Two weeks in a row now I've drawn Sunday posts on holidays I don't expect to see a ton of interest on the site. Last week it was our nation's unofficial Super Bowl Sunday holiday; this week it's a more official sort of celebration, though one still decried by an oddly large number of people. Nonetheless, in spite of facing possibly reduced traffic, I shall bravely soldier on.
Today is also, in case you hadn't noticed, a day very, very close to the date when Pitchers and Catchers Report, known as Pitchers and Catchers Report Day, which may not have quite the wide-ranging notoriety or cache of the Super Bowl, but is at least as meaningful a holy day on the calendar to those of us who have been sitting at the window and waiting for spring for god only knows how long now. For several years, P&C Day fell directly on Valentine's; due to the way the calendar fell this year it seems to be a few days later than usual. Still, we are almost there, children. And not long after that there will spring training baseball on the radio and occasionally on television as well, and then not all that many weeks after that begins we will have baseball, real baseball, lovely, glorious baseball again, and all will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.
So this morning, by way of celebrating the now-titillating nearness of baseball beginning, we're going to revisit a tradition that is now something like eight years old around here: the Spring Surprises game. For those of you who have been around a while, I'm sure you probably remember how it goes; for those of you newer to the site, here is the breakdown: I want you to pick one (1) position player and one (1) pitcher you think have a chance to make an impact, or at least make some waves, in spring training.
Give me positive surprises only; it's much too early for pessimism to set in yet, and after the offseason we've all just had -- which was frustrating, absolutely, and no one was more upset with the club's failures in pursuing their two main targets, but let's face it: the apocalyptic levels of pissing, moaning, whining, and just flat-out spoiled assholery among at least a certain segment of the fan base has been absolutely ridiculous -- I don't want to hear any more negativity at the moment.
Now, for a bit of clarification: the players in question do not have to be big leaguers, nor do they have to make the club following spring training. They also do not have to be prospects. Young players tend to work better for this exercise, simply because of the nature of looking for surprises, but feel free to go with Adam Wainwright if you think he's returned from an offseason spent contemplating what might have been with a healthier elbow, a stronger body, and a new pitch he invented from whole cloth called The Eliminator, and is going to lay waste to the league all over again. Essentially, what I'm looking for is this: every year, there are a couple players who have a bunch of spring training stories written about them, whose names are bandied about on message boards and sports talk radio as possible breakout/future stars/sell-high candidates/whatever, and who just generally sort of take over a big portion of the spring training narrative, sucking up a bunch of the air in the room and generating that ephemeral quality known far and wide as buzz.
So you give me the players you think will come up with the most buzz this spring, and at some point later on in March, I'll come back, check the comments here, and see who made the best guesses. Now, before you get all excited at the potential of winning, know this: there are no prizes, beyond the possible momentary admiration of internet strangers, and my success rate on remembering to revisit this post over the past few years is probably right around 50%, so it may very well end up forgotten entirely. I am an easily distracted man.
And yet still I will return to this tradition year after year, only because I think it's fun to do, and because we need some hope and happiness as we count down the last few hundred hours until it's baseball time again.
For my positional pick, I'm going with Aledmys Diaz, the Cards' Cuban emigre and current shortstop prospect, not to mention my current choice as Most Intriguing Bat in the system, at least for the moment. While it would be extraordinarily exciting to have a legitimate shortstop prospect so close to the big league level, I still think, having watched Diaz a fair amount in the field, that he's a little short on defensive chops at shortstop -- the arm, in particular, seems underwhelming to make the off-balance throws the position requires -- and probably profiles better at second or as a utility player capable of manning any and all infield positions.
I ranked Diaz right around sixth in the Cardinals' system this offseason -- I say 'around' sixth because I wavered on whether to go with MLB rules and not include him on a prospect list, or common sense and put him on, and thus shoehorned him in slightly right around where I felt was right after deciding on the latter -- and, the more I sit on that ranking and mull it over, the more I begin to feel I may have actually ranked him too low. The bat is, of course, why I feel so very strongly about Diaz, and it isn't just the two month hot streak he had after being DFA'd in the middle of the season. I'm just going on what I see from him, with the limited amount of scouting acumen I've been able to cultivate over the years, and what I see is a potential dynamic force in a major league lineup. I understood the Jedd Gyorko acquisition at the time the Cardinals made it, and have even come around to being moderately positive on the move because of the possible tactical applications of flexibility, but I think in relatively short order Diaz is going to make more than a few people scratch their heads and wonder why he wasn't given first shot at that roster spot. And there will probably be at least a few pieces written here and there asking the question publicly.
And, bold prediction alert: by the time, say, June rolls around, I won't be the only voice in the wilderness you hear wondering if Aledmys Diaz might not be the Cardinals' real long-term solution at second base.
For my pitching pick, I had a much tougher time coming up with a name. Which isn't to say there aren't pitchers to potentially choose from; there is obviously far more pitching talent in the Redbirds' farm system, at least until you start down into the lower levels and finding the hitters. But, coming in to this year's spring training, I feel like the pitching side of the equation for the Cardinals probably is much more settled, with less wiggle room overall, and less space for a pitcher to jump up out of nowhere and make a big splash. Which isn't to say, of course, that a pitcher can't make a huge impression with the opportunities he receives; only that the tremendous depth of predictability the Cardinals have endeavoured to cultivate with their moves this offseason would seem to limit those opportunities somewhat.
I'm sorely tempted to go with Sam Tuivailala, as I have the feeling that when Tui takes his next step forward, he's going to arrive all at once, suddenly dominant, and it's going to seem slightly silly there was ever a time when there was real concern about whether he was capable of ever putting his stuff together with enough command to become a legitimate major league reliever, much less a closer-level force.
I also considered one of the Cardinals' starting candidates, but the rotation is where I feel there's really the least opportunity of all, barring something catastrophic happening, and I don't particularly want to consider that possibility too deeply right now, when it's time to be positive.
In the end, I came down to a difficult choice, between Tyler Lyons, who I expect to not only move into a bullpen role out of necessity -- I'm sure you know, as an informed reader of this obsessivist outlet, that he is out of minor league options -- but who I also believe will take to the role with aplomb, and move his career several steps forward by concentrating his stuff and honing his approach to an aggressive, razor-sharp edge, and the Redbirds' newest Asian import, Oh Seung-Hwan (or Seung-Hwan Oh, if you prefer), who arrives with a brand new work visa in hand representing the club's first serious foray into the Eastern market since So Taguchi well over a decade ago.
It was tough deciding between the two, but ultimately I came down on the side of Oh, if only because I feel his ceiling is being underestimated, and the first look we get at him facing spring training competition could prove to be tremendously exciting. He's become a bit of an emblem for the frustrations of this offseason, with both dogmatic complaints about never paying for relief pitching and more reasonable questions about how well his numbers will translate to MLB swirling in the ether, but I personally am very optimistic about the potential impact Oh could have on the Cardinal bullpen in 2016. I expect both he and Lyons to have what would appear to be breakout seasons this year, and contribute to a relief corps that does some spectacular things. But, since I'm only picking one here, I'll go with Oh and his splitter/forkball/whatever you want to call it, which I'm very intrigued to see against major league hitters.
So those are my picks. You make yours, and I'll try to remember to check back when camp has been underway for awhile, and we're tired of reading pieces about nonexistent competitions, and we've seen at least a dozen flattering and two dozen hilariously awkward photos of Matt Holliday trying to field grounders, and the shape of the spring is a bit more set in everyone's minds.
See you later, everybody.