Major League Baseball’s Spring Training signals the start of a new season. Well almost. Though it provides an ideal spring break vacation spot in the warm weather of Arizona or Florida, it’s just a warmup, a prelude or prequel, a teaser or simply an introduction to the 162 games that will follow. For a large number of participants, it feels somewhere in between orientation and practice, neither of which are two of humanity’s favorite things.
Thousands of Minor Leaguers entered Spring Training, with a far smaller number having the opportunity to secure a Major League invite and play with the big boys. Performance is the ultimate variable, whether it’s on the back fields or the field. These Minor League players took advantage of the precious opportunity provided to them in March.
Hunter Renfroe, San Diego Padres
A barren wasteland of veteran castoffs and low-reward youth, the Padres still waited until the final days of the 2016 regular season to promote one of their top prospects. Called up alongside fellow outfielder Manuel Margot, the 25-year old Renfroe entered with less hype but outplayed his former Triple-A El Paso teammate. In just 35 at bats, the corner outfielder popped four homers to show off his power (77 HR, .824 SLG in the minors) but also impressed with a .371 batting average.
Small sample sizes are dangerous but tantalizing and frankly, all we have on him at the moment. As of March 28th (applies to all players discussed), he’s silenced any doubters with a .303 batting average on 20 hits. With 11 RBI in 21 games, he slugged an exceptional .500, fueled by two home runs and seven double.
He did struggle with his K:BB ratio, striking out 11 times and walking just once, but did everything he needed to and more to secure the opening day spot in San Diego’s right field, where he can show off that potent arm of his.
Robert Gsellman, New York Mets
Few teams over the past several years have had the depth in young pitching that the New York Mets possess, not to mention formerly housing 2016 American League Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer. Outside of the obvious names like Thor, Harvey and deGrom, things haven’t gone as expected at the back of the rotation. Where Steven Matz and Zack Wheeler were projected to fill out the quintuplet, it’s instead turned out to be 23-year old Robert Gsellman and World Baseball Classic star Seth Lugo.
Gsellman doesn’t quite have the locks of Syndergaard or the velocity of deGrom, but behind a powerful two-seam fastball, he’s got plenty of stuff. And plenty of hair. He entered Spring Training without a rotation spot but not only won one, he’ll pitch fourth for the Mets. Matz is likely to start the year on disabled list and while Lugo dominated in the WBC, Gsellman did his great work in front of live Mets’ personnel.
He held runners to a .225 average while posting a 2.31 ERA. Only Kyle Kendrick (Red Sox) and Madison Bumgarner (Giants) have bettered his 1.07 WHIP with as many as 23 innings pitched. Set to build off his stellar 2016 debut (4-2, 2.42 ERA, 1.4 WAR), he still qualifies as a first-year player after throwing under 50 innings (44.7), making him a strong Rookie of the Year candidate.
Mitch Haniger, Seattle Mariners
A lot of fantasy baseball sleeper hype surrounds Haniger. The “comb meal” characteristics (home runs + stolen bases) will do that for you. Traded from Arizona to the Mariners in the off-season, he was merely considered a throw-in by most in a deal that featured the names Jean Segura and Taijuan Walker. But the toolsy Haniger could tip the scales on this deal (Ketel Marte struggled in Spring Training and has been optioned to Triple-A Reno by the Diamondbacks) rather quickly.
A former first round pick of the Brewers, the 25-year old was acquired by the D-Backs in a deal for Gerardo Parra in 2014. Graduating to the big leagues in 2016, he struggled in just over 100 at bats. He may have hit just .229, but showed effectiveness as a rookie with a .309 OBP.
Jumping from Double-A to the Majors last year, Haniger is a career .290/.370/.490 Minor League slasher. At 25, he has nothing left to prove in the minors. But also at 25, his clock is ticking on producing a Major League role. A hot spring --he is the only player with at least 60 at bats to hit .400 (he’s at exactly .400)-- has reassured Seattle’s front office of their plans to implement him as their new everyday right fielder.
Before Spring Training even started, the confident Haniger, who has never stolen more than 12 bases in a season, said he believes he can steal 20. Combined with power (25 home runs in 129 MiLB games last season), he is a threat for a potential 20-20 season.
Joe Musgrove, Houston Astros
Houston has had an embarrassment of riches in their farm system for years (and despite the Carlos Gomez and Ken Giles trades, still do), but the fanfare has largely glossed over the 24-year old Joe Musgrove. Acquired from Toronto in this 2010 trade I still cannot comprehend to this day, he’s become the prize of the package. In a deal where the Astros acquired a whopping seven players, that’s saying something.
Musgrove is known for his pinpoint control, and there’s good reason for that. He’s walked 41 batters in his entire Minor League Baseball career of 337.1 innings. Translating to a 1.038 WHIP, he allows just 1.1 opponents per nine innings to reach via base on balls and couples this incredible command with a penchant for strikeouts. He’s punched out 302 batters (8.5 per 9 IP) during his prospect years, totaling 99 K’s in 2015 and 87 more in 2016. Those came in 15.1 less innings because he received his call-up in August.
The Astros lack an ace outside of Dallas Keuchel and his Dallas Keuchel shoulder troubles. However, unlike past seasons, they have a handful of back-of-the-rotation-quality arms. Musgrove’s ceiling easily exceeds the likes of Colin McHugh, Mike Fiers or newcomer Charlie Morton, but the Houston front office would have been reassured by a strong spring to prioritize Musgrove above the trio of veterans.
Well, they got one. Musgrove has flashed his best tools in six starts (3-0), tallying a K:BB ratio of 15:6 and sporting a transcendent 1.05 WHIP as well an opponent’s batting average of .215. In 22 innings, only 23 runners have earned their way on base. Incredible. There wasn’t a lot of opposition to Musgrove fitting in Houston’s opening day plans, but with his performance in March, he’s earned the chance to pitch as the Astros’ number three starter.
Eddie Butler, Chicago Cubs
Entering the 2015 season, Eddie Butler had emerged as a bonafide top prospect. Keith Law of ESPN.com had him as high as 31st in his prospect rankings. Then property of the Colorado Rockies, there was always worry that if he did make it, he was going to have to make it at the unfriendly confines of Coors Field. To say things went poorly would be...a poor choice of words. In 36 appearances and 28 starts over three seasons, Butler racked up a 6.50 ERA and allowed 16 baserunners per nine innings. A 5.69 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) rendered him extremely hittable.
Fast forward to February 2017 and the world champion Chicago Cubs (that just sounds strange) swapped James Farris for Butler and his post-hype aspirations. He went into Cubs’ camp without much expectation and like others on this list, ended up dominating.
He started three games and appeared in five total (incidentally winning five) and held opponents to numbers that were expected from him seasons ago. Hitters mustered only a .205 average on him and he put up a an ERA of 3.07 with a sparkling .95 WHIP.
Unfortunately, the Cubs have a lot of good players (to say the least) and Butler was nonetheless optioned to Triple-A Iowa on the 27th. But with his spring performance, he’s earned the right to be one of the first named called by the World Series champions, a long way from where he was not long ago. The Cubs bought low and so far look to have uncovered a serious reward to unleash in the far friendlier confines of Wrigley.
Arismendy Alcantara, Cincinnati Reds
I’m gonna jump off the reservation a bit here. I hope I had your permission.Originally buried behind the likes of Starlin Castro and Javier Baez in Chicago, Alcantara, 25, has never garnered much press as a prospect. He won’t be starting anywhere for his new Cincinnati Reds ballclub, but he’s got some serious position flexibility. The only places he can’t play are pitcher and catcher and the Reds could utilize him all over the field if he makes the team. His chances improved greatly when Cincy released the similarly styled Ryan Raburn on March 27th.
But to get to that point, the versatile Alcantara first had to open some eyes in Goodyear, Arizona. The former Cubs and A’s farmhand has hit .279 and slugged .541 this spring to go along with three stolen bases (on four tries), three home runs and 15 RBI. The RBI total ranks him tied for seventh of all competitors in baseball. Playing primarily outfield, the Reds may have stolen Alcantara off waivers from Oakland. The A’s rarely let a utility player fall through the cracks, but not much has gone right for the Athletics in quite some time.