MLB Faces in New Places Who'll Have Biggest Spring Impact
While we typically have to wait for at least part of the regular season to play out in order to truly understand what, if any, impact a new face will actually have on his new team, the work begins in earnest during spring training.
It matters not if it's a coach, a manager or a player, for the groundwork that's laid during the exhibition season goes a long way toward dictating whether that impact will ultimately be felt (and viewed) as a positive or negative one.
Among the multitudes of people who changed uniforms this winter, five stand out above the rest as those who will have the biggest spring impacts. Let's meet them, shall we?
Kevin Long, Hitting Coach, New York Mets
It didn't take long for Kevin Long to find new work, landing with the New York Mets only two weeks after being fired by the crosstown New York Yankees, and his impact was felt at the team's spring training complex before players were even required to report to camp.
Just ask outfielder Brandon Nimmo, named the team's third-best prospect by Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and Bleacher Report's Mike Rosenbaum who has been working on his setup at the plate with Long at the team's spring training facility since the Arizona Fall League ended in late November.
“You could see the change right away, a lot more power was showing up and that’s exciting for me," Nimmo told the New York Post's Kevin Kernan. "I try to hold my finish a little bit so I can see where my foot is and that’s what I've been working on here."
Now, it's true that the impact of a coach—particularly a hitting coach—has been overstated at times. There's no guarantee that when the season begins, Nimmo doesn't revert to his prior form—or that the improvement he's seen in the cage will translate into success during a game.
But Nimmo believes that it will, and there's value in that. The impact that a hitting coach can have on the mental aspect of a player's approach at the plate can sometimes be far more valuable than any tweaks he could make mechanically.
Long believes that a few minor mechanical adjustments could see a jump in Curtis Granderson's production, as he explained to MLB.com's Paul Casella in November, and he spent time with a multitude of players during the winter, including Lucas Duda and David Wright, to get a jump-start on the season.
We won't be able to truly judge Long's impact on the Mets until the regular season is well underway, but considering how potentially filthy their starting rotation could be, even a slight uptick in the team's offensive production could deliver a massive payoff—the team's first playoff appearance since 2006.
Joe Maddon, Manager, Chicago Cubs
Just like we do with a hitting coach or a pitching coach, we sometimes overstate the impact that a manager has on a team. When it comes to Joe Maddon joining the Chicago Cubs, however, that's simply not the case.
First and foremost, Maddon's arrival signals the end of the team's rebuilding process. That's not to say that team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer don't still have plenty of work to do—they most certainly do—but Maddon didn't sign on to helm a team that's going to lose more often than it wins.
He could have stayed in Tampa Bay to experience that.
While he's perhaps better than any other manager in the game when it comes to dealing with and developing young players at the major league level, Maddon is also far more demanding on what he expects from those under his watchful eye than his predecessors, Dale Sveum and Rick Renteria, were.
That alone will have a major impact on the team in spring training, as he explained to a fan at the team's recent Cubs Convention last month, as the Chicago Tribune's Mark Gonzales reports:
We talk about young players, and we're really excited about them. You should be.
But there is also the accountability factor. I do not like the entitlement program whatsoever. It's a tough place to earn a living, the major leagues. It's not that easy. Those who hold themselves to a high level (of accountability) are going to be as good as advertised.
As I noted earlier this week, that's not going to sit well with everyone in camp.
Chicago's young talent—particularly Albert Almora, Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Jorge Soler—has been hyped and fawned over to the point where you'd think these guys were already established stars. Chances are, they've never been taken to task by a manager before.
If a player can't—or won't—buy into his program, Maddon will find someone who will to take his place, regardless of what the name of the back of his jersey is.
Gentlemen, welcome to the Cubs—Joe Maddon's Cubs. It's like nothing you've ever experienced before.
Russell Martin, Catcher, Toronto Blue Jays
In Quentin Tarantino's classic film Pulp Fiction, there's a scene in which Vincent Vega (played by John Travolta) and Jules Winfield (played by Samuel L. Jackson) are discussing the "little differences" between the United States and Europe.
It's Russell Martin's ability to recognize and act on the little differences between pitchers that not only makes him worth every penny of the five-year, $82 million deal that he signed with Toronto this winter, but will find him making the biggest impact of anyone in Blue Jays camp this spring.
“Some guys are more inclined to respond to fire," Martin told former MLB outfielder Gabe Kapler in a story for Fox Sports last year. "With them, I’ll use some fire. Some guys need a pat on the back. I’ll pat them on the back. There’s all different types of personalities. It’s almost like I’m a psychologist, sometimes.”
While the Blue Jays still have one of the most explosive offenses in baseball, Toronto's success in 2015 and beyond depends on the continued development of four prized young arms—Drew Hutchison, Daniel Norris, Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman.
Nobody will be more responsible for that than Martin, whose former manager in Pittsburgh, Clint Hurdle, likened him to a modern-day Pied Piper in a conversation with ESPN's Jerry Crasnick last September.
"He has the ability to make every pitcher feel like he has an opportunity to be the best he's ever been that day on the mound," Hurdle said. "Three hours before the game, he's dragging out guys who've never kicked a soccer ball in their life. Now they're out there kicking a ball. He's like the Pied Piper."
Perhaps the most hyped of those young arms, Stroman, has already begun to fall in line behind the veteran backstop, as he told the Toronto Sun's Ken Fidlin.
“I’ve been picking his brain already," Stroman said. "He came down to watch my bullpens and I’ve been in contact with him a lot, trying to be around him as much as possible and develop that relationship. He’s had nothing but unbelievable reviews wherever he’s been so I’m excited to work with him.”
It won't be long before Hutchison, Norris and Sanchez are following suit.
Wil Myers, San Diego Padres
Can Wil Myers play center field?
It's the million-dollar question that San Diego must get an answer to this spring, for whether he can or he can't will go a long way toward dictating how the rest of the team's roster is comprised.
Should Myers display enough athleticism and range at the position to hold his own, it would allow general manager A.J. Preller to move one of his excess outfielders—Cameron Maybin or Will Venable—for help elsewhere on the diamond.
To be sure, playing center field at Petco Park is a far different animal than playing center field at the various ballparks he'll find himself in this spring, so even if Myers finds success at the position during exhibition play, it may not necessarily translate to the same level of success during the regular season.
But if he struggles to provide even adequate defense, the Padres are going to have some problems.
Sure, Maybin or Venable could be slotted into center field, which would immediately upgrade a shaky defensive outfield, but neither one offers the kind of upside at the plate that Myers does. And if that's deemed to be a necessary move, where does Myers play?
Matt Kemp and Justin Upton are entrenched in the outfield corners, and San Diego didn't acquire Myers to ride the bench. Without the benefit of a full-time designated hitter, his options are limited.
Realistically, he would have to move to a corner infield spot, and both positions are far from set in stone for the Padres. But he's never played first base and has only 15 minor league games under his belt at third base, where he posted a .938 fielding percentage in 2012.
David Robertson, Closer, Chicago White Sox
For nearly seven years, David Robertson showed up to work everyday knowing that he had a chance to pick the brain of the most dominant force to ever emerge from a major league bullpen, Mariano Rivera.
As he explained to CSN Chicago's Dan Hayes, it was an opportunity that he didn't let pass him by—and one that he hopes to offer his fellow relievers in Chicago.
“When you've got an anchor like that in the bullpen, it’s a lot of help," he said. "It gives a little guidance for the younger guys, people who may not have as much experience. For me, I’m going to try to be as approachable as I can.”
After signing him to a four-year, $46 million deal in early December, the White Sox are counting on Robertson to solidify a bullpen that posted baseball's highest WHIP (1.51) and third-highest ERA (4.38) in 2014 and that has had only three relievers save at least 30 games since D-Rob made his MLB debut in 2008: Bobby Jenks (30 in 2008), Sergio Santos (30 in 2011) and Addison Reed (40 in 2013).
But Robertson understands that in order for him to do his job successfully, those in front of him have to be successful as well. And he's prepared to help the likes of Jake Petricka and Zach Putnam do just that, offering up as much advice as they'll take.
“My biggest thing is you can only control what you can control,” Robertson told Hayes. “You don’t know when you’re going to come into a game. You can’t control that. Just be ready at all times. Have the right mental approach when you get out there and make smart moves. Make the quality pitches. You make a mistake, put it in the back of your mind and go on to the next hitter.”
While everyone expects the team's bullpen to be better, Robertson's ability to impact the younger members of the relief corps this spring will go a long way toward dictating just how much success the group has once the games start to count for real.
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