We’re a week into the exhibition season. My heart is telling me to draw definitive conclusions from some of the stuff we’ve seen, my brain is telling me to ignore everything, and my stomach is telling me to seek out the new foot-long bratwurst they’re serving at the Brewers’ park.
Where does one turn in a time like this? Well, definitely go for the bratwurst. And as far as the baseball is concerned, here are level-headed assessments to accompany (or offset) some early spring overreactions.
1. “The Braves’ rotation is a mess!”
In case you’ve lost count, Mike Soroka, Luiz Gohara and Kevin Gausman are all dealing with shoulder issues, and Mike Foltynewicz has elbow soreness. Oh, and reliever A.J. Minter, who is expected to have a prominent role late in games, has a tight shoulder, too.
It is necessary to note here that it is not unusual for pitchers to deal with some soreness as they ramp up their routines this time of year, but I don’t blame Braves fans one bit if their body temperature is rising right now. To say the stakes have been raised in the National League East this offseason is an understatement, and the Braves’ rotation is composed of equal parts upside and iffiness. For what it’s worth, FanGraphs’ projections have the Braves’ rotation with only the 18th-highest Wins Above Replacement (WAR) mark in MLB, ahead of only the Marlins in the NL East. And that’s assuming north of 350 innings combined from Folty and Gausman.
Our own Mark Bowman reported that none of the above is currently compelling the Braves to go after Dallas Keuchel, the best free-agent pitcher remaining on the market. The Braves won the NL East last season, but it’s hard not to wonder if they have left themselves short in the starting group.
2. “Troy Tulowitzki is back to haunt the Blue Jays!”
The other day, I included Tulo’s emotion-fueled homer against the Blue Jays in a list of “feel-good stories” from the early days of camp, only because we can all imagine how good that blast must have felt to him and because I, for one, would rather see this five-time All-Star producing on the field than rehabbing on the back field.
You know who didn’t like seeing Tulo on that list? Blue Jays fans! I’ve got the e-mails to prove it.
OK, so the Tulo Comeback Tour isn’t for everybody. Point taken, Torontonians. But anyway, it’s premature to assign any narratives to the Tulo tale just yet. He’s off to a great start with a couple homers for the Yankees in the Grapefruit League. But that doesn’t mean the Blue Jays, who were trying to hit the reset button in their clubhouse and were unwilling to invest significant shortstop innings in a 34-year-old who has played just 66 games in the last two years, were wrong to eat $38 million over two years to cut Tulo loose.
3. “Clayton Kershaw … (gulp)”
The gulps are totally understandable. The body only gives a pitcher so many quality innings, and Kershaw’s innings have been severely limited (mostly by back issues) the past three seasons, as he’s averaged 25 starts per year. So to see him sidelined virtually from the start with left shoulder soreness is unsettling, to say the least. And though the Dodgers didn’t deem the issue serious enough to warrant another MRI (he had a clean MRI in November, when he signed a three-year, $93 million contract) and Kershaw has resumed throwing again, nothing predicts future injury better than past injury.
With all that said -- and as crazy as this sentence would have sounded a few years ago -- losing Kershaw for even a month or two wouldn’t spell doom for the Dodgers. They’ve proven as much the last few years. Their starting depth remains stout, and this is becoming a rotation fronted by young Walker Buehler. With L.A. built to go deep again in 2019, there could be value to a limitation on Kershaw’s innings that has him at his best heading into September and October.
4. “Fernando Tatis Jr. is ready for the bigs!”
Tatis, the No. 2 prospect in the game per MLB Pipeline, has had an electric camp so far, including a two-out, bottom-of-the-ninth homer to overcome a one-run deficit against the D-backs the other day. That was really fun to see.
Of course, no matter how many dramatic dingers Tatis hits this month, it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that he will start the season in the Minors. Considering Tatis missed the second half of ’18 with a broken bone in his thumb and hasn’t even played a full season at Double-A, the Padres have justifiable baseball reasons for making that move. But it would be great to see Tatis take the momentum of an incendiary winter ball showing and these early Cactus exploits into the regular season and compel the Padres to call him up by the end of April or May. San Diego is already attempting to speed up its timetable with the Manny Machado signing, and we all want to see Tatis do his part to push the process, too.
5. “Who needs Bryce Harper when you’ve got Michael A. Taylor?!”
Taylor is off to a hot start, with four extra-base hits in his first nine at-bats. And he’s had great Grapefruit League performances before, hitting .315/.327/.500 in Spring Training 2017.
None of this has translated in the regular season. Taylor has profiled, at best, as a fourth outfielder, but his low contact percentage and high swing-and-miss percentage inside the strike zone severely hamper his ability to be a pinch-hit option. His recent attempt – in some cage work in the second half of the 2018 season and then in the Dominican Winter League – to shorten his swing will be something to monitor here in his age-28 season.
But the larger point about the Nats’ outfield -- that it could very well be a more dynamic group without Harper than it was with him -- remains. This will be a young and athletic group centered around the vast potential of sophomore Juan Soto and rookie Victor Robles. If Taylor finally puts his raw tools together and earns an uptick in playing time in center, all the better. At worst, the Nats’ outfield should grade out well defensively.
6. “Jackie Bradley Jr. 2019 is the biggest spring sensation since … Jackie Bradley Jr. 2013!”
Through Sunday, JBJ was 6-for-12 with two homers and a double for the Red Sox, and that’s the kind of thing that’ll get your name in the paper. It’s reminiscent of when Bradley burst onto the national radar with a .419 average and 1.120 OPS in the 2013 Grapefruit League season to unexpectedly win Boston’s Opening Day spot in left field.
The 2013 version of Bradley turned into a pumpkin. In fact, he put up a .548 OPS in his first 530 big-league plate appearances. In the time since, he’s had just one full season (2016) when he produced at a level above the league average. His value has resided in his glove.
But while there is reason to dismiss what we’re seeing from Bradley so far as another spring mirage, there’s also reason to think Bradley has more in the tank offensively. The swing changes he made with hitting consultant Craig Wallenbrock (aka the dude who helped revive J.D. Martinez’s career) midway through 2018 to get the ball in the air with authority are real. He finished last season with his highest Statcast-calculated barrel rate since 2015, and what we’re seeing this spring is an extension of those changes.
7. “Brandon Nimmo doesn’t know how to cook!”
Nimmo led the Mets in RC -- runs created -- last season. But his spring DC (dinners created) score seemingly took a tumble when he was absent from a game this week, allegedly due to food poisoning from undercooked chicken. This was, of course, a very Metsy story, and many were guilty of jumping on it and piling on Nimmo for this medium-rare reason to miss a ballgame. Mets manager Mickey Callaway even said the Mets would have to teach Nimmo how to cook.
On Friday, however, Nimmo’s wife, Chelsea, tweeted that testing revealed the culprit in Nimmo’s illness to be a virus, not the chicken. It just goes to show that the news, like the chicken, is best not ingested when it’s raw.
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.