Wednesday, March 27, 2013
Six players who wowed me this spring
By Jim Bowden
Physically, Yasiel Puig looks like a reincarnation of former Royals All-Star Bo Jackson.
Spring training performances and statistics can be very misleading. Often major league hitters are facing minor league pitchers, or sometimes major league pitchers are simply working on refining a certain pitch and get hammered. When scouting hitters in person it’s almost more important to pay attention to the pitcher the hitters are facing and where the pitches are in the zone. Honestly, no one cares if a guy hits a home run off an 88 mph fastball down the middle of the plate. However, if that same guy goes yard on an inside fastball off of Justin Verlander or a nasty slider down and away off of David Price, it matters.
This was the first time I spent spring training watching entirely the Cactus League in Arizona. While young players such as Aaron Hicks, Julio Teheran and Jackie Bradley Jr. impressed scouts across the country in the Grapefruit League, six particular players in Arizona impressed me. They performed far beyond what I was expecting, and I’m intrigued to see if they can maintain the brilliance they displayed this spring.
I had heard a lot about Puig. When I entered the Dodgers’ clubhouse, I quickly spotted Matt Kemp, Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett. I also saw a guy who looked like an NFL linebacker. His shoulders made him look as if he were wearing quarterback pads under his shirt.
When I asked Dodgers manager Don Mattingly and members of his coaching staff what they had seen from Puig so far, they raved about his athleticism and incredible talent. They also warned me that Puig was “raw” and would need more seasoning. However, after watching him for two weeks, he was clearly one of the best players of the spring. He displayed incredible speed, power, defense and arm. He has the look of the ultimate five-tool player whose bat plays when the ball is in the strike zone at all velocities. Granted, Puig’s lack of walks is a concern (zero this spring), but the talent is undeniable. Could he do what Yoenis Cespedes did for Oakland last season? Easily.
However, I also saw the “raw” player. His secondary leads more resembled those of a high school player, and there were a couple of instances where he was on first base when a batter drew a walk and he didn't seem to know what to do. The Dodgers still have an outfield of Kemp, Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford; Mattingly and general manager Ned Colletti will have some extremely difficult decisions.
When I was general manager of the Washington Nationals in 2008, we invited Chisenhall to Nationals Park for a pre-draft workout. I fell in love with his swing and projected that he would develop into a .280-.290 hitter with 40 doubles and 15-plus homers. We were prepared to draft Chisenhall with our second-round pick, but the Indians took him with the 29th overall pick in the first round. When I shared this with new Indians manager Terry Francona, he agreed with my assessment except that my home run projection was too low.
Oddly, the Indians have buried the 24-year-old Chisenhall the past two seasons. In 2011, he was given only 223 plate appearances, then got only 151 in 2012. Instead, the Indians gave 32-year-old journeyman Jack Hannahan most of the playing time. Not this year. Chisenhall told me he felt revitalized with Francona taking over. He appreciated Francona giving him a clear shot at the third-base job. Relaxed, Chisenhall hit .404/.473/.745 with four homers this spring. He can hit the fastball on both sides of the plate, and goes the other way extremely well. How he does against secondary pitches will determine his ceiling, but his swing and consistent sweet spot contact should result in a solid season.
After the Giants made Belt their fifth-round pick in the 2009 draft, Belt dominated the minors at three levels in 2010, hitting .352/.455/.620 with 43 doubles and 23 homers. Since then, Belt has struggled and had to make some adjustments. He made his major league debut in 2011, but big league pitchers killed him inside, then pounded him away. He got caught in between, and then came myriad new batting stances and approaches that led to more failure. Eventually, he turned it around and won the starting first-base job, entering this past offseason with confidence. Starting for the world champions will do that.
Now he enters 2013 not trying to win a job, not trying to make an adjustment, but rather knowing he’s a big leaguer and belongs. That attitude and approach was reflected in his spring numbers: .433/.460/.900 with seven home runs. He handled good fastballs and nasty breaking balls on both sides of the plate, which portends a much-improved offensive season for Belt and the Giants.
Legs, knees, groin, hand -- you name it, the 26-year-old Cain has hurt it. If he ever stays healthy -- and that is a big if -- he could become a player similar to Mike Cameron. He has the power to hit 15 to 20 home runs a year and the speed to steal 25 to 30 bases a year. He can run down the ball in center field and is extremely athletic. He has a tremendous amount of charisma and positive energy. But he’s got to stay healthy.
While the rest of baseball talked about Arizona’s acquisitions of Martin Prado, Brandon McCarthy and Heath Bell, most Diamondbacks insiders knew Eaton had a chance of being the new every-day player on the roster who'd make the biggest impact. Indeed, he had a huge spring, hitting .390/.403/.542 in 62 plate appearances. His range in the outfield was as impressive as his speed to beat out infield hits. He possesses a hockey player’s mentality, and his aggressiveness opened eyes. As the baseball adage goes: The kid will have a dirty uniform by the national anthem. He was an easy favorite as my choice for NL Rookie of the Year. I love this player and his approach to the game.
During the weekend, news came that Eaton would miss two months with a left elbow sprain. The news couldn’t have come at a worse time because he looked like the leadoff man the Diamondbacks have been raving about and desperately need. But as long as he can return as scheduled, he will be a difference-maker in Kirk Gibson’s lineup and perhaps force himself into the NL Rookie of the Year race by season’s end.
It was a mixed bag for the 26-year-old Saunders this spring, but he also was one of the most improved players I saw. His swing is much better and his hard-nosed approach to the game rubs off on his teammates. He still can be victimized by high-quality pitching, but 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases is a realistic stat line by season’s end. His long home run for Canada at the World Baseball Classic was impressive, as was winning the MVP award of Pool C.
He’s by no means a table-setter, nor a middle-of-the-order bat. Rather, he’s a support player who covers a lot of ground in right field and plays the game the right way. The Mariners, like Saunders, are one of the most improved teams in the league from a year ago. And while most of the attention will be on the new acquisitions of Michael Morse and Kendrys Morales, as well as the development of Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley and Jesus Montero, don’t sleep on Saunders.