Biggest Surprises and Disappointments from MLB Spring Training 2021
After several weeks of action, spring training is about to end and give way to Opening Day of the 2021 Major League Baseball season Thursday.
At least inasmuch as the spring can ever surprise or disappointment, there were surprises and disappointments aplenty during this year's exhibition season. Rather than recount them all, we've focused on five of each.
These cover both individual and team-wide performances, but what they all have in common is that they were all unexpected to some degree or another.
Let's hit 'em one at a time, starting with a positively Ruth-ian two-way show for the Los Angeles Angels.
Surprise: Shohei Ohtani Is All the Way Back
At the plate, arguably the most impressive player of the spring has been Shohei Ohtani. The Los Angeles Angels star has made 32 plate appearances and ripped off a .571/.594/1.107 line and five home runs.
On the mound, arguably the most impressive player of the spring has been...well, also Shohei Ohtani. In spite of his 7.88 ERA, he's touched 100 mph and snapped off some truly nasty splitters and sliders in the process of striking out 14 batters in eight innings.
It's still fair to have doubts about Ohtani actually sustaining two-way stardom throughout 2021. After all, his efforts to do so in his first three major league seasons were derailed by injuries (i.e., Tommy John surgery and a forearm strain) and a bad offensive slump in 2020.
But if nothing else, this spring has served as a reminder that Ohtani's sheer talent isn't the problem. If he can indeed stay healthy, he may yet fulfill his potential as baseball's best two-way star since Babe Ruth.
Disappointment: Walker Buehler Can't Buy an Out
Meanwhile, the other team in Los Angeles—i.e., the one that's actually in Los Angeles—can't be enthusiastic about what it's been seeing from one of its wunderkind hurlers.
Over the last three seasons, the Dodgers have watched Walker Buehler dabble in Rookie of the Year contention, All-Stardom and postseason heroism. But thus far in 2021, he's raised alarms by allowing 16 runs (15 earned) on 26 hits with only 16 strikeouts in 17 innings.
Granted, a lot of that damage was done in a March 23 outing in which Buehler surrendered nine runs on 10 hits to the Milwaukee Brewers. But one major issue in that outing has also plagued Buehler all spring: his fastball, which typically sits in the mid-to-high 90s, has only been in the 93-94 mph range.
With Cy Young Award winners Clayton Kershaw and Trevor Bauer also in their rotation, the Dodgers don't necessarily need Buehler to be their ace. They do, however, need him to be better than this.
Surprise: Get a Load of Sandy Alcantara
If you're looking for the anti-Buehler, you might want to look in the direction of Miami Marlins right-hander Sandy Alcantara.
The 2019 All-Star has made six trips to the mound this spring and surrendered just 15 hits and three earned runs over 20.1 innings. The really surprising part, though, is that he's struck out 27 batters in the process.
As he's more so about getting ground balls and generally stifling hard contact, racking up swings and misses typically hasn't been Alcantara's game. But he's changing it up this spring, leaning harder on a four-seam fastball that's climbed to 99 mph while also snapping off breaking balls in the low 90s.
The previous version of Alcantara was good enough to rack up an above-average 116 ERA+ in 45 starts with the Marlins between 2018 and 2020. If this new version is indeed as dominant as advertised, he could make the leap to Cy Young Award contention in 2021.
Disappointment: The Reigning MVPs Look Like LVPs
Speaking of potential awards contenders, Atlanta's Freddie Freeman and the Chicago White Sox's Jose Abreu are out to repeat as the National League MVP and American League MVP, respectively.
Alas, neither is off to a good start in this regard.
After reporting to camp late because of a positive COVID-19 test, Abreu is just 12-for-55 with one home run through 17 games. Freeman only wishes he was doing that well, as his 14 appearances have yielded a 5-for-31 effort with a double and no long balls.
They both also struggled last spring, and neither Atlanta nor Chicago should be worried about its respective MVP. But not unlike that one kid from The Incredibles, fans of Abreu and Freeman might be growing impatient for something amazing.
Surprise: Bobby Dalbec's and Michael Chavis' Spectacular Slugging
Going into Sunday's action, only five players have hit as many as six home runs this spring. Among that group is an unlikely duo of teammates: Bobby Dalbec and Michael Chavis.
Chavis' breakout for the Boston Red Sox could portend a comeback after the former top prospect struggled mightily in the latter half of 2019 and throughout 2020. After blasting eight homers in just 23 games with Boston in 2020, Dalbec's seven spring homers are a case of more of the same.
The surprising aspect of this duo's success is that they're doing it not because they've erased preexisting strikeout habits, but in spite of those habits being very much alive. Between them, Dalbec and Chavis have whiffed 36 times in 109 plate appearances.
It's therefore obvious how the bottom could fall out from under each of them when the season starts. Then again, if the high-strikeout, high-power approach can work for Javier Baez, Joey Gallo and Miguel Sano, maybe it can also work for Dalbec and Chavis.
Disappointment: Rough 1st Impressions for Nolan Arenado and George Springer
The St. Louis Cardinals and Toronto Blue Jays surely came into the spring with hopes that their new stars would immediately justify the hype. But so far, so not good.
Arenado has gotten into 18 games and hit just .222/.308/.289 with no homers. In the 10 games that he has under his belt, Springer has hit just .240/.286/.340 with one home run. He's also dealing with a Grade 2 strain of his left oblique.
Is this the end of the world for St. Louis and Toronto? Hardly. But nor is it encouraging. After all, Arenado is going into his first year without the comfort of Coors Field, and Springer is a 31-year-old who had a history of nagging injuries even before his oblique decided to act up.
Surprise: Akil Baddoo Wants to Be a Household Name
When the Detroit Tigers selected Akil Baddoo from the Minnesota Twins in the Rule 5 draft, they were making a play on an athletic, yet largely unproven, prospect.
The 22-year-old has since had arguably the most eye-opening spring of any prospect, playing in 19 games and racking up a .314/.467/.714 line with four home runs and four stolen bases. Notably, the balls that he's put in play have averaged a sturdy 93.5 mph.
There's a sense that this is all too good to be true for Baddoo. Because of an elbow injury and the cancellation of the 2020 minor league season, he hasn't played in an actual professional contest since May 2019. And that was only at the High-A level.
As such, Baddoo has officially gone from being off the radar to part of Detroit's 26-man roster. If he maintains the form he's shown this spring, he might mount a run at the AL Rookie of the Year award.
Disappointment: The Minnesota Twins Forgot How to Hit
Elsewhere in the AL Central, the Twins are going into 2021 hoping to recapture the offensive magic that guided them to a record-setting 307 home runs in 2019.
It's not going well. The Twins are going into Sunday with an MLB-low .664 OPS for the spring. And this isn't the fault of assorted no-names, as regulars like Nelson Cruz, Max Kepler, Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton have all struggled to varying degrees.
Twins manager Rocco Baldelli is unperturbed by his team's spring slump, telling reporters: "What I'm looking for is for them to save all of the hits and runs for the season." In fairness, that could end up being the case.
Then again, this is yet another step in the wrong direction. For as dominant as their bats were in 2019, last year saw them finish in the middle of the pack in OPS+. If Minnesota's offense can't reverse course, the club's pursuit of a third straight division title could fall short.
Surprise: The Kansas City Royals Can't Stop Hitting
Contrary to the Twins, the Kansas City Royals have been so hot that it's a wonder their bats haven't literally caught fire.
Entering Sunday, the Royals lead all clubs in slugging and home runs. Leading the charge have been projected regulars such as Jorge Soler, Carlos Santana, Hunter Dozier, Whit Merrifield and Adalberto Mondesi, with an assist from top prospect Bobby Witt Jr. before he was optioned to the minors.
But lest anyone take this as a sign that Kansas City's offense will cool down once the season begins, the aforementioned names contain a solid mix of experience and upside. So don't count out the possibility that this surprise will be ongoing.
Disappointment: Ohio Clubs Can't Stop Losing
Sticking in the Central region, both Cleveland and the Cincinnati Reds came into spring looking to beat low expectations born out of their less-than-inspiring offseasons.
As for how that's going, the two Ohio clubs have combined for just 17 wins and 34 losses. So not well, in other words.
Though the loss of Francisco Lindor still stings, the bright side for Cleveland is that its pitching staff will almost certainly be better than its current 5.04 ERA suggests it will be. But with Trevor Bauer gone and Sonny Gray (back spasms) injured, the Reds' 5.94 ERA for the spring surely strikes a more ominous tone.
In any case, neither Cleveland nor Cincinnati is causing anyone to rethink their expectations for the AL and NL Central races. Which is to say, the two Ohio clubs will begin the season as significant underdogs.