guy flat-out isn't producing.

    Let's dive right in.

15. 3B Nolan Arenado, Colorado Rockies

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    Spring Stats: 4-for-19, 1 HR, 4 K

    WBC Stats: 5-for-31, 1 2B, 1 HR, 11 K

     

    Outlook

    Nolan Arenado is going to be fine.

    His struggles this spring have just been magnified because they happened on a national stage during the World Baseball Classic.

    The Colorado Rockies' star third baseman struck out 11 times in 33 plate appearances during the tournament, including the dreaded golden sombrero during the semifinal matchup against Japan.

    It's been a stark contrast to his performance last spring when he hit .542 with six home runs.

    That said, this is one of the most dangerous hitters in the game and a guy who has led the NL in home runs and RBI in back-to-back seasons.

    No reason to think this is anything more than an early hiccup.

14. 1B Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Spring Stats: 8-for-41, 2 2B, 10 K

     

    Outlook

    To be fair, Joey Votto didn't explode out of the gates last season either.

    While he hit .455 during spring training, the Cincinnati Reds first baseman scuffled to a .229/.327/.313 line over the first month of the season.

    Struggling didn't suit him.

    "It's not something I'm OK with. I'd rather quit and leave all the money on the table than play at a poor level," Votto told C. Trent Rosecrans of the Cincinnati Enquirer at the beginning of May.

    Things didn't get much better in May, but by the All-Star break, he was hitting .252/.386/.446.

    That was followed by a second half for the ages, as Votto hit a ridiculous .408/.490/.668 after the break, leaving him with good enough overall numbers to finish seventh in NL MVP voting on a 94-loss Reds team.

    He'll be fine.

13. SP Corey Kluber, Cleveland Indians

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Spring Stats: 18.1 IP, 21 H, 11 ER, 5 BB, 22 K

     

    Outlook

    It's always worth keeping an eye on pitchers who make a long postseason run and add significant innings to their season total.

    Corey Kluber falls into that category.

    After tossing 215 innings during the regular season, Kluber added another 34.1 innings during the postseason while going 3-1 with a 1.83 ERA over six starts.

    He's now thrown 707 innings over the past three seasons, a workload that stacks up to anyone in baseball, so it's fair to ask if it's starting to catch up with him.

    Then again, while his overall numbers aren't pretty this spring, he's steadily improved as the preseason has progressed.

    • March 6: 2.1 IP, 8 H, 6 ER, 2 BB, 4 K
    • March 12: 4.0 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 0 BB, 4 K
    • March 17: 5.0 IP, 3 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 6 K
    • March 23: 7.0 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 8 K

    No reason to panic—just some early rust.

12. SP Zack Greinke, Arizona Diamondbacks

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Spring Stats: 6.2 IP, 7 H, 3 ER, 3 BB, 5 K

     

    Outlook

    It's nothing new for pitchers to deal with diminished velocity or a case of dead arm during spring training.

    However, when that pitcher is looking to return to ace form after a disappointing first season of a six-year, $206.5 million deal, it's going to make headlines.

    Zack Greinke wrapped up his first season with the Arizona Diamondbacks at 13-7 with a 4.37 ERA, 1.27 WHIP and 134 strikeouts in 158.2 innings of work.

    The 33-year-old has spent a good chunk of the spring struggling to hit 90 mph on the radar gun.

    He felt good about his latest outing against the Chicago Cubs on Thursday, though.

    "It was going a little slow early on, but I felt pretty strong out there today," Greinke told reporters. "Made a couple mistakes, but it was definitely the highest percentage of executed pitches so far. Then I felt pretty good, throughout the most part."

    Added manager Torey Lovullo: "He had some great sequences, he was finishing off some hitters and the depth of his breaking ball was quality—he threw some quality changeups. So I thought overall, it was a very positive outing for Zack."

    Sounds like things are headed in the right direction as Opening Day approaches.

11. 3B Todd Frazier, Chicago White Sox

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Spring Stats: 5-for-25, 2 2B, 5 K

     

    Outlook

    This one is as much about the team as it is about the player.

    Todd Frazier appears as safe a bet as anyone to be traded during the upcoming season as he enters his final year of team control with a clearly rebuilding Chicago White Sox team.

    The 31-year-old slugged 40 home runs in his first season on the South Side, but it was accompanied by a less-than-stellar .225/.302/.464 line.

    A hot start would go a long way toward rebuilding value and allowing the White Sox to get the maximum return once he is finally dealt.

    Instead, Frazier suffered a strained oblique on Feb. 20 that cost him a few weeks, and he's seemingly been playing catch-up ever since.

    There are no lingering health concerns at this point, but his slow spring performance is still troubling for a team that's looking to flip him this summer.

10. RF Jason Heyward, Chicago Cubs

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Spring Stats: 5-for-40, 2 2B, 1 HR, 10 K

     

    Outlook

    So about that retooled swing...

    Jason Heyward has been hard at work this offseason rebuilding his swing mechanics from the ground up on the heels of the worst season of his MLB career.

    After signing a massive eight-year, $184 million deal, his OPS plummeted from .797 to .631 in his first season with the Chicago Cubs.

    The results haven't been there so far this spring, and he's approached the final days of camp with a sense of urgency.

    "There's no more time to work on changing the swing or get the swing where it needs to be," Heyward told Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune. "The swing is great. The work in batting practice and the other stuff to drive the ball out of the park or all over the field is great. But to do it at game speed now and find consistency with that, that's the norm. I'd say it's in a good place."

    We'll find out if his busy offseason makes a difference.

9. 3B Josh Donaldson, Toronto Blue Jays

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Spring Stats: 0-for-3, 1 K

     

    Outlook

    Josh Donaldson finally made his Grapefruit League debut Monday as the designated hitter, and Wednesday he played third base for the first time, manning the hot corner for four innings.

    The 2015 AL MVP has been slowed by a strained calf this spring. While he's been getting his swings in on the back fields, running the bases and playing defense was a big step toward being ready for Opening Day.

    "He looked pretty good," bench coach DeMarlo Hale told Paul Hagen of MLB.com after his defensive debut. "He had a good pregame where he had some movement and threw the ball across the diamond. So it's a good sign and a good feeling to see him over there, for sure."

    The Toronto Blue Jays are relying on Donaldson as much as ever to carry the offense with Edwin Encarnacion now playing in Cleveland and Jose Bautista another year older.

    The team has been careful with nursing him back to health this spring, and as long as there are no unexpected setbacks, this shouldn't be a long-term concern.

8. SS Corey Seager, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Spring Stats: No spring stats

     

    Outlook

    Corey Seager has yet to make his Cactus League debut this spring.

    The reigning NL Rookie of the Year tweaked his oblique making an awkward throw March 3 and has been resting up ever since.

    "Dodgers officials insisted that the extended rest afforded Seager, who was initially expected to play in a game last Friday, should not invite alarm," wrote Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times on March 13. "The team still expects him to be ready for Opening Day. Seager, team officials said, is being handled with the sort of care that fits his status as one of the organization's most precious assets."

    Seager served as DH in a minor league game Tuesday and played the field for the first time Thursday, so he's headed in the right direction.

    An oblique injury can be a nagging problem if it's not allowed to fully heal, but it sounds like the Dodgers handled this the right way.

    No major cause for concern here.

7. RP Andrew Miller, Cleveland Indians

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Spring Stats: 4.0 IP, 7 H, 3 ER, 1 BB, 6 K

    WBC Stats: 2.2 IP, 3 H, 4 ER, 1 BB, 5 K

     

    Outlook

    By the time the World Series came to a close last season, Andrew Miller had worked a whopping 93.2 innings out of the bullpen, most of which came in high-leverage situations.

    Anytime a pitcher tacks significant additional innings onto his arm during a deep postseason run, it's possible that workload will catch up to him the following season.

    That made Miller's decision to pitch for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic a questionable one at best, something Bleacher Report's Zachary Rymer explored in January.

    Miller was far from lights-out during the tournament, allowing a pair of home runs and taking the loss against the Dominican Republic.

    Will those struggles carry over to the regular season?

    It's tough to bet against perhaps the most dominant reliever in the game, but it's worth keeping an eye on.

6. SP Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Spring Stats: 4.2 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, 4 K

     

    Outlook

    Max Scherzer has been slowed by a stress fracture in his right ring finger all offseason.

    That didn't stop him from keeping his throwing arm in shape, as Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post explained:

    Max Scherzer threw lacrosse balls and tennis balls this winter so he could pitch a game by March, not May. He used a three-fingered grip for catch and long toss so his injured ring finger could recover, but his arm strength would not suffer. He threw in a minor league game last week because Mike Maddux made him, not because he wanted to, because if Scherzer had his way he would have been pitching in Grapefruit League games long before Wednesday.

    By all accounts, his long-awaited debut against MLB hitters Monday went well.

    However, he won't be ready in time to make a third consecutive Opening Day start for the Washington Nationals.

    "Right now, we've kind of got Max slated as the No. 3 starter," manager Dusty Baker told Janes. "That's better than No. 1 right now. He's No. 3 because that's how his turn worked out with giving him some more time."

    The fact that he's expected to avoid the disabled list is huge, and it looks to be full speed ahead for the reigning NL Cy Young winner.

5. SP Matt Harvey, New York Mets

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    Spring Stats: 12.1 IP, 18 H, 10 ER, 2 BB, 12 K

     

    Outlook

    It's not surprising Matt Harvey has struggled as he works his way back from thoracic outlet surgery.

    His velocity has been down all spring, and he's been hit hard as a result. He's doing more than shaking off offseason rust, though, so it's going to take time for everything to fall into place.

    "I think it's just a matter of time before things click and mechanics click and the timing clicks," Harvey told reporters March 11.

    The results weren't spectacular in his latest start (4.1 IP, 7 H, 3 ER, 0 BB, 4 K).

    There were encouraging signs from a stuff standpoint, though.

    He ramped up his pitch count to 74, and his fastball touched 95 and 96 a few times along the way.

    "Best stuff I've seen so far," manager Terry Collins told the media.

    Harvey is going to have to rely more on command and less on blowing hitters away going forward. That's not always an easy transition, especially for a fairly young pitcher, but it sounds like he's headed in the right direction.

4. SP Rick Porcello, Boston Red Sox

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Spring Stats: 10.0 IP, 16 H, 9 ER, 4 BB, 8 K

     

    Outlook

    Unlike most of the players toward the top of this list, Rick Porcello has not been dealing with an injury of any sort this spring.

    Instead, he's battling an equally imposing threat called regression.

    Here's what Bleacher Report's Jacob Shafer wrote on that very subject earlier this week:

    To recap: Porcello won 22 games and set career bests in innings (223) and ERA (3.15).

    That's all good. Here's what's not: He induced less soft contact than at any point in the last four seasons and yet endured the lowest BABIP against (.269) in his big league career.

    That screams unsustainable luck and suggests Porcello's 2017 is the aberration, as opposed to his lifetime 4.20 ERA.

    Those 16 hits allowed in 10 innings of work this spring look less like something to gloss over and more like a red flag.

    Porcello will get the Opening Day start with David Price on the shelf, so we'll get an early look at him once the regular season begins.

3. RF J.D. Martinez, Detroit Tigers

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    Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

    Spring Stats: 8-for-37, 3 2B, 2 HR, 16 K

     

    Outlook

    It hasn't been a great spring for J.D. Martinez from a performance standpoint.

    The 29-year-old is hitting just .216, and he's struck out at a dizzying 40 percent clip.

    That's not why he's on this list, though.

    He earns a spot after suffering a sprained ligament in his right foot that has left him in a walking boot and put his status for Opening Day in question.

    "The way they explained it to me is, it's in a tricky spot and it's going to be a week-to-week thing," Martinez told reporters. "You think it's fine, then in a week you look at it and it doesn't look fine. It's one of those things you have to monitor from week to week and take pictures of it every other week."

    Martinez will see a specialist and undergo further tests Friday, according to Jason Beck of MLB.com, so we should know a bit more about his status before the weekend is over.

    Any missed time would be inopportune for both the Detroit Tigers and Martinez, who is entering a contract year.

2. SP Sonny Gray, Oakland Athletics

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Spring Stats: 4.0 IP, 6 H, 7 ER, 4 BB, 7 K

     

    Outlook

    Sonny Gray was no doubt eager to get back on the field this spring as he looks to put a disastrous season in the rearview.

    The 27-year-old was a budding superstar at this time a year ago.

    He was fresh off a third-place finish in AL Cy Young voting after going 14-7 with a 2.73 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 169 strikeouts in 208 innings of work and was just entering his prime.

    Instead, a pair of trips to the disabled list limited him to just 22 starts in 2016, and he went 5-11 with a 5.69 ERA and 1.50 WHIP.

    His bid for a bounce-back season was quickly derailed this spring by a lat strain that will land him on the disabled list once again to begin the year.

    There was some good news earlier this week, though, when he was cleared to begin throwing ahead of schedule.

    "Mentally and physically, this is good for him," manager Bob Melvin told Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle. "No real plan, just go day-by-day."

    Still, it's been a rocky start on the comeback trail.

1. SP David Price, Boston Red Sox

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    David Goldman/Associated Press

    Spring Stats: No spring stats

     

    Outlook

    For a short time earlier this offseason, it sounded like the Boston Red Sox might lose ace David Price to Tommy John surgery.

    Instead, he was diagnosed with an elbow strain.

    That was good news relative to the alternative, but it's still a blow to a team that hopes to make a World Series push.

    Price was re-examined by doctors earlier this week, and he still was not cleared to throw, leaving him potentially shelved until at least the beginning of May.

    Michael Silverman of the Boston Herald laid out what lies ahead for Price.

    Considering Price has been reported to do nothing more strenuous with a baseball in his hand other than light tossing, it takes several weeks of gradual and highly regulated intensification of throwing – from 90, 120, 180 feet in the outfield, then bullpen sessions, then strict pitch counts and innings ramp-ups in games – before a starter is deemed ready to return to action.

    This injury has made the offseason addition of Chris Sale that much more crucial to the team's success, and it has to be considered the most concerning superstar takeaway from spring training.