Going Deep: What Hitters to Watch in Spring Training
Welcome to spring training, that beautiful time of the year when the stats don’t count, everyone’s in the best shape of their lives, and no team officially sucks yet. Except for the Orioles.
Yesterday, Alex Fast wrote an excellent article detailing the pitchers to keep an eye on in spring training this year. You can, and should, read that here.
Today, I’ll be attempting to give you the same type of primer for hitters. But before we dive in, there are a few things that are important to keep in mind:
- This is spring training, which means you’re going to hear dozens of stories about guys who lost weight, guys who changed their swings, guys who grew 6 inches, and guys who fell into a pit of radioactive sludge and emerged with a third eyeball on their knee and the ability to swat homers at will. The vast majority of the hype that gets generated during this time ends up amounting to nothing. Take everything with a grain of salt.
- Hitters are harder to quantitatively evaluate during spring training than pitchers. For pitchers, velocity bumps and new pitches can sometimes serve as precursors to big breakouts. Things such as swing changes and new offensive approaches are harder to get a handle on, and even when they lead to improvements at the plate in spring training, the sample size is often too small to really be reliable.
- Speaking of sample size, most hitters won’t surpass 70 at-bats during the course of spring training, and most offensive statistics need longer than that to stabilize. Strikeout and walk rates are the first stats to stabilize, but even they can’t be considered predictive in any way based only on spring training. Never go all in on a guy based on how he performs in spring. Last year’s spring training home run leaders were Yonder Alonso, Ian Happ, Dan Vogelbach, and Frank Schwindel. Yeah, seriously, Frank Schwindel.
- All that having been said, spring training performances aren’t completely meaningless. This is the time of year when position battles are won and sleepers are born. Spring training performance can also serve as a barometer for how healthy the guys who are coming back from injury are. Find some guys you’re interested in following, watch some at-bats, and judge for yourself how good they look.
Who to Watch and What to Watch For
Peter Alonso (1B, New York Mets) — Considering the Mets operate like they have the budget of a minor league team from Rancho Cucamonga, it seems like a foregone conclusion that Alonso won’t break camp as the starting first baseman. That extra year of team control is just too enticing for an organization that has to really cut corners to make things work in a market as small as New York City. That said, it will be interesting to see how Alonso handles the major league pitching he faces to get a sense of how he might adjust once he does get the call. And the Mets are known for picking up injuries like it’s going out of style, so a hot spring performance from Alonso and an injury to an infielder could always force the team’s hand.
Jeff McNeil (2B, New York Mets) — Despite having no prior experience playing in the outfield, McNeil is slated to get reps out there this spring to see if he can handle a corner spot alongside Michael Conforto and Brandon Nimmo. With Rajai Davis and Keon Broxton as his main competition, he’s got a chance at grabbing a full-time gig if he proves himself defensively competent. Considering the elite contact ability he flashed this past season in 238 plate appearances, he’s someone to keep an eye on.
Josh Donaldson (3B, Atlanta Braves) — First and foremost is the question of health: Can Donaldson make it through spring training without his calves disintegrating into a cloud of fine dust and vanishing in the breeze? Beyond that though, it would be nice to see him square up baseballs this spring. His contact ability has been backsliding for three years now, and he’s 33 years old. Early reports are positive, but keep tabs on how he performs against notably poor spring training pitching.
Johan Camargo (IF, Atlanta Braves) — Camargo is the odd man out in Atlanta, which is a shame considering his mini breakout in 2018: He hit 19 homers in 524 plate appearances and made big strides in pitch recognition and plate discipline. It will be interesting to see what positions he plays this spring and how often he plays them. If they give him outfield reps, he could accumulate a good amount of at-bats as a super utility player this year.
Maikel Franco/Scott Kingery (3B, Philadelphia Phillies) — The Phillies obviously aren’t married to Franco as their third baseman — I don’t think it’s allowed by law, and even if it were, what’s next, letting teams marry their buses or their favorite chairs? I mean, come on. But anyway, Gabe Kapler has already come out and said third base will be a competition between Kingery and Franco. All the spring training story lines are already rearing their heads: Franco has lost 10 pounds, Kingery has put on 13 pounds of muscle and changed his swing, yadda, yadda, yadda. Still, this is a competition worth keeping tabs on, especially if Kingery wins the job.
Roman Quinn/Nick Williams (OF, Philadelphia Phillies) — This competition may become meaningless if/when the Phillies sign Bryce Harper, but until the dump trucks deliver the $400 million in cash to Harper’s doorstep, it’s worth watching. Quinn has the potential to be a really cheap source of 30-plus steals, and Williams made enough strides in his plate approach and contact ability this past year to make 25 homers and a mediocre average seem possible.
Ryan Zimmerman (1B, Washington Nationals) — Matt Adams seems destined to haunt Zimmerman for the rest of his days on the Earth, but there’s a lot to like about what Zimmerman did while he was on the field last year. First, he ranked 12th in average exit velocity last year. Second, had the 23rd-highest Barrels/BBE%. And finally, he posted a 52.8% hard-hit rate according to Baseball Savant, which placed him second in baseball behind Aaron Judge. Monitor his health and how the Nationals are utilizing him with Adams to get a sense of whether he’s a sleeper worth targeting at the end of drafts.
Victor Robles (OF, Washington Nationals) — Robles has a job all but locked up with the Nationals. Still, keep an eye on where he’s slotted in the lineup. Washington has talked about batting him ninth, which will really cap his stolen base and RBI/run totals.
Lewis Brinson (OF, Miami Marlins) — Strikeouts. They’ve been Brinson’s worst enemy in the major leagues, and they’ve mostly come as a result of his inability to square up breaking balls. He’s toolsy and still just 24 years old. If he seems to have taken a step forward at making contact this spring, he could be a sneaky late-round flier with 20/20 upside and playing time as far as the eye can see.
Nick Senzel/Jesse Winker/Scott Schebler (OF, Cincinnati Reds) — Reds manager David Bell recently suggested that Senzel is “the favorite” to be the team’s starting center fielder this season. Of course, Senzel will first have to demonstrate he can handle the position defensively. A rough spring — either offensively or defensively — could help Schebler and/or Winker leapfrog Senzel on the depth chart. With regular playing time, any of the three could have fantasy relevance, though Senzel’s ceiling is the most alluring.
Harrison Bader/Jose Martinez (OF, St. Louis Cardinals) — It’s a battle of David vs. Goliath for the corner outfield spot in St. Louis, and I don’t just say that because Martinez is big enough to crush Bader underneath his giant, 6’6” yeti feet. The two couldn’t be more different, with Bader being a speedy defensive wiz with some pop and a penchant for strikeouts and Martinez being a lumbering defensive nightmare who can barrel up a baseball about as well as anyone in the game. This is a competition worth watching closely, as whoever wins would be a serious sleeper candidate with big upside.
Corey Dickerson (OF, Pittsburgh Pirates) — The big question here is if the huge drop in Dickerson’s strikeout rate from last season was an aberration or if it will stick. If Dickerson’s still sporting a sub-20% strikeout rate by the end of spring training, we could be looking at a guy who can hit .280 and swat 25 homers who’s being completely forgotten about in drafts this year.
Munoz/Gyorko/Wong (2B, St. Louis Cardinals) — The Cardinals love to play a game with their infield every year called “How Many Fantasy Players Can We Render Utterly Useless by Not Giving Them Consistent Playing Time?” A bad time is usually had by all. Because of their aforementioned outfield logjam and the addition of Goldschmidt, they’ll really only be able to cycle the trio of Munoz, Gyorko, and Wong at second base this year. Munoz showed an intriguing ability to contribute across the board last year, and Gyorko has always flashed impressive power. It’s a competition worth keeping tabs on for those in deeper leagues.
Garrett Hampson/Brendan Rodgers/Ryan McMahon (2B, Colorado Rockies) — The assumption in the fantasy world is that Hampson will be Colorado’s starting second baseman this year, but Bud Black has recently stated it’s an open competition between Hampson, McMahon, and top prospect Rodgers that could potentially result in a platoon. That’s like nails on a chalkboard to fantasy owners’ ears. Hampson and Rodgers have the highest upside of the bunch, and with a starting gig in Colorado on the line, this competition is absolutely worth your attention.
Franmil Reyes/Franchy Cordero/Hunter Renfroe/Manuel Margot (OF, San Diego Padres) — With Manny Machado likely pushing Wil Myers off third base, the already-crowded Padres outfield just got even more packed. Myers is a lock for one of the corner spots, leaving Reyes, Cordero, Margot, and Renfroe left to play musical chairs for the two remaining outfield spots in Fran Diego. All four are extremely young, talented players with high ceilings, so pay close attention to how they’re performing this spring to get the inside edge on a potential steal in drafts.
Wilmer Flores (2B, Arizona Diamondbacks) — Flores is an interesting case of a player who has always shown some intriguing skills but never seemed to string together enough playing time to show them off. Consider this: Among players with at least 350 plate appearances this past year, Flores had the fifth-lowest strikeout rate and the 22nd-lowest swinging-strike rate. If Flores can lock down the second base job in Arizona this spring, those excellent contact rates paired with a much more favorable home park could produce a breakout offensive year for the 27-year-old.
Luke Voit/Greg Bird (1B, New York Yankees) — Will Bird be the word for the Yankees at first base, or will Voit pull a John Voight and ride off with the job like a Midnight Cowboy? And while we’re asking the tough questions, why am I, a man not yet 30, making John Voight references? Our own Nick Gerli recently dove into Voit’s explosive finish in 2018, and for now, Voit appears to have the inside track on the job. But in a New York minute, anything can change.
Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (IF, Toronto Blue Jays) — Gurriel Jr. went on a torrid hot streak right before going down with an injury late this past season. His free-swinging ways might make some owners nervous to buy in, but his .273 xAVG, excellent 45.1% hard-hit rate, and 7.8% barrel all back it up. Carrying over his strong 2018 performance into spring training would not only boost his fantasy value but would make his job much more secure once Vlad Jr. makes his inevitable appearance later in the year.
Cedric Mullins (OF, Baltimore Orioles) — Chances are, if you’re watching a Baltimore Orioles spring training game, your threshold for entertainment is already super low. Which is great news because there isn’t much worth getting excited about when it comes to the O’s this year. Mullins, however, could be a rare bright spot if he secures a favorable spot in the lineup. Jonathan Villar is likely Baltimore’s leadoff hitter, but if Mullins can prove he’s worthy of hitting toward the top of the lineup, it would be a boon for his fantasy value considering his 20-plus stolen base speed.
Jonathan Schoop (2B, Minnesota Twins) — Health is the big question with Schoop. It’s been noted that an oblique injury he dealt with last year caused him to alter his swing. If he’s looking comfortable at the plate and not striking out much, the chance of a bounce-back becomes a little higher.
Byron Buxton (OF, Minnesota Twins) — Open up, it’s time for your annual dose of “maybe Buxton will figure it out this year.” The best that can be said for Buxton is that he has a job and a lot of talent. A strong spring training where he shows a marked improvement in his strikeout rate might be enough to make him worth fantasy owners’ time.
Billy Hamilton (OF, Kansas City Royals) — Dave Cherman and I refer to Hamilton as “Air Bud” because he’s fast and about as offensively talented as a golden retriever. The nickname now seems doubly appropriate considering Hamilton’s career is getting more second chances than Air Bud got sequels. Maybe a change of scenery is what Hamilton needed. Maybe playing for the notoriously steal-happy Royals will result in another 60-stolen base season. What you should be watching for this spring is where he’s being slotted in the lineup and whether he’s changed his approach at the plate at all.
Jake Bauers (1B, Cleveland Indians) — Bauers’ peripherals didn’t really support the 26.8% strikeout rate he posted this past season. It will be interesting to see where his strikeout rate settles by the end of spring training, as he’s someone who could go 15/15 at first base.
Miguel Cabrera (1B, Detroit Tigers) — Despite going down for the season with an arm injury this past year, Cabrera says he’s more concerned about his back and legs in 2019. That’s not exactly encouraging to hear. Regardless, it’ll be worth keeping tabs on how he’s moving this spring and whether it seems like he can really let loose on his swings.
Justin Bour (1B, Los Angeles Angels) — Bour’s 2017 breakout sputtered this past season, but with Shohei Ohtani being brought along slowly after his Tommy John surgery and Albert Pujols still being, well, Albert Pujols, there’s an opportunity for Bour to soak up a lot of at-bats in Los Angeles. A dip in hard-contact and line-drive rates really sank Bour in 2018, so keep an eye on the quality of contact he’s making this spring.
Willie Calhoun (OF, Texas Rangers) — Calhoun will likely be competing with Hunter Pence this spring for a corner outfield spot in Texas. Calhoun’s strikeout rate more than doubled during his brief stint with Texas in 2018, so it will be interesting to see if he’s made any adjustments this spring. Be sure to zero in on any at-bats he gets against established major league starters.
Tyler White (1B/DH, Houston Astros) — The most surprising aspect of White’s breakout in 2018 was the power output, so it will be worth noting whether there’s any carryover this spring. He’ll likely break camp as the team’s first baseman or designated hitter, but a slow spring from White and a hot spring from prospect Kyle Tucker could complicate things.
Ramon Laureano (OF, Oakland Athletics) — Laureano is entering camp as the presumptive center fielder in Oakland and has become a popular sleeper pick because of his potential for double-digit homers and stolen bases. The 28.4% strikeout rate he posted last year is a concern though and will be something worth keeping an eye on in spring as Dustin Fowler, Mark Canha, and Chad Pinder are all lurking.
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