Clubs have gotten smarter, realize Spring Training doesn’t matter, and are coming into camp with a plan.
As baseball and its front offices have become increasingly data-driven, we’ve learned a lot. One of the first and most important lessons of this shift is how little Spring Training actually matters. Oh sure, it’s necessary to get players in shape for the six month grind of the regular season and it helps to identify those players who either are coming into the year injured or simply don’t have it anymore. But the results of March have, with good reason, come to matter less and less to front offices and to fans.
While this is all right and good, it has, unfortunately, cost Spring Training what little dramatic appeal it used to have. Back in the 1980s, Tigers manager Sparky Anderson would talk up the hot rookies he had on hand who could conceivably take over for his veteran-heavy squad. His idea, which he sold fairly effectively every spring, was that no job was safe. Everyone had to earn their spot. Alas, obviously poor Torey Lovullo never had any chance of unseating Alan Trammell, but the appearance of completion, presumably, kept everyone honest.
Today, we don’t have much of that at all. If Spring Training results don’t matter, then position battles have mostly been decided months in advance. And indeed, that’s what’s happened. Around the game, there are few lineup spots that are truly up for grabs. Oh, virtually every team has one or two bullpen spots they could play around with. And a lot of clubs came into camp at least a little unsure about what will happen with the fifth spot in the starting rotation.
But, by and large, teams that had holes filled them. There are few lineup spots that aren’t spoken for. And while a few spots aren’t filled by a single player, the rise of analytics has also reinvigorated the once-dead platooning strategy. So while the Angels signed lefty-hitting Luis Valbuena to compete with the righty C.J. Cron at first base, the likeliest outcome is some kind of job-sharing arrangement. Ditto for the Blue Jays, who have both Steve Pearce and Justin Smoak. Or the Twins with Eddie Rosario and Robbie Grossman.
While the scarcity of these battles does actually make Spring Training marginally less interesting, if we’re fans we shouldn’t want there to be any. We want the teams we root for to have a definitive plan and to not approach the start of the season figuring they’ll wing it like that one presentation in college we all figured we could handle off the top of our heads and then wound up embarrassing ourselves. (No? Just me? Huh.) Obviously, many plans don’t survive to the start of the season, as injuries and atrophy take their tolls on the players clubs were counting on. Still, it’s the sign of a healthy organization that a plan was in place in the first place.
So, anyway, the point is, when I decided to look for position battles to highlight this Spring, I didn’t find a lot of interesting options. Was the first part of this column just a way for me to complain about it? Maybe! You decide! Anyway, here are the most intriguing battles going on at the moment:
Red Sox – Catcher
Participants: Sandy Leon, Christian Vazquez, Blake Swihart
The Sox got an out of nowhere half-season from Leon last year, complicating their catcher position significantly. He had never hit that well before, and is unlikely to continue, but remains a strong candidate for Opening Day. Vazquez was awful at the plate in 2016, but was excellent behind it. Swihart struggled defensively and got into John Farrell’s dog house. He was sent down to Pawtucket, where he learned to play left field…which is weird. He is coming off of a broken ankle, and has the best offensive profile of the three.
Rangers – Left Field
Participants: Joey Gallo, Jurickson Profar
Now, see, this is what a position battle is supposed to be. Both Gallo and Profar were massive prospects in previous years, but have been frustrated by injuries and lack of opportunities. Texas simply doesn’t have room anywhere else in their lineup for these guys, now that Mike Napoli is playing first base and Shin-Soo Choo is going to DH. Gallo’s received a lot of time in left field as Adrian Beltre continues to play at a Hall of Fame level, and Profar is athletic enough to make the move permanently after limited exposure last year and shuffling all around the infield. Neither has done well at the Major League level, but that’s likely a function of sporadic play and/or injuries. It’d be great to see what these guys could do if they got 500 plate appearances. In theory, Ryan Rua and Delino DeShields are also in this competition, but come on.
Detroit Tigers – Center Field
Participants: Mikie Mahtook, Tyler Collins, Anthony Gose, JaCoby Jones, Alex Presley
When the Tigers traded Cameron Maybin early in the offseason, I expected it to be the precursor to a big selloff by the aging team. Instead, Detroit held onto its stars to make, presumably, one last run at the postseason for recently passed owner Mike Ilitch. But rather than filling in that gaping hole, the Tigers came into camp with a bunch of spaghetti, to see what stuck to the wall. Mahtook is a 27 year old fourth outfielder acquired from Tampa who struggles against lefties and had an out of character power spike in 2016. Collins is also 26 and was a fourth outfielder for Detroit last year. If you’ve never heard of him, that’s ok. He didn’t do anything that made him stand out. Anthony Gose is another fourth outfielder who failed out of the centerfield job last year and then was sent home after a fight with his Triple-A manager. Jones only counts as a prospect in the Tigers’ system. And Presley is a typical fifth outfielder.