By the Numbers: Signs of things to come?
Which spring studs should you take seriously entering the season's opening week? Our Al Melchior dives deeper into some impressive stats to see who might be legit options based on their spring performances.
This will hardly be the first time that you will hear that spring stats mean little, and it certainly won't be the last. So you probably don't need to be told not to freak out over Joey Votto strikeout binge. Owners also seem to be ignoring the cold snaps that Emilio Bonifacio and Dexter Fowler are enduring, realizing that the progress each made last season hasn't gone down the drain. Similarly, few owners, if any, are buying into the notion of Cliff Pennington or Will Venable becoming .300 hitters.
Echoing the sentiment expressed in Nando Di Fino's recent column, spring stats do matter in some selected cases. From a practical standpoint, they are worth paying attention to, because they can make the difference as to who wins a position battle or earns one of a team's final roster spots. In some cases, spring stats also raise our attention to an otherwise underappreciated player. For example, Joe Mather looked like a promising source of power a few seasons ago, but after lingering in Triple-A for several seasons, he had been largely forgotten. An explosive spring performance has landed Mather on the Cubs' opening day roster, and with a key injury to a regular player, Mather could matter in NL-only leagues.
Here are a dozen more players who have put up head-turning stats this spring. Whether they have drawn attention in a good way or a bad way, each has deviated far enough from expectations that their Fantasy fortunes for 2012 may have changed as well. In some cases, the hype generated by spring stats is much greater than the actual impact those stats should have on your assessment of a player's value. For some players, though, an unexpected spring performance gives us reason to take a closer look at how we will use them this season.
Lorenzo Cain , OF, Royals: Cain's scorching spring didn't really have an impact on his role with the Royals; he was already set to be their starting center fielder. However, it may have raised his profile among Fantasy owners in standard mixed leagues who have made him a common late-round pick. Cain has a .403 batting average through 23 games, but what has probably surprised many owners is his five home runs. He already took his power game up a notch at Triple-A Omaha last season, hitting 16 home runs, while playing in a home park that plays fairly neutral. Before you count on Cain as a power-speed threat, remember that his new home -- Kauffman Stadium -- is not neutral, but rather pitcher-friendly. Cain could deliver a .300-plus average with 20 steals or more, but a 10-homer season is far from a given.
Pedro Alvarez , 3B, Pirates: Ever since making his debut in 2010, Alvarez has been whiff-prone, but his problems last year stemmed from an enormous drop in power. Alvarez practically ceased to hit the ball in the air, and the problem got even worse after a pair of minor league stints. You could look at Alvarez's two Grapefruit League homers as a mildly encouraging sign, but not within the context of his 20 strikeouts and one walk in 42 at-bats. Yes, this is an incredibly small sample, but there really isn't enough good news within it to project a turnaround for Alvarez this season.
Chris Johnson , 3B, Astros: As a rookie, Johnson overachieved with a .308 batting average, but his minor league history suggests that he is far better than the sophomore who hit just .251. Johnson has been a good line drive hitter throughout his career, and he was yet again last season, as he belted one of every four balls he hit for a liner while popping up infrequently. That makes his .321 BABIP look suspiciously low. His .333 spring batting average doesn't mean that he is bound for another .300 season, but it shows what Johnson is capable of when he is not the victim of apparent bad luck on balls in play. He deserves the second chance he is getting to be the Astros' starting third baseman, and unlike last season, he should be able to stave off Jimmy Paredes in any ensuing competition for playing time.
Alex Liddi , 3B, Mariners: The lament that Fantasy owners have over Liddi has been, "if only he didn't strike out so much." Few were surprised when the slugger missed on 40 percent of his swings (according to StatCorner data) and struck out 17 times in 40 at-bats in last season's big league debut, but he did clout three homers and three doubles in his brief trial. This spring, Liddi has answered the laments with a relatively modest eight Ks in 35 at-bats. That was enough to get Liddi onto the active roster for the Mariners' opening series in Tokyo against the A's. Because the sample of spring at-bats is so small, it would take just a handful of strikeouts to get Liddi back to his usual rate, but his progress on this front is worth watching. With seven spring doubles and a homer, there are no signs of Liddi's power disappating, so he could be a factor in the Mariners' crowded third base situation at some point this season.
Gregor Blanco , OF, Giants: In the minors and during his limited time in the majors, Blanco has done mainly two things: walk and steal a few bases. And I do mean a few, as the 28-year-old has not profiled as much more than a 20-steals-a-year guy for most of his career. True to form, Blanco has done a good job of getting on base this spring with the Giants, but he also leads all players with 12 stolen bases. There could be something to Blanco's uptick in steals, as he nabbed 24 bases in just 74 games at Triple-A last season, and his stolen base success rate has improved dramatically over the years. Though Blanco is not assured of regular playing time, he is nearly assured of a roster spot. With semi-regular play, he could wind up being a surprisingly robust source of steals for owners in mixed leagues.
Luke Hughes , 1B/2B, Twins: With five home runs in just 56 spring at-bats, some might be tempted to call the 27-year-old Aussie "Luke the Fluke." Hughes has only eight dingers over his 294 major league at-bats, which isn't too bad for a middle infielder, but he is capable of hitting for even more power. Hughes posted high home run per flyball ratios at neutral parks in Double-A and Triple-A. The problem is that Target Field is one of the toughest places for a major leaguer to homer, so many of Hughes' flyballs will turn into outs there. Then again, some will become doubles, as Target Field is also one of the better venues for in-the-park flyball hits. Hughes still has a shot to be the Twins' everyday second baseman, and if he wins that position battle, he is a worthy option in deeper leagues. As of this writing, he is owned in just two percent of the leagues on CBSSports.com.
Edinson Volquez , SP, Padres: By all outward appearances, Volquez has had a nice spring, going 2-0 with a 3.48 ERA and 1.11 WHIP over five starts. Don't be fooled. The area where Volquez needs to improve most is his control, and he gave us no evidence that it will be any better this season. The former Red has walked 11 batters in 20 2/3 innings during Cactus League play, and he also mustered just 13 strikeouts. Moving to PETCO Park should certainly help Volquez to improve on last year's 5.71 ERA, but when you're putting runners on at such a high rate, favorable park factors will help you only so much. I'm avoiding Volquez in all mixed leagues for now.
Jeff Samardzija , RP, Cubs: Samardzija has had his control issues, but unlike Volquez, he has given Fantasy owners a glimmer of hope this spring. He pitched well enough to be a surprise addition to the Cubs' rotation, but instead of achieving a 1.00 WHIP with smoke and mirrors, Samardzija gave out a single free pass over 20 innings, while preventing 16 batters from making contact. At times in the minors, he has shown good control, and the last time Samardzija was a full-time starter -- back in 2009 at Triple-A Iowa -- he issued just 27 walks in 89 innings. With a change in role and a pattern of inconsistency, Samardzija is not without his risks, but at this point, I would trust him as a low-end option in mixed leagues before I would use Volquez.
Felix Doubront , RP, Red Sox: Doubront entered spring training far down on Boston's rotation depth chart, but it appears that he has locked up a starting role. He claimed his rotation spot with a Grapefruit League campaign that produced a 2.70 ERA, but that belies the fact that Doubront allowed a lot of baserunners, amassing a 1.44 WHIP. That has been a pattern of Doubront's in the minors, as he has been good at avoiding home runs and stranding baserunners, aside from a period in the middle of last season after he returned from a groin injury that landed him on the disabled list. He has the potential to be a left-handed Jhoulys Chacin who can help with strikeouts and ERA while putting your WHIP at risk.
Luis Mendoza , RP, Royals: Through five starts, Mendoza led all qualifying starters in spring training with an 0.54 ERA. That, along with an injury to Felipe Paulino (forearm), helped Mendoza to claim the Royals' fifth starter job. Part of Mendoza's success this spring is owed to getting 16 strikeouts in 16 2/3 innings, but he has been a contact pitcher for his entire career, and that's not likely to change now. He also has not allowed a single home run, and between his solid ground ball tendencies and the AL Central's bevy of pitcher's parks (U.S. Cellular Field being a glaring exception), Mendoza could continue to avoid the gopher ball. If he can stay in the rotation, Mendoza could succeed in a Carl Pavano sort of way. That would make him, like Pavano, a decent option in AL-only leagues.
Kyle Drabek , SP, Blue Jays: Drabek has the upper hand on the fifth starter's spot that opened up when Dustin McGowan developed a foot injury. He started last season in the Jays' rotation and fared well after facing the Twins, Angels and Mariners in his first three starts, but things unraveled quickly with the succession of difficult matchups that followed. In the starts just prior to his June minor league demotion, Drabek had a harder time inducing grounders, as his line drive rate soared, and even Triple-A hitters were able to hit him hard. Drabek's ground ball mojo has returned this spring, but we need to see that continue for more than a handful of Grapefruit League innings. Assuming Drabek does begin the year as the fifth starter, he may only be needed to make one start. Given that he still has a lot to prove, it's best to leave him on waivers, even in deep formats, until we have a better sense that he is worth a roster spot.
Kyle Weiland , SP, Astros: When the Astros pulled the surprising move of releasing Livan Hernandez , it all but assured Weiland of starting the season in the Houston rotation. Even if Hernandez wasn't jettisoned, Weiland made a strong case for a starting role, putting together a 2.86 ERA and 1.18 WHIP this spring. With eight walks over 22 innings, Weiland's control has been a little better than normal, but that's been a relative weakness for him over the longer haul. Walks haven't hurt Weiland in the minors, though, because he has made up for them with extremely low line drive rates. There is a certain randomness to this particular stat, but back-to-back years with a line drive rate below 15 percent is intriguing, to say the least. Though he didn't show it during his brief trial with Boston last year, Weiland could also help with strikeouts. He won't be the rookie to make the biggest impact in Fantasy this year, but Weiland could become a factor in deeper mixed leagues if he can translate his minor league success to the majors.
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