MLB Spring Training Flops It's Not Too Early to Be Concerned About
Oh, we really shouldn't be wringing our hands over bad spring training performances. But sometimes, well, it's just too hard not to.
At roughly the midway point of Major League Baseball's 2016 exhibition season, there's no shortage of bad performances to choose from. And while many of them can and should be ignored [nods in the direction of Paul Goldschmidt], we're going to focus on 10 in particular that are worth fretting about.
These 10 performances involve players either continuing a trend of underwhelming play or showing real signs of underwhelming play to come. Or both. And for the most part, they've occurred over reasonably large sample sizes. By spring training standards, of course.
We'll begin with the bad performance that is least worth worrying about and end with the one that is most worrisome.
Wil Myers, 1B, San Diego Padres
OK, so, Wil Myers isn't an especially consequential player going into 2016. But because he's the only long-term building block the San Diego Padres have, what he's doing this spring isn't so encouraging.
The 25-year-old first baseman has played in 11 games and is batting .103 with a .373 OPS. Even Myers admitted to being frustrated with his performance, telling MLB.com's Corey Brock last week: "I was starting to get fed up with it. I know it's spring training, but I'm tired of making outs."
It hasn't all been bad luck, either. When former pro scout Bernie Pleskoff saw Myers last week, he saw a hitter who still has "too much swing and miss in his game" and who was struggling to make hard contact.
Myers' recent history makes this report even more distressing. He had a horrible season in 2014 to follow up his Rookie of the Year breakthrough in 2013, and he is now coming off a 2015 season in which a left wrist injury limited him to 60 games. When he returned in September, he slugged just .364 and struck out 24 times in 94 plate appearances.
Myers' spring performance makes it easy to wonder whether his left wrist is still holding him back. If it is, he's only going to drift further away from his former status as a young star on the rise.
Miguel Gonzalez, SP, Baltimore Orioles
The Baltimore Orioles should hit a lot of home runs in 2016, but the big question is whether they have enough starting pitching to make the most of all their power.
Miguel Gonzalez is doing his part to push the answer toward "no." The 31-year-old right-hander has made three starts this spring and has been lit up to the tune of 18 hits and 14 earned runs in only 5.2 innings.
That's Gonzalez's cue to tell everyone to chill, and he did that by playing the "Hey, at least I'm healthy" card with Jon Meoli of the Baltimore Sun.
"I think the health is most important right now, and I’ll be able to compete out there," he said. "It’s really important for me.”
However, it wasn't Gonzalez's health that was in doubt going into the spring. It was his ability. The 4.91 ERA he posted last year made him one of the worst starting pitchers in baseball. And since it was the culmination of him getting easier to hit and easier to take deep, it's hard to chalk that up to bad luck.
What Gonzalez is doing this spring is basically picking up where he left off, thereby hinting that an Orioles rotation that has little to lean on won't be able to lean on him.
Melky Cabrera, LF, Chicago White Sox
Here's a guy who was terrible early in 2015, as Melky Cabrera was batting .241 with a .557 at the end of May. So, it's no wonder the Chicago White Sox's left fielder is preaching the value of a strong start.
"Of course you always want to have a very good start because it's going to give you some leverage over the season to get past the slumps, the bad moments," he told Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune.
But instead of practicing what he's preaching this spring, Cabrera is hitting just .130 with a .330 OPS in nine games. He has only three hits in 23 at-bats, none of which have gone for extra bases.
Music to the White Sox's ears, this is not. They did well to bring in Todd Frazier's impact bat after finishing dead last in the American League in runs last year, but he never was going to turn things around on his own. The White Sox were also going to need a bounce-back year from Adam LaRoche and more consistency from Cabrera. Instead, LaRoche abruptly retired, and now Cabrera is struggling.
If there's a bright side, it's that Cabrera showed last season that he's capable of digging himself out of a hole. The not-so-bright side is that he's in decline territory at the age of 31; this spring is a reminder he's been bad more often than he's been good over the last three years.
Matt Shoemaker, SP, Los Angeles Angels
Don't worry, we'll get to that other Los Angeles Angels pitcher who's having a rough spring. But first, we need to recognize Matt Shoemaker's spring performance is also worth sweating over.
The 29-year-old right-hander has pitched nine innings and has allowed 14 hits and nine earned runs. Shoemaker's big problem this spring has been the long ball. He's given up five of them, including one to Texas Rangers slugger Joey Gallo that NASA scientists can't guarantee will land in our lifetime.
If Shoemaker giving up dingers sounds familiar, that's because he made a habit of it in 2015. After giving up only 14 home runs in 136 innings in his breakout year in 2014, he gave up 24 home runs in 135.1 innings last season. Evidently, hitters adjusted to him.
Shoemaker seems to know this, telling Pedro Moura of the Los Angeles Times that his modest velocity makes it important for him to hit his spots. But the pitfall of needing to be precise is that it can turn into a tendency to nibble. By walking four batters in his last outing, Shoemaker seemed to illustrate that point.
Because the Angels are short on impact arms, they'll need their depth to support their contention chances this season. It's not looking like Shoemaker will do his part.
Byron Buxton, CF, Minnesota Twins
Like Kris Bryant and Carlos Correa before him, many expect Byron Buxton to be the Next Big Thing™ this season. That even goes for the Minnesota Twins, who entered spring without a clear plan B in center field.
That's beginning to look like a misstep. Buxton, the No. 2 prospect in baseball, according to MLB.com, has played in eight games and has hit just .200 with a .561 OPS. That OPS looks too similar to the .576 OPS that Buxton managed in the majors last year, and Baseball-Reference.com rubs dirt in the wound by noting Buxton has only faced roughly Triple-A-level competition this spring.
For what it's worth, the Twins are trying to put a positive spin on things.
“I think he’s seeing the ball better, [pitch] recognition’s been better,” manager Paul Molitor said over the weekend, per Derek Wetmore of 1500ESPN.com. “And that’s going to be a huge part of how quickly he’s going to be able to develop offensively.”
This would be easier to believe if Buxton didn't have eight strikeouts in just 23 plate appearances this spring. That's a bad movie we've seen before, as he whiffed 44 times in 138 plate appearances in the majors last year.
It's clear the Twins are committed to Buxton as their center fielder of the future. But based on his performance this spring, he still hasn't made it clear he's ready.
Jake Peavy, SP, San Francisco Giants
The San Francisco Giants are trusting Jake Peavy to be their No. 4 starter in 2016. If the veteran gives them more of the 3.58 ERA he gave them in 2015, they'll be happy.
But Peavy isn't providing a confidence boost this spring. He's made three starts and has given up 26 hits and 12 earned runs in 12.2 innings.
What stands out is that the 34-year-old has struck out only seven batters in his 12.2 innings—a rate of 5.2 batters per nine innings. That's something that should concern the Giants, as Mike Podhorzer of FanGraphs found in 2012 that there's evidence that spring strikeout rates have some predictive power.
Then again, the Giants don't necessarily need to look at what Peavy is doing this spring to be worried about that. His strikeout game has been declining for several years, and he's too old to expect a turnaround.
The good news is Peavy got away with a lot of extra balls in play in 2015. But since that required one of the lowest batting averages on balls in play (BABIP) of his career, Peavy's success last season reeks of good luck that's doomed to turn bad. His performance this spring may just be the start of that.
Of course, the Giants shouldn't be as worried about Peavy as they are about...
Jeff Samardzija, SP, San Francisco Giants
The San Francisco Giants made a $90 million bet that the 4.96 ERA Jeff Samardzija posted last year was just a blip on the radar. So far, so not good.
In four starts, he has given up 12 earned runs in 13 innings, as well as 21 hits. Going into Thursday's action, that's the most hits allowed of any pitcher this spring.
The bottom came for Samardzija on Wednesday against the Seattle Mariners, who torched the 31-year-old right-hander for three home runs. As he was watching, Eno Sarris of FanGraphs noted he didn't see a single Samardzija fastball clocked at over 93 mph.
That's not a good report. Samardzija's velocity was already declining, per Brooks Baseball, and his working in the low 90s would represent his biggest step down yet. That likely wouldn't help a strikeout ability that's also been declining, and he failed to prove in 2015 that he can survive without his ability to miss bats.
If Samardzija can't pull himself together, he's not going to be the pitcher the Giants thought they were signing. Between that and what's going on with Peavy, their starting rotation could be in a lot of trouble.
Scott Kazmir, SP, Los Angeles Dodgers
Scott Kazmir is the first guy the Los Angeles Dodgers turned to after they lost Zack Greinke this winter. And though he's no Greinke, his 3.33 ERA over the last two seasons is plenty solid.
The 32-year-old southpaw hasn't looked much like that guy this spring, though. Kazmir has pitched 3.2 innings and has given up 12 hits and seven earned runs.
Then there are the other numbers Kazmir has put up this spring. After he worked around 91 mph with his fastball in 2015, Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times reported Kazmir was sitting in the 86-89 range in his most recent outing.
In fairness, Kazmir offered a reasonable excuse for this: "If I try to let it go too early, I find myself getting out of my delivery."
But while this makes sense in theory, it's fair to wonder if something else is going on. As Brooks Baseball can show, Kazmir's velocity dip this spring is coming on the heels of a dip in velocity as the 2015 season wore on. In a possibly related story, his effectiveness began to wane in August and September.
It could be that Kazmir is feeling his age. With injuries also taking a toll on their starting rotation, the Dodgers had better hope that's not the case.
Jered Weaver, SP, Los Angeles Angels
We would say Jered Weaver is in the same boat as Kazmir. But the reality is that it's worse for Weaver.
The Angels veteran has also been rocked in two starts, giving up eight hits and five earned runs in 4.2 innings. Three of the five hits off him have left the yard, which isn't such a good look after Weaver gave up dingers at a career-high rate on his way to posting a career-worst 4.64 ERA in 2015.
What looks even worse is the 33-year-old's velocity. As Moura reported in Weaver's last outing, he was topping out at 80 mph. If that's any indication, his rapidly decreasing velocity, per Brooks Baseball, isn't in line for a miraculous rebound in 2016.
And it doesn't sound like there's just age to blame for Weaver's declining stuff. After complaining of a pain in the neck, he went to see a spine specialist and was diagnosed with a degenerative condition. All he can do is try to push through, which left Weaver feeling dejected.
"I almost wish they would tell me I need surgery," Weaver said this week, via Shaikin.
In short, Weaver is broken. For an Angels rotation that may need to do some heavy lifting this season, that's less than awesome news.
Pablo Sandoval, 3B, Boston Red Sox
A perfect spring for Pablo Sandoval would have gone something like this: show up in good shape and wash away the taste of 2015 by whacking the crud out of the ball and playing good defense.
Instead, Sandoval has gone for the exact opposite of that.
Following a season in which he might have been the worst everyday player in the majors, the vibes surrounding the Boston Red Sox's third baseman turned negative as soon as he showed up to camp with a belly that couldn't (figuratively or literally) be ignored.
Since then, Sandoval hasn't helped matters with his performance. Though he does have three doubles and a homer, he's hitting just .208 without any walks. He's also struggled on defense.
"He's working on it and will continue to do so," Red Sox manager John Farrell said of Sandoval's defense, via Scott Lauber of ESPN.com. "There's work to be done."
Sandoval's poor hitting is a continuation of last year's offensive nadir. Likewise, his poor defense is a continuation of what the defensive metrics say was also a nadir. But in taking a hint from David Laurila of FanGraphs, you didn't hear that from me if Sandoval asks. Word is he's sensitive about that kind of talk.
All told, the nightmare the Red Sox had with Sandoval last year may not be over. It's a good thing they're only paying him...uh, nevermind.