MLB Spring Training 2015: Ranking the Most Alarming Superstar Performances

Luke Strickland@LSTRICK21Contributor IIIMarch 23, 2015

MLB Spring Training 2015: Ranking the Most Alarming Superstar Performances

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Mr. Commissioner, enough with the pace-of-play rules. For your next move as the face of MLB, can you make players wear a sign around their neck during spring training that says "WARNING: ALL STATS SHOULD BE TAKEN IN CONTEXT"?

    I joke, but it's easy to get wrapped up in meaningless spring statistics. Too often does a player look overmatched in the preseason, only to go on to produce at an All-Star level. Maybe it's the need to analyze any little thing after a long, cold winter, but it's a bad habit that every baseball fan takes part in. 

    With that being said, we can still draw conclusions from the exhibition period in a few instances. 

    Players like Brandon Phillips and Jacoby Ellsbury have struggled this spring and have shown signs of regression in recent seasons. Others, like Pablo Sandoval, have weight issues to battle, and guys like Matt Wieters and Ryan Braun have their own problems to overcome. 

    We'll rank the most alarming superstar performances of this spring over the next few slides. Ugly numbers are probably involved, but a variety of other elements could also be cause for concern regarding a player's future in 2015. 

    Let's start with the honorable mentions. 

Honorable Mentions

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    Brian Blanco/Getty Images
    • Anthony Rizzo
    • Carlos Beltran
    • Manny Machado
    • Billy Hamilton 
    • Yasmani Grandal
    • Aramis Ramirez 

No. 10: Yordano Ventura

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    Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

    Spring Woes

    7 IP, 15 H, 8 ER, .429 average, 9 K, 4 BB

    Why the Royals Should Be Worried

    Yordano Ventura became a star with a stellar stretch in October during the 2014 MLB Playoffs. 

    Or, at least, it seemed so. 

    In reality, the right-hander may have benefited from some good fortune. In his four postseason starts, Ventura posted a 3.20 ERA and became the top Kansas City starter in the Royals' run to the World Series. But the 23-year-old struck out just under five per nine innings, and his 4.63 FIP indicates he likely overachieved last fall. 

    With James Shields gone, the defending American League champions will be relying heavily on Ventura's continued development this season. He throws hard, but his elite velocity isn't missing many bats this spring, as evidenced by the .429 mark opponents are hitting against him. 

    Ventura's still maturing into the pitcher he figures to be, and his inclusion on this list shouldn't be viewed as an indictment on the future of his career. But with Shields' absence at the front of the rotation, Ventura will need to be an ace immediately. Any sort of struggles in 2015 could crush Kansas City's hope of returning to the postseason. 

No. 9: Dexter Fowler

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Spring Woes

    5-for-24, 2 2B, 2 RBI, 5 BB, 3 K

    Why the Cubs Should Be Worried

    The Chicago Cubs traded two expendable major league pieces for an immediate outfield upgrade in Dexter Fowler this past winter. 

    The 29-year-old is coming off a season in which he posted a 124 wRC+ mark, albeit in 116 games. He also recorded solid on-base numbers, despite striking out over 20 percent of the time. 

    There's no reason to think that Fowler can't replicate his career slash line of .271/.366/.419 in Chicago. His spring numbers haven't exactly left the best first impression with his new club, but it's way too early to jump to conclusions about Fowler's projected offensive production. 

    The problem with Fowler is that any drop-off at the dish greatly diminishes his overall value. In his playing time in center field with the Houston Astros last season, Fowler was 20 runs below the league average in Defensive Runs Saved and posted the lowest Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games out of all qualified center fielders

    Despite the raw ability to seemingly be a solid defensive center fielder, Fowler is actually one of the worst in the big leagues. As Neil Weinberg of FanGraphs puts it, "Fowler is an important reminder that being a good athlete doesn't guarantee that you'll save a lot of runs in the outfield." 

    So yeah, Fowler is a definite upgrade for the Cubbies. That's not debatable. But any dip in form at the plate, like in the at-bats we've seen this spring, will make him a shell of the player the Cubs dealt for. 

No. 8: Jacoby Ellsbury

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Spring Woes

    6-for-27, 2 R, 0 BB, 2 K, 0 SB

    Why the Yankees Should Be Worried

    Jacoby Ellsbury's first season of his seven-year, $153 million contract was a decent-enough campaign that saw the injury-prone outfielder play in 149 games for the New York Yankees. Ellsbury hit .271 with 16 homers and 70 RBI in his first year in the Bronx, stealing 39 bases and scoring 71 runs to boot. 

    But when you dig deeper past those stats, there are signs that the 31-year-old outfielder may be heading toward a decline in production. 

    Ellsbury finished 2014 with a batting average 20 points lower than his career average and with a sharp drop in his ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio. He also struck out more than he ever had in his big league career, while also posting the lowest on-base percentage in a full season of his career. 

    His incredible 2011 campaign feels like ages ago, and Ellsbury just isn't that offensive juggernaut anymore.

    He spent a majority of the time hitting third in an aging New York lineup last season, which may have affected his approach at the dish. A move to the Yankees normally requires an adjustment period, but it's not like Ellsbury isn't used to intense scrutiny after spending most of his career in Boston. 

    He's shown he can't be relied upon to stay healthy, he's on the wrong side of 30, his game has always been predicated on his legs and he's still owed a boatload of cash. His 2014 season wasn't horrible, but it might have been the first indication that Ellsbury's skills are beginning to deteriorate. 

No. 7: Pablo Sandoval

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Spring Woes

    5-of-27, 1 2B, 1 HR, 2 RBI, .214 OBP

    Why the Red Sox Should Be Worried

    Five years and $95 million doesn't sound like too hefty of a price tag for a career .294 hitter with more than 100 career homers and a lifetime 122 wRC+.

    But Pablo Sandoval hasn't shown that same offensive thump this spring, hitting under .200 in his first 27 at-bats. It may only be spring, but his lack of production and his weight have become hot preseason topics over the first few weeks. 

    His weight will always be something that Sandoval needs to address, but the precedent for bigger hitters producing at a high level as they age isn't favorable for the 28-year-old. As Eno Sarris at FanGraphs mentions with a pretty cool graph, larger players begin their decline much sooner than normal players in terms of runs above average. 

    He also failed to produce from the right side last season, hitting just .199 as a righty as opposed to over .300 as a lefty. Being a switch-hitter obviously gives Sandoval increased value, but his splits as a right-hander are definitely cause for concern.

    His body works for him, but extra weight for a player who has battled injuries throughout his career can't be a positive. Sandoval has been a valuable commodity when healthy, but to act like there aren't risks associated with his game would be foolish. 

No. 6: Edinson Volquez

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Spring Woes

    8.1 IP, 16 H, 9 ER, 4 K, .410 AVG 

    Why the Royals Should Be Worried

    Sorry, Kansas City fans, but your starting rotation has serious question marks headed into the 2015 season. 

    The Royals signed Edinson Volquez to a two-year, $20 million contract this season in hopes that the 31-year-old vet would soften some of the blow felt by the departure of James Shields. 

    Volquez cashed out due to one of the best seasons of his career in 2014. He posted a 3.04 ERA and won 13 games for the Pittsburgh Pirates, all while logging over 190 innings for the Buccos. 

    But like many of the players on this list, Volquez's deeper stats prove he could be headed for a reality check. His FIP and xFIP were both above 4.00, and he saw his strikeout percentage continue to drop. The right-hander also enjoyed the lowest BABIP of his career, which aided his deceiving ERA. 

    He's been shelled this spring, and it's not far-fetched to believe Volquez will return to his less-glamorous career norms with an American League club. If he can't provide the Royals with quality production, it will be a stretch for Kansas City to return to the postseason in the season ahead. 

No. 5: Shin-Soo Choo

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    Rob Tringali/Getty Images

    Spring Woes

    4-for-18, 2 R, 2 RBI, 1 BB, 4 K, .263 OBP

    Why the Rangers Should Be Worried

    Shin-Soo Choo put together a monster campaign with the Cincinnati Reds in 2013.

    The outfielder hit .285 with a .423 OBP, while also going deep 20 times and scoring over 100 runs. He ended the season with the ninth-highest wRC+ in the league, which is normally a pretty good indicator of a player's overall offensive impact. 

    Choo used those numbers to coax a seven-year, $130 million contract out of the Texas Rangers before the 2014 season, only to flop in his first year with the club. Choo played in only 123 games, suffering through a near 100-point drop in his OBP. 

    Why did Choo struggle so much last season? After his elite production in 2013, Choo saw significant changes in his walk and strikeout rates. He was still a league-average outfielder in a horrid season, but teams don't shell out $130 million for mediocre. 

    An argument can be made that Choo's injuries were the reason behind his huge drop in production, and a healthy 2015 will see the 32-year-old return to his customary production. But he's already missed time this spring with a triceps injury, which is a bad break for a player hoping for a bounce-back season. 

No. 4: Justin Verlander

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    Spring Woes

    9 IP, 7 H, 4 ER, 3 BB, 6 K

    Why the Tigers Should Be Worried

    Wait a second. Justin Verlander's spring stats are actually pretty good, right? 

    Definitely. Verlander has gotten off to a fine start this spring, but his velocity continues to remain an interesting development for the Detroit Tigers. 

    In a recent Verlander start, Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press reported that the Tigers actually had the stadium's radar gun turned off. Fenech went on to say that Verlander's velocity was fine that day, but it just goes to show that both the Tigers and Verlander are well aware of his declining pitch speeds. 

    And they should be.

    Verlander recorded the lowest strikeout-to-walk ratio of his career in 2014 and saw massive hikes in his ERA and FIP. Jeff Sulivan at FanGraphs mentioned all the way back in May of last season how we were witnessing a huge drop in Verlander's pitches over 95 mph. That dip in velocity rendered his normally deadly off-speed offerings ineffective, which led to a subpar campaign. 

    Verlander isn't the first pitcher to lose a tick off his heater as he ages, and he won't be the last. But he will need to adapt with a less intimidating repertoire in order to provide the Tigers with the necessary production for the club to be successful. 

    With Max Scherzer gone, Verlander's ability to bounce back this season makes him one of the most important players in the AL. 

No. 3: Brandon Phillips

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    Rich Pilling/Getty Images

    Spring Woes

    6-for-28, 4 R, 4 2B, 1 RBI, 5 K, .313 OBP

    Why the Reds Should Be Worried

    Brandon Phillips is a well-known player in today's MLB, but his poor spring training is just the latest sign that the second baseman is not the player he once was. 

    The 33-year-old rarely missed extended periods of time from 2006-2013, but he only managed to suit up 121 times last season. In those games, Phillips posted a modest .266 batting average and a horrid OBP dipping near .300. 

    In his prime, Phillips was a 20-20 threat every season. But he's begun to run much less as he's aged, and there's been no change in his swing-at-everything aggressiveness at the plate. He puts the ball in play enough to where his lack of walks isn't a huge deal, but being more patient would benefit his game as he gets older. 

    Phillips is still a sound defender, but he's probably not as good as his four Gold Gloves would indicate. He's always in the positives in Defensive Runs Saved, but you have to scan down the list to find his name in any of the last few seasons. 

    On the other side of 30, Phillips is what he is. He's an average, contact-driven second baseman with average defensive skills. He's enjoyed a fantastic career, but relying on Phillips to be the focal point of the offense at this point in his career would be asking too much. 

No. 2: Ryan Braun

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Spring Woes

    2-for-15, 1 HR, 1 RBI, 5 BB, 5 K

    Why the Brewers Should Be Worried

    Ryan Braun's public image took a massive hit during his performance-enhancing drug scandal, and you have to believe it affected his play during the 2014 season. 

    After a reign of terrorizing National League pitchers, the outfielder suffered through one of the worst seasons of his career. Braun's 19 homers and 81 RBI would be solid seasons for plenty of other major leaguers, but for him those numbers classify as a wasted year. 

    He battled a thumb injury for most of last season, which obviously hindered his ability to drive the ball like in years past. Braun's BABIP fell 30 points below his career average, and his isolated power rating fell below .200 for the first time since 2010. 

    Braun's psyche is the more worrying issue here. In his prime, he was a beloved figure and a respected superstar in the league. After butchering the handling of his PED case, Braun has been heavily booed in away ballparks and has yet to regain any of his past adoration.

    There's no way to equate that change in perception into a statistic, but it has to wear on the former NL MVP. He'll be 31 when the season starts, and he's approaching the age when players begin to see declines in their production anyway. It'll take some time for Braun to accept his role as the villain, but he doesn't have to many years of his prime left to waste. 

    With the Braun of old, the Brewers can compete in the NL Central. But he hasn't been that player in over a year, and it's trickled into March. 

No. 1: Matt Wieters

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Spring Woes

    0-for-23, 4 K, 1 BB

    Why the Orioles Should Be Worried

    Matt Wieters was hitless in his first 23 at-bats of the spring, but his biggest disappointment remains the health of his throwing elbow. 

    After requiring Tommy John surgery last season, the Baltimore backstop was shut down this week due to elbow tendinitis after catching his first game since last May. Wieters only exerted himself with one in-game throw, but soreness following the game was enough for the O's to halt his comeback. 

    Now, according to Rich Dubroff of CSN Baltimore, the Orioles are saying that Wieters is "unlikely" to start the season in the big leagues.

    The 28-year-old played in only 26 games last season, but the Baltimore offense chugged along without him. The O's led the league in homers, winning the AL East behind a dangerous lineup. 

    But with Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis elsewhere, the O's desperately needed productive returns from both Wieters and Manny Machado. With the former now sidelined with a lingering issue, Baltimore's lineup lacks one of its proven middle-of-the-order bats that it will need to repeat in a competitive division. 

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