Back not quite two months ago -- on Valentine's Day, to be more specific -- I wrote the 2016 version of what has become one of my own little personal traditions here at Viva El Birdos: the Spring Surprises post. Each year for the past several, I have put forward a game, in which the commentariat, as well as myself, attempt to predict which player(s) will come into camp, perform immediately in a remarkable fashion, and garner themselves tons of unforeseen (or only somewhat foreseen), attention. Everybody picks a pitcher and a positioner, and we all make asses of ourselves with out wild, incorrect guesses.
Well, seeing as how the baseball season is now officially here, and the Spring Surprises game is the purview only of spring training, the time has come to put a bow on this year's iteration and name the winners of both the surprise portion (as in the players), and the predictive portion (i.e. the commenter).
So first, on the pitching side of things, well, honestly, it's kind of tough to come up with a definitive answer. Most years, there is one guy who comes in and shocks everyone with the quality of his stuff, or has added a pitch, or just looks to be much closer to major league ready than was anticipated. I like to think of it as the Dennis Dove Memorial trophy. This year, though, there wasn't that one standout performer amongst the pitchers.
My own personal pick was Seung-Hwan Oh, and I feel pretty good about that, actually. He was quite good in camp, showing off both the quality and breadth of his repertoire, and since the actual season began I feel my case has gotten even an extra boost. Sadly, I must try not to include his results so far in the regular season, since the game is pretty much exclusively about spring training story lines. Still, I'm just saying I don't think I did too badly.
Luke Weaver got some positive press for his stuff before suffering an injury, and the mere fact Jordan Walden looked ready to contribute in 2016 at all was somewhat surprising. However, if I'm boiling things down to one choice among a field that, in general, failed to really perform much out of the range of expectations, I would probably have to go with Mike Leake, the Cards' newest starter. Leake's first start of the regular season was, frankly, shit -- and, admittedly, prompted me to go look at David Price's Opening Day start for the Red Sox and sigh wistfully -- but that doesn't change that in spring training he was striking out MFers like nobody's business, and probably had at least a few observers around the league thinking to themselves, "If the Cardinals managed to pull another rabbit out of a hat turning Mike Leake into Greg Maddux, they should all be burned as witches."
So, Leake takes the cake as the guy with the loudest spring. As for the predictors, Viva El Keller, calikid13, and HeadOfState all called Leake. Mattybobo sort of put Leake out there as well, though he was careful to put the Leake prediction as merely a 'fun' version, with his 'real' prediction being Carlos Martinez. Which, actually, isn't a terrible pick either, seeing as how Adam Wainwright did compare Carlos's bullpen session to the Second Coming. (The adult film, I mean, not the religious event.)
On the hitting/position player side of things, there is both a more cut-and-dried answer, as well as a much better field overall. Early on, Anthony Garcia got out of the gate hot and grabbed himself a bit of ink here and there. After Jhonny Peralta went down with an injury, Aledmys Diaz made a big impression with a couple standout games and got me all excited my prediction might actually come true. Sadly, he couldn't maintain the momentum, and ended up having a much more up and down spring, culminating in being sent to start the season in Triple A after the Cardinals went out and signed the Mets' shortstop castoff Ruben Tejada.
Funny story: a couple days after the Tejada signing, I was talking to my dad one afternoon, and he asked my opinion of the deal. I expressed both my disappointment in not seeing Diaz get more of an opportunity and consternation at the complete lack of ceiling and creativity I saw in the move.
A disagreement ensued, which culminated in my father saying at one point, "What are you talking about? I thought Tejada was really good a few years back. Didn't he get MVP votes that one year?"
At which point I realised the situation, and answered, "You're thinking of Miguel Tejada. This is Ruben Tejada."
"And he's not as good as Miguel, I guess?" my father asked.
"You know Jimmy Carter?" I asked.
"Yeah," he answered with a confused narrowing of the eyes.
"Remember Billy Carter?"
Back to the game. Anthony Garcia and Aledmys both had their moments, but both were relatively short-lived. Randal Grichuk looked good for awhile, showing what appeared to be at least an attempt at a more patient, disciplined approach at the plate (which, unfortunately, then evaporated on the trip North), and whacking the ball all over the field. Kolten Wong decided to ignore the spirit of the competition while following the letter, doing perhaps the most surprising thing of any Redibrds all March, by simply refusing to swing at any pitches for roughly a week at one point. Still, not exactly what I was talking about.
In the end, there was one true standout in the spring among the position players, as far as big impressions go, and that was the journeyman outfielder turned surprise Opening Day roster presence, Jeremy Hazelbaker. Minor leaguers within sight of their thirtieth birthdays very, very rarely amount to much in terms of major league concerns, but Hazelbaker, after having made a huge impression last season as a minor league free agent, came into camp and continued his torrid pace. Oh, and so far, the season is looking pretty good, too. Hazelbaker is not only the obvious choice for the positional surprise award, I'm thinking the trophy for his side might have to be changed from the Ryan Ludwick Award to the Jeremy Hazelbaker Award.
Okay, maybe not just yet. But, you know. He was a very big surprise.
Further proof of his surprisiness: not a single commenter picked Jeremy Hazelbaker as their surprise candidate. Someone back in my prospect lists did question why I didn't have Hazelbaker as a top prospect (which, for the record, is because plenty of 27 year old milb free agents have random big years against players half a decade their juniors, and in 99.99% of those cases it all amounts to nothing), but that's as close as we got to an actual prediction of Hazelbaker jumping onto the MLB roster this spring.
So, congratulations to those of you who jumped on the Leake Train early; hopefully he doesn't supplant Skip Schumaker as the Cardinals' official Mr. March. If the best pitching the Cards receive from him over the course of this five-year contract comes in spring training of the first year, I'll probably be sighing sadly over even more David Price starts than usual for quite a while to come.
And for all of you who didn't pick Jeremy Hazelbaker, you should really get better at predicting stuff. Because clearly we should have seen it coming.