It’s still early, but MLB spring training games are underway. With spring training action comes a few surprises. Which are the most notable ones?
Jason Heyward is looking to find his form after a disappointing 2016. How’s he doing so far? How are things going in Red Sox camp with Pablo Sandoval. Travis d’Arnaud and Austin Hedges were once highly thought of catchers, and now they are looking to redeem their careers. How are they doing?
What are the five most notable early surprises from MLB spring training?
1. Jason Heyward continues to struggle
The Chicago Cubs are stacked. The loss of Dexter Fowler cleared things up a little, but the Chicago outfield still features at least five guys battling for three spots. If Javier Baez is the Cubs’ everyday second baseman, then Ben Zobrist will take one of those outfield positions.
So, what these guys do in spring training is important.
To that end, Heyward slashing at .105/.227/.316 through 19 at-bats is problematic. Normally, it wouldn’t be such a big deal. After all, Zobrist has slashed at .182/.357/.273 through 11 at-bats. Why are Heyward’s struggles so much worse?
Heyward’s first year in Chicago was a disappointment. Sure, the team won 103 games en route to a World Series, but he slashed at .230/.306/.325 during the regular season. In the playoffs, he was even more of a non factor, hitting .104/.140/.167.
Most of the time, deeply analyzing the early spring training stats of veteran players is a fool’s game. They’re in Arizona or Florida to get their work in and just get acclimated to baseball again. If anything they do in spring training matters, it’s what happens at the end, right before camp is broken.
But when you’re coming off of a season like that, every moment of spring training matters. When you’re competing for a job against remarkably tough competition, it’s even more critical to make every moment count. When you’re coming off of a season like that and competing for your job against remarkably tough competition, this is magnified all the more.
Heyward needs to turn it around fast.
2. Greg Bird soaring for New York Yankees
It’s not so much that we were expecting a bad spring from Bird. After all, the guy did show immense promise in 2015. But after missing all of 2016 with a shoulder injury, it was certainly reasonable to think that Bird might ease into his swing in 2017.
It hasn’t worked that way. The power that we saw so much of in 2015 (11 home runs in 157 at-bats) is back.
— MLB (@MLB) March 3, 2017
Bird hit three home runs in his first 16 Grapefruit League at-bats and slashed at .375/.474/1.063.
Now, what happens if that continues? For starters, the intriguing spring training battle between Bird and Chris Carter gets a lot less interesting. Bird is not only younger, but he’s a more well rounded hitter. Carter had to outperform him in spring to win the job. Obviously, that has not happened.
Additionally, a continued big spring from Bird will show the Yankees that they have more than just a good, young offense. If Bird can even extrapolate his 2015 numbers over a full season, New York becomes a viable playoff contender. Imagine what happens if he does better.
Based on what we’ve already seen in spring training, we may not have to imagine.
3. Travis d’Arnaud raking for the New York Mets
Travis d’Arnaud hasn’t exactly enjoyed a smooth career with New York. In four seasons, he’s played in more than 100 games only once and has never played in more than 108. At the plate, d’Arnaud has struggled with a career .245/.311/.393 slash line. The 2016 season seemed to be a bottoming out with d’Arnaud slashing at .247/.307/.323 and hitting only four home runs.
A different version of d’Arnaud has shown up for the Mets in Port St. Lucie.
— New York Mets (@Mets) March 7, 2017
He’s recorded hits in 9 of his first 20 at-bats, is slashing at .450/.450/.800 and has two home runs.
So, what can the numbers be attributed to? Of course, it’s a small sample size and pitchers in spring training (especially in the early going) are often working things out. So, offensive numbers can be inflated.
But while we’re not expecting d’Arnaud to continue his .450/.450/.800 pace through the season, there is something to suggest that the improvement isn’t a fluke. d’Arnaud’s improved statistics are coinciding with a new swing, which is currently drawing rave reviews.
What kind of a boon would it be for New York if this holds?
Remember, this was once one of baseball’s top prospects. Following the 2012 season, the Mets traded then reigning Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey to the Toronto Blue Jays. One of the main prospects New York received back was a young pitcher named Noah Syndergaard. Another was d’Arnaud, and in some publications d’Arnaud actually ranked ahead of Syndergaard entering 2013.
D’Arnaud is only 28. His early career has been disappointing. But there’s still time for him to show why he was so highly thought of as a prospect.
If d’Arnaud could start to do that, it’d be a huge shot in the arm for New York. Even with d’Arnaud as a question mark, the Mets are already entering 2017 as one of the National League’s best teams.
4. Austin Hedges becoming complete catcher
We move from a once highly touted catcher to one now looking to prove himself.
Nobody has ever disputed Hedges’ ability to be a good defensive catcher. But as his Major League slash line of .161/.206/.236 would attest, his bat is something of a question.
But a .326/.353/.597 season with 21 home runs AAA El Paso in 2016 gave the San Diego Padres reason for optimism. His .500/.526/.667 line in Cactus League action is only giving more reason for hope.
Even better? Those 18 at-bats failed to produce a single home run.
Ordinarily, that’s a little problematic. The Cactus League is a home run hitter’s paradise. How can we actually be encouraged by someone failing to hit a single one?
An old scouting report on Hedges answers that question.
“The hit tool is well below average though, as Hedges is impatient at the plate and struggles with anything that doesn’t go straight,” a 2015 scouting report from Christopher Crawford and J.P. Breen of Baseball Prospectus said. “He’s also a pull-happy hitter, and too often will try to crush pitches on the outer half out of the park rather than go the other way with the pitch.”
Other than Coors Field, the Cactus League may be the easiest place on earth to get pull happy and swing for the fences. Hedges is not doing that. He has three doubles, indicating that he’s swinging for the gaps. That kind of approach works very well at the spacious Petco Park in San Diego.
Hedges is showing continued growth as a hitter this spring. His development, along with Hunter Renfroe and Manuel Margot, gives the Padres something they haven’t had in a while — genuine hope for the not too distant future.
5. Slimmed down Pablo Sandoval producing for Red Sox
The 2017 season may well be Sandoval’s last chance to do anything positive in Boston. Though it’s early, so far his spring training has been a success. Sandoval had seven hits in his first 21 at-bats for a cool .333 average.
I'm gonna give credit where it's due – Pablo Sandoval looks really good this spring. There, I said it. Now let's see how he looks in June.
— Jared Carrabis (@Jared_Carrabis) March 7, 2017
Sandoval is indeed a high-priced player. For two years, he’s been an unmitigated bust in Boston. So, why do his spring training stats matter? On their own, they don’t. If Sandoval struggles again in the games that count, a hot start to spring won’t make any difference.
But whether he’s been with the Boston Red Sox or San Francisco Giants, Sandoval’s success has always gone hand-in-hand with his weight. The Panda is never going to be a slim guy like Dee Gordon. But when his weight has ballooned, Sandoval has struggled. It happened in 2010 with the Giants and in 2015-16 with the Red Sox.
When his weight has been more manageable, his performance has generally been solid.
Right now, Sandoval resembles the 2011-2014 version of himself. In the end, that may not mean much. But if you’re a Boston fan hoping that the third year of the Panda’s contract will be better than the first two, you have a few things to be optimistic about.