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Spring Surprises 2017

That’s right. It’s that time again.

Milwaukee Brewers v St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Jeff Curry/Getty Images

We are less than a week away from Pitchers and Catchers Report Day, everyone. Can you feel it in the air?

Yesterday, Baseball Prospectus released their PECOTA projection for the Cardinals, and, well, I’m sure you’ve seen a bit about the number here or there. I’m not one to harp on projection systems in general; most of the time there’s at least some reason one can point to why this or that projection is valid. In this particular case, though....

Well, they project Carlos Martinez to have an ERA well over 4.00 and be worth like a win and a half. Systemic underrating of Matt Carpenter I’ve gotten used to (though considering he’s been worth a little over 19 WAR the past four seasons and is projected to be just slightly better than league average even that is getting a little ridiculous), but that’s just stupid. A large monkey and dartboard operation could do as well as PECOTA this year, I think. No offense, BP, but seriously. What the absolute fuck?

Oh, well.

Since we got our dose of negativity out of the way yesterday, I’m going to take the opposite approach today and trot out the most positive post of the entire year (barring a deep playoff run, probably), in which we do nothing but look at the bright side.

That’s right, ladies and gentlemen; it is time for our annual Spring Surprises event here at VEB Industries. That time of the year when we all gather ‘round and make wild-ass guesses about players who are going to make splashes in spring training.

I’m sure many, if not most, of you remember the rules of the game: I want you to pick one pitcher and one position player you think are going to have breakout potential once camp gets underway. They don’t have to be prospects, nor do they have to be big leaguers. They don’t even have to be players likely to make the roster to be good choices here. What I want you to predict is who you think is going to be generating lots of buzz in the spring. I will then come back to this post sometime later in the spring and try to figure out who got the closest to correctly picking those breakout stars. Well, I say I will, but what I mean is I will if I remember. I did remember last year, so I think I’m above .500 now. We’ll see how it goes in terms of my memory this year.

Speaking of last year, I would like to direct your attention to Spring Surprises 2016, when ol’ Aaron selected Seung-hwan Oh as his breakout pitching star, and Aledmys Diaz as his breakout position player. If ever there were a mic drop moment in my writing career, that might very well be it. I don’t get to look smart very often, so when it actually happens, I’m going to crow about it a bit. I guessed two baseball players were going to be good, and both were. Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair. I might be the smartest man in the world.

No, we’re not going to look at any of my other predictions. There’s really no way of even knowing what they were, after all. Lost to the sands of time, and impossible to ever discover.

I know, I should really have changed the name of this game to something about breaking out or something; the whole ‘spring surprises’ thing sounded nice and alliterative nine years ago when I thought the bit up, but it’s not exactly the most descriptive title. Still, given that I’ve been doing it this long, I’m not changing the name now. So just remember: what we’re going for here is you telling me what two players we’re all going to be talking about on, say, the 24th of March.

So now for my picks. I’ll start over on the position side, and immediately cop to the fact I’m having a really difficult time deciding on a player this year. There are a few minor leaguers in the upper levels I could see making that March impact, with Carson Kelly probably the most logical choice. Harrison Bader could come to spring, rake, and make everyone wonder why all the prospect prognosticator types are so down on his plate discipline. And if Paul DeJong looks like even a slightly below-average shortstop, we probably won’t be able to stop talking about him. Any of those three players I could see going with here, and I’ve been wavering between all of them since I started writing this column.

However, I’m going to go slightly off script here and choose a player who’s likely a little less buzzworthy in general, but who I’m absolutely fascinated by in terms of his situation. I’m going to go with Greg Garcia, who has already had one article written in reference to his hopes of carving out more than a bench spot this year.

We mostly have a pretty good idea what Garcia brings to the table at this point. He’s versatile, looks pretty decent at both second and third, and walks at a stunning rate for a player with virtually zero power to speak of. To wit, Greg Garcia’s walk rate in 2016 was half a percentage point higher than that of Dexter Fowler, the Cards’ newest acquisition and noted drawer of walks. It was also the same half a percentage point higher than the walk rate of Matt Carpenter, equally noted drawer of walks.

The real downside for Garcia is that lack of power; his isolated slugging last season was a very weak .093. But given some of the other options the Cards will be running out to the infield on an everyday basis, his on-base skills have to be intriguing.

So I’m going to say Garcia shows up to camp with ten extra pounds of muscle he didn’t have last year, continues to refuse to swing at anything out of the strike zone, and significantly muddies the picture at both third and second base. Third is actually where I could see him making the club’s decision extremely difficult; we all know Jedd Gyorko’s home run rate is going to fall this year, and Jhonny Peralta might very well still look old six weeks from now. If Garcia is putting up a .375 OBP, ISOing ~.140, and playing what looks like very good defense, would he not be the best option to start at third?

Which could lead to a really interesting lineup, in which the Cardinals run out three notable on-base guys with middling or worse power (though that may not apply to Carpenter anymore), who nonetheless grind opposing pitchers into the ground with 14%+ walk rates. Which would be really weird.

As for the pitcher, I had an easier time picking a player. I’m calling a breakout for Trevor Rosenthal, who will come into spring training having stretched out for multiple inning stints over the winter, and while the Cardinals are angling toward using him as a true fireman reliever, I believe, I also think Rosie is going to be motivated by his rough 2016 and what he sees as his last chance to show that he belongs as a starter in the big leagues. Rosenthal is going to be throwing three innings at a time, and I think he’s going to dominate. And by late March, we’re all going to be debating how the club can possibly justify sticking him back in the bullpen after a trumped-up competition when it’s pretty clear he’s one of the five best starters the Cards have on the roster.

Basically, what I think is going to happen is all of John Mozeliak’s efforts at simplifying the roster this offseason to eliminate the problem of the manager being overwhelmed by an overly flexible, complicated team are going to fall completely apart as the former closer looks better than the former ace, the innings-eating long term investment, the former wunderkind turned walking Brandon McCarthy reference, and the returning innings-eating former stalwart and near-term free agent, and the utility infielder everyone is counting on to actually be the utility infielder looks better than both starting options at the hot corner and raises at least a few questions about how good Kolten Wong has to be on the bases and defensively to overcome a 70 point OBP gap.

So those are my picks for positive breakout stars this spring. The surprises we’ll all be excitedly buzzing about six weeks from now. And considering my legendary record of brilliant predictions — if only we could know what picks I made before 2016, so that my genius might be more properly worshipped! — you might as well not even bother making your own selections.

Although I guess that would be boring. So go ahead and make your predictions. I’m sure they’ll be cute. And then once you have, look upon my — well, you know the rest.

Speaking of, does anyone know what happens in the rest of that Ozzie-guy story? I’ve never actually read it; I assume he’s like a superhero who beats up a bunch of ninjas or something. Probably has a huge dong, too.

I’m sure you all remember how Dennis Dove started his hall of fame career that year I called it. So, you know. Super smart guy here.