7 Surprises to Watch for in MLB Spring Training

Michael Whitlow@@MAWhitlowFeatured ColumnistFebruary 23, 2016

7 Surprises to Watch for in MLB Spring Training

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    Jose Fernandez is one of baseball's brightest young stars when he's healthy. Can his spring performance kick-start a bounce-back season?
    Jose Fernandez is one of baseball's brightest young stars when he's healthy. Can his spring performance kick-start a bounce-back season?Associated Press

    Before the grind of the 162-game Major League Baseball season begins, fans will get a glimpse of what their team looks like for a month in spring training action.

    Expectations may vary from team to team, but the goal remains the same for all 30 teams. Some of those teams (or individual players) might surprise during the first few weeks of the spring.

    Young stars like the Los Angeles Dodgers’ new shortstop (Corey Seager) and the Chicago Cubs’ biggest superhero (Kyle Schwarber) have a ton of eyes on them entering the 2016 season, while the veteran-laded rotation of the San Francisco Giants has expectations no lower than a fourth World Series title since 2010.

    In the upcoming seven topics of this list, you’ll find everything from a reigning MVP to a .500 team in 2015 looking to compete in a tough division in the American League.

    With that being said, here are seven different players who could surprise this spring in Arizona and Florida for their respective teams.

Corey Seager Emerges Spring Training with Puig-Like Hype

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    Corey Seager got a taste of important baseball late last year. He could be a big reason the Dodgers do it again this year.
    Corey Seager got a taste of important baseball late last year. He could be a big reason the Dodgers do it again this year.Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    Baseball-Reference.com projections: 257 plate appearances, .294/.365/.478 slash line with an .843 OPS

    FanGraphs projections: 3.3 Off, 4.6 Def, 2.7 WAR

    Last season, the Dodgers had the best one-two punch atop any rotation in baseball.

    Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke were two of the three top finishers in the NL Cy Young race, won by Jake Arrieta. This past offseason, Greinke bolted for the Arizona Diamondbacks for presumably his last huge deal as a big league pitcher, and the expectations for the Dodgers took a big hit with Greinke’s departure.

    But there’s one potential bright spot for the Dodgers in the form of a 21-year-old shortstop.

    Corey Seager was the 18th overall pick in the 2012 MLB draft and was called up in early September last season. Seager, a former California League MVP and the Dodgers' Minor League Player of the Year co-winner in 2014 with current Dodger outfielder Joc Pederson, hit .337 in 27 games in 2015 with the Dodgers.

    The expectations for Seager’s future are big, but there’s a reason MLB.com has Seager rated as the top prospect in all of baseball.

    He’s still technically a rookie because he didn't reach the 130 at-bat plateau, but he’s only 21 and has nothing but time in front of him.

Kevin Kiermaier Shows Why He Will Soon Be Baseball's Best Defender

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    Kevin Kiermaier saved more runs on defense in 2015 than any player ever has since the stat's origin.
    Kevin Kiermaier saved more runs on defense in 2015 than any player ever has since the stat's origin.Steve Nesius/Associated Press

    Baseball-Reference.com projections: 504 plate appearances, .266/.311/.436 slash line with a .747 OPS

    FanGraphs projections: -1.5 Off, 20.7 Def, 4.0 WAR

    Yeah, manager Joe Maddon is in Chicago and the Tampa Bay Rays aren’t as popular as they once were with Maddon at the helm.

    But the Rays still have a fun element, and his name is Kevin Kiermaier.

    Since the defensive runs saved stat began, no player has saved more runs in a season (42) than Kiermaier did in 2015.

    Oh, and Kiermaier’s first AL Gold Glove Award last season came by beating out some guy named Mike Trout.

    One reason Trout has become the most complete player in the game today is because of his playmaking with the leather. Kiermaier isn’t the hitter that Trout is, but not many—if any—do it better with the glove in the outfield than Kiermaier does.

    Tampa Bay competes in a competitive division in the AL East, and Kiermaier’s defense ranks him among the best players in the division.

Bryce Harper Becomes the True Leader of the Washington Nationals

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    Bryce Harper elevated his game to another atmosphere in 2015. Can he elevate his leadership in 2016?
    Bryce Harper elevated his game to another atmosphere in 2015. Can he elevate his leadership in 2016?Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Baseball-Reference.com projections: 567 plate appearances, .301/.405/.544 slash line with a .949 OPS

    FanGraphs projections: 47.3 Off, -4.5 Def, 6.6 WAR

    "I don't think I'm a leader," Bryce Harper said on Monday, per Eddie Matz of ESPN.com.

    The face of the Washington Nationals and the youngest unanimous MVP in MLB history isn’t a leader? How can that be?

    "I don't think I'm a leader," Harper said. "I think I'm more just a guy playing the game. I think J-Dub [Jayson Werth] and Zimm [Ryan Zimmerman] and all those guys are the leaders, those guys that are going to go about it every single day and do the things that they think is right for this team."

    New Nationals manager Dusty Baker thought the same as Harper.

    "He has leadership potential, but he's not a leader yet," Baker said, per Matz. "How many people are going to follow the youngest kid in the room? And just because you're the most talented doesn't mean that you're the leader."

    Harper is only 23 years old (which is amazing to think about), but he’s been a pro for four years and already has three All-Star Game appearances and an MVP award.

    If the Nats are going dethrone the New York Mets in the NL East and make a postseason run this season, Harper will likely take on a bigger role in defending the NL MVP.

Todd Frazier's Impact Being Felt by More Than Just Jose Abreu for White Sox

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    Todd Frazier joining the Chicago White Sox could mean a devastating three-four punch in the Sox lineup.
    Todd Frazier joining the Chicago White Sox could mean a devastating three-four punch in the Sox lineup.Associated Press

    Baseball-Reference.com projections: 605 plate appearances, .256/.320/.462 slash line with a .781 OPS

    FanGraphs projections: 6.0 Off, 5.3 Def, 3.4 WAR

    In two seasons with the Chicago White Sox, Jose Abreu has become of the best sluggers in the game, hitting .303 with 66 home runs and 208 runs batted in.

    His production could increase even more with the addition of former Cincinnati Reds third baseman Todd Frazier.

    Frazier, last year’s Home Run Derby champion, was one of the key signings of the free-agency period. With Frazier holding down the hot corner for the White Sox this season, general manager Rick Hahn’s vision of the Sox being true contenders could come to fruition.

    Frazier’s production won’t come as the surprise.

    In 2015, he hit 35 home runs and drove in 89 runs for a last-place Cincinnati team. His presence is going to make the White Sox a much better offense in 2016, which could lead to the surprise breakout of heavily criticized outfielder Avisail Garcia in the middle of the Sox lineup. The 24-year-old had 13 home runs and 59 RBI last season with a slash line of .257/.309/.365. 

    Frazier provides a big bat and in a hitter-friendly ballpark. The reigning Derby champ’s presence could impact more than just his own numbers this spring.

Kyle Schwarber Gives Cubs a Legitimate Option in Left Field

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    Left field is not his natural position, but a full spring there could do wonders for the Chicago Cubs' Kyle Schwarber.
    Left field is not his natural position, but a full spring there could do wonders for the Chicago Cubs' Kyle Schwarber.Associated Press

    Baseball-Reference.com projections: 337 plate appearances, .259/.347/.473 slash line with an .820 OPS

    FanGraphs projections: 15.9 Off, -6.6 Def, 2.8 WAR

    Around Chicago, Kyle Schwarber is known as “The Hulk."

    How did he get that nickname? Well, when you hit a ball that lands on top of the scoreboard in right field at Wrigley Field against your archrivals in the postseason, you tend to earn such a strong nickname.

    There’s no doubt that Schwarber can hit a ball farther than most can in the bigs.

    But can Schwarber land a spot in the stacked everyday lineup of the new-era Cubs?

    The Cubs made a huge splash after their overachieving 97-win season in 2015 by signing Jason Heyward away from their rivals in St. Louis to a $184 million deal. With Heyward in the fold and Jorge Soler holding down two outfield positions, who will play left field for the Cubs?

    Schwarber hasn’t progressed like the Cubs have wanted him to as a catcher, but he’s not an outfielder, and it’s hard to keep his swing out of the lineup.

    What do the Cubs do?

    Schwarber has said he’s going into the spring to play multiple positions, and with doubts about Dexter Fowler returning to Chicago, the opportunity is there for Schwarber to take a step toward sealing up the left field job.

    This year is Schwarber’s first as a full-time big leaguer, so there’s time for him to improve and progress out in left. It would be surprising to see Schwarber make such a big leap and seal up the job, but no one thought the Cubs would make it to the National League Championship Series last season, did they?

Chris Davis Picks Up Where He Left off in 2015 Season with Baltimore

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    Chris Davis led the league in home runs last season (47).
    Chris Davis led the league in home runs last season (47).Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Baseball-Reference.com projections: 588 plate appearances, .250/.341/.526 slash line with an .867 OPS

    FanGraphs projections: 18.6 Off, -8.5 Def, 3.3 WAR

    Chris Davis will be paid by the Baltimore Orioles until the year 2037 after signing a seven-year, $161 million deal to remain with the O’s this offseason.

    As odd as Davis’ deal is, it’s vital for the Orioles to keep Crush in Baltimore to regain their 2014 form. The O’s were good in 2014, but Davis wasn’t. Davis was superb in 2015, hitting a major league-high 47 home runs and drove in 117 runs, but the O’s finished third in the AL East with a .500 record.

    Davis will strike out a ton (career-high 208 strikeouts in 2015), but jumping from a career-low .196 average in 2014 up to .262 was key in Davis getting his big new contract.

    There are a lot of questions surrounding how productive Davis will be with a new deal, but he’s hit 126 long balls in the last three seasons.

    Now that he’s gotten his new deal, a 2013-like surge coming from Davis would be a surprise for a 30-year-old, “Adam Dunn-esque” power hitter, but Davis’ rerise in 2015 could be a telling sign for 2016, and that could be scary for the rest of the AL East.

Jose Fernandez Gets Through Spring Fully Healthy and Ready to Go in 2016

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    Is 2016 the year Jose Fernandez regains his dominant form again?
    Is 2016 the year Jose Fernandez regains his dominant form again?Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Baseball-Reference.com projections: 7-4 record in 97 IP, 3.06 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 33 earned runs allowed.

    FanGraphs projections: 2.69 FIP, 4.9 WAR, 10.63 K/9

    The Miami Marlins have had threefire sales” in their franchise's history, but have they ever had a pitcher like Jose Fernandez (when he’s healthy)?

    Fernandez went 6-1 with a 2.92 earned run average in just over 64 innings in 2015. It’s a small sample size for a premier starter, but it’s a really solid sample.

    There will be a bit of drama potentially around Fernandez with Scott Boras being Fernandez’s agent and the front office of the Marlins being, well, the front office of the Marlins.

    But a lot can be settled with Fernandez getting through the spring like he did in 2013.

    Fernandez won the NL Rookie of the Year award before missing most of the 2014 season and some of the 2015 season after Tommy John surgery. He returned to throw in 11 outings in 2015 for a third-place Marlins club.

    It would be hard for Miami to overtake New York and Washington in the division, but a healthy Jose Fernandez could propel Miami into contention.

    If Fernandez could show his 2013 form early and often for new manager Don Mattingly this spring, don’t expect to see a Matt Harvey/Stephen Strasburg-like situation with the Marlins.

    It’s the Marlins. Things get weird and surprise you (if and) when they’re contenders.

    Stats via Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.com (via SteamerProjections.com).

    Michael Whitlow is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. You can find the rest of Michael's work here and you can follow him on Twitter: @MAWhitlow.

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