Real or Fake on MLB's Biggest Week 1 Spring Training Performances

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistMarch 3, 2017

Real or Fake on MLB's Biggest Week 1 Spring Training Performances

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    Bryan Mitchell is making a strong early case for a spot in the Yankees rotation.
    Bryan Mitchell is making a strong early case for a spot in the Yankees rotation.Rich Schultz/Getty Images

    "Spring training stats don't matter."

    It's a sentiment you'll hear time and again between now and Opening Day, and while it's true to a point, spring performance shouldn't be completely ignored either.

    For some players, spring training games are their first chance to put the adjustments they've implemented during the offseason to the test. Building early confidence with a strong spring can serve as a jumping-off point for a breakout performance once the games start to matter.

    Here, we've taken a look at 10 players who have stormed out of the gates this spring and provided some background information and reactions by teammates and coaches to paint a picture of whether those strong starts could lead to something bigger. Since the focus was on potential breakout players, established MLB stars were not included.

    All statistics are current through Thursday's games.

LHP Jayson Aquino, Baltimore Orioles

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    Mark Cunningham/Getty Images

    Spring Stats

    2 G, 4.0 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 6 K

    Real or Fake?

    After a busy 2015 season, it seems like left-hander Jayson Aquino may have finally found a home with the Baltimore Orioles.

    Colorado traded Aquino to Toronto in February 2015, and before the year was over, he moved from Toronto to Pittsburgh to Cleveland to St. Louis before the Orioles purchased him last April. The 24-year-old made his MLB debut last season with three scoreless appearances, and now he's turning heads early in camp.

    "He's got a good presentation and I didn't see that last year," manager Buck Showalter told Eduardo A. Encina of the Baltimore Sun. "He's got a feel for the breaking ball now that he didn't have. … He's been the highlight to the early part of this year for me. You can see why Dan [Duquette, the general manager] liked him and wanted to keep him on the roster. He's a pretty interesting guy."

    Aquino climbed as high as the No. 9 spot among Colorado prospects prior to the 2013 season, per Baseball America, so he does have something of a prospect pedigree. With a full-time move to the bullpen, he could carve out a role as Baltimore's second left-handed reliever. His rate of 2.3 walks per nine innings in the minors and a 3.72 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A mean he could be pitching over his head a bit, though.

1B Greg Bird, New York Yankees

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    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    Spring Stats

    5 G, 5-for-12, 2 2B, 3 HR, 5 RBI, 3 R

    Real or Fake?

    Before Gary Sanchez took MLB by storm in 2016, Greg Bird looked like the next big thing for the New York Yankees.

    Thrust into action late in the 2015 season after Mark Teixeira went down with an injury, Bird hit .261/.343/.529 with nine doubles, 11 home runs and 31 RBI in 46 games as a rookie. However, he ended up missing the entire 2016 season after undergoing shoulder surgery.

    The 24-year-old has a clear path to the starting first base job this year, but expectations were understandably tempered as he set to work shaking off the rust of a lost season.

    "Everyone had the same concerns: to make sure he was over the hump physically," Yankees vice president of baseball operations Tim Naehring told John Harper of the New York Daily News. "And obviously the performance has been very good."

    Bird is tied for the spring lead with three home runs after going deep again Thursday, and he's once again looking like a big piece of the team's future plans. Expecting him to match the .871 OPS he posted as a rookie over a full season might be asking too much, but there's no reason he can't emerge as an impact run producer in what will be his first full season.

RF Michael Conforto, New York Mets

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Spring Stats

    5 G, 7-for-13, 2 HR, 3 RBI, 3 R

    Real or Fake?

    As if the New York Mets outfield situation wasn't crowded enough, Michael Conforto is making a compelling case for significant playing time.

    Yoenis Cespedes, Curtis Granderson, Jay Bruce and Juan Lagares were already fighting for at-bats heading into camp. The Mets will no doubt welcome a return to prominence from the 24-year-old Conforto, though.

    After posting an .841 OPS with 23 extra-base hits in 194 plate appearances as a rookie in 2015, he jumped out to a red-hot start last year with a .365/.442/.676 line over the first month of the season. However, his production fell off dramatically from there, as he hit .174/.267/.330 over his final 262 plate appearances and was demoted to the minors at one point.

    The potential is still there for him to be the middle-of-the-order complement to Cespedes that the team appears to be lacking.

    "He has worked very hard," manager Terry Collins told Mike Puma of the New York Post. "His swing is as good as I've seen, and I've seen a lot of them. He is bound and determined to make this team."

    Conforto seems to have as good a chance as anyone of parlaying a big spring into a breakout regular season.

3B Maikel Franco, Philadelphia Phillies

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    Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    Spring Stats

    4 G, 4-for-10, 3 HR, 4 RBI, 3 R

    Real or Fake?

    Maikel Franco is no stranger to big spring training numbers. After hitting .294/.333/.721 with nine home runs and 23 RBI last preseason, the 24-year-old appeared poised for a monster sophomore year with the Philadelphia Phillies.

    However, he followed that up with a somewhat disappointing regular season. After posting an .840 OPS as a rookie, he hit just .255/.306/.427 for a .733 OPS with 25 home runs and 88 RBI in his first full season.

    Manager Pete Mackanin sees an improved approach at the plate this spring, though, which could be the start of something big.

    "That's a good sign for what's to come from him," Mackanin told Matt Breen of the Philadelphia Inquirer. "I'm looking forward to seeing him continue that approach. I think he's going to be working toward a good year."

    Franco has long been viewed as a potential cornerstone piece for the rebuilding Phillies, and even in what some considered a disappointing season last year, he still led the team in home runs and RBI. That makes it pretty easy to get on board with Mackanin's prediction of big things to come.

RHP Tyler Glasnow, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Spring Stats

    1 G, 2.0 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 6 K

    Real or Fake?

    No one has ever questioned the stuff of Tyler Glasnow.

    With a mid-to-upper-90s fastball, plus curveball and a developing changeup, he has no trouble missing bats, as evidenced by his 645 strikeouts in 500 minor league innings.

    The big 6'8" right-hander still has significant work to do on his command, though.

    Glasnow has walked batters at a 5.0 BB/9 clip in the upper levels of the minors the past two seasons and he issued 13 free passes in 23.1 innings of work in his brief time in the majors last year.

    At this point in his development, a return trip to Triple-A might be in his best interest, but the Pittsburgh Pirates will give him every chance to win a rotation spot this spring.

    "Trust me, if Tyler Glasnow is ready to help us at the major league level, that's a good thing for us and we'll absolutely give him that opportunity," general manager Neal Huntington told Stephen J. Nesbitt of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "If he's not, we'll continue to work to help him get ready. When he puts this all together, he's going to be a fun pitcher to watch."

    The 23-year-old was nothing short of dominant in his spring debut, allowing just one hit and no walks while recording all six of his outs via strikeout.

    All the pieces are there for him to join Gerrit Cole atop the rotation, and pushing his way into the rotation picture would be a big first step.

LF Guillermo Heredia, Seattle Mariners

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Spring Stats

    6 G, 7-for-12, 4 2B, 1 3B, 7 RBI, 5 R

    Real or Fake?

    Not all Cuban defectors come to the majors with a Jose Abreu- or Yoenis Cespedes-level of hype.

    The Seattle Mariners signed Guillermo Heredia to a one-year deal at the league minimum last season, and he made his MLB debut as a 25-year-old in July.

    He went on to hit .250/.349/.315 with three doubles and one home run in 107 plate appearances.

    Despite those lackluster numbers, he appears to be the leading candidate for the fourth outfielder job in a new-look outfield that features Mitch Haniger and Jarrod Dyson on either side of incumbent center fielder Leonys Martin.

    Heredia spent six seasons in the Cuban League before defecting and he was also the starting center fielder for Cuba in the 2013 World Baseball Classic.

    While it's unlikely he'll seize one of the starting outfield jobs or emerge as an impact player for the Mariners this season, he could be a valuable bench piece stepping into the role that Franklin Gutierrez filled the past few seasons.

    He hit .312/.378/.413 with nine extra-base hits in 157 plate appearances in Triple-A last season, so there are some offensive skills to tap into.

RHP Bryan Mitchell, New York Yankees

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    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    Spring Stats

    2 GS, 2 W, 5.0 IP, 0 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 3 K

    Real or Fake?

    There are five pitchers competing for two spots in the New York Yankees rotation this spring, so let's check in on how they've started their spring slate:

    • Luis Cessa: 4.0 IP, 3 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, 3 K
    • Chad Green: 2.0 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 0 K
    • Bryan Mitchell: 5.0 IP, 0 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 3 K
    • Jordan Montgomery: 4.1 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, 3 K
    • Luis Severino: 2.0 IP, 0 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 1 K

    That looks like a nice head start for Mitchell as he looks to join Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda among the starters.

    The 25-year-old was sidelined until September last season following toe surgery, but he joined the big league rotation and went 1-2 with a 3.24 ERA over five starts, including seven shutout innings of two-hit ball in his final outing of the year.

    Mitchell has good stuff with a mid-90s fastball that he backs with a cutter and curveball as well as the occasional changeup.

    He'll never be a front-line arm, but there's no reason he can't parlay a strong spring into a steady spot at the back of the rotation for the next several years as the Yankees continue getting younger and retool the roster.

RHP Rafael Montero, New York Mets

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    G Fiume/Getty Images

    Spring Stats

    2 G, 4.0 IP, 0 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 6 K

    Real or Fake?

    Rafael Montero was ranked as the No. 3 prospect in a deep New York Mets system heading into the 2014 season, per Baseball America, while also earning a spot on the top 100 list at No. 68.

    However, he's failed to turn potential into production at the MLB level with a 5.15 ERA over 73.1 innings of work the past three seasons.

    "We see the stuff. I've been watching him throw this spring. The arm's still there, the stuff's still there, got to command it," manager Terry Collins told Matt Ehalt of "When he got to the big leagues, it was because he was a strike-thrower and we haven't seen that yet. If he does, he gets outs. The games that he's pitched the best is when he throws strikes. His stuff plays."

    The 26-year-old still has one minor league option remaining, so this isn't necessarily a make-or-break spring, but in terms of his long-term place on the pitching staff, it might as well be.

    Chances are he'll need to carve out a spot in the bullpen if he's going to break camp with the team, and his power arm could prove to be a valuable weapon in the multi-inning role that seems to be the latest fad.

    Injuries could eventually open up an opportunity in the rotation, and Montero could position himself as the next man up if he's pitching well in that long-relief role.

    Stardom might not be in the cards, but Montero still has a chance to be a solid contributor, and his hot start has made him one of the more intriguing names in Mets camp.

DH Peter O'Brien, Kansas City Royals

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    Rob Tringali/Getty Images

    Spring Stats

    6 G, 3-for-9, 3 HR, 6 RBI, 4 R

    Real or Fake?

    Peter O'Brien has finally found his way back to the American League, where his power bat and lack of a defensive position could finally have a home.

    The 26-year-old has launched 116 home runs over five minor league seasons, with 50 of those coming at the Triple-A level the past two years.

    He's also struck out at a 27.2 percent clip and posted a less-than-stellar .254/.295/.505 line with Triple-A Reno last season.

    But it always comes back to that power.

    The Kansas City Royals have some options to fill the vacant DH spot after signing Brandon Moss and acquiring Jorge Soler from the Chicago Cubs.

    However, if O'Brien continues his assault on Cactus League pitching, he could play his way into that conversation as well.

    "O'Brien has the most pop I've ever seen," Alex Gordon told Rustin Dodd of the Kansas City Star. "I told the coaches, 'I'm not in his BP [batting practice group], because he makes me feel like a high school kid.'"

    Making enough consistent contact to tap into that raw power remains the challenge, and he's running out of time.

2B Jose Peraza, Cincinnati Reds

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Spring Stats

    4 G, 7-for-12, 1 2B, 1 3B, 4 RBI, 2 R, 3/4 SB

    Real or Fake?

    Trading Brandon Phillips to the Atlanta Braves was more than just a salary dump by the Cincinnati Reds to save $1 million.

    It was also an opportunity to open up regular at-bats for Jose Peraza.

    The 22-year-old got his first taste of consistent MLB action last season and made the most of it, hitting .324/.352/.411 with 13 extra-base hits and 21 stolen bases in 72 games while bouncing around defensively.

    GM Dick Williams and manager Bryan Price both vowed to give him regular playing time at the start of the offseason, and moving Phillips will afford them that opportunity.

    Speed has always been Peraza's biggest weapon, with a pair of 60-steal seasons in the minors, but he has the contact skills to be a true table-setter atop the lineup.

    Pairing him with Billy Hamilton could give the Reds their own version of what the Florida Marlins had with Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo on their 2003 World Series championship team.

    So while that .324 average might not be sustainable over a full season, Peraza has the tools to make a run at a .300 average while scoring plenty of runs and wreaking havoc on the bases. He's off to a nice start in both categories this spring.

    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted.

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