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March 15, 2011

Overthinking It

Small Samplings of Spring, AL Edition

by Ben Lindbergh

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We’re all aware that spring training stats wouldn’t get much attention in an ideal world, since a player’s extended record of prior performance in the minors and/or majors allows for far more accurate forecasts than a month’s worth of playing time against mixed competition in March. (If you don’t believe me, look no further than this recent dispatch from Florida: “Cards’ Lohse goes six scoreless.”) Still, we know from past experience that some small-sample heroics will have implications for games that count; superior production—as well as glowing scouting reports—in the Grapefruit or Cactus League can impress a manager more easily than a good month for a far-flung minor-league affiliate, enabling a player on the bubble to earn a place (or a more prominent role) on the big club’s roster.

As I write this, Melky Cabrera and Ryan Roberts lead their respective leagues in batting average, and Luke Hughes and Danny Espinosa are the latest word in RBI men, as effective a reminder as any that the clean slate of April is still a few weeks away. That said, the exhibition schedule is half complete; the first round of cuts has already been made, and coaching staffs and front-office executives are meeting at regular intervals to ruminate on their rosters’ composition come Opening Day. Which performances to date by players who came into the spring on shaky ground have stood them in good stead for 2011? Today I’ll tackle the AL, highlighting one batter and one pitcher per team, before turning to the NL representatives later this week.

Baltimore Orioles

Nolan Reimold (.294/.429/.529, 34 AB): Reimold had a disastrous 2010, squandering a starting job with a .193/.299/.316 April before turning in an even more disappointing .249/.364/.374 performance for Triple-A Norfolk after being demoted. The 26-year-old remains in the running for a backup outfielder spot, and the fact that his primary competitor for the job, Felix Pie, is hitting .241 without power or patience isn’t hurting his chances. An honorable mention goes to utility candidate Jake Fox, who’s launched four homers in 14 games.

Zach Britton (0.00 ERA with 4:3 K:BB, 3 G, 9 IP): Kevin covered Britton’s case yesterday. The Orioles’ top prospect isn’t hurting his status any this spring, and the back of Baltimore’s rotation should be looking over its collective shoulder. Inducing grounders as well as anyone in the minors makes it easy to overlook a middling strikeout rate.  

Boston Red Sox

Jose Iglesias (.348/.400/.348 23 AB): Iglesias has no chance of winning a starting spot out of spring training, but the glove-first shortstop prospect’s second consecutive strong showing in camp is improving his odds of breaking in either later this year or in 2012. In the closest thing to an actual position battle in the stacked Red Sox lineup, Marco Scutaro and Jed Lowrie appear to be competing to see who can look worse at the plate. (Thus far, Lowrie has the upper hand, but only barely.) If this battle of ineptitude rages on after the team heads north, Iglesias’ spring contact could serve him well.

Alfredo Aceves (3.48 ERA, 2:2 K:BB, 4 G, 10 1/3 IP): One instance in which spring stats do deserve a gander is in the case of a player returning from injury. Aceves is almost halfway to matching his innings total from an injury-plagued 2010, and while the Sox would prefer to see more strikeouts, they’ll likely be content with their new acquisition's balky back remaining intact. With Daisuke Matsuzaka currently pitching like someone who doesn’t deserve a roster spot, Boston might have to give some thought to cashing in the rotation’s Aceves insurance policy earlier than planned.

Chicago White Sox

Mark Teahen (.474/.615/.737, 19 AB): Brent Morel had a tentative leg up at the hot corner entering the spring, but hitting .241 (albeit with two walks and only two strikeouts) is a good way to make Ozzie Guillen reconsider your assignment, especially with Teahen tearing it up. Of course, Teahen was the one getting torn up last year, so perhaps the skipper has learned his lesson.

Brian Bruney (1.80 ERA, 4:2 K:BB, 5 G, 5 IP): Bruney couldn’t stick with any of the three organizations he spent time with last season, but he’s been successful thus far in his effort to secure Chicago’s seventh and final bullpen slot. He’ll have to continue to outduel Phil Humber (who’s armed with a new cutter), among others, to avoid being cast adrift again.  

Cleveland Indians

Lonnie Chisenhall (.478/.538/.913, 23 AB): Christina Kahrl wrote about the Indians’ infield indecision after witnessing it firsthand; most of the candidates for Cleveland’s third-base job have been injured, ineffective, or both, which has made the idea of accelerating top prospect Chisenhall’s timetable increasingly appealing. As Christina noted, both Jack Hannahan and Adam Everett have been effective at the plate, so the Indians aren’t entirely without alternatives.

Josh Tomlin (1.13 ERA, 4:1 K:BB, 3 G, 8 IP): While the Aaron Laffey trade didn't send shock waves through Indians camp (or anything else, for that matter), it did leave Tomlin, David Huff, and Jeanmar Gomez fighting for the last spot in an underwhelming rotation. Since Huff and Gomez have been hit hard, only Tomlin's spring work recommends him for the gig. The 26-year-old righty held his own in 12 major-league starts after being called up last July.

Detroit Tigers

Scott Sizemore (.267/.313/.500, 31 AB): With incumbent starter Carlos Guillen’s knee continuing to act up, the Opening Day assignment at the keystone will likely fall to either Sizemore or Will Rhymes. The case of Sizemore v. Rhymes should set an interesting precedent in the ongoing battle between large and small sample sizes in the decision-making process: Sizemore boasts the better minor-league track record, while Rhymes has a superior fraction of a season in the bigs to his credit. Sizemore also has greater success in the extremely small sample of spring raining in his favor, though if he wins the job on that basis, the Tigers will have made the right decision for the wrong reasons.

Fu-Te Ni (1.29 ERA, 8:3 K:BB, 6 G, 7 IP): The southpaw lost his spot on the 40-man over the winter, but he has a shot at reclaiming a position on the active roster, since the Tigers are considering carrying three lefty relievers (including Daniel Schlereth and Brad Thomas) to complement their righty-heavy rotation.

Kansas City Royals

Mitch Maier (.538/.600/.808, 26 AB): The Royals appear committed to a starting outfield of Alex Gordon, the aforementioned Melky Cabrera, and Jeff Francoeur, heaven help them, so the identity of the team’s fourth outfielder might be more than academic. As both the incumbent and the guy with the hottest bat, Maier would seem to have the inside track over Gregor Blanco and Jarrod Dyson, which would make him the designated first responder in the case of what is sure to be a series of outfield emergencies this season.

Sean O’Sullivan (3.24 ERA, 5:3 K:BB, 3 G, 8 1/3 IP): It might seem overly dramatic to label a competition between O’Sullivan and Vin Mazzaro for the final spot in a rotation fronted by Luke Hochevar a “battle,” but such is major-league life in Kansas City. O’Sullivan has had the superior spring, but Mazzaro owns the sub-5.00 career ERA. If the team’s scouts have a say, O’Sullivan’s stronger spring won’t help him.

Los Angeles Angels

Mark Trumbo (.349/.364/.744, 43 AB): As Kevin noted yesterday, Trumbo’s hot spring must be reassuring for the Angels, who may still be missing Kendrys Morales on Opening Day. Then again, Trumbo barely got a look with the big club while Morales was missing most of last season, and if tying for the 2010 minor-league lead in home runs didn’t win friends or influence people in the Angels’ front office, launching four more this spring might not help him either. Also of interest is a slimmed-down Bobby Wilson’s spring assault (.524/.524/.667, 21 AB) on an entrenched Jeff Mathis for a greater share of the post-Mike Napoli catching duties.

Garrett Richards (3.86 ERA, 6:2 K:BB, 4 G, 9 1/3 IP): Richards hasn’t pitched above High-A, so he’s not about to claim a rotation spot out of spring training, but with Scott Kazmir again looking more like a typical low-velo lefty than the fireballer he used to be, the young righty could see his promotion schedule accelerated after an impressive showing in camp.

Minnesota Twins

Justin Morneau (.000/.000/.000, 4 AB): Okay, so I’m cheating a bit here, but the Twins lack any true position battles, per se. Although Morneau has gone hitless in two games thus far, the fact that he’s accrued any stats at all must be considered excellent news. Elsewhere on the injury front, Michael Cuddyer has yet to receive an at-bat, and Joe Nathan’s return from Tommy John surgery had been going smoothly before the once and future closer allowed six runs in a third of an inning on Sunday.

Kevin Slowey (3.00 ERA, 3:2 K:BB, 3 G, 9 IP) and Scott Baker (3.12 ERA, 5:3 K:BB, 3 G, 8 2/3 IP): Brian Duensing and Nick Blackburn cemented their rotation spots with strong early springs, leaving Baker and Slowey to do battle for the number-five slot. Both have acquitted themselves well—in fact, the only Minnesota starter to struggle in the extremely early going has been Francisco Liriano—so it’s impossible to pick one over the other on the basis of spring stats thus far. The loser of this competition may find himself the winner of an all-expenses-paid trip to another team’s rotation.

New York Yankees

Eduardo Nunez (.333/.394/.500, 30 AB): Nunez hit .385/.484/.577 in spring training in 2009 (which should tell you how much these stats mean), but with Derek Jeter’s range and bat eroding more rapidly than the polar ice caps, he’s better positioned to make something of himself in the majors this time around. He can’t match Ramiro Pena’s leather, but his main competitor for the utility role has posted a .167/.161/.167 line in 30 at-bats this spring, which isn’t all that far off from his offensive upside in the Show.

Bartolo Colon (3.00 ERA, 12:1 K:BB, 3 G, 9 IP): Sure, he rivals CC Sabathia in poundage despite standing several inches shorter, but the aged Dominican has opened plenty of eyes as well as candy wrappers this spring. However, Ivan Nova isn’t bending over to clear a rotation spot for the sizeable ex-Cy Young Award winner. Also keep an eye on reliever Luis Ayala (1.80 ERA with 6:0 K:BB in 5 G and 5 IP), who hasn’t sniffed the majors since 2009.

Oakland Athletics

Chris Carter (.250/.372/.444, 36 AB): Carter hasn’t been incredible, but his decent performance could help him crack the roster despite a crowded A’s outfield picture. Recovery from knee surgery delayed Ryan Sweeney’s spring debut, and Valley Fever veteran Conor Jackson has batted .067/.125/.067 in over 30 trips to the plate, which might allow Carter to see some action backing up lead-gloved Josh Willingham in left. Of course, the A’s would prefer not to deprive the prospect of regular playing time.

Brandon McCarthy (3.38 ERA, 5:0 K:BB, 3 G, 8 IP): Rich “Incentive-Laden Deal” Harden has spent the spring confirming Oakland’s worst fears about his injury tendencies, which leaves the fifth-starter slot open for McCarthy, last seen in the big leagues in 2009. The Coliseum should be more forgiving of his flyball tendencies than his previous major-league homes with the White Sox and Rangers.

Seattle Mariners

Milton Bradley (.381/.458/.571, 21 AB): Bradley appears to have fended off Michael Saunders for the left-field job on the strength of a spring marked by few outs or felonies. Dustin Ackley’s .350/.519/.550 performance has only solidified his status as a presumptive mid-season call-up.

Michael Pineda (2.57 ERA, 5:3 K:BB, 3 G, 7 IP): A bit more Triple-A seasoning wouldn’t hurt Pineda’s high-ceiling arm, but Nate Robertson’s loose bodies have made the young right-hander’s appearance on the Opening Day roster a stronger possibility. Fellow fifth-starter candidates David Pauley and Luke French have even better spring stats, but the Mariners may find it difficult to option the franchise’s pitching future in favor of a retread, no matter how responsible that course of action might seem.

Tampa Bay Rays

Casey Kotchman (.393/.414/.536, 28 AB): Kotchman has turned on the offense amidst reports that he’s adjusted his swing, leading to speculation that he could see time at first this season despite his horrendous 2010 Seattle campaign. Giving extended exposure to Florida’s answer to Jeff Francoeur wouldn’t seem to be emblematic of the “extra 2%,” so expect him to report to Durham as the Bulls' successor to Dan Johnson. Elsewhere in camp, Felipe Lopez’s .429/.520/.476 line hasn’t hurt him in his competition with a cold Elliot Johnson for the utility spot.

Jake McGee (1.80 ERA, 4:0 K:BB, 5 G, 5 IP): With no vacancies in the rotation, McGee is jockeying to fill one of the bullpen slots left vacant by a host of free-agent departures this winter. His ERA and innings pitched total this spring perfectly match his 2010 major-league stats, but he should easily break through the five-inning barrier in Tampa Bay this season.  

Texas Rangers

Chris Davis (.387/.424/.742, 31 AB): Justin Smoak’s relocation to Seattle may have given Davis hope for another shot at the Rangers’ first-base job, but his hot spring—spent at third base, in Adrian Beltre’s absence—hasn’t helped him earn one, since presumptive starter Mitch Moreland has matched him hit for hit, batting .375/.444/.719 in roughly equal time. His best chance for regular big-league playing time may come with another organization, unless he’s content with another season spent in Oklahoma City.

Matt Harrison (1.00 ERA, 5:2 K:BB, 3 G, 9 IP): The Rangers’ rotation is only three-fifths set, and Harrison has impressed Ron Washington this spring, which could net him one of the remaining spots. Derek Holland has the inside track on the other, having thrown several stellar innings of his own. Meanwhile, the will-he-or-won’t-he saga of starter-turned-closer-turned-potential-starter Neftali Feliz drags on.

Toronto Blue Jays

Since the Jays lack a compelling position player showdown, I’ll offer two pitching examples:

Kyle Drabek (3.00 ERA, 7:0 K:BB, 2 G, 6 IP): Shaun Marcum’s departure left a void that Drabek, Jesse Litsch, and Marc Rzepczynski are seeking to fill. The rotation likely has room for two members of the trio behind Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, and Brett Cecil, and its youngest representative has showcased the best stuff this spring.

Frank Francisco (0.00 ERA, 2:1 K:BB, 2 G, 2 IP): Not all spring battles decide which players will make their team’s roster; some of them merely determine what they’ll do once they get there. The Jays have three relievers with recent closing experience in Octavio Dotel, Jon Rauch, and Frank Francisco (four, if you count Jason Frasor). Dotel has allowed five runs in three innings, while Rauch and Francisco have contributed three and two scoreless innings, respectively. Innings totals that tiny aren’t close to meaningful, so like any seasoned observer of spring trainings past, R.J. Anderson made up his mind before the spring’s action began, concluding that Francisco was the best fit for the job.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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