Opening Day is roughly two weeks away and that means we're approaching decision-making time. Teams are preparing to finalize their rosters for the regular season. There is still enough time remaining in spring training for players to change the front office's mind, but not much. If a player hasn't stood out yet, he may have missed his chance.
Spring training games and stats do not count, but they do matter for some players. Players trying to win an Opening Day roster spot had better perform well in exhibition games. You're not going to lock down that final bullpen spot with a 6.00 ERA or win a bench spot while hitting below the Mendoza Line. Spring training means a lot to some players.
With that in mind, here are six players with notable spring training performances this year, either good or bad, and why that matters going into 2020.
RHP Corbin Burnes, Brewers
Following a strong 2018 debut and a good amount of prospect hype, Burnes completely flopped last season, allowing 52 runs (48 earned) in 49 innings with the Brewers. That works out to an 8.82 ERA. Milwaukee sent him to Triple-A at midseason, where Burnes had an ... 8.46 ERA. Just an all-around brutal season for the 25-year-old right-hander.
"I don't really know what happened last year. It was almost hard to believe how his year went," manager Craig Counsell recently told reporters, including MLB.com's Jake Rill. "But he's made some adjustments and put himself in a really good place, and I think he feels really good about what he's doing. I think he's very confident in the changes that he's made and where that's taking him right now."
Four appearances (two starts) into his exhibition season, Burnes has allowed one run in 10 innings while striking out 13. He's also generated nearly two ground balls for every fly ball. Most of last season's issues stemmed not from a lack of stuff, but from poor command and an inability to stop the bleeding. Those are things Burnes worked on over the winter.
"Whether it was in the weight room, the mental side of it, working on some pitches, going out there I feel like I have more options this year," Burnes told Rill. "I don't really feel like I get in situations where I get stuck, which is a good thing as a pitcher, so you always have a way to get out of it."
Eric Lauer's shoulder injury opens a spot on the pitching staff -- it could be in the rotation or the bullpen depending what the Brewers want to do with Freddy Peralta -- and there's little chance Burnes could've secured that spot with a bad spring. He had to pitch well to have a chance to make the Opening Day roster and he's doing that now. Burnes has turned the page quickly.
C/IF Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Rangers
It was not too long ago that Kiner-Falefa did not have a spot on the Opening Day roster. Jeff Mathis is locked in as the backup catcher and veteran infielder Matt Duffy is in camp as a non-roster invitee. Kiner-Falefa was competing for a roster spot, , clearing a path for him to break camp with the big-league squad.
Kiner-Falefa will not get Calhoun's roster spot because the Rangers lack better options. The light-hitting utility man has forced his way into the discussion. He is 13 for 31 (.419) with more home runs (4) than strikeouts (3) this spring. This is a player with 12 regular season home runs in nearly 2,700 career plate appearances, majors and minors.
After an 0 for 10 start to the spring, which included an attempt to eliminate a leg kick in his swing, he made a small adjustment that has allowed him to unlock power. He has started with his feet closer together and glided into the swing with a small step.
"It's always different when you are trying to take something from the cages or BP into a game," Kiner-Falefa said. "I've seen huge progression in a very short period of time. I feel right now like the sky is the limit.
"I also think I needed to relax a little. I was trying to show it, instead of just letting it show. When (manager Chris Woodward) told me to relax and just let it go, my confidence went way up."
When a guy with as little power as Kiner-Falefa makes a mechanical adjustment and starts socking dingers, you kind of have to pay attention, even in spring training. If nothing else, Kiner-Falefa has gone from fringe roster candidate at the outset of spring training to having an Opening Day roster spot all but sewn up thanks to his spring power binge.
Unlike the other players in this post, Torres has a spot on the Opening Day roster in the bag. He's not trying to make the team. The just-turned 23-year-old hit 38 home runs last season and is a two-time All-Star. Gleyber is currently New York's best all-around player with Aaron Judge sidelined.
Didi Gregorius. Gregorius left as a free agent over the winter and the Yankees are turning the shortstop reins over to Torres.. It's a new old position, really. He came up through the minors as a shortstop before beginning his big league career at second base in deference to
On Tuesday, Torres played his tenth game at shortstop this spring and made his fifth error. He pulled the first baseman off the bag with a high throw. It was a routine play Torres simply botched, similar to his other four errors. He's been booting ground balls and making inaccurate throws on routine plays. Plays a major-league shortstop should make.
Here's what manager Aaron Boone told reporters, including NJ.com's Randy Miller, about Torres' casual errors:
"The thing with Gleyber is there's kind of that fine line between he plays the game with such ease that you don't want to take that away," Boone said. "There's a calm. There's a relaxed way in which he plays the game, which contributes to his confidence.
"You don't want to lose that, but you also have to balance that with making sure he's dedicated to being real fundamentality sound all the time.
"That's what he does in his (pre-game) work, and he does that really well, so I do feel like he can be that, and I feel like he'll continue to make strides that way."
Torres played 77 games at shortstop last season, most while Gregorius was completing his Tommy John surgery rehab, and the defensive stats say he was roughly league average there compared to well-below-average at second. That makes sense. Torres has played short pretty much his entire career. He's still relatively inexperienced at second base.
The errors this spring have not yet reached the point of outright panic -- it's not like Torres has developed the yips and is completely unable to throw to first base -- but they are a bit of a red flag. Gregorius is gone, so there's no shortstop safety net. Unproven utility infielder Tyler Wade is next in line at short. Surely the Yankees want Torres to settle down in the field before Opening Day.
"I want to be great," Torres told Miller. "I want to be a guy that can be counted on playing defense. I need to do my job defensively and offensively, not just offensively."
RHP Ryan Weber, Red Sox
The Red Sox have lost two quality starting pitchers within the last month. First they traded David Price to the Dodgers, . Sale has managed to avoid Tommy John surgery for now, though he is not out of the woods yet. Boston's rotation behind Eduardo Rodriguez, Nathan Eovaldi, and Martin Perez is up in the air.
Enter Weber. The 29-year-old journeyman got into 18 games with the Red Sox last year, pitching to a 5.09 ERA in 40 2/3 innings, and he's jumped to the front of the No. 4 starter line this spring. He's allowed one unearned run in nine innings while striking out 11 and walking zero. Tough for a rotation candidate to pitch better than that.
"I think Weber has shown -- whether he's going to be a fourth starter, fifth starter or an opener, and what happens with Chris -- I think he's a guy we feel like can do it," interim manager Ron Roenicke recently told WEEI.com's Rob Bradford. The Athletic's Chad Jennings says the Red Sox like Weber because of his command, his pitch mix, and his fearlessness.
For a guy like Weber, who's been with four organizations in the last four years and has never spent more than a few weeks in the big leagues at a time, spring training might be his only chance to impress the coaches and front office. The Red Sox have two open rotation spots and Weber was going to have to pitch spectacularly to win one, and he's done exactly that this spring.
"It means a lot," Weber told Bradford when asked about the team's confidence in him. "... It really helps with the confidence level, too. I never really thought of the negative side of it. I just kept saying, 'Keep doing what you do. You can control what you can control. Go out there and do your best. If it is meant to be it will happen.'"
The Royal Ryans
Did you know Royals' first basemen hit .220/.279/.367 in 2019? That is 34 percent worse than MLB average. That is ghastly. It is not the reason Kansas City lost 103 games a year ago, but it certainly contributed to it. Despite that, the Royals did not import an established big-league first baseman this offseason, and are instead holding a spring training competition at the position.
Here's how the two relative youngsters competing for the first base job are performing this spring:
- RHB Ryan McBroom: 11 for 32 (.344) with three doubles and three home runs
- LHB Ryan O'Hearn: 10 for 32 (.313) with two doubles and four home runs
Both Ryans are performing well and that's a good thing. Nothing wrong with a little internal competition. McBroom and O'Hearn both want the first base job outright and are pushing each other. With both first base candidates playing so well this spring, new manager Mike Matheny recently suggested McBroom and O'Hearn could open the year in a platoon.
"I'm not ruling (a platoon) out at all," Matheny told reporters, including MLB.com's Jeffrey Flanagan. "I've explained it, certainly to O'Hearn, to be prepared all the time, and that we're not afraid having you face a lefty. But understand that if we can create a way to set you up better, we're open to whatever we have to do."
O'Hearn, 26, had a strong MLB debut in 2018, which works in his favor. He has a bit of a track record. Plus he's on the heavy side of the platoon as the left-handed hitter. The 27-year-old McBroom has outfield experience and that gives him a chance to stick on the roster and get into the starting lineup even on days O'Hearn is at first base.
For the Royals, this is the best possible outcome. Both first base candidates are playing well this spring and making the decision difficult. Difficult enough that they may carry both on the Opening Day roster. Kansas City is still in rebuild mode and the more good options they have, even at a non-premium position like first base, the better they'll be in the long-term.
"The way McBroom is swinging it, those are some great at-bats. That's the guy I've seen in the past," Matheny said. "So, I think (a platoon) could be good for both of them. I've said this before, it comes down to keeping all 26 men sharp, so how do you do that?"