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10 'small sample' starts to believe in

Ohtani, Bogaerts, others have potential to build on early efforts
MLB.com

While it's usually wise to disregard Spring Training statistics, both good and bad, performances in the opening weeks of the regular season should not be dismissed as quickly. Although the sample size is still incredibly small, below are some examples of early-season success stories that could be harbingers of what's to come.

Shohei Ohtani, SP/DH, Angels: Questions about Ohtani's readiness for the Majors stemmed from the fact that the 23-year-old went 4-for-32 with 10 strikeouts and no extra-base hits at the plate and posted a 27.00 ERA over two starts during Spring Training. But after simplifying his leg raise, Ohtani broke out with a three-hit performance against Cleveland in his first game at Angel Stadium and followed that up by taking two-time American League Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber deep to the opposite field the next day. Then, on Friday, he hit his third homer in as many games. Before all that, he also tossed six strong innings vs. the A's in his pitching debut. While Ohtani continues to figure out how to shorten his swing against high-velocity pitchers, there are plenty of back-end starters with average fastballs on which the slugger should feast. And with the elite stuff he showed on the mound in Oakland, the righty has the potential to dominate this year.

While it's usually wise to disregard Spring Training statistics, both good and bad, performances in the opening weeks of the regular season should not be dismissed as quickly. Although the sample size is still incredibly small, below are some examples of early-season success stories that could be harbingers of what's to come.

Shohei Ohtani, SP/DH, Angels: Questions about Ohtani's readiness for the Majors stemmed from the fact that the 23-year-old went 4-for-32 with 10 strikeouts and no extra-base hits at the plate and posted a 27.00 ERA over two starts during Spring Training. But after simplifying his leg raise, Ohtani broke out with a three-hit performance against Cleveland in his first game at Angel Stadium and followed that up by taking two-time American League Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber deep to the opposite field the next day. Then, on Friday, he hit his third homer in as many games. Before all that, he also tossed six strong innings vs. the A's in his pitching debut. While Ohtani continues to figure out how to shorten his swing against high-velocity pitchers, there are plenty of back-end starters with average fastballs on which the slugger should feast. And with the elite stuff he showed on the mound in Oakland, the righty has the potential to dominate this year.

Video: Must C Crushed: Ohtani homers in second straight game

Matt Harvey, starter, Mets: Harvey has struggled with injuries and effectiveness in the past two seasons, posting a 5.78 ERA over 185 1/3 innings in that span and undergoing Thoracic outlet syndrome surgery in 2016, before dealing with further shoulder woes in '17. But the right-hander handled the Phillies in his first start of 2018, allowing only one hit over five scoreless innings while walking one and striking out five. Harvey used his slider and changeup effectively and attacked the strike zone with excellent command of his four- and two-seam fastballs, this despite working with reduced velocity at a chilly Citi Field. Likely to see his velocity tick upward as the temperature rises, Harvey could be on the verge of a major rebound campaign.

Video: PHI@NYM: Harvey tosses five shutout in season debut

Gerrit Cole, starter, Astros: Cole took a step backward after a breakout 2015 campaign in which he went 19-8 with a 2.60 ERA, posting a 4.12 ERA across the past two seasons. But following an offseason trade to the Astros, Cole seems poised to regain the ace-level form he showed three seasons ago. The right-hander was outstanding in his first start with Houston, striking out 11 batters over seven innings and allowing one run on only two hits against the Rangers. He generated swinging strikes on 20.6 percent of his pitches in that start (his 2017 rate was 8.7 percent), as he used his slider more than 26 percent of the time -- up from 17.24 percent a year ago. With increased reliance on that pitch, the hard-throwing Cole could reach new heights in 2018.

Video: HOU@TEX: Cole fans 11 in debut with Astros

Gregory Polanco, outfielder, Pirates: Polanco bulked up prior to the 2017 season, but according to the outfielder, the increased muscle mass led to slower bat speed and contributed to the nagging hamstring injuries he battled throughout the year. Playing just 108 games, Polanco hit .251 with only 11 homers and a .695 OPS. After adjusting his training regimen over the offseason, Polanco is swinging a hot bat in the early going (1.147 OPS). He's also shown improved plate discipline, posting a 8-to-6 BB/K ratio in 25 plate appearances. Still just 26 years old, Polanco could continue this success and enjoy the best campaign of his career.

Miguel Cabrera, first baseman, Tigers: New Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire recently told me that his biggest challenge in his first season with the team is to help Cabrera stay healthy for the entire season by managing the slugger's playing time. Dealing with a nagging back injury, the veteran produced career lows in many offensive categories when he slashed .249/.329/.399 with 16 homers in 130 games last year. He's looking like his old self so far, posting a .318/.400/.591 line with four extra-base hits (one homer) in six games. If Cabrera continues at this pace and the hip injury he sustained Thursday does not linger, it may be difficult for Gardenhire to remove the 34-year-old from the lineup.

Joe Panik, second baseman, Giants: Panik has shown surprising power early this season, hitting three homers in his first six games. Two of those came against lefties (Clayton Kershaw and Marco Gonzales), matching his career total vs. southpaws prior to 2018. The 27-year-old is unlikely to suddenly become a 30-homer threat, especially because he doesn't seem to have altered his approach much, but he could be on his way toward career highs in every power category.

Video: SEA@SF: Panik belts a solo homer in the 4th

Zack Cozart, 2B/3B/SS, Angels: Cozart was best known for his defense prior to 2017, producing a lifetime .674 OPS with an 80 wRC+ over his first six seasons. But the veteran flourished while making adjustments to his swing and plate approach last season, posting a .933 OPS with a 141 wRC+ for the Reds. Cozart has continued to shine in his first season with the Angels, settling in as the club's leadoff hitter and starting second baseman in place of the injured Ian Kinsler and posting a .841 OPS with more extra-base hits (six) than strikeouts (four) in his first seven games.

Xander Bogaerts, shortstop, Red Sox: Bogaerts was one of the most productive shortstops in the game during 2016, and he was seemingly on pace to retain that stature last season, before being hit in the right hand by a pitch on July 6. After that happened, Bogaerts hit .232 with four homers, a .661 OPS and a 74 wRC+ the rest of the way (.308, six homers, .818 OPS, 114 wRC+ through July 6). Now back to full health, the 25-year-old has produced three barrels and posted an average exit velocity of 92.7 mph so far, according to Statcast™ (six barrels, 87.3 mph in 2017). As a result, he's recorded a .344 average with a .989 OPS through seven games, tallying seven extra-base hits (six doubles, one homer) along the way.

Jose Martinez, 1B/OF, Cardinals: A veteran of 11 Minor League seasons, Martinez finally received his first extended big league trial last year and opened eyes with an .897 OPS and a 135 wRC+ over 307 plate appearances. The 29-year-old started on Opening Day this season and had no problem handling the impressive repertoire of the Mets' Noah Syndergaard, collecting three hits (including a homer) off the ace. So far, he's produced three multihit efforts and whiffed just twice, recording a .872 OPS. Matt Carpenter was expected to be the Cardinals' everyday first baseman, but he's made four of his seven starts at third base and the other at second to open up a regular lineup spot for Martinez.

Video: STL@NYM: J. Martinez launches his first jack of year

Felix Hernandez, starter, Mariners: Formerly one of the game's premier aces, Hernandez has battled a series of injuries over the past two seasons and watched his performance decline (4.01 ERA, 1.31 WHIP). Manager Scott Servais told me recently that Hernandez has accepted that he's now working with diminished stuff and needs to attack hitters differently. The right-hander battled some mechanical problems in his second start, when he walked five and allowed eight runs at San Francisco, but he was sharp while blanking the Indians over 5 1/3 innings on Opening Day. Although Hernandez clearly has less margin for error than he did in his heyday, he should be able to turn in more starts like his 2018 debut, once he finds a groove with his new approach.

Jim Duquette, who was the Mets' GM in 2004, offers his opinions as a studio analyst and columnist for MLB.com.