Biggest Surprises of the Spring
Spring training is always full of surprises. Every year players turn heads with their performances, both good and bad. For this week’s edition of the Wroundtable, we’re focusing our absolute biggest surprises, both good and bad. Here is what the staff had to say and who has made them do a double take this spring.
Kyle Downing: For me, the biggest surprise has been the dominance of Blake Wood. He’s quietly put together a string of shutout innings and his fastball has topped out somewhere around 97. It’s cool to see a waiver claim from before last season come back from his Tommy John surgery and almost immediately start mowing down the competition.
Steve Kinsella: The biggest surprise for me this spring training has been Terry Francona. A year after guiding the Indians to a wild card game he has come into camp with a mission to take the AL Central. He also has not been afraid to introduce competition all over the diamond, from Carlos Santana taking a few at bats away from Lonnie Chisenhall at third base to Jeff Francoeur making a case to grab right field versus lefties to free up Ryan Raburn to give others a day off.
Speaking of Francoeur, with one injury (Jason Giambi) the competition for either an extra bullpen spot (see below) or a bench spot opens up. Francoeur, Elliot Johnson and Nyjer Morgan have all made a case that they should break camp with the team.
Francona has not just limited the competition to one side of the game. He has focused on run prevention. If you believe that there was a competition for the fifth spot in the rotation (I do not) that is great, but Francona has set up a competition for the first guy up from the minors. Has Josh Tomlin positioned himself ahead of Trevor Bauer? Will Aaron Harang report to Columbus? If so, where is he in the pecking order? Of course, what to do when Shaun Marcum is ready?
Some managers are set in their ways and after winning 90 games would have had a much more sedate camp with a little competition here and there. What the front office did was give Francona experienced players to work with, and each of them is going to force their way onto the team in April or at some point in the season. Vertical depth is tested over the course of 162-game season and it would appear that Antonetti and Francona fully understand this.
Evan Vogel: The biggest surprise to me is that the Indians didn’t work out an extension with Justin Masterson. If he was willing to accept a short-term, hometown discount to stay in Cleveland and they didn’t strike a deal, they won’t strike a deal. They’ll likely end up paying him more by extending a qualifying offer after the season, and if he is successful in 2014, the Indians just lost their No.1 starter a year after losing nearly 350 innings from Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir – potentially without making an addition to off-set the losses.
If they could have signed Masterson for $15 million per season for four years and didn’t take the offer, especially after seeing Matt Garza and Ervin Santana get reasonably similar average annual values, the future Indians’ rotation will be loaded with a lot of reclamation projects in coming seasons. Thinking that Mickey Callaway is some kind of Jesus disciple because he had a little luck with Kazmir and Jimenez in 2013 is a huge mistake, as the team spirals back to meaningless AL Central fodder due to a once cheap owner returning to form.
Nick Wheatley-Schaller: The biggest surprise to me happened when I read tweets that Jeff Francoeur had been released and was genuinely disappointed. I was hoping that the Indians would find someone to DH against left-handed pitching on days that Carlos Santana is playing third base. Francoeur could have even played better defense than Raburn in right and allowed Raburn to fill that DH spot against lefties. Now that the best hitters on the bench are likely to be Mike Aviles, Justin Sellers, and possibly Elliot Johnson, it might be better to simply go with Aviles’ superior defense at third and play Santana at DH or first base. Now the Santana third base idea is looking more like an insurance plan in case Lonnie Chisenhall is an unmitigated disaster and can’t hit right-handed pitching. I’m feeling pretty confident about Chisenhall bouncing back against righties this year. Last year his decline against righties was mostly due to his .260 BABIP, as he continued to be better than average at avoiding strikeouts (17%) and hitting for power (.178 ISO). If he gets his BABIP and walk rate back to 2012 levels, he’ll be a productive part of a platoon, and Aviles is good enough in the field to be worth starting a couple of times a week. One option that Santana playing third could open up is playing Aviles at shortstop and getting Asdrubal a day off from the field. Nevertheless, I am disappointed that the dream of having a righty bat on the bench didn’t pan out. Francoeur hasn’t been good in years, but when he was at his best he really could hit lefties – he managed a 129 wRC+ in 477 plate appearances against them from 2009-2011.
Katrina Putnam: The biggest surprise for me has been the consideration given to Josh Tomlin for the fifth rotation spot. I thought he would be the Corey Kluber of last season, and be sent to Columbus without the slightest bit of regret. While it still is a very likely possibility that he won’t make the team, it’s a pleasant surprise to know that it has nothing to do with his performance. Having an option left is the only thing that’s keeping him out of the rotation, because he’s outperformed Carrasco in every way this spring. Whenever he gets his chance to pitch as part of the major league club’s rotation — whether it’s two weeks or two months from now — he will add plenty of value to the club.
Vinnie Pestano has also been a nice surprise, and his return to his 2012 form should be a huge boost for a bullpen that no longer has Joe Smith to rely on.
Brian Heise: My biggest surprise has been Elliot Johnson. Defensively, he’s been as good as I expected, providing the Indians with versatility galore. The bigger surprise has been his offensive output. Johnson has not been known as an offensive powerhouse throughout his career, and it’s unlikey he’ll continue to hit above .300 once the games count for real, but is he can be serviceable at the plate while providing Terry Francona with a legitimate option off the bench, then the Indians will be all the better for it.
I’ve also been pleasantly surprised by the performances of the three pitchers competing for the final spot in the rotation. Aaron Harang, Carlos Carrasco, and Josh Tomlin have all been pretty great this spring, with the exception of one rough outing from Carrasco. They’ve all put their best foot forward and will make it very difficult for Terry Francona and Chris Antonetti t make a final decision. We’re expected to get some clarity on the situation today, but as of right now, there is no telling who has the edge.