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March 25, 2015

The Lineup Card

Eight Spring Training Lines of Interest

by Baseball Prospectus

1. Kris Bryant
Kris Bryant is a prospect, and prospects are unreliable. Minor league performance correlates to major-league performance, but not strongly. And spring training performance is basically equivalent to minor league performance.

But did you know that Kris Bryant has hit nine home runs this spring, three more than anyone else in baseball?

Kris Bryant struck out almost 30 percent of the time in the minors last year. He did the same in High-A in 2013, and he only walked 4.8 percent of the time there. Kris Bryant has major league-ready power, but he does not have a major league-ready plate approach. PECOTA projects him for 125 strikeouts and 44 walks in 2015. That's about as "three true outcomes" as you can get.

But did you know that you have to go all the way back to 2008 to even find 10 other guys who hit even eight home runs in spring training? And none of them did it in fewer than 62 plate appearances. Bryant has had 32, as of Tuesday.

Among those players with eight or more home runs in spring training: Jake Fox, Mike Wilson, and Chris Johnson. Great company, that.

But did you know that all of Kris Bryant's home runs have been off pitchers who have thrown in the majors? So the assertion that he's been feasting on cannon fodder isn't entirely accurate. One of those dingers was even off Felix Hernandez himself.

Kris Bryant is a mirage. Kris Bryant is about to become one of the greatest power hitters in MLB history. The truth is probably somewhere in between. —Ian Frazer

2. Kendall Graveman
I was first tipped off to Kendall Graveman's solid spring training on Effectively Wild podcast episode 636. During that episode John Hickey, the A's beat writer for Bay Area News Group shared some notes from A's camp about Graveman. He noted that Graveman moved from lo-A to MLB last season, and has received rave reviews from A's catchers this spring. He also made a point to explain how the A's catchers were lauding Graveman's ability to sink and cut the ball to both sides of the plate. Hickey went on to say that Graveman had "a special talent for pitching". The last Graveman-related note that Hickey brought up was that one of Graveman's teammates compared him to Sonny Gray, which is of course high praise for a guy that many considered a throw-in in the Donaldson for Lawrie swap. If you want to listen to Hickey's account, the question and response starts around the 27:50 mark.

Needless to say, that's a pretty glowing review for a pitcher fighting to make the A's rotation out of spring training. So far this spring, Graveman has been given many opportunities, throwing 15 innings for the "A" team, posting a 0.60 ERA while allowing less than 0.75 baserunners per inning. So far this spring Graveman has been terrific, though we all know spring training stats aren't exactly reliable. If there's been one hole in Graveman's game this spring it's his inability to get strikeouts, recording just eight of them over his 15 innings pitched.

Still, Graveman is making a case to be considered for the rotation despite having just 49 career innings above A-ball. That in itself is surprising. Graveman's workload this spring suggests that the A's are seriously considering him as an option for the rotation, wanting to give the coaching staff a long look to determine if he can succeed in the majors right now. His performance this spring might go a long way to convincing the team that their trust in the young right-hander isn't misplaced.

Sure, Graveman's peripherals, especially the strikeouts, might not suggest success. The fact that the A's are having him throw so much though, that might give some insight into how the club views him. Even if Kendall Graveman doesn't make the team out of spring training, it likely won't be long until we see him pitching in Oakland. —Jeff Long

3. Francisco Cervelli
Cervelli has walked seven times and struck out two times in his 27 spring training plate appearances. Cervelli also boasts a triple slash of .316/.519/.789. Cervelli will not carry this production into the regular season. That said, he has flashed above-average plate discipline and average to above average offensive production at different times throughout his career; however, injuries and a 50-game PED suspension have kept us from finding out whether or not this production is sustainable. Luckily for those who want to find out, the Pirates seemingly want to find out as well. If Cervelli's health can finally cooperate (a big if), then the Pirates might have another bargain, former Yankee catcher on their hands. —Jeff Quinton

4. Ender Inciarte
I jinxed Ender Inciarte. I claimed him as my topic for this exercise on Sunday night, and in the very next game he played, on Monday, he struck out twice. Why is that notable? After Monday’s action, Inciarte had 45 plate appearances this spring, with 17 hits (including two doubles), three walks, four stolen bases, … and just those two strikeouts. He didn’t whiff once from the beginning of camp until March 23rd.

Astute observers will recognize that this isn’t an historic feat. Andrelton Simmons struck out for the first time in 2014 in his 52nd plate appearance, to cite just one example. Ben Revere went 73 plate appearances without whiffing in late August and early September. Still, it’s an impressive thing, and it highlights one thing (of many) Inciarte does well. He struck out only 11.9 percent of the time in 2014, although he never had a streak to rival this one without fanning. He also stole 19 bases in 22 tries, and—whether you prefer Defensive Runs Saved, UZR, or FRAA—was one of the two or three best defensive center fielders in baseball. Inciarte doesn’t walk much or hit for any notable power, but he was worth three or more wins in every major system last season. I mention this, because the Diamondbacks have A.J. Pollock slated for center field, and Yasmany Tomas, Mark Trumbo, Cody Ross, and David Peralta battling for time in the corners.

Inciarte is a left-hitting speedster who plays sparkling defense and doesn’t strike out, 110 percent of Ben Revere, basically, but he’s buried in Arizona. Meanwhile, Tuffy Gosewisch is going to start behind the plate. Free Ender Inciarte! —Matthew Trueblood

5. Brennan Boesch
This guy’s career path has just floored me. He crawled under the omniscient radar of prospect rankings to become a Rookie of the Year and All-Star candidate, in 2010. Then the month of July happened; he morphed into the poster child for second half swoons, and after three such seasons in Detroit he was released. He’s now on this third minor-league contract in as many seasons, including last year where he ravaged PCL pitching, and this spring in Cincinnati he’s leading the team in home runs (with three, and in fairness he’s also leading in PA).

I’m not sure if his batting numbers can outweigh the guaranteed contract numbers of Skip Schumaker for the fourth outfield spot, but he’s not typically a spring training phenom—at least he wasn’t since his Detroit days, when fans saw him as a hybrid of Al Kaline and a unicorn. (A centaur fielder, if you will.)

Two other things stand out in his stat line beyond the high usage, high average and homers: (1) his OBP is lower than his batting average, meaning he hasn’t taken a walk yet, and (2) normally a corner outfielder, he’s been getting plenty of reps in center.

Most likely he’s going to turn this spring into another year of hammering Triple-A fastballs, but the potential of Boesch single-handedly raising fan optimism is a favorite annual ritual. He turns 30 next month, and time is a fleeting prison. —Matt Sussman

6. Matt Wieters
With the recent revelation that Matt Wieters is likely to open the season on the disabled list, it's probably unfair to write about his spring training performance. Nonetheless, Wieters' 0-for-23 slump is an impressive display of futility, regardless of whether it counts. Because the Orioles need a healthy Wieters to repeat as divisional champions, and because this is a big year for Wieters personally (he'll qualify for free agency come winter), here's hoping his spring drought holds no predictive power once his regular season begins. —R.J. Anderson

7. Trevor Bauer
Throwing strikes has been a focus for Trevor Bauer this spring, after he shaved his walk rate to a still-somewhat-bloated 3.5 per nine last year. He discussed the importance of getting ahead of hitters to unleash his secondary stuff in an interview 10 days ago, and has thus far executed that plan, holding opponents without a free pass through 15 1/3 innings. Bauer walked five in seven frames in 2014 Cactus League action, so the BB-less effort so far is a marked improvement.

That's the good news. Here is the bad weird.

Through 186 1/3 official big-league innings and 821 batters, the 24-year-old Bauer has surrendered a grand total of one triple, delivered by Twins rookie Danny Santana on July 23rd, 2014. No pitcher in Indians history has permitted more than three of them in a regular- or post-season major-league game. Both of those facts are still true.

But last Friday, Bauer was the victim of a three-bag assault from the Angels, who notched four triples in the third inning and prompted Terry Francona to quip that he sent pitching coach Mickey Callaway to the mound chiefly to give the outfield a rest. That shelling left Bauer with 23 hits on his line through 15 1/3 innings, including five homers to go with those triples. It's a good thing the UCLA product hasn't walked anyone, or his ERA might be considerably higher than 5.87.

Credit Bauer for his dogged effort to pound the strike zone early in the count this spring, an approach that could serve him well with less predictable pitch selection once the games start to count. The right-hander seems cognizant that he needs to be even stingier with bases on balls than he was last year. Now, the Tribe just has to hope that he'll leave the three- and four-baggers in the desert like he has in the past. —Daniel Rathman

8. Mookie Betts
Unlike most Red Sox prospects, Betts wasn't nationally hyped prior to reaching the majors. However, an impressive 52-game stretch to kick off his big-league career last summer has changed all of that. The expectations for Betts have gotten sky high, and the fact that Betts has been off the table for any Cole Hamels trade talks has only increased hopes of what he can be.

Betts' spring (1.324 OPS) certainly hasn't curtailed any of the superstar talk either. But anyone who follows prospects is well aware of how quickly a star can fall. It was just a year ago that all the buzz in Red Sox camp was Xander Bogaerts. Bogaerts was a consensus top-10 prospect and had been one of the team's better bats during their World Series run the previous October. However, as rookies are wont to do, Bogaerts had a very up and down inaugural season.

Reports out of Red Sox camp indicate that it's more than just numbers this spring, as Betts is hitting everything in sight with authority. So much so, that he hasn't bothered to take a walk. Both the .400-plus batting average and zero walks will of course change during the regular season, but expectations are set. Betts had an impressive big-league debut and has followed it up with an emphatic spring--whether we put much stock in the latter numbers or not, Betts will be looked upon to be a big part of a team hoping to be much improved after a rough 2014. —Sahadev Sharma

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The Lineup Card: Seven... (03/19)
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Every Team's Moneyball... (03/25)

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