Spring Training Stock Watch: Five Players With Arrows Pointing Up
Which players have improved their standing since the start of spring training? I'm so glad you asked.
Generally, the two times of year that stats are to be ignored are September and spring training. Why is that? For one, any month (or less) of games can be far too small for the sample to be relevant. But there are other reasons. In September, in previous years at least, rosters were as big as 40 players. That’s now changed to 28, but any expanded roster puts players in a position to be playing a slightly different game than the rest of the season. And spring training, of course, is just an entirely different animal. A player might be hitting .600/.800/1.400 but facing mostly AA talent. Plus there’s thinner Arizona air, actual big leaguers trying things and it’s just not a great spot to evaluate.
All that said, spring training is also the time of the year when players come to camp in “the best shape of their life” and this is their chance to show the work they’ve done has paid off. It’s easy to look at a coaching staff and tell them to ignore the stats, but they’re only human. It’s not all about those stats, of course. It’s about how they’re looking while putting up those stats, and there are a few players who have put themselves on the radar to maybe earn a spot on the Opening Day roster or at least sometime soon thereafter. Some of that is due to the expanded rosters, but some of it is due to their play on the field.
Let’s dig in with position players first.
I’m going to start with Olivares because he’s had the most impressive spring offensively. Olivares started the spring 7 for 10 with a double and a triple and two home runs. He’s cooled off since, going just 2 for 5 with a double. The hitting isn’t something that people especially doubted after he hit .313/.397/.559 in Omaha last year in 292 plate appearances. He showed an ability to make contact in both the majors and minors with low strikeout rates and some solid power. The issue with him is his defense. For an athletic guy, he takes some funky routes and struggled where you’d expect him not to struggle.
I think it’s easy to look at a team with Rusty Kuntz on the payroll and think that someone with his skillset should just be able to figure it out, but sometimes it’s just not that simple. I, unfortunately, didn’t get to see him when I was in Arizona due to that pesky lockout, but from what I’ve been able to see from televised games and from what I’ve heard, he’s improved his defense tremendously. No, he’s not Michael A. Taylor in center or anything, but he just seems to look much closer to what you’d expect for a guy with his skills. He’s still no guarantee on the roster, but he’s put himself on the radar.
I was actually thinking about Isbel yesterday morning and how he’s been largely ignored this spring with Whit Merrifield being shifted to the outfield and then Alec Lewis tweeted this:
Which pretty much sums up my thoughts. I’m an Isbel fan and have been for awhile. I know some see him as a middling fourth outfielder while others see more. I see a guy who is probably one of the four best outfielders on the roster but may not quite fit with how they’re planning to line up. But that said, he’s doing a lot of what he did at the end of the year last year (there’s that spring training and September thing). He led off yesterday’s game with a home run and has been pretty good about managing the zone with four walks in 20 plate appearances and a triple to go along with his home run.
Isbel is probably enough of the future that he may not earn a spot if they want him playing every day, but he’s at least put himself in a position to be the guy if there’s an injury in the outfield. Or maybe if there’s one to an infielder who has had injury issues that force one of the outfielders to move back to the infield. In my opinion, between Isbel and Olivares, the Royals have enough that they should either be looking to move Andrew Benintendi, a pending free agent or look at put Taylor on the bench as a fantastic defensive fourth outfielder. They won’t do either in all likelihood, but I’m not sure that doesn’t make them better.
I don’t think Melendez is going to make the Opening Day roster. But I think it’s more of a possibility today than it was a week ago. He has shown the same contact skills that were a big part of his turnaround in 2021. He’s shown big power as was evidenced on his home run the other day. And he’s looked very athletic behind the plate. But he’s been so good at the plate that the Royals have put him into a game at third base and have talked about him working in the outfield as well. I think the outfield makes a ton of sense given the organizational depth, but I also mentioned two young outfielders who could use playing time, so maybe I’m wrong here.
Like I said, he isn’t likely to make it, especially with the pitcher limits on the rosters gone through May 1, but an injury or him continuing to absolutely light the Cactus League on fire would potentially change that. He’s gone from basically guaranteed to start the year in Omaha to cracking the door open just a bit.
Now let’s get to those pitchers.
It may seem like bad timing to have him on the list after he walked three Cubs in just 2.1 innings and giving up a three-run homer to drive in two of those walks. But a few days ago, I got a text from someone who is close enough to the team to know that said five words making me think he had a job to lose rather than one to win. “You should write about Zerpa.” I might have something more on him in the next couple weeks leading up to Opening Day, but for now, I think his ability to give multiple innings with a different look than just about anyone on the staff will help him as the Royals add two or three pitchers from the original projection.
I think you’ll likely see more days like the one he had yesterday than the one he had in September against the then Indians or his first start against the A’s, but a pitcher who generally throws strikes and can give three or four innings to start the year is a nice weapon to have. I like Zerpa and think he’s probably a little minor league seasoning away, but his general ability to find the zone has given him an inside track to a job.
The Royals chose to protect Snider from the Rule 5 draft this past fall only to find out there wouldn’t be a Rule 5 draft this season due to the lockout. While that stinks for a bunch of reasons, it’s given Snider an opportunity in the spring that he may not have otherwise had. While he’s in his first year on the 40-man roster, he’s got experience, having been in the organization since he was drafted in the 12th round in 2017. He was very good for Northwest Arkansas before struggling in Omaha to end the season last year, but the stuff is big league caliber.
What he’s done this spring has been eye opening for the Royals. I think he could probably stand to spend a little more time in Omaha, but if his command and control are right, you can make an argument that he’s one of the nine or 10 best options right now for the big league. He has a good fastball and a good slider and hasn’t allowed any of the 11 spring training hitters he’s faced to reach base while he’s struck out four of them. The opponent quality is just 6.5, meaning the average opponent he’s faced is AA quality, but it might be enough to find him a job when the final rosters are announced. Like Zerpa, he’s likely a product of the expanded roster, but I think he’s shown he’s closer than at least I thought.
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I sadly agree that Dozier and Santana and O'Hearn (at least for now) are hitting well enough to probably keep MJ off the Opening Day Lineup as DH. And I guess I am okay with that because I am okay if we do not quite make the playoffs this year, even if the reason why is because we favored should be bench vets like Dozier and O'Hearn over an obvious piece of our championship core, MJ, who realistically, would probably be better than their production from Opening Day, not to mention him getting started in the major leagues to hasten the day when he has gone through his adjustment period. MJ had a better year than Bobby last year, and deserves, just as much as him, to not be held back by around average other players. But I think that Dayton's pride as not being able to admit that, and that Dozier was not worthy of his contract (or maybe he is, but as a bench player behind MJ), is causing this. Now with Pratto, it looks like it was also a mistake, but only in retrospect, to give Santana a 2 year deal, but okay because no one could have predicted that MJ and Pratto would have the break out they did last year (which gives you cover, Dayton, to go ahead and get them up here). And, compared to Bobby and MJ, Pratto may also legitimately need a little more minors time to show he can strike out less.
With Zerpa, that first outing seemed like Bubic's, that these guys really can be consistent and successful in a major league rotation. Which means that we are not stuck trotting out a Singer or Keller if they cannot be. That we can do some attitude adjusting moves to the bullpen or AAA if someone is not getting the job done. When you have 9 pitchers for 5 or 6 starting spots, use that to create performance based competition. Reward those who respond to coaching to do what they are supposed to and have success. And punish those who do not.
This list just reminds me of how different our farm system is these days. Up and down that system real prospects are emerging. Hard decisions are going to be made. Today we fall in love with player XYZ and tomorrow it could be the next one in line.
This list is of the most likely to influence this year, to be followed by a similar list for at least another year or two. You've made some pretty good predictions, but somehow I believe even the best of us is not going to be able to pick all the players that will be on this team in 3 - 5 years. The competition will be tough, however like the 2012 to 2015 era, I am so looking forward to those battles. To me, it's more fun watching a team figure things out to success than to know you have a championship team. I hope this is the start of something great. Got my popcorn and soda ready!