While the games in spring training don’t count in the standings, what happens at spring training often matters. Who is playing well? Who is struggling? How are some of the big names in new places looking?
While nothing in spring training has an official bearing on what happens in the regular season, it matters greatly in indirect ways.
With that in mind, since the beginning of the regular season is two weeks away, what are the eight-most intriguing storylines that are emerging from spring training in 2016?
1. Chicago White Sox mutiny?
The Adam LaRoche story just won’t go away and at this point, it’s hard to see it ending well for the White Sox.
We know that LaRoche retired because he was told by executive vice president Kenny Williams that his son Drake’s time in the clubhouse would be limited.
According to ESPN baseball analyst Karl Ravech, the move upset the team so much it was willing to boycott a spring training game.
“This is a team that was not going to go out and practice,” Ravech said, via Business Insider. “And furthermore, this was a team that ultimately said to the manager ‘we’re not going to go out and play in that game at 1:00.’ You had a team that was willing to stand by the player and not participate in practice, and more so, not participate in an exhibition game.”
It was later reported by Bob Nightengale of USA Today that Williams acted at the behest of some players who had complained.
It’s a safe bet that one of those players was not Chris Sale, who’s doing nothing to hide his support of LaRoche and utter frustration with team management.
— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) March 18, 2016
Is there a genuine division in that clubhouse? Is Sale so angry with management that he’ll try to force his way out of Chicago? Will he try to get Williams fired?
LaRoche is a 36-year-old player coming off of a terrible season, but his retirement has been a genuine trigger for what’s turning into a very controversial story.
2. Maikel Franco is raking
The Philadelphia Phillies are certainly in a rebuilding project. But if their young third baseman is going to hit this well, that rebuilding project may not last much longer:
— Cut4 (@Cut4) March 19, 2016
Maikel Franco is certainly a cornerstone of Philadelphia’s future. He was very good for the Phillies in 2015, but only played in the majors for about half of the season, hitting .280 with 14 homers and 50 RBI’s in 80 games.
Franco’s dominant run in the Grapefruit League combined with what he did in 2015, gives genuine reason for optimism in Philadelphia — something the Phillies haven’t had much of over the better part of the past half decade.
3. Struggles of San Francisco Giants big money pitchers
We go from a rebuilding with reason for optimism to a “win now” team with reason for pessimism.
The Giants spent a lot of money bolstering their pitching staff in the offseason, spending a combined $220 million on Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija.
Thus far, neither man has looked especially sharp in spring training. As a matter of fact, both have been terrible.
Ultimately it may not mean that much. Veteran pitchers struggling in the hitter-friendly Cactus League is not new. With that said, the Giants spent a lot of money on both pitchers and their struggles in the spring and seeing their pitches get smacked around the park is not what anyone associated with the organization wants to see.
If nothing else, it’s stresses the importance of the early regular season success for Cueto and Samardzija.
4. Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval in Boston
After a last-place season in 2014, the Boston Red Sox spent big in free agency leading up to last season, landing Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval. Unfortunately, 2015 couldn’t have gone much worse for both the players and the Red Sox, making 2016 a huge year.
Ramirez has an even brighter spotlight on him. In addition to needing to find his bat again, he’s learning a new position at first base. So far, Hanley has hit pretty well.
In terms of fielding, Sean McAdam of CSN New England quoted manager John Farrell, who is impressed with how well Ramirez is handling the new position.
“Hanley is doing a very good job at first base,” the manager said. “Balls in the dirt, responsibility to the position, particularly with men on, he’s getting additional reps. I think he’s felt more comfortable coming back to the infield, being involved in the mix, being involved in the game on each and every pitch.”
On the other end of the spectrum is Sandoval. The Panda is not hitting well and from the sounds of things, is struggling at handling criticism.
Was told that Pablo Sandoval blew up at reporter yesterday for citing declining defensive stats in article. Slammed table w/ bat during rant
— David Laurila (@DavidLaurilaQA) March 16, 2016
Both men will be big stories for the remainder of spring training and the early portion of the regular season.
5. Early returns on Arizona Diamondbacks off-season haul
The Diamondbacks were incredibly active during the winter, so they’ll get plenty of attention throughout the year. What have the early weeks of spring training given us?
So far, Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller have been good for Arizona. They haven’t been great, but there’s been nothing to indicate that either pitcher won’t be just fine to start the regular season.
As far as the guys they gave up. Aaron Blair has not had a great spring training. At this point, pitchers have only thrown a few innings, so it’s conceivable that one bad pitch could really inflate someone’s ERA. What is somewhat alarming is that he walked three hitters in his first nine innings, which is too many for a guy who doesn’t strike hitters out.
Ender Inciarte and Dansby Swanson, however, have both done very well for the Atlanta Braves in early Grapefruit League action. Inciarte is easily hitting well enough to be a fixture at the top of the Atlanta batting order. It’s unlikely we’ll see Swanson this year (except maybe as a September call-up), but he’s definitely hitting well enough to indicate that he’ll be a huge part of the Braves’ future, probably starting in 2017.
There’s a long way to go before final judgment on Arizona’s offseason can be made. The early returns indicate that while the Diamondbacks may have landed two good (or great) players, the price they paid for them was indeed a steep one.
6. Joey Gallo, complete hitter?
We know that Joey Gallo has power. We saw that in his stint in the majors with the Texas Rangers last season. The problem was that while Gallo hit home runs at a prolific rate, he also struck out at an alarmingly high rate. As a hitter, he was very one-dimensional. Virtually any at-bat that didn’t result in a home run was a non productive out. Spring training has been a different story.
While the tape measure home runs are exciting, Gallo’s ability to get a bat on the ball for a single is strangely more relevant.
The Rangers have a crowded offense and finding room for Gallo will not be easy. But if he continues to be a productive overall hitter and not just a basher, his bat will simply be too good for Texas to keep out of their every day lineup.
7. Jay Bruce bolstering his trade value
The rebuilding Cincinnati Reds were reportedly very close to dealing Jay Bruce to the Toronto Blue Jays in the offseason. That didn’t happen, but the slugging outfielder’s spring training is doing a lot to help his trade value.
Bruce’s overall numbers are good but what’s really promising is that he’s not striking out at a high rate. In his first 29 at-bats, Bruce struck out only six times. Over 550 at-bats, that translates to 114 strikeouts, which is a very reasonable total in the modern era, especially for a player with 30+ home run ability like Bruce.
Bruce’s power is undeniably something that nearly any contending team would be interested in, but his incredibly high strikeout rate and resulting poor batting average is a deterrent.
A good spring training will certainly put him on the radar of not only Toronto, but any team with designs on contending in 2016.
8. Marcus Stroman and Drew Storen look great
Two big questions surround the Blue Jays as we approach the 2016 season.
One, can Marcus Stroman take the leap and be the team’s ace? If he does, then the loss of David Price all of a sudden doesn’t look so significant.
Two, can Drew Storen be an elite closer? The Toronto bullpen wasn’t bad in 2015, but it lacked the dominant closer that’s so often needed to win a championship.
So far, both pitchers look to be doing great for the Blue Jays. Storen is having a great spring and Stroman looks like a true ace.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) March 6, 2016
For the Blue Jays to improve on their 2015 season, they’ll need to at least make the World Series. If these two guys continue to pitch at this level, that’s a distinct possibility.