Friday, March 19, 2010

Spring Training: First-Half Returns

Heyward has made it nearly impossible for the Braves to break camp without him in the lineup

We are half-way through the Spring Training season, so I thought it would be a good time to take a look at the stories we have been watching (Ten Stories That We’ll be Following in Spring Training), as well as some other interesting prospect developments. Here is a quick rundown, by team, of the most interesting stories…

Nationals – While Stephen Strasburg has been pretty much everything that everyone has ever written about him, there appears to be little chance that he comes north with the team. Although he certainly looks the part of the Nationals’ current best pitcher, the current over/under for his Major League debut looks to be somewhere around May 15th. This would give him about 6 Minor League starts—and plenty of time to prove he isn’t gaining anything in the Minors. With Drew Storen, however, appears to have a better shot at breaking camp in the Nationals’ bullpen. He won’t be handed the closer’s job, but he should be ready to assume it once Matt Capps proves unworthy.

Reds – The Reds have been one of my favorite teams to check in on this spring. While we took a lot of flack for our Reds Top 5 list this winter ( 1) Chapman, 2) Alonso, 3) Leake, 4) Francisco and 5) Frazier), our only regret at this point is that we didn’t place Juan Francisco higher. Alrodis Chapman came with huge expectations and has exceeded them. He is already clearly one of the top five arms in the system, but is likely to make at least 5 or 6 AA or AAA starts before he joins the rotation. Mike Leake has looked solid, and continues to disprove those who question his ‘stuff’. We wrote a couple of weeks ago that Francisco could be valuable if he shows he can defensively handle LF and 3B. He has shown to be capable at either spot and has a .937 OPS in 23 PAs. Give Francisco half of a season at AAA and he will be ready to contribute to the Big League club. Alonso and Frazier have been disappointing, and, as we wrote earlier, with three spots for four players (Votto, Alonso, Frazier and Francisco) it is looking more and more like one of them will be the odd man out and be dealt by this time next season.

Braves – Anyone who hasn’t caught Jason Heyward this spring is missing something special. The 20yo has posted a .440/.600/.720 line in 35 PAs, and may already be the team’s best hitter—certainly their best hitting outfielder. In other Braves happenings, Kris Medlen isn’t technically a prospect any longer, and if Jurrjens is healthy he may not have a rotation spot, but he has been extremely solid in four outings.

Marlins – The story coming in was supposed to be the battle for first base where Gaby Sanchez was looking to hold off Logan Morrison. Morrison has played his way out of any real consideration, and Sanchez has been solid (.879 OPS). Unless the Marlins deal for Mike Lowell (looking less likely) and slide Cantu back to first, the first base job appears to be his. But the real story of this camp has been that of 20yo Mike Stanton. Stanton has 3 home runs in 23 PAs and has posted a .316/.409/.842 line and is making it difficult for the Marlins not to keep him. Our bet is that they still open the season with him at AAA, but he has certainly turned heads.

Giants – Next to the Reds, the Giants have been my favorite camp to keep an eye on, as both the happenings surrounding Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner are significant. The Giants are now considering having Posey break camp with the team, backing up Molina, and playing some first base. The problem the Giants have is that Sandoval, Molina and Posey are the three best hitters that the Giants have, and Brian Sabean wants to always win now and would like to get all three of their bats in the lineup. However, Posey is their most valuable commodity and needs as many innings as possible behind the plate catching pitchers with velocity. Molina is a player that isn’t likely in their future beyond 2010, so we just don’t understand the logic here. Despite the ineptitude in his handling, Posey has posted a .925 OPS this Spring. There was a reason that we ranked Bumgarner lower than most anyone else. Bumgarner was drafted as a pitcher with a live arm and questionable secondary offerings. He rose to the front of the prospect rankings when he demonstrated better than expected control of his mid-90s heater. However, Bumgarner barely touched 90MPH with his fastball for most of the second half of last season, and has sat between 86-90 MPH this spring. His secondary offerings are just not that good to survive without the fastball. Coming into camp, the 5th starters spot was his to lose. Midway through camp, he looks like a better bet to open the season in AAA with Kevin Pucetas or Todd Wellemeyer the likely #5.

Mariners – The story here is Dustin Ackley’s conversion to second base. In 9 games at 2B, Ackley committed one error and didn’t look out of place, so maybe there is something to this move. While we don’t expect to see Ackley in Seattle before 2011, Ackley’s value increases significantly as a second baseman.

Rangers – The story here is the wide open battle for the Rangers’ rotation, where as many as seven players are competing for what appears to be three spots behind Rich Harden & Scott Feldman. Although we don’t believe that he is of the same caliber of many of the other options, Tommie Hunter seemed to be the front runner for one of the remaining spots before injuring stomach muscles that will likely sideline him 4-6 weeks. Neftali Feliz, who we still believe is a late-inning guy only, has essentially pitched himself out of contention, as he is still having difficulty the second time through the order. Although he had his struggles at times, Derek Holland acquitted himself well enough last season, and has the upside that you would like to see, that should make him a high choice for one of the remaining spots. That leaves Brandon McCarthy, converted reliever C.J. Wilson, Japanese repatriate Colby Lewis and Matt Harrison likely competing for two slots. The way things typically go in these situations, would make one feel that Brandon McCarthy and C.J. Wilson might have the inside track, as Colby Lewis has been knocked around pretty good so far this spring, however, we still feel that Matt Harrison is one of the four best starting pitchers that the Rangers have left in camp. Harrison has done little to disprove that this spring, as he has allowed 2 runs, 8 hits and 1 walk, while fanning 10 in his 9 innings this spring. A couple of other names worth mentioning...Max Ramirez may be in contention for the final bench spot; Justin Smoak has done little to change the belief that he will be a mid-season call-up; Tanner Scheppers will help the Rangers, either in the rotation or in the pen, at some point this season, and watch Alexi Ogando who has been one of the more impressive arms in camp.

Indians – Although Carlos Santana (.743 OPS) and Hector Rondon ( 0.00ERA, 5:0 K/BB ratio) did absolutely nothing to change our opinion that a) Santana will be the Indians everyday catcher by mid-season and b) Rondon is the 4th best starting pitcher currently in the Cleveland organization, the Indians have made it official that both will begin the 2010 at AAA. From an economic perspective, this was to be expected.

White Sox – The most significant prospect news out of White Sox camp this spring is the ankle surgery and season-ending injury for Top 2010 draftee, Jared Mitchell. However, keep an eye on Sergio Santos, who is out of options and just may have shown enough to earn a bullpen spot.

Cubs – The story of camp has been Starlin Castro who has turned in excellent glove work while posting a .435/.458/.739 batting line. Castro is the Cubs’ future shortstop and it looks like the future won’t have to wait any longer than June. The other key name to watch is 26yo, Esmailin Caridad, who has pitched brilliantly in five outings (6.1 IP, 0ERs, 4H, 1BB, 4K) and appears poised to become a key set-up man for Marmol/Grabow.

Tune in tomorrow for part II…

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