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Spring Surprises 2018

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The return of a time-honoured tradition for 2018.

St Louis Cardinals v Houston Astros
Well, yeah, big fella, it WOULD be a definite surprise to see you in camp this year. Not really what I mean, though.
Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

That’s right, ladies and gentlemen; it’s that time of year again. Time again for the annual VEB Spring Surprises game, where we all stop fighting over payroll, lineup order, and whether or not someone is a real fan if they’re not as angry as we are over those other things and try to let a little optimism in.

I’m fairly certain last week I said Wednesdays would be almost entirely draft coverage from here on through the draft itself, but I forgot I hadn’t actually done this particular post yet. Therefore, beginning next Wednesday it will be draft stuff pretty much nonstop until June on Wednesdays.

Today, though, we’re going to do spring surprises. Long time readers will no doubt remember this exercise from the past; if you’re new here, or simply don’t recall, I will lay out the rules of the game.

What I want from you is one (1) position player and one (1) pitcher who are going to come into training camp this spring and suddenly grab all the hype, all the buzz, all the unrealistic expectations, and make them their own. We’re talking about the guys who show up in camp seemingly on the edge of a breakout and suck up all the air on the broadcasts.

We all remember these kinds of players in the past. Last year it was Jose Martinez putting on a hitting show that actually netted him a nickname related to spring training (which seems a little silly after last season, admittedly, but I also reserve the right to be pissed off again if Martinez makes the roster over Tommy Pham specifically). Dennis Dove is one who always sticks in my mind, if only because Dave Duncan was so over the moon about Dove’s potential (98 mph sinkers tend to do that), and because Dove disappeared so quickly following his March showcase. (If I remember correctly, I think Dove ended up having shoulder issues and seeing his career derailed.) Paul DeJong made a big impression last spring as well, vaulting himself into consideration for a callup when he might not have been in that position before.

These do not have to be major leaguers, nor do they have to be minor leaguers. It could literally be any player you think we’re all going to be discussing ad nauseum come the 17th of March. And no, we don’t want breakdown candidates, only breakouts. Pitchers and catchers reported yesterday; right now, this is the time of year when we look on the bright side of life.

On the pitching side of things, I’m honestly having a really tough time sorting through the various players I think could make an impression. There are so many pitching prospects who will get a chance to show up and get noticed that it’s hard to settle on just one. On the other hand, a guy like Jack Flaherty, who I think will, in fact, have a very good spring, looking ready to take that next step up the ladder, actually had a bit of a breakout last spring, en route to a dominant start in the minors and a major league audition in which he looked a little like a quiche that needs five more minutes in the oven. It’s almost there, and it looks like it’s going to be really good, but right now it’s still kind of a gloppy mess. (Pitchers in general are like quiche, I think, whereas hitters cook like steak. A hitter you can look at every step of the way and get an idea of how done he is. A pitcher is just a big bowl of egg soup until suddenly he coagulates and comes out of the oven completely done.)

Miles Mikolas feels like a guy we won’t be able to stop talking about one way or the other, however he looks this spring. The new acquisitions could, of course, make the kind of splash we’re looking for here, but Dominic Leone has already established he can be awesome, even if he hasn’t always been, and I don’t think Conner Greene is a breakout candidate until maybe the development staff can get with him and see if a fresh group of eyes can find a way to husband his talent to a breakthrough.

In the end, I’m going to go with Sam Tuivailala as my breakout/buzz/surprise candidate. Since being moved to pitching during the 2012 season, it’s been a slightly circuitous journey for Tui to get to the point he’s really considered a major league reliever. He made an instant impression as soon as he moved to the mound, rolling up huge strikeout totals in the low minors, throwing high-90s gas all over the place, but struggling with persistent wildness, as you might expect from someone so recently converted to pitching. Along the way, he tried to make a change from his very plus curveball to a cutter at the urging of Mike Matheny, which never did really take for Tui, and he went back to the curve eventually.

What we saw in 2017 was Tuivailala finally beginning to really iron out his control/command, as he cut his walk rate in Triple A (21ish innings), to just 3.8%, while even in the big leagues (42ish innings), he walked only 6.4% of the hitters he faced. He still didn’t miss all that many bats in the majors, posting just a 19.9% strikeout rate, but he showed the stuff at times to get those empty swings, and in general was putting pitches in places he couldn’t get hurt most of the time.

I think coming out of the gate this spring we see Tuivailala put it all together, and take a big step forward. His major league career still consists at this point of fewer than 80 innings, and his total pitching career, major and minors both, is only now approaching 290 innings. He’s going to take off this spring, and we’re all going to come out of March excited about what this bullpen could be, many of us in spite of ourselves.

The position player I had a much easier time choosing, because it’s a guy I think is primed to do something big this year, having worked through a transition in 2017 that saw him remake his swing, and then further tweak it once he came over to the Cardinals. Tyler O’Neill is my pick for a hitting breakout this spring, with further hilarity promised when we all realise that, once again, the Cardinals are probably going to have to leave Jupiter without one of the most exciting players of camp on the big league roster, because why oh why can’t any of these guys play something other than outfield.

I’ve written about O’Neill extensively in the past, but the short story on the swing changes is this: originally, he hit from a wide open stance, with a lot of hand movement, and no real good swing trigger, which made it tough for him to time things up and left him looking a bit like a Mark Reynolds-type hitter. He remade his swing, though, closing his stance up, widening it out, and bringing the bat to rest on his shoulder at address, trying to get more compact so as to cut down on strikeouts. (That’s me speculating on the rationale.) Unfortunately, the change had some positive effect, but had some other downsides as well. And so, a further change was required, and O’Neill modified his hand load, incorporating some pre-swing movement back in, and began loading his hands down lower, rather than trying to hit from a high position as he had previously.

O’Neill struck out a ton when he first got to Memphis after the trade which brought him over from the Mariners, but as time went on and he adjusted to the new swing, he got better and better at making contact. Late in the season, he was whiffing at a sub-20% rate for a period of around 50 plate appearances. In the PCL playoffs, he came to the plate 53 times and struck out just eight times, or roughly 15% of the time.

I think the improvements O’Neill has made in his contact profile, combined with the already-prodigious power he possessed all along, make him an ideal breakout candidate. And I think by the second week of March we’ll start seeing the first tweets from angry Cardinal fans lamenting the fact Dexter Fowler is blocking the next Mickey Mantle.

So those are my picks for huge spring stories this year. Leave yours in the comments below, and as always I will endeavour to remember to come back and check these sometime late in camp to see who nailed their picks. I will also, as always, warn you I occasionally forget to do so, so...you know.

And Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone. Hopefully you have something great planned for the day.