2016 MLB Spring Training's All-Dark-Horse Team
Yoenis Cespedes and Noah Syndergaard may have trotted into spring training for the New York Mets atop horses, but neither the players nor their steeds are what we'd call a dark horse.
No, the dark horses we're concerned with are those we'd equate with The Simpsons' legendary Troy McClure, whose famous catchphrase—"You may remember me from..."—is something we could envision any of the players on our all-dark-horse team uttering as they arrived in camp.
These players aren't the best of the best. Heck, some of them aren't even the best of the mediocre.
While there are a handful of up-and-coming prospects included, many of these players never lived up to the hype that surrounded their arrival in the big leagues, while others are past-their-prime veterans looking to keep their baseball careers alive for another year.
They've all got the ability—and opportunity—to do just that and crack an Opening Day roster with strong showings this spring. The next few weeks will determine whether they're able to seize that opportunity.
Catcher: Jett Bandy, Los Angeles Angels
He's got the name of a rock star—or maybe a fleet-footed center fielder—but Jett Bandy's home is behind the plate, calling games and keeping opposing runners honest with a strong, accurate throwing arm.
With Carlos Perez and Geovany Soto ahead of him on Los Angeles' depth chart, Bandy is admittedly a long shot to break camp with the Angels. But it's not a stretch to think the 25-year-old could outplay Soto, who is on the downside of his career and, according to Baseball Prospectus, isn't the pitch-framer he once was.
Even if Bandy starts the season back at Triple-A Salt Lake, where he was an All-Star last year, he'll be back with the big club before too long, given the wear and tear catchers go through.
First Base: Ji-Man Choi, Los Angeles Angels
A career .302/.404/.481 hitter over parts of five minor league seasons, Ji-Man Choi wasted little time making an impression on Los Angeles manager Mike Scioscia this spring.
“He’s an interesting kid,” Scioscia told Greg Beacham of the Associated Press (via the Washington Times). “He’s shown really good mobility at first base. He has nice hands, and on the offensive side, has a great approach at the plate. He’ll drive the ball, has great alley power, nice idea of what he’s doing in the box. He’s shown very well early.”
With Choi being a Rule 5 draft pick from Baltimore, the Angels either have to keep the 24-year-old on their 25-man roster or offer him back to the Orioles for $25,000, half the cost they paid to select him. With C.J. Cron and Albert Pujols set to split time at first base and designated hitter, Choi's chances of sticking seem slim.
But the rules don't say he has to make the cut as a first baseman. While he has limited experience playing elsewhere, Choi did log more than 200 innings in left field back in 2014, and it's no secret the position remains a glaring hole for the Angels.
Choi could work his way into part of a platoon situation in left field while serving as another option at first base when Cron and/or Pujols need a day off.
Second Base: Luis Sardinas, Seattle Mariners
One of Seattle's more overlooked moves this past winter was its acquisition of infielder Luis Sardinas from Milwaukee in exchange for outfielder Ramon Flores.
A two-time top 100 prospect, per Baseball Prospectus and MLB.com (via Baseball-Reference.com), Sardinas isn't going to start over perennial All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano or upstart shortstop Ketel Marte for the Mariners. But to label Sardinas a reserve middle infielder would be inaccurate.
"I practice every day at different positions," he explained to 710 ESPN Seattle's Shannon Drayer. "Shortstop, second base, third base, and I play outfield, too." That he's willing—and able—to play the outfield wasn't lost on new Mariners skipper Scott Servais.
“It’s something that we are going to toy with,” Servais told the News Tribune's Bob Dutton about his plans to have Sardinas play some center field this spring. While he could break camp as part of a platoon with Leonys Martin in center field, Sardinas' value lies in his versatility.
Every team can use a Ben Zobrist-like player on its roster. Sardinas has a real chance to fill that role in Seattle.
Third Base: Garin Cecchini, Milwaukee Brewers
A pair of former Boston Red Sox prospects, Garin Cecchini and Will Middlebrooks, find themselves in a head-to-head battle for a spot on Milwaukee's Opening Day roster, according to Brewers skipper Craig Counsell.
"They certainly have a chance to make the team," he told Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "They're in competition to make the team. You let them play and the players dictate it a lot. Both of those guys will have opportunities to be competitors but Aaron [Hill] is what we're looking at right now."
While Hill logged nearly 300 innings at the hot corner for Arizona last season, the 33-year-old is best suited to serve as the right-handed part of a second base platoon with Scooter Gennett. And Middlebrooks played his way out of a starting job in both Boston and San Diego.
Cecchini, 24, has never gotten a chance to play every day in the big leagues and is still young enough to realize the significant upside he once showed as a top-10 prospect in Boston's system, as rated by Baseball America. A rebuilding Brewers club has nothing to lose—and everything to gain—by giving him an opportunity to do just that.
Shortstop: Trea Turner, Washington Nationals
In terms of pure talent, nobody would dispute that Trea Turner is the best shortstop in camp with Washington. But as manager Dusty Baker explained to MASNsports.com's Mark Zuckerman, the 22-year-old may ultimately fall victim to a numbers game for the Nationals.
"Is (Turner) ready to be here?" he said. "Are we rushing him? Right now, I've got to give (Danny) Espinosa a shot. But who knows? ... He's a dynamic player. I like what I see. Sometimes you may want somebody. And sometimes there may not be room at that point in time."
But sometimes you have to create a spot for a player you want—whom you need on your roster.
Espinosa and Stephen Drew, who are ahead of Turner on the organizational depth chart, are best utilized off the bench. The Nationals are entering a pivotal season, one in which anything less than a division title and deep playoff run will be viewed as a massive failure.
Both Baker and general manager Mike Rizzo understand that. If Turner outplays the veterans ahead of him this spring, there's no reason he couldn't start the year as Washington's everyday shortstop.
Left Field: Chris Denorfia, New York Yankees
New York's outfield is a crowded one.
Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner are locked in as starters, Dustin Ackley and Aaron Hicks are capable reserves and there's a glut of nearly MLB-ready prospects on the horizon (Slade Heathcott, Aaron Judge and Mason Williams).
With all that, you'd think Chris Denorfia has no chance of making the cut when the regular season begins. But there's always a chance.
A career .272 hitter, Denorfia brings a solid but unspectacular right-handed bat to the Bronx, something the team can use on its bench. As presently constituted, backup catcher Austin Romine, a career .201 hitter, is the only right-handed bat manager Joe Girardi would have at his disposal.
Capable of playing all three outfield positions, Denorfia would also serve as additional insurance for when, not if, one of the team's veteran starters goes down with an injury.
Center Field: Wynton Bernard, Detroit Tigers
With Cameron Maybin out four to six weeks due to a fractured left wrist, Detroit finds itself in need of a right-handed hitting outfielder, preferably one who can at least back up, if not platoon with, Anthony Gose in center field.
Before Maybin's injury, Wynton Bernard was destined to start the season at Triple-A Toledo. "He's got some development still," Tigers manager Brad Ausmus told MLive.com's Chris Iott. "If we needed him in a pinch, I think we could look to him. Right now, the best thing overall for (him) is to keep playing."
While the Tigers will bounce around the idea of using Tyler Collins, John Mayberry Jr., Steven Moya and Nate Schierholtz as insurance for Gose, Bernard is the only natural center fielder Detroit has—and he's got the speed and athleticism needed to handle the position defensively.
Considering the lineup the Tigers will be trotting out on a daily basis, whether Bernard's bat is ready for the big leagues shouldn't be a concern. The 25-year-old hit .301/.352/.408 with 43 stolen bases at Double-A Erie in 2015, so there's reason to believe he'd be able to handle himself against big league pitching.
At worst, Bernard would serve as a glove-first fourth outfielder and pinch runner off the bench. That's not a terrible thing to have, and odds are that the experience he gets while Maybin recovers would only help his development.
Right Field: Jason Coats, Chicago White Sox
After adding Todd Frazier and Brett Lawrie this past offseason, Chicago went on the hunt for outfield upgrades and were linked to nearly every free-agent outfielder available, including Yoenis Cespedes and Alex Gordon, as Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal noted in December.
While the White Sox failed to add a big name, returning the same starting outfield they had a year ago—Melky Cabrera, Adam Eaton and Avisail Garcia—they do have some intriguing in-house options as reserve options, if not more.
Jason Coats might be buried on the organizational depth chart behind the likes of Mike Olt and J.B. Shuck, but there's a good chance the 26-year-old is a better option as a fourth outfielder in Chicago than either one.
He's got plenty of power in his right-handed bat, averaging just under 15 home runs a year over three minor league seasons, and he offers enough defensively to avoid being a liability in either outfield corner. That power also makes him an intriguing platoon option with designated hitter Adam LaRoche.
Starting Pitcher: Tim Lincecum, Free Agent
Tim Lincecum remains unsigned as we head into the second week of March, has yet to schedule a showcase for major league teams and, seemingly, is running out of time to land on a club's Opening Day roster.
A two-time Cy Young winner, the 31-year-old Lincecum was 7-4 last year with a 4.13 ERA in 15 games for the San Francisco Giants before left hip surgery ended his season prematurely. Over the past four seasons, he's been mediocre at best, pitching to a combined 4.68 ERA with reduced velocity and shaky command over his arsenal.
But his surgeon, Marc Philippon, believes Lincecum's command and velocity will return, as he explained to Jon Heyman, then of CBS Sports, toward the end of last season:
I think it's going to help tremendously to regain the velocity on his pitches and the (control) of them. If you cannot control the hips – that's what generates the power – it's difficult to get full motion. Every pitcher is different. In his style of pitching he uses the hips a lot. We're going to make sure he returns perfectly balanced. We want to make sure his pitching balance his better.
Sooner or later, Lincecum is going to throw for teams—and someone is going to take a flier on him. A healthy Lincecum, with his track record of success, could prove to be a shrewd late-spring addition for whatever team he winds up with.
Relief Pitcher: Ernesto Frieri, Philadelphia Phillies
After pitching to a combined 6.30 ERA for three different teams over the past two years, Ernesto Frieri had become something of an afterthought. His breakout 2012 season, when he pitched to a 2.32 ERA with 23 saves and 98 strikeouts over 66 innings of work for San Diego and Los Angeles (AL), is ancient history.
With a wide-open bullpen and nothing to lose, Philadelphia gave the 30-year-old reliever (and a slew of other bullpen veterans) a chance to show what they've got left. It's an opportunity Frieri believes he can make the most of, as he explained to CSNPhilly.com's Corey Seidman:
These guys (the Phillies) are letting me be the guy that I can be. They're not telling me, 'You have to do this, you have to pitch this way.' No. They're just letting me be me, which I really love.
Of course there are a couple things I'll have to do for the manager or the pitching coach, but mechanics-wise, delivery-wise, they're just letting me be me. And obviously I know there's a lot of chance to make the team here and there's a lot of room in the bullpen. Hopefully they give me the opportunity to be on the team. I'm excited. I know this is gonna be a really good year for me and a really important one too.
With the Phillies rebuilding, there's no reason for them to spend lavishly on relievers—or to expose their best young arms to a losing atmosphere—at least not yet. That bodes well for a player like Frieri, who isn't going to command a significant paycheck and could prove to be a valuable trade chip at the Aug. 1 deadline.
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