We’re about halfway through the Cactus League schedule. The regular season begins in less than three weeks. The Seattle Mariners just got their ace, Felix Hernandez, his first official work in a spring game. The club’s position “battles” are well under way. Except position battles aren’t a real thing and spring results mean absolutely zero.
Not kidding, spring training roster “battles” are not real, because the best “performer” isn’t the one that will necessarily win the job. In actuality they’re position “decisions” by the team and the results, as seen on paper after the fact, mean absolutely nothing. Nothing at all. Going 3-for-4, in and of itself, doesn’t help Stefen Romero‘s case.
What in the world am I saying?
It’s simple, and in some form I say the same thing every single March: Clubs wants to see process, not numbers in a box score. For example, if Romero goes 3-for-4 but only one of the hits was squared up on the barrel and none of the plate appearances was versus a good arm, did he really gain ground on Dae-Ho Lee, who may have gone 1-for-2 with a walk and a hard-hit fly ball, including a two-out RBI single on a 1-2 slider from a legitimate big-league arm? No, he didn’t. In this instance, Lee’s day would be considered the better one. Clubs use spring games as a way to scout their own players. When you scout players, you look far beyond the results as fans would see it. Results, for evaluators, include things never show up in the box score. Steve Sandmeyer and I discussed this in regards to Ketel Marte in Episode 22 of Sandmeyer and Churchill (click here to check that out).
- Good takes
Being able to lay off tough pitches out of the zone in pitcher’s counts consistently, and be willing and able to take a pitcher’s pitch before two strikes, even if it means going from 0-1 to 0-2 or 1-1 to 1-2. Good hitters have to be able to do this regularly. Robinson Cano is terrific in this area.
- Spoiling pitches
Goes hand-in-hand with ‘good takes’ to help the batter get from 0-2 or 1-2, back to a count where the pitcher has little choice but to throw a pitch the batter has a better chance at handling or risk the base on balls.
When contact is made, the ability to put the barrel on the ball at a high rate. Obviously, this produces more hits than the poorly-struck variety.
- Handling good velocity
Some hitters can rake versus average velocity but something in their process prevents them from consistently managing satisfactorily versus plus velocity, or average velocity from a pitcher with great deception and explosiveness in his delivery (usually releivers).
Mechanics at the plate appear to work for the hitter without any red flags that suggest a significant problem will present itself in the long run bodes very well for unproven hitters in spring training.
From pitch to pitch, pitcher to pitcher, plate appearance to plate appearance and game to game, showing the ability to make the proper adjustments.
Not the simple ability to throw strikes, but the ability to locate, hit spots, particularly with the fastball. It all starts here, for even proven aces.
- Progressing arm strength
March is the time pitchers are getting their arms in shape for the regular season. At this point in spring games, clubs wants to start seeing typical velocity for those not on an injury program (Charlie Furbush, for instance), as well as more endurance. For relievers, showing well on back-to-back days late in March can be a big indicator.
- Feel for secondary pitches
Along with command, this is the area where James Paxton and Nate Karns will win or lose the No. 5 spot in the rotation. Now is about the time Scott Servais and Mel Stottlemyre, Jr. want to see more consistent offspeed stuff. Yes, the air in Arizona can negatively impact the breaking ball, but clubs still can scout the feel for them. Changeups, perhaps the most “feel” pitch of the bunch, come and go throughout the season, but a starter showing a consistent feel for it now may have a leg up on his competition.
If mechanics are out of whack, the short stints on the mound up to this point in March can be random and not trustworthy. Bad mechanics, which is a relative term depending on every pitcher, can produce good results for three or four innings or even consecutive short-stint outings, but suggest issues for the long haul.
Having said all that, here are my thoughts on what’s transpired to this point, just ahead of my mid-spring 25-man roster projection:
- Neither Karns nor Paxton have separated themselves since Cactus League play started, and likely will not over the next two-plus weeks, barring injury to one of them. If you’re attempting to handicap the No. 5 spot with your friends, bet on Karns. Jerry Dipoto didn’t trade pre-arbs Brad Miller and Danny Farquhar to acquire a starting pitcher that won’t start the season in the majors this season. Clearly there’s a belief in Karns that doesn’t appear to be there in Paxton, and understandably so. Nothing short of injury in 25 or so innings during spring training is changing any of that.
- While I love the versatility and flexibility of Shawn O’Malley (playable at 2B, 3B, LF, CF, RF, and at SS in short stints), Luis Sardinas make a lot more sense in one way, and about as much sense as O’Malley in all others. He’s a shortstop by trade and is better there than O’Malley, good enough to play there regularly. As much as I like Marte, there’s more than a reasonable chance he struggles enough to warrant a mix at the position, if not an entirely new starter. Sardinas can be that guy, O’Malley cannot, and because he’s never done it at the plate for more than a few weeks, neither can Chris Taylor. If you’re handicapping this one, bet on Sardinas, particularly if the club goes with Romero as the first-base platoon option, since his ability to at least manage in left and right field kills some of the value O’Malley’s defensive versatility brings.
- With as many as two bullpen jobs up for grabs — Ryan Cook now is on the 60-day disabled list and Evan Scribner likely starts the season on the 15-day DL having not made a single appearance this month — names such as Cody Martin have a more legitimate shot now than three weeks ago. Joel Peralta may be in the lead for one of those four gigs. Only Steve Cishek, Vidal Nuno, Joaquin Benoit, Furbush if healthy and Tony Zych appear to be locks. Want a darkhorse? Donn Roach, who was signed to a minor league deal over the winter and presumed to be about No. 8 or 9 on the rotation depth chart. If Furbush starts the season on the shelf, David Rollins probably starts the year in the big-league bullpen, despite the chance that southpaw Mike Montgomery begins the year as a long man — he’s out of options and being used as a reliever this month.
- Dae-Ho Lee has been the most impressive hitter among the options for this ridiculous spot on the roster we’ll call ‘Chicko’s platoon partner.’ Yes, Romero is 12-for-25 with just three whiffs, and he makes more sense than Lee because he’s an average runner and can field a ground ball on either side of the infield and a track a fly ball in the outfield. Strictly at the plate, however, several scouts have spoken of Lee in positive tones. “The body is bad, he’s functional at first, with no reach [range) to speak of, but he’s showing like a capable bat,” said one special assistant. “We’ll see [in the long run] but he’s disciplined enough to make it work.” Lee is 6-for-21 with two extra-base hits, two strikeouts and two walks, including 2-for-3 versus lefties, with a home run. Yes, super small sample, but scouts are seeing useful plate skills, despite a long swing. If the Mariners for the best offensive option, Lee leads this race.” Montero has been just OK, according to one rival official. Going back to last season, Montero has focused on using the whole field more, perhaps sacrificing a little of the home run pop to do so. It worked in Triple-A. He’s out of options, a status that plays at least a small factor in the club’s decision. Ed Lucas probably doesn’t have much of a chance here.
- Tyler O’Neill and Drew Jackson aren’t out of place. Yes, they are in camp for the experience of hanging around the big leaguers. But is it not telling that they are there and getting into a game or two here and there and both Alex Jackson — everyone’s No. 1 prospect in the organization (except mine) — and D.J. Peterson are not? Neither have any chance at all of seeing the majors in 2016, but are being rewarded for their effort and process and giving the big club’s staff a chance to see them work.
- Rob Brantly, catcher. The Mariners picked up Brantly off waivers this past week. He has big-league experience (112 games, 392 plate appearances, 891 innings behind the plate) and has solid plate skills, but is limited offensively due to fringy bat speed and a swing engineered for anything but extra bases. He’s basically John Baker-ish, which isn’t a bad thing. He’s out of options, though, so he’d have to clear waivers before being assigned to Triple-A Tacoma. As of today, Steve Baron and Steven Lerud project as the Rainiers catchers. Brantly, a left-handed batter like Lerud and Steve Clevenger, isn’t likely to challenge for the No. 2 gig behind starter Chris Iannetta, but he’ll be given some chances to change that.
Jason spent 4 1/2 years at ESPN and two years at CBS Radio prior to joining HERO Sports in July, 2016.
Find Jason's Mariners podcast, Baseball Things, right here and follow him on Twitter @ProspectInsider.