PHOENIX — The stars are out in Arizona this spring. Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani rode in a golf cart together at Angels camp. Clayton Kershaw retired three Seattle Mariners on 11 pitches in his Cactus League debut. Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen are settling in with a veteran group in San Francisco, and Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain are determined to help the Milwaukee Brewers hang with Chicago and St. Louis at the top of the National League Central.
For the general managers who build rosters and the managers who try to make the pieces fit, spring training is a time of discovery and enlightenment. Which young player is ready to make some noise, and which veteran arrived in camp looking especially motivated? Is there an intriguing position battle that needs to be sorted out over the coming weeks? A lot of questions will be resolved at camps between now and Opening Day on March 29.
ESPN.com asked executives and managers for the 15 Cactus League clubs, “What player or facet of the team has caught your eye in the early stages of camp?” Here are their responses:
San Francisco Giants: Bruce Bochy’s batting order
“I think if you asked everybody in our room, as far as the coaches and the front office, they would give you a different lineup,” Bochy said.
Denard Span, who logged 66 percent of the Giants’ leadoff at-bats in 2017, is now a Tampa Bay Ray, so the Giants have to find someone to fill that void. One possibility: McCutchen, who has logged a .277/.357/.469 slash line in 1,060 career plate appearances in the No. 1 spot. Austin Jackson is another candidate to lead off when the Giants are facing a lefty.
Buster Posey and Longoria have both bounced around between the No. 3 and 4 spots in the order, and McCutchen has spent the bulk of his career in the three hole, so the middle of the order will require some maneuvering. Bochy likes the thought of going left-right, so he’ll try to find a way to strategically use Joe Panik, Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford between his righty bats.
“I’m open-minded,” Bochy said. “I know I’ve been around a while, and a lot of people think we’re old-school. But we have our analytics [people], and I’m looking forward to getting their help. At the same time, I can’t get away from using my gut and my staff’s feelings. That’s all part of it.”
Arizona Diamondbacks: Three shortstops, one starting spot
“I don’t necessarily evaluate it by results,” Lovullo said. “We know spring training can be misleading. So we’ll watch swing planes and breaks on defense and how the ball is coming off the bat. That’s the game within the game — the part we all love.”
Ahmed is the lockdown defender of the group, while Owings hit a career-high 12 homers in 97 games last season. Marte, acquired from Seattle in the Jean Segura trade, showed improved plate discipline in 2017 and had a wild-card game to remember. He went 3-for-5 with two triples against Colorado and showed energy and some tantalizing glimpses of his ceiling.
“I think competition brings out the best in people,” Lovullo said. “That’s what I lock down on. It’s a time for me to get to know body language and what makes someone tick. I pay attention to the little things that show me they’re comfortable in winning those innings.”
Cleveland Indians: Minor league first baseman Bobby Bradley’s buffed look
Bradley, Cleveland’s third-round pick in the 2014 draft, has shown impressive power with 87 homers in 411 minor league games. The Indians had been pushing Bradley to lose weight, so they were ecstatic when he attended two offseason strength and conditioning sessions and dropped about 30 pounds. Bradley is on track to begin this season as the starting first baseman for Triple-A Columbus.
“He’s a pretty big prospect for us,” manager Terry Francona said. “He just wasn’t blessed with the greatest body. He walked into our one-on-one meetings, and I think I set the record for expletives because I was so proud of him. He looked so good, and then to listen to him talk about what he did and how he did it, that made my whole day.
“You watch the box scores [this spring]. He’ll get some at-bats — maybe more than he would have.”
Cincinnati Reds: Bryan Price’s four-man outfield
The Reds plan to implement a four-man outfield time-share arrangement with Billy Hamilton, Scott Schebler, Adam Duvall and Jesse Winker logging a relatively equal number of the at-bats. Hamilton is the resident defensive whiz and stolen base threat. Schebler and Duvall bring the power, and Winker’s exceptional plate discipline is reflected in his .398 OBP in more than 2,400 professional plate appearances.
“Are they going to complement each other in the way that we need them to — righty-lefty, defense and offense?” general manager Dick Williams said. “It’s going to be an interest thing to watch unfold.
“I think we have enough at-bats to go around as long as everybody buys into the program — and you would think they should buy into the program because it’s going to put them in more of a position to succeed. The only at-bats they’re losing are the ones that should be the least productive. That’s easy to put on paper. In practice, it’s not so easy to implement.”
Profar rated as one of MLB’s top prospects in 2012-2013, but his star has gradually faded due to injuries and underperformance. After breaking camp as Texas’ starting left fielder last year, he played his way to Triple-A Round Rock with a 5-for-37 (.135) start. With the exception of cameo appearances in June and July, that was the extent of his exposure in Arlington.
Profar showed improved plate discipline with 43 walks, only 33 strikeouts and a .383 OBP in Round Rock, and he worked on his speed, agility and strength in the offseason. He’s out of minor league options, and the Rangers would like him to seize a utility job and provide a security blanket for the Adrian Beltre–Elvis Andrus–Rougned Odor infield contingent.
“He just turned 25,” Rangers assistant GM Josh Boyd said. “In the industry, we follow guys from such a young age, it seems as if he’s been around forever. The reality is he’s still young. He’s still the same guy who was once considered one of the top prospects in baseball. The way he’s come into camp is really encouraging.”
Los Angeles Dodgers: Settling on an outfield mix
“We have as much outfield depth as anyone in baseball, and there are only so many at-bats to go around,” manager Dave Roberts said. “So it’s going to be fun to see how that plays itself out.”
Chris Taylor is a given in center field after logging an .850 OPS last season, but he won’t have the luxury of sneaking up on people this time around. Yasiel Puig, who hit 28 homers and slugged .487, is a fixture in right. Left field is the mystery position. Andrew Toles is working his way back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, and Joc Pederson would like to bottle the magic from October, when he salvaged a rough year with three home runs and a .944 slugging percentage in the World Series. Pederson has a .184/.278/.321 career slash line vs. lefties, so he’s strictly a platoon guy at this stage of his career.
The Dodgers are also keeping an eye on prospect Alex Verdugo, who slashed .314/.389/.436 in Triple-A and is pushing to expedite his timetable at age 21.
Matt Kemp lost a reported 40 pounds over the winter and showed up in a positive frame of mind. But how upbeat will he be if it’s mid-April and he’s stuck on the bench? The Dodgers owe Kemp $43 million over the next two years and made every attempt to move him after acquiring him from Atlanta in mid-December. He’s still around, and now it’s up to Roberts and the coaching staff to make the arrangement work. “Fun” isn’t the word that immediately springs to mind.
Seattle Mariners: Is Kyle Seager due for a rebound?
After finishing 12th in American League MVP balloting in 2016, Seager fell off across the board last year. He hit .253 with one homer in 90 plate appearances in April and arrived in camp intent on getting off to a better start. He made some tweaks to his swing and showed up in Arizona with a noticeable sense of purpose.
“He’s typically a slow starter,” manager Scott Servais said. “I talked to him and said, ‘We’re not talking about that anymore. We’re getting rid of the mental side of that thing.’ He’s a really good player, and he had a little bit of a down year, and he’s anxious to get back out there.”
Seager won the award for most creative Players’ Weekend moniker last season when he referred to himself as “Corey’s brother” on the back of his jersey. He’s not quite as light-hearted about Seattle’s recent lack of postseason exposure. The Mariners haven’t been to the playoffs since 2001, and they’ll need big seasons from Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Seager if they want to be a factor in the AL West.
“His brother has been playing in the postseason, and he hasn’t,” Servais said. “He wants to get a taste of that.”
After hitting .211 with 150 strikeouts (albeit with 30 homers), Schwarber embarked upon a mission to remake his body in the offseason. The guy who stole four bases in his first 200 MLB games looked awfully spry with two steals in Chicago’s 12-10 Cactus League victory over San Francisco on Sunday.
Schwarber’s goal was to add quickness and agility without sacrificing power. Cubs manager Joe Maddon loves what he has seen early in camp.
“When you watch him run, it’s almost like, ‘Who is that?”’ Maddon said. “You don’t even know who it is. He looks fabulous, and you want to believe all that hard work is going to be rewarded.
“I saw him during the winter time. He came to my event in Tampa, and he was a celebrity bartender, and he looked good then. Right now, it’s unbelievable. He’s moving great, and he’s so motivated. Oh my god, he’s so motivated.”
Los Angeles Angels: Will they stick with six?
The six-man rotation is ideal for Shohei Ohtani, who pitched once a week in Japan and can use the extra time between starts to contribute to the cause as a DH. But how will the new arrangement fly with Garrett Richards, Tyler Skaggs, Matt Shoemaker, Andrew Heaney and whichever pitcher emerges from the Nick Tropeano/J.C. Ramirez/Parker Bridwell trio to claim the sixth spot?
The Angels’ starters have piled up their share of injuries and disabled list days, so the new arrangement is theoretically a way to lighten the load. But they’ll have to worry about keeping six starters healthy instead of five. If the experiment is successful, they could be ahead of the curve.
“I don’t think anybody’s ever had a lot of experience with a six-man rotation, so there’s not a whole lot of feedback,” manager Mike Scioscia said. “I don’t think we’re really sure how it’s going to work, so we have to be flexible. But it just makes too much sense right now not to try it. Not only for Shohei, but the grouping of our projected rotation. We’re going to try it, and we have a lot of confidence it’s going to work.”
Milwaukee Brewers: The dominos from Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain
Last year, the Brewers spent a lot of time talking about their young outfield talent. Now that Cain and Yelich have arrived, Ryan Braun will be spending a lot more time at first base, and manager Craig Counsell will have to find a way to divvy up the available at-bats at first and in the outfield.
Here’s how the math shakes out: The Brewers have about 2,800 available plate appearances at four spots, and Yelich, Cain, Braun, Eric Thames and Domingo Santana will share them roughly equally. “If you split it evenly with five guys, that’s 560 apiece,” Counsell said. “With injuries and everything, we’ll find a way. Some guys will get 500, and some will get 600, but it will work out.”
The most pressing questions: How will Yelich adapt if asked to play right field, where he has yet to log an inning in the big leagues? What do the Brewers do with Brett Phillips and Keon Broxton? Both players have minor league options left. But Phillips posted a .799 OPS in 37 games last season, and Broxton hit 20 home runs in Milwaukee, and until recently they both had reason to believe their time had come.
Chicago White Sox: How quickly can the kids progress?
Manager Rick Renteria talks about the maturity he has seen from shortstop Tim Anderson and second baseman Yoan Moncada this spring. And general manager Rick Hahn roams the grounds at Camelback Ranch and sees boundless potential when Eloy Jimenez, Luis Robert and Micker Adolfo take batting practice in the same group and Michael Kopech, Dylan Cease and Alec Hansen throw off the bullpen mounds in unison.
But it’s all about 2019 and beyond for the White Sox, who won 67 games last year and are taking a disciplined and methodical approach to building a contender. “We know two things, as we stand here today,” Hahn said. “Reasonably and objectively, we have guys who, if they hit their ceilings, could be players on a championship club at every position. Unfortunately, we also know that’s not going to happen. Not everyone is going to hit their ceiling. The baseball gods have cruel things in mind for us, whether it’s injury or underperformance or whatever else. So they’re not all going to wind up being exactly who you hoped they would be.
“This is an important year for us from a player development standpoint to see who’s going to continue on that path to being potentially a dude, and we may have to go outside the organization and augment some holes over the next couple of years. Right now there’s that excitement. Nobody has failed or gotten injured yet, so it’s a fun camp to walk around and see [what we have].”
San Diego Padres: What to do with all those outfielders?
Eric Hosmer’s arrival via an eight-year, $144 million contract forces Wil Myers to the outfield, which adds to an already crowded picture. Manuel Margot will log the bulk of the at-bats in center, and that leaves Jose Pirela, Hunter Renfroe, Alex Dickerson, Franchy Cordero and Travis Jankowski scrambling for at-bats.
Renfroe set a franchise rookie record with 26 home runs last year, but he also struck out 140 times in 445 at-bats and logged a .284 OBP. Dickerson recorded an .810 OPS vs. righties in 2016 before missing all of last season with a back injury. Franchy Cordero was MVP of the Dominican Winter League. Pirela has big raw power and can play both outfield and second base. Jankowski is a terrific defender capable of playing all three outfield spots.
“There is cutthroat competition for opportunity and a chance for us to maybe platoon a little bit,” manager Andy Green said. “All of those guys have done some things that would make you want them out there. There’s going to be real competition, and I think we’ll be better for it.”
Kansas City Royals: Can Adalberto Mondesi take the next step?
Mondesi, who previously went by “Raul,” announced early in camp that he wants to be referred to by his middle name to distinguish himself from family members. His father and brother both go by Raul.
Will the name change help him reclaim the promise he showed in 2015, when he became the youngest player to appear in a World Series game since Andruw Jones of the 1996 Braves?
Mondesi has a .181/.226/.271 slash line in in 209 plate appearances with Kansas City. He incurred a 50-game suspension for a banned substance last season, and he has been hindered by back problems, an undisciplined approach at the plate and questions about his maturity and work ethic. But he’s only 22, so time is still on his side. “He’s a dynamic player,” Royals assistant GM J.J. Picollo said.
The Royals have Alcides Escobar at shortstop and Whit Merrifield at second, but Mondesi has an opportunity to make an impression in camp and prompt the Royals to shift Merrifield to the outfield or a super-utility role.
Colorado Rockies: Can the pitching hold up?
The Rockies made a splash when they spent $106 million to upgrade the bullpen with free agents Wade Davis, Bryan Shaw and Jake McGee. But general manager Jeff Bridich talks constantly about the team’s “pitching culture” and a collaborative effort that has been years in the making.
The Rockies have gone from last in the NL in ERA in 2015 (5.04) to 13th in 2016 (4.91) to ninth last season (4.51). But the new-look pen isn’t going to matter much if Jon Gray, Chad Bettis and a young rotation can’t get the ball to Davis, Shaw and McGee with leads to protect. The Rockies continue to monitor the growth curve of starters German Marquez, Kyle Freeland, Jeff Hoffman and Antonio Senzatela and reliever Carlos Estevez, all of whom are 25 or younger.
“A lot of the splashy stuff, as it relates to our bullpen, is all well and good,” Bridich said. “But I think if you look at the potential of that group of young pitchers — the starters and some of the young guys we have in the bullpen — that’s one of the more exciting parts of our team.”
Oakland Athletics: Can A.J. Puk make the mullet fashionable again?
When asked what’s caught his eye early in camp, A’s GM David Forst laughed and mentioned Puk’s flowing red locks.
“It’s a lot like ‘Bull Durham,”’ Forst said. “When you win 20 in the show, you can wear your hair however you want and people think you’re creative.”
Puk, the No. 6 pick in the 2013 draft out of the University of Florida, is No. 13 on Keith Law’s list of MLB’s top 100 prospects. Now that Matt Chapman and Matt Olson have graduated to the majors, the A’s are cultivating a young wave of middle infield talent and pitchers with ability, stuff and checkered injury histories in the minors. It’s going to be hard for Puk to slip under the radar. He’s a lanky, 6-foot-7 lefty, and when A’s manager Bob Melvin was asked for a historical comparable early in camp, he aimed high.
“The obvious guy is the guy I managed in Arizona,” Melvin told reporters. “You hate to put that kind of expectations or comp on a guy, but there are some similarities, maybe a little different arm angle. But the hair, the whole bit and the height and the velocity — Randy Johnson. It’s just a tough comp to put on a guy.”
Hank Aaron was one of the five best MLB players ever
So much of Henry Aaron’s baseball legacy is attached to three numbers — 715, 755 and whatever Barry Bonds’ career home run total ended up at — that we too often overlook his all-around brilliance on the field. Put it this way: If you turned his 755 home runs into outs, he still finished with more than 3,000 hits. Or another way: He played 23 major league seasons and was a 25-time All-Star (there were multiple All-Star Games early in Aaron’s career).
Even though he is widely regarded as one of the top five players in MLB history, Aaron has remained underrated among the all-time greats. He played most of his career in the shadow of Willie Mays, his contemporary who was the more visually breathtaking player thanks to Mays’ defense in center field. Many still consider Babe Ruth the greatest right fielder. So Aaron ranks merely as the second-best player of his generation and the second-best right fielder of all time.
When experts and fans talk about the best hitters in the game’s history, they usually talk about Ruth and Ted Williams and Bonds, or even singles hitters like Tony Gwynn, before Aaron’s name comes up. No player, however, played with such sustained, consistent excellence for so long as Aaron.
Showing up every day isn’t glamorous, but it’s one way you topple Ruth and hit 755 home runs. As a rookie with the Milwaukee Braves in 1954, Henry Aaron fractured his ankle in early September, ending his season at 122 games. Maybe he wasn’t quite Cal Ripken as an Ironman, but Aaron didn’t miss many more games after that. From 1955 to 1968, he played 2,157 out of a possible 2,214 games, missing an average of just 4.1 games per season. In 1969 and 1970, then 35 and 36 years old, he fell all the way down to 147 and 150 games.
Along the way, he never had even a single bad season. His only MVP award came in 1957, but Aaron finished in the top 10 of the MVP voting 13 times during an era in which the National League was packed with future Hall of Famers vying for the award and finished in the top three in three different decades. Here’s one way to look at his high level of play for nearly two decades:
Most 6-WAR seasons
Tris Speaker 14
Most 7-WAR seasons
Lou Gehrig 11
Mays is right up there with Aaron, but even Mays faded in his late 30s. Mays’ last 30-homer season came at age 35 in 1966. From age 36 on, he hit 118 home runs. Aaron hit a career-high 47 home runs at age 37, and from age 36 on he hit 201 home runs.
That’s another testament to Aaron’s consistency. Forty-seven other players have hit at least 47 home runs in a season — 15 of them more than once — but Aaron is still second all-time in home runs. Since he finished his career in 1976, four players have hit more home runs through age 30 than Aaron. None of them could keep it going in their 30s:
Up to age 30
Alex Rodriguez: 464 HR, 85.0 WAR
Ken Griffey Jr.: 438 HR, 76.2 WAR
Albert Pujols: 408 HR, 81.4 WAR
Andruw Jones: 368 HR, 61.0 WAR
Henry Aaron: 366 HR, 80.7 WAR
After age 30
Rodriguez: 232 HR, 32.5 WAR
Griffey: 192 HR, 7.6 WAR
Pujols: 254 HR, 19.4 WAR
Jones: 66 HR, 1.7 WAR
Aaron: 389 HR, 62.4 WAR
In 1955, in his second season in the majors, at just 21 years old, Aaron hit .314 with 27 homers, 105 runs and 106 RBIs, his first great season. In 1973, at 39 years old, he hit .301 with 40 home runs — in just 120 games. But Aaron wasn’t just a slugger. He finished with a .305 career average, hitting .300 14 times, even though many of his peak seasons came in the 1960s, in the most difficult hitting conditions since the dead-ball era. In an interview with MLB Network just last month, Aaron said the thing he was most proud of was that “I didn’t strike out.”
Indeed, he never struck out 100 times in a season and finished with more walks than strikeouts. Keep in mind that Ruth, playing in an era with far fewer strikeouts than even Aaron’s era, led his league five times in strikeouts. Ruth fanned in 12.5% of his plate appearances, Aaron in just 9.9% of his. Maybe that’s why Aaron was such a good clutch hitter and RBI guy. He hit .324 in his career with runners in scoring position, and in “late and close” situations when the game is most on the line, he hit .318/.407/.576 — better than his overall line of .305/.374/.555.
Tim Kurkjian remembers the impact of Hank Aaron, which extended far beyond the baseball diamond.
Bonds might have passed Aaron on the home run list, but Aaron is still the all-time leader in RBIs and total bases. Using the unofficial list at Baseball-Reference.com (RBIs are considered official only since 1920), Aaron’s 2,297 outpace Ruth’s 2,214. Pujols stands at 2,100, but 2021 will likely be his last season.
Years ago, Aaron stepped into the ESPN Sunday Night Baseball booth. At one point, there was a runner on second base with no outs. Joe Morgan asked Aaron how often he tried to move the runner along to third — expecting, perhaps, Aaron to say he played the game the “right way” and hit the ball to the right side. Aaron let out a big, hearty laugh. “Never,” he said. “I always tried to knock the guy in.”
The total bases record might be even more unbreakable. Aaron has 6,856 — well ahead of Stan Musial’s 6,134. If another player came along and replicated Musial’s numbers, he would still need to hit 181 home runs to break Aaron’s record.
Aaron wasn’t just a dominant hitter, but also an outstanding fielder and baserunner. He won three Gold Gloves, and while fielding metrics from his era are informed estimates, Baseball-Reference rates him ninth among right fielders in runs saved at plus-98 for his career. He stole 240 bases with an excellent success rate, and when he hit 44 home runs and stole 31 bases in 1963, he became just the third player to go 30-30 in the same season (after Ken Williams and Mays). Joe Torre, his longtime teammate with the Braves, said he never saw Aaron make a mistake on the field. To top it off, while he appeared in just three postseasons (the 1957 and 1958 World Series and 1969 National League Championship Series), he hit .362/.405/.710 with six home runs in 17 games.
He’s fifth all-time among position players in career WAR:
Ty Cobb: 151.0
You can add Ted Williams to the conversation (121.9 WAR despite missing several prime years due to World War II and the Korean War) — although Williams wasn’t the fielder or baserunner that Bonds, Mays and Aaron were. So, yeah, top five is accurate, probably ahead of Cobb once you make a timeline adjustment, and you can judge what you want to do with Bonds.
What about playing at the same time as Mays? OK. Sure. Mays’ greatness did seem to make Aaron a little underappreciated, even back in their playing days. Not everyone from that time necessarily agreed, however. Here’s a quote from Hall of Fame third baseman Pie Traynor in 1964: “I’ll take Hank Aaron any day over Mays. Give me a guy who’ll go out there and play every game, never get tired, doesn’t complain and won’t faint on you. … You don’t hear much about Hank, yet he’s just as good a fielder, runner and a steadier and better hitter.”
Washington Nationals re-signing Ryan Zimmerman to one-year, $1M deal, source says
Zimmerman opted out of the 2020 season because of concerns about his family’s safety amid the coronavirus pandemic but is set to play his 16th major league season, all with the Nationals.
Zimmerman’s future in Washington had been uncertain after the Nationals acquired Josh Bell to play first base, but general manager Mike Rizzo said last month that the team was open to bringing the 36-year-old back.
Zimmerman batted .257 with six home runs for the 2019 World Series champions.
USA Today first reported on Zimmerman’s return to Washington.
Source — Jurickson Profar, San Diego Padres agree to 3-year, $21 million deal
Profar continues to show his versatility as a true utilityman, having played five defensive positions for the Padres last season while seeing most of his action in left field and at second base. He hit a career-high .278 with seven home runs and 25 RBIs in 56 games during the pandemic-shortened season.
The 27-year-old continues to get on track offensively as he gets more playing time, something he didn’t have during his first six years after the top prospect was called up by the Texas Rangers in 2012. He got off to a horrible start during the 2020 season but compiled an .879 OPS over the final 43 games, hitting .331.
The Padres acquired Profar in a trade with the Oakland Athletics after the 2019 season, and he beat out Brian Dozier to win the starting job at second base. His slow start, however, led to Jake Cronenworth taking over at the position, but opportunity soon followed as Profar moved to left field after Tommy Pham was injured.
Overall, in seven major league seasons, Profar has a .238 batting average with 59 home runs and 222 RBIs with the Padres, Athletics and Rangers.
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