Overreactions from first week of spring games

Hyperbole and panic abound in early days of camp

March 4th, 2018

We've had our first full week's worth of Grapefruit and Cactus League action. Starting pitchers are going just two or three innings and position players are taking two or three at-bats before the guys with the jersey numbers in the 70s and 80s take over.

What are we to take from these exhibition events?

Sweeping, clear-cut conclusions about the 2018 season, of course!

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

Here are some early spring overreactions that have developed, with some thoughts on whether they are justified or not (mostly not).

"Noah Syndergaard is throwing too hard!"

Thor's 2018 debut generated a ton of Twitter buzz because he hit triple-digits on the radar gun 11 times in two innings -- and then did a shirtless media session, just because. He toned things down considerably Saturday in his second start, so perhaps Mets fans can come off the ledge now (until the next problem in Panic City).

But because Syndergaard suffered a lat injury in 2017 -- after spending the previous winter eating bowls of venison in an effort to throw harder -- it was only natural for people to freak out a bit about him overdoing it on the spring stage. No starter throws quite like Syndergaard, whose slider is faster than the average fastball and whose changeup would qualify as a fastball for no small number of pitchers. This differentiation is both awe- and fear-inspiring.

Now, some evaluators will tell you that there is a free-and-easy means by which Syndergaard generates his extreme velocity. The counter, though, is that we know that 101-102 mph is his career max release speed, so anything at or approaching that reading would indicate max effort.

Oh, also, he pitches for the Mets, for whom the DL often reads like a roster. So it was good to see Syndergaard dial it back Saturday. He even wore a shirt for the interview this time!

Pretty much any assessment of

The sheer number of reporters dispatched to Tempe to cover Ohtani's every inning, at-bat and utterance means we are bound to be barraged with analysis of his every inning, at-bat and utterance. Already, we had a Los Angeles Times headline -- "Uh-Ohtani: Angels' Shohei Ohtani doesn't impress in Spring Training debut" -- that got points for punmanship, but little else.

In recent days, the dispatches were breathless about Ohtani carving up dudes on the back fields of the Brewers' complex, where he struck out eight of the 12 batters he faced in a "B" game. There was also a lot of love given to his early Cactus League plate appearances, specifically the plate discipline he displayed. Angels manager Mike Scioscia has already indicated Ohtani might DH more than we initially thought this season.

Alas, the only true (and obvious) takeaway in all of this is that the season is going to tell us if Ohtani can really survive as both a pitcher and a hitter. Knowing the sheer amount of physical preparation the game's elite starters put into their between-starts schedule, count me among the generally dubious that Ohtani can do both with real -- and successful -- regularity for a full season. But of course, I'd love to see him try.

And yes, I'm eating up all the Ohtani coverage as much as anybody. Especially if it contains a good pun.

" is this year's !"

Actually, it was Greg Bird who did the most Grapefruit League damage for the Yanks last spring (eight homers, seven doubles, 1.654 OPS), and we know that didn't amount to much in a 2017 altered by injury. But Judge did have a strong spring that won him the right-field job and led him to an American League Rookie of the Year run for the ages and a runner-up in the AL MVP voting.

Obviously, it's way, way too early to prescribe such a rousing rookie turn for the 23-year-old Andujar, but there is opportunity in the Yanks' infield, and Andujar is so far doing his best to seize it. In his first 19 Grapefruit at-bats, he homered four times and doubled twice, already leading some to wonder if New York's trade for would-be third baseman was even necessary.

Of course, Drury can slide over to second to give more Minor League seasoning should the Yankees decide to put Andujar into their Opening Day lineup. But we're still a long way from the difficult-decision stage of the spring. One factor to keep in mind is that scouts don't give Andujar great grades for his range and footwork at the hot corner. (Because of his arm strength, some scouts think he should eventually shift to right field.) So Drury rates as the more dependable defensive option. The safest bet might still be Drury at third, at second and Andujar and Torres getting more seasoning in Triple-A.

Anyway, let's watch the rest of his exhibition effort before we anoint Andujar the Yanks' next Chosen One. After all, there is this …

" needs to be in the Cubs' lineup every day!"

The Cubs fielded their fair share of phone calls about Happ this offseason, because a guy who rates as a depth piece on the North Side would make for an everyday addition to a lot of other lineups. The Cubs might not have a clear path to everyday at-bats for Happ, who had a 114 OPS+ across 413 plate appearances in 115 games in his rookie year in '17, but they were wise to keep this versatile player with pop.

Three homers in 13 Cactus League at-bats (with a 1.582 OPS) might understandably have some Cubs fans dreaming up a bigger role for Happ than what is currently projected for him. Right now, Happ basically rates as a backup in all three outfield spots and the third-stringer at second base, behind and . His playing time would be compromised all the more if the slimmed-down has the bounceback season he's vying for, or if Albert Almora Jr. has the 2018 breakout so many are prescribing for him.

But we saw last year how injuries (in that case, to Zobrist and ) and opportunities can evolve over the course of 162, to the point where Happ accrued a pretty decent number of at-bats after his mid-May promotion. The Cubs are starved enough for a true leadoff presence that it's not hard to see Happ getting his just due in '18, perhaps ultimately at the expense of Heyward.

" is back!"

The Indians made some attempts to trade second baseman Kipnis after his injury-marred and unproductive 2017 because:

A. They have financial incentive to get out from the north of $30 million owed to him between now and 2020, and

B. They feel their best defensive alignment is with at second base.

So it's been interesting to see Kipnis raking in the Cactus League after those trade discussions went nowhere. Rather than continue the late-season experiment that put Kipnis in the outfield, the Indians are rolling into 2018 with him as their regular at second (and Ramirez at third). And rather than playing with a shoulder issue, as he did a year ago, Kipnis is playing with a chip on his shoulder. It's going pretty well so far (.636 average, 2.364 OPS in 11 at-bats).

Any obits written for Kip in 2017 were premature (he had a respectable .275/.343/.469 slash in 2016), as are any proclamations that he's returning to his All-Star self here in 2018. But this might be the most motivated player in Tribe camp, and even league-average output in 2018 would be big improvement for an Indians team that got next to nothing offensively from third basemen and second basemen not named Ramirez last year.

"The Astros should sign a fill-in for Yuli Gurriel!"

The higher the stakes, the bigger the reaction to injury news. The Astros are trying to avoid the hangover effect in 2018 and repeat as World Series champs, but they've been dealt one of the more significant injury blows in the early portion of the spring schedule with Gurriel's broken hamate bone -- an injury that typically can cost a player four to eight weeks.

Gurriel's injury came just as the first-base free-agent market finally started moving. That led to some speculation among media and fans that perhaps the Astros ought to sign somebody from the remaining group, which at the time of Gurriel's injury, still included , and Mike Napoli, and still includes and others.

But this is the exact sort of scenario the Astros built their flexible roster to survive. Before Gurriel got hurt, the plan was to give him some time this spring at the other infield spots to leave open the possibility for more inflexible first baseman/DH to earn at-bats at the big league level. Now, Gurriel's injury provides a path to playing time for Reed, and , and is of course an option there as well (because he's an option pretty much everywhere).

The Astros have enough lineup depth and balance to give whichever of the unproven guys is swinging the hottest bat a shot in what is a short-term situation, though the surgical effects on Gurriel's power once he returns will merit monitoring. Perhaps by then, Reed, White or Davis will have established trade value to other teams and proved a deep club to be even deeper.