Some spring training stats really do count
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Spring training statistics mean little to proven, veteran players. When Opening Day arrives, Grapefruit and Cactus League numbers are wiped clean, and most baseball fans will never remember what happened in exhibition games.
The situation is a bit different for players battling for starting jobs or roster spots, or those trying to return from injury.
With the spring season at the midway point, here are some players' March stats (through Sunday) that could prove to be telling when the meaningful games begin next month:
CHASE UTLEY, PHILLIES: 0-FOR-0
DAVID WRIGHT, NEW YORK METS: 0-FOR-0
Remember about three years ago, when these two guys were entering what should have been the prime of their careers? Nearly everyone would have considered them among the three or four best players in the National League. When healthy, they're still pretty darn good players. The question is, when are they healthy anymore? Injuries have prevented both of them from making their Grapefruit League debuts.
The player to be more concerned about here is Utley. A degenerative knee condition sidelined him for the start of last season. When he returned, he posted pedestrian stats for him (a .259 average, 11 home runs, 44 RBIs and 14 steals in 398 at-bats). The company line has been that the Philadelphia Phillies are just playing it safe with Utley, making sure he's ready for the meaningful games. The truth is, though, he's going to have knee problems the rest of his career. Going forward, it's likely that his mediocre 2011 stat line will be closer to what to expect from Utley than the stat lines he put up during the years when he earned MVP votes.
Wright, meanwhile, was limited to 389 at-bats last season, hitting .254 with 14 homers, 61 RBIs and 13 steals. He missed more than two months with a stress fracture in his back.
Now, Wright has missed all of spring training with a slight abdominal muscle tear. The Washington Nationals' Ryan Zimmerman was sidelined about two months last year with a similar injury. It's a possibility that Wright won't be in the Mets' Opening Day lineup, although he remains optimistic.
Since Wright's injury will completely heal - eventually - he has a better long-term prognosis than Utley. It's just a shame, though, that injuries have severely hampered the prime years of two truly great players.
RAUL IBANEZ, NEW YORK YANKEES: 2-FOR-28 (.071), 1 RBI
ANDRUW JONES, NEW YORK YANKEES: 4-FOR-24 (.167), 1 RBI
Two veterans hoping for Yankees designated hitter at-bats, Jones and the recently acquired Ibanez have seen plenty of action during the first couple of weeks in Florida. Neither has inspired much confidence.
Sure, the Yankees lineup has enough big bats that the designated hitter position doesn't need to deliver elite production. Plus, if these guys continue to struggle, the deep-pocketed Bronx Bombers will certainly find someone who will produce offensively.
Still, it's shocking just how little pop these two former sluggers have displayed. Jones is "slugging" .167, which, amazingly, is better than Ibanez' .107 slugging percentage.
MIGUEL CABRERA, TIGERS: 17 FIELDING CHANCES, 1 ERROR, .941 FIELDING
There's little doubt that Cabrera is going to mash for Detroit, and his already potent offensive numbers will probably only improve with fellow slugger Prince Fielder joining the lineup this year.
Fielder's presence, however, has created a surplus of first baseman/designated hitter types and resulted in Cabrera moving to third base. Brooks Robinson he is not, but Cabrera hasn't embarrassed himself at all during the early going this spring.
Third base isn't foreign to him; he played 14 games there for Detroit as recently as 2008, and he was the Florida Marlins' regular at the hot corner in 2007. That year, he managed a .941 fielding percentage in 153 games. It wasn't great, but it was respectable enough that Cabrera's bat more than compensated. That should be the case again.
TYLER PASTORNICKY, BRAVES: 5-FOR-40 (.125), 2 RBIs, .125 SLUGGING
A rookie expected to bat No. 8 on a contending team, Pastornicky isn't being asked to carry the Atlanta Braves' offense. Since the prospect is a solid glove man, a .250 batting average would probably be enough to keep him in the lineup. Heck, if the rest of the Braves' batting order provides sufficient offense, Atlanta might be able to carry a dependable defensive shortstop even if he hovers around the Mendoza line.
In spring training, Pastornicky hasn't even approached the Mendoza line. He doesn't project to be as slick a fielder as, say, Mark Belanger, either. One has to wonder how long Atlanta will stick with him if this March showing continues into April.
MAT GAMEL, BREWERS: 8-FOR-27 (.296), 3 HR, 8 RBIs, 3 SBs
Fielder's projected replacement at first base for Milwaukee, Gamel has big shoes to fill. He's gotten off on the right foot, however, by showing good power to complement his contact skills.
There's no way Gamel will ever approach Fielder's stats, but this small sample shows promise that he could be an asset to a Brewers lineup that's still formidable.
CHRIS HEISEY, REDS: 5-FOR-28 (.179), 2 RBIs, 12 STRIKEOUTS
Heisey showed promise in a part-time role last season. At 27, he's not exceptionally young, but he still hasn't reached his arbitration years. Originally ticketed for significant playing time this year, Heisey probably surrendered a chunk of it when the Cincinnati Reds added Ryan Ludwick during the offseason.
In his fight to remain the Reds' primary left fielder, Heisey has struck out in nearly half his spring at-bats. Given manager Dusty Baker's propensity to play veterans, Heisey's spring struggles, should they continue, could end up costing him dearly.
IAN DESMOND, NATIONALS: 7-FOR-35 (.200), 10 STRIKEOUTS, 0 WALKS, .200
Washington could challenge for its first playoff spot this year. The Nationals have a strong starting rotation, a pretty good bullpen and an underrated lineup. Their biggest weakness? They could really use a leadoff hitter.
The Nationals just don't have a natural No. 1 hitter, so the job may once again fall to Desmond. His strike zone judgment needs improvement. It's a small sample, but those 10 strikeouts against no walks are hardly encouraging. With the likes of Zimmerman, Michael Morse, Jayson Werth and, eventually, Bryce Harper batting behind him, Desmond has the potential to score plenty of runs. It won't happen until he does a better job getting on base.
LONNIE CHISENHALL, INDIANS: 5-FOR-25 (.200), 1 RBI, 10 STRIKEOUTS, 1 WALK
As one of Cleveland's top prospects, it's reasonable to think the front office would love for Chisenhall to win the third base job and hold onto it for years. It's early and that could still turn out to be what happens, but the first couple of weeks of spring training couldn't have gone much worse for a young player fighting for a starting gig.
Chisenhall's primary competition at the hot corner, Jack Hannahan, hasn't exactly set the world on fire with a .222 average, either, but he has knocked in five runs in 18 at-bats. He's also only fanned twice. Chisenhall could still win the job, but he's going to need to pick up his play and do it soon.
PEDRO ALVAREZ, PIRATES: 4-FOR-24 (.167), 2 HRs, 3 RBIs, 10 STRIKEOUTS, 1 WALK
Two years ago, Alvarez was arguably the top power-hitting prospect in the minor leagues. He showed tremendous promise in the second half of the 2010 season, and the Pittsburgh Pirates rightfully envisioned him becoming an offensive centerpiece last year.
It didn't happen. Alvarez was out of shape. He struck out too much and didn't generate nearly enough power to even be an asset, let alone a budding star.
This is a huge year for the 25-year-old slugger. He's still young enough to deliver on his early promise, but the first couple of spring training weeks show a mixed bag. Project what he's done over the first couple of weeks this March to a full major-league season, and you basically have Dave Kingman or Rob Deer. He's capable of much better, but he first has to secure the starting third base job, and make the 25-man roster, for that matter.
BRANDON BELT, GIANTS: 14-FOR-38 (.368), 3 HRs, 6 RBIs
A year ago at this time, uber-prospect Belt was being hyped as a Will Clark clone. The hype has died down some, but the talent has not.
Belt didn't dazzle as a rookie, hitting just .225 with nine homers and 18 RBIs in 187 at-bats. He showed flashes, however, and the feeling is that if the 23- year-old first baseman/outfielder would get regular playing time, he'd flourish.
It's so strange that such an offensively challenged team as the Giants (last in the National League with 570 runs scored last year) can't find a regular spot for Belt. Yet, his path seems to be blocked. His natural position is first base, but, at least for now, Aubrey Huff is the projected starter there. Melky Cabrera, over from Kansas City in a trade, is going to be the left fielder. Nate Schierholtz is penciled in as the right fielder.
Belt's upside is greater than that of all those players, but he needs to find a regular spot. All he can do is continue hitting like he's hitting and hope for the best.
JOSE IGLESIAS, RED SOX: 3-FOR-10 (.300), 3 RBI
With the Red Sox trading their two top shortstops from a year ago (Marco Scutaro to the Rockies, Jed Lowrie to the Astros), there's an interesting three-way battle being waged for the starting gig. Switch-hitter Nick Punto and fellow veteran Mike Aviles came into the spring figuring to be co- favorites for the job. Both of them surely realize they'd just be keeping the position warm until 22-year-old Cuban prospect Iglesias takes over.
A slick fielder, Iglesias has been slowed by a groin injury during spring training. Being sidelined has probably hurt his chances of winning the job, especially since it's questionable whether he is ready to handle the task offensively; he batted just .235 in 101 games at Triple-A Pawtucket last year.
MARK TRUMBO, ANGELS: 6-for-19 (.316), 2 HR, 8 RBI
Until the Angels signed Albert Pujols, Trumbo was next to a lock for regular playing time this season. After all, he was coming off a strong showing in 2011, when he hit 29 homers and knocked in 87 runs.
With the addition of Pujols, though, it looks like Trumbo, Kendrys Morales and Bobby Abreu could be fighting for at-bats. Since Trumbo was voted team MVP last year, the Angels have no desire to limit his at-bats. As a result, it looks like he will open the season as the team's third baseman. Alberto Callaspo is still listed atop the Angels' depth chart at third, but Trumbo's bat would be difficult to put on the bench.
KYLE DRABEK, BLUE JAYS: 1-0, 6 IP, 5 HITS, 3 EARNED RUNS (4.50 ERA)
Doug Drabek's son hasn't been exceptional in the early going, nor has he been disappointing. He might win a job in the starting rotation, but I've included Drabek on this list mostly to highlight how well the Jays' candidates for the back of the rotation have performed.
Drabek went into the spring believed to be competing with Dustin McGowan for the No. 5 spot. McGowan has allowed just three hits and an unearned run so far. Projected No. 3 starter Brett Cecil has allowed just one earned run in 10 innings, yielding just six hits and three walks. Projected No. 4 starter Henderson Alvarez has yielded just two runs, five hits and two walks in six innings.
For a team perceived to have a solid offense and questionable pitching, Toronto's mound men are showing the potential to hold their own - if their spring performances carry into the summer.
MIKE MINOR, BRAVES: 14 INNINGS, 7 HITS, 10 STRIKEOUTS, 5 WALKS, 0.00 ERA
An extra spot in the Braves' starting rotation is available at the start of the season; Tim Hudson is expected to miss April after taking it slow during his return from offseason back surgery.
Minor came into the spring expected to win the No. 5 spot. With the way he's pitched, though, he is making a strong case to remain in the rotation even after Hudson gets back. The promising young left-hander was pretty good last season (5-3, 4.14 ERA in 15 starts), but he has looked even more confident and in command this spring.
Jeff Saukaitis is a former Sports Network writer/editor who has been a professional sports writer since 1985.