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March 18, 2009

Fantasy Beat

Five Guys to Follow

by Marc Normandin

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Yesterday we took a look at some of the players whose spring performances were not worth getting worked up over, as small sample sizes had fueled their bogus progress or downfall. However, there are still nuggets of information that can be gleaned from spring training statistics if given the proper context, so today we review the players who may be worth an extra look, and who may be ready—for good or bad—to have their moment.

Brandon Wood has been one of the top prospects in the Angels' organization since his breakout campaign at High-A Rancho Cucamonga in 2005. Hitting 43 home runs brings that kind of attention, but at the same time, he did have a serious issue in the form of striking out too much. Frequent strikeouts are not a death sentence, or all that much worse than any other kind of out, but it's not a good sign for a young player to strike out as often as Wood did, and still does. He did so over 27 percent of the time during his short stint in the majors last season, and he also failed to display the plate patience he had during his time in the minors.

These are serious hurdles for Wood, and they're part of the reason that Erick Aybar is slated to play at shortstop this year for the Halos. Wood has made some noise this spring though, hitting .375/.412/.719; it's nice to see him hitting well, even in pre-season games, but the most important thing may be that he's struck out just three times over 32 at-bats. For the same reason that Mike Jacobs' numbers were nothing to get excited about due to his propensity to whiff, seeing Wood—an even worse offender than Jacobs—rein in the punchouts is a good sign.

His teammate Kendry Morales is another young player who the Angels will need to succeed this year if they're to be guaranteed the divisional crown in an increasingly tight American League West. Morales is taking over for the departed Mark Teixeira at first base, and given his track record he may struggle to fill that spot. Morales has hit just .249/.302/.408 over parts of the past three seasons in the majors, but there are some positives to consider. First, he's 26 years old this year, and is coming off of a .341/.376/.543 half-season at Triple-A. He played in the Dominican Winter League this year, hitting .404/.450/.778 for the Gigantes, accumulating more extra-base hits (20) than strikeouts (14) over 99 at-bats. Scouts were impressed with his performance, making him somewhat of a sleeper to succeed this year for Los Angeles.

Fast-forward to spring training, and you see Morales hitting .405/.439/.649, with just three strikeouts in 37 at-bats. By itself this may not mean much, but when combined with the numbers from winter league ball and scouts' opinions of him of late, we see there's a reason to get excited about the Cuban import. Considering that his only competition for the job is Robb Quinlan, Morales will have time to work out the kinks and attempt to become the quality hitter his potential has suggested.

Jeff Francoeur had the worst season of his career last year, which was somewhat of a surprise given his previous production and what, at the time, appeared to be progress made in his approach. A deeper look shows a player who still swings at too many pitches outside of the strike zone, and not enough at those in it. Francoeur has increased his walk rate slightly since coming to the majors, but his strike-zone judgment and pitch selection need an overhaul if he's ever again going to hit like he did when he first came up.

Things have not gone so well in spring training, with Francoeur hitting .333/.389/.333 over 30 at-bats. He has walked four times and struck out just once, but the lack of any kind of power is alarming given the direction his numbers have skewed lately: Francoeur's Isolated Power has dropped from a high of .249 during his first year in the majors to a low of .120 last year. That's akin to what you expect from a weak-hitting middle infielder, not a corner outfielder with the kind of power Francoeur has shown but has yet to reliably harness. All of 30 spring training at-bats is not enough to judge Francoeur on, but when combined with his plummeting power and the fact that he just hasn't learned enough about the strike zone yet, it's hard to imagine that this will be the year when he'll put things together.

Next up is Travis Snider, who may very well be the best hitter on the Blue Jays right now. That has a lot to do with their pitiful offense, but having a 21-year-old who might outhit Alex Rios during his first full year in the majors is nothing to frown upon either. Snider hit .301/.338/.466 during limited duty with the Jays last season, and is slated to be either the team's left fielder or designated hitter this year. He's hitting .371/.389/.714 this preseason, slugging three homers and three doubles while whiffing just nine times.

Again, while those 35 at-bats by themselves should not be taken at face value, when combined with last year's performance and his upper-level PECOTA forecast of .276/.357/.520, you can see why he's a guy to get excited about. My lone worry is that his average might plummets as major league pitchers adjust to him—Snider struck out 177 times last year across four levels—but he does have a great swing and the ability to re-adjust and succeed in the long-term, and he just needs a little more time in the bigs to prove he's deserving of the gig the Jays have handed him.

Russell Branyan is not a name that you think about often. He's been a part-time player over most of his career, but the rebuilding Mariners signed him to a one-year deal with the intention of putting him in a platoon at first base. Branyan mauls right-handers—he hit .280/.377/.653 against them last year for Milwaukee, and has hit .234/.336/.519 against them the past three seasons combined—and he has done well for himself in spring training thus far with a .324/.361/.794 line in 34 at-bats.

Branyan has usually been used as a backup player for the corner positions, and he doesn't accrue much playing time. As the half of the platoon that will see the most at-bats, however, Branyan is primed to put up a quality season. Granted, he isn't about to hit over .300 or challenge Barry Bonds for the highest slugging percentage of the decade, but he does have the patience and the power to make this decision by the new Mariners' front office worthwhile. Yes, he's still striking out often, but unlike the aforementioned Brandon Wood, Branyan has a track record of succeeding at the big-league level in spite of this.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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