The first week of spring training games can be frustrating for more casual fans. You know the issues: very few television broadcasts, only brief views of the veterans, and lots of high uniform numbers. For prospect watchers, however, this is the golden hour, as young players get rewarded for their prospect status by getting to play with the big leaguers, while others make their first steps in legitimately competing for jobs. After just an handful of games, here are ten players that are catching the eyes of teams, scouts, and even fans:
Manny Banuelos, LHP, Yankees
The Yankees are admittedly in a tough spot, with a who's who of washed-up veterans competing for a job in the back of the big-league rotation, and two elite-level pitching prospects in Dellin Betances and Banuelos opening plenty of eyes and forcing undue pressure to rush their respective timetables. Banuelos was in mid-season form on Friday, sitting at 92-94 mph, touching 96 and already showing the advanced changeup that earned him so much praise last year, but let's make it clear—he's still not ready, and neither is Betances. They're both excellent, but no matter how good they are, if either is on the big-league roster on Opening Day, they're not going to be around come September, as the two combined for just 150 innings last year, and neither has topped 125 frames in any single season. The excitement is understandable, but go with the head over the heart here; the focus is still on development, where pacing can be everything.
Domonic Brown, OF, Phillies
To call Brown's brief spring training an up-and-down affair doesn't really do it justice. The departure of Jayson Werth via free agency seemed to hand the team's right-field duties to Brown, but Phillies officials were cautious in the offseason, insisting that Brown would battle Ben Francisco for the job. Charlie Manuel seemed more optimistic early in camp, but an 0-for-15 start to his spring with nine strikeouts moved the needle towards the negative once again. It all became moot on Saturday when Brown finally got a hit, but also injured his hand, with initial examinations indicating hamate bone surgery in his immediate future. That will leave him out until late April at the earliest, and he'll likely have to prove himself fully healthy at Triple-A before getting another big-league look. This is just a delay, as he's still the long-term solution at the position, and a potential All-Star.
Lonnie Chisenhall, 3B, Indians
One of the top offensive prospects in the Indians' system, Chisenhall hit .294/.364/.505 in the second half of the 2010 season at Double-A Akron, and was lining himself up for a September look this year and a real shot at the third-base job in 2012. The Indians are hoping that Jason Donald can hold down the gig in 2011, but Chisenhall is giving indications that he might be ready sooner than expected, as the 2008 first-round pick went 5-for-9 over the weekend with a pair of home runs. He'll bring one of the prettiest swings in the minors to Triple-A to start the year, but there's not much in his way to the big leagues if he starts off hot.
Zach Cozart, SS, Reds
The Reds' shortstop job seems to revolve around slick-fielding, light-hitting Paul Janish, with veterans Edgar Renteria and Miguel Cairo providing a pair of backup plans. The leaves Cozart set to repeat Triple-A for now, but he deserves a closer look. A second-round pick in 2007, the 25-year-old will never hit for much of an average, but coming off a season that included 30 doubles, 17 home runs, and 30 stolen bases, he more than makes up for it with secondary skills. In the field, while he's not as rangy as Janish, his defensive fundamentals are the best in the system. A home run on Sunday left his initial spring mark at 5-for-11 with nine total bases, and he has at least a shot at forcing the Reds' hand at some point in the season.
Chris Davis, 3B, Rangers
The Rangers have given Davis plenty of chances, and the results are just not there, with a .248/.300/.459 big-league mark in 238 games while striking out once every 2.9 at-bats. At the same time, he certainly has nothing left to prove in the minors, with a career line of .311/.370/.569 and production at every level. Already at 8-for-19 (.421) this spring with a pair of home runs, Davis seems like a good fit for a multi-purpose bench job that covers some playing time at first base, third base, and DH, but that job is already spoken for with the Adrian Beltre signing moving Michael Young to the roving lineup role that Davis is ideal for. Of course, Young still technically wants a trade, which could open of the job for Davis, but based on the respective price tags, talent, and the fact that Davis is potentially stuck at Triple-A, more teams are asking about Davis.
Andy Dirks, OF, Tigers
Even in a weak Tigers system, Dirks doesn't get much attention, and he's not going to sniff a Top 100 prospects list, but that doesn't mean he's not worth keeping at eye on. A 2008 eighth-round pick who put up big numbers at Wichita State, Dirks is a bit on the small side, not much of a runner, and he has power a tick below average and a bit of a weak arm. That said, he can hit, and he's one of those max-effort grinders who gets the most from his limited tools. The Tigers don't mask the fact that he's one of their favorite players in the system, and with a 5-for-10 weekend that included two doubles and a triple, he's now 9-for-19 and could force his way into a big-league fourth outfielder's job.
Matt Dominguez, 3B, Marlins
Despite being only 21 years old and coming off a somewhat pedestrian .252/.333/.411 showing at Double-A last year, Dominguez is still in the lead for Florida's third-base job. Part of that is because there are no other good options, unless one wants to count Wes Helms and Emilio Bonifacio. (Hint: those are not good options.) The good news is that, at least with the glove, Dominguez is ready, as he's seen by many as the best defensive third baseman in the minors. The bat is another question, but Dominguez is doing his best to assure the Marlins in that department as well by going 4-for-13 (.308) with a double and a home run so far this spring. He won't put up big numbers as a rookie, but he'll show up in the Web Gems segment on Baseball Tonight with regularity, while learning to hit in a bit of a trial by fire.
Bryce Harper, OF, Nationals
When the first overall pick of the 2010 draft showed up to camp, he said he wants to make the big-league squad. A cocky statement to be sure, but do you really want him saying he wants to ride in a bus all year? He's had his fair share of struggles so far, going 2-for-11 with three strikeouts, but there have been good at-bats, there has been hard contact, and the talent is clear. The expectations he's facing are so high they border on unfair, as he's currently just as old as most high school seniors, meaning that even if he doesn't reach the big leagues until 2013, he'll still be just 20 years old. The hype is well deserved based on Harper's talent, but the expectations might need some more management.
Jose Iglesias, SS, Red Sox
I was recently asked on Twitter who was the last prospect to match Iglesias defensively. My first reaction was Rey Ordonez, also a Cuban defector, as someone whose defensive wizardry was matched by only by his offensive impotence, as he lasted nine years in the big leagues on the quality of his glove work alone, finishing his career with averages of .246/.289/.310. Iglesias had similar questions about his bat when the Red Sox signed him to the biggest bonus in team history 18 months ago, but he was a pleasant surprise offensively in 2010, and has continued to impress this spring by tallying six hits in his first 14 at-bats. While much of the talk this spring in Boston revolves around the big-league shortstop battle between Marcus Scutaro and Jed Lowrie, either winner is just holding the fort for Iglesias in 2012.
Brett Lawrie, 3B, Blue Jays
A first-round pick by the Brewers in 2008, Lawrie was originally drafted as a catcher, but when he told the Brewers he didn't want to play behind the plate, they acquiesced and moved him to second base. While he played at Double-A last year as a 20-year-old and hit well, his defensive reviews were still poor, prompting the Blue Jays, who acquired him in the offseason for Shaun Marcum, to try him at the hot corner. Lawrie has started like gangbusters at the plate this spring, going 6-for-11 with a double and his first home run on Saturday, but he's surprised many with his glove as well. That said, he's always had the tools and athleticism to be a good defender, be it behind the plate, at second, or at his new position. That's the case for many players, including Ryan Braun; Braun had all of the physical skills to play third base, but in the end he just wasn't good enough. For now, it's spring training, and early in the year at that, and hope springs eternal. But don't be surprised if Lawrie ends up in right field.