Spring Training numbers? Who cares about ‘em? Baseball people know not to trust ‘em. On the other hand, they are one of the ways clubs settle the last few roster spots.
For a handful of players, Spring Training numbers are a big deal. These are the players hoping to bounce back from a disappointing season or prove -- to themselves and their teams -- that they’re completely healthy.
Some of these players could be critical to their team’s success in 2020, and so Spring Training is an
opportunity for them to shine. Let’s look at nine players for whom the spring definitely matters:
1. Shohei Ohtani, RHP/DH, Angels
With an .883 OPS as a hitter and a 3.31 ERA as a pitcher, he could be an All-Star at either position. What we’re still not sure about is his ability to be the game’s first bona fide two-way player since Babe Ruth a century ago. After Tommy John surgery limited him to just hitting in 2019, Ohtani resumes his quest to make history.
2. Chris Sale, LHP, Red Sox
He’s going to be the most watched player in Red Sox camp. If Sale's cranky left elbow is sound, he’s a solid bounce-back candidate, even after a season in which he posted a 4.40 ERA. Why? Because Sale's 35.6 percent strikeout rate was still elite. The number to watch -- late in spring, at least -- is his fastball velocity. His four-seamer averaged 93.4 mph last year, down from 95.2 in 2018.
3. Giancarlo Stanton, LF, Yankees
If he’s healthy, he’ll be as good as ever. Stanton was limited to 18 regular-season games by injuries to his right knee, left calf and left biceps. But when he returned for good in mid-September, he had a .921 OPS in 14 games in the regular season and playoffs. Those 52 plate appearances are a small sample size, but gave the Yankees a degree of confidence about 2020.
4. Matt Carpenter, 3B, Cardinals
Don’t underestimate this guy, even though he’s 34 years old and coming off the worst of his eight full Major League seasons. Carpenter's back and right foot injuries are behind him, and he is one season removed from 36 home runs and an .897 OPS. Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak has said that a big reason they didn’t go out and acquire a big bat is that the Cards expect a lot of internal improvement, and that improvement has to start here.
5. Jake Arrieta, RHP, Phillies
He’s said to be healthier than he has been in recent seasons, and Arrieta could give the Phillies an impressive front three, along with Aaron Nola and the newly signed Zack Wheeler. Arrieta's recovery from surgery to remove a bone spur in his right elbow has gone smoothly, but he’ll be watched closely during Spring Training. The stat trends here have been alarming: In 2015, when he won the National League Cy Young Award, his four-seamer averaged 95.0 mph and he had a strikeout rate of 27.1 percent. Those numbers were 91.9 and 18.5, respectively, in his abbreviated 2019 campaign.
6. Ryan Braun, 1B/LF, Brewers
He played 18 games at first base two seasons ago after working extensively at the position in Spring Training. Now, with the signing of Avisaíl García to play left, Braun seems destined for nearly full-time work at first and says he’s fine with that. (He came up as a third baseman, if you recall.) His ability to handle the new position at 36 is going to be one of the more interesting spring story lines for the Brewers.
7. Carter Kieboom, 3B, Nationals
One thing almost everyone agrees on is that Kieboom, ranked as the 21st-best prospect by MLB Pipeline, is going to be a fine big leaguer. Having been drafted as a shortstop, there’s little doubt he can handle third base. Whether it’s this Opening Day as Anthony Rendon’s replacement is the question. Kieboom's spring will determine that, because the defending champs have other options in Asdrúbal Cabrera and Starlin Castro. But it’s Kieboom’s position to win, and he possesses the most upside.
8. Nick Senzel, CF, Reds
He was MLB Pipeline’s No. 6 overall prospect entering the 2019 season, and then he did what a lot of young guys do. He found that the adjustment to the Majors isn’t always smooth. Senzel had a .780 OPS in his first 55 games, .692 in his last 49. So amid all the speculation that Senzel could be traded (or even optioned to the Minors, given the Reds’ crowded outfield), he’ll go back to Spring Training as Cincinnati’s starting center fielder with a chance to prove he belongs.
9. Randy Dobnak, RHP, Twins
Despite just 28 1/3 career regular-season MLB innings pitched, Dobnak could be a huge X factor for the Twins. He has passed every test so far. Last season, Dobnak flew through the Minors with dazzling numbers before making his Major League debut in August and ultimately starting Game 2 of the American League Division Series. The Twins' rotation still has plenty of question marks, even after they acquired Kenta Maeda from the Dodgers Tuesday night, and Dobnak could be a part of the solution.