Albert Pujols started Sunday. How's that for a pleasant surprise?
"I knew I was going to be ready for opening day since I showed up to spring training," Pujols told reporters afterward. "You guys are the ones that counted me out."
Granted, it wasn't completely out of the blue given some of the reports leading up to it, but two weeks ago, it was a pipe dream.
Yes, he was only the DH, and he went 0 for 3. But now, like he said, he's on track to play opening day, at least as the Angels DH.
And that could have a dramatic impact on the first base landscape.
1. Pujols feels no pain
So far this draft season, first base has been one of the trickiest positions to fill because while it's deep in elite talent, it doesn't offer enough second-tier players for all 12 owners in a standard mixed league to keep up. Maybe owners in 10-team leagues won't feel it, but go any deeper and someone is placing his trust in a player like Mark Teixeira or Byung Ho Park.
But that was assuming Pujols would miss at least a month because of offseason foot surgery. Now that he won't, we're one first baseman closer to everyone walking away happy. And he may actually be the bargain pick at the position. He outscored Jose Abreu, who's at worst a third-round pick, in Head-to-Head points leagues last year, and for you Rotisserie owners, he was one of just nine players to hit 40 home runs. In most drafts, though, he's available after Freddie Freeman and Eric Hosmer have gone off the board.
Now, how he performs this spring may raise or lower him in the rankings -- we shouldn't forget how Victor Martinez's rushed return from surgery went last year -- but initial reports of no pain are a good sign.
2. No Park can hold him?
Byung Ho Park, who had mostly been a no-show to this point, got a hit Sunday, and it happened to be the biggest type of hit a player can get: a grand slam. Here's what it looked like, courtesy MLB.com:
Um ... yay?
As home runs go, it was pretty wimpy -- a wall-scraper, you might say -- which is maybe nitpicking, but there's some fear that the 50-plus he hit in the smaller parks of South Korea the last two years will translate to long fly balls here. Combined with what figures to be an astronomical strikeout rate, Park is anything but can't-miss.
But listen, he has gotten all of 11 at-bats so far, and Jung Ho Kang hit .200 (9 for 45) in his first taste of MLB pitching last spring. Something to keep in mind.
3. Hou's on first?
The first base competition is heating up in Houston (or actually, Kissimmee, Fla.), where the four leading candidates all had big games Sunday:
And here's what they did in the minors last year:
Reed is the one to root for and the eventual starter somewhere down the line, but the Astros aren't likely to forfeit a year of team control to get him in the lineup a few weeks earlier. Singleton, a former top prospect himself, is the favorite, especially since he's already signed to a long-term deal, but White and Duffy are promising enough to deserve late-round looks in AL-only leagues.
4. Samardzija looks good
After a rocky first start that, like every start right now, is meaningless in the grand scheme of things, Jeff Samardzija offered those buying into a bounce-back season reason for optimism Sunday. He allowed five hits in his three innings against the Dodgers, but all were singles. He also struck out five.
Between moving to the NL, going back to a pitcher's park and reportedly correcting a pitch-tipping problem he had last year, the enthusiasm for Samardzija is well documented. Perhaps too well because he's getting drafted ahead of James Shields, Hisashi Iwakuma and Collin McHugh on average, who are all safer and equally promising picks.
In the spirit of "spring starts are meaningless in the grand scheme of things," here's Clay Buchholz's line from Sunday against the Orioles:
And here's his explanation for it, via MLB.com:
"Went out there knowing I was just going to be throwing fastball-changeups today, which made it a little bit difficult, because I set up a couple of guys for a curveball or cutter at points, and I was only able to make those two pitches, so I tried to make those two pitches a little bit too good."
Just a reminder that when you see a bad line for a proven pitcher or even an unproven one, it may be an expected part of the process. The point of spring training is to get ready for the season, after all, and most aren't going to have their full arsenals ready from the get-go.
Of course, you'd like to see a good spring from Buchholz since he's coming off yet another long-term injury. His 3.26 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 8.5 strikeouts per nine innings in 18 starts before it make him a sleeper of sorts.