Finding Meaning in Spring Training

I will admit that I am one of those baseball fans who counts down to the start of spring training; not because I think the games matter (it’s really just glorified practice), but because I believe a day with baseball of any kind is better than a day without baseball. We are now three weeks into spring training and some fans have expressed consternation with the Blue Jays’ 6-12 record.

The outcome of the games is utterly meaningless, particularly when you consider that the Jays’ roster has been decimated by both injury (Josh Donaldson, Devon Travis, Steve Pearce) and the World Baseball Classic (Jose Bautista, Russell Martin, Marcus Stroman). Add to that the fact that teams are trying to give some of their minor-league players a look and everyone is just trying to get their timing down, and, really, team results mean absolutely nothing. The only thing that’s critical is that pitchers get their work in and build up the arm strength to withstand throwing the number of pitches that will be required of them come Opening Day.

With all that being said, there is a case to be made that individual player results in spring training do hold merit, particularly if commensurate with a player’s past trends. So, after three weeks of spring training baseball, and taking into account that what we’ve seen constitutes a small sample size, here are three of my takeaways thus far.

Left Field

Everyone was aware entering spring training that left field was likely to be an offensive black hole – particularly against right-handed pitchers – if the Jays were to roll with a platoon of Melvin Upton Jr. and Ezequiel Carrera, as has been suggested by John Gibbons. No one should be surprised, therefore, that both have struggled at the plate. Carerra is 6-for-23 with five walks and four strikeouts while Upton is a paltry 4-for-23 with one walk and seven strikeouts. When you factor in their splits from last season (Upton hit .226 against righties compared to .275 against lefties, while the left-handed Carerra hit left-handed pitchers to the tune of .329 while managing just .218 against righties), it’s obvious to anyone paying attention that this is not how a platoon should work.

The Jays have two potential in-house options, though neither are likely to usurp either Upton or Carrera. Dalton Pompey entered camp with hope heaped upon him; a strong spring campaign could once again earn him a spot on the Opening Day roster. Unfortunately, the hard-luck kid would instead sustain a concussion on a head-first slide into second base and has henceforth been shut down. Though it is unclear when he will be able to resume action, one can assume that his shortened spring means he will begin the season in Buffalo.

Meanwhile, Darrell Ceciliani has gone 10-for-36 while displaying a little pop in his bat, hitting three doubles, a triple and a home run while also striking out nine times. In Buffalo last season, the left-handed Ceciliani hit .285/.356/.522 with an OPS of .877 versus RHP, suggesting that he would be a more suitable platoon mate for Upton. However, in thirteen major-league games with the Jays last season, Ceciliani hit just .111 and it would take an otherworldly spring performance for him to unseat one of the veterans.

It must be noted that there exists another option should the Jays’ front office choose to go off the board; namely, Angel Pagan. The thirty-five year old switch-hitting free agent posted a .282 average against right-handed pitching last season, which essentially matched his career rate. Last season with the Giants he batted .277/.331/.418/.324 with 12 home runs, 55 RBI, 15 stolen bases and a wRC+ of 105. PECOTA projections expect Pagan to continue to hit for average (.272) but with a dip in power (seven home runs) and run projection (45 RBI). Given that he is entering his age thirty-six season, it is also unlikely that Pagan will continue to put up double-digit steals. Still, if he would be willing to play part-time at the right price, his ability to hit for average makes Pagan a far better option against righties than either Upton or Carrera.

Jose Bautista and Kendrys Morales

I am cheating a bit here by combining Bautista and Morales into one take-away, but – if spring training is any indication – the two ought to provide an explosive offense this season that may make this fan base forget about a certain parrot-toting slugger. PECOTA projects Morales to hit .264 with 22 home runs, 69 runs scored and 80 RBI this season, but if early results are any indication – Morales is batting .440/.500/.800/1.300 including two home runs and three doubles in twenty-five at-bats – all signs point to Morales putting up better numbers than projected, particularly given the fact that he is moving from cavernous Kauffman Stadium to the confines of the hitter-friendly Dome.

Bautista, meanwhile, has once again captured the attention of the baseball world with his play for the Dominican Republic at the WBC. In sixteen at-bats this spring, Bautista is slashing .563/.611/1.063/1.674 with two home runs and two doubles, suggesting that his less-than-stellar injury-plagued 2016 campaign is well behind him. The former playoff hero is projected to hit .253 with 31 home runs, 87 runs scored and 93 RBI. Furthermore, his throw from left field to cut down Oscar Mecado at the plate did wonders to alleviate concern over his arm – not because the throw itself was stellar (he two-hopped it), but because he unloaded the ball quickly and threw it 88.4 mph, which was harder than all but two of his throws all of last season.

There is no doubt that Bautista is playing with a chip on his shoulder given his inability to land a lucrative free agent contract this past offseason – and his potential to try again after 2017 – and while narrative has no place in projections, everyone knows that Bautista plays better when he feels he has something to prove.

Francisco Liriano

After struggling with command last year in Pittsburgh, Liriano joined the Jays last season and made adjustments to gain control of his fastball. The result was a 2.92 ERA with a 1.18 WHIP and .267 BABIP over 49 1/3 innings through the end of the year. Through five innings this spring, Liriano has been absolutely dominant, giving up just two hits and recording eight strike outs while surrendering just one walk.

He’s projected to go 11-9 with a 4.30 ERA and 1.45 WHIP  over 168 innings, but given that his success during the final two months of last season appears to carried over to this spring, I would anticipate that Liriano pitches much better than projected – perhaps to the tune of an ERA near 3.50, similar to his production from 2013-2015. He very well could be the number three guy on what is a very strong starting rotation. Given that the Jays are likely going to have to rely on strong pitching performances throughout the season if they want to contend for a third straight postseason appearance, having Liriano in the rotation from the start of the season could prove to be a big difference-maker.

With just over two weeks remaining before Opening Day, the Jays still have some issues to sort out: who will hit lead-off until Devon Travis is healthy? Who will be in the bullpen aside from Jason Grilli, Joe Biagini, Roberto Osuna, J.P. Howell, and Joe Smith? Who is the sixth starter?

One hopes that the next seventeen days will resolve these issues in a manner that leaves little doubt as to the right decisions. One thing is clear, though – despite the poor team performance this spring, there is enough about which to be optimistic that fans can expect the team to be competitive once again this season.

Lead Photo: © Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

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