Yesterday evening, there was a football game. I’m told it was a horrorshow; I personally did not subject myself to watching those two particular teams play. And it was kind of nice, actually. I haven’t been much into the Super Bowl for quite a few years, but this year’s matchup was just too much for me to be bothered with.
There is, however, one reason I always look forward to football’s biggest night of the year. Namely, when it comes to the Grand Unified Sports Calendar, the Super Bowl is the last, nearest event to that mid-February moment of rebirth known as Pitchers and Catchers Report Day. Now that the Super Bowl is in our rearview mirror, we can look fully ahead to the beginning of spring training, less than two weeks away now.
And yes, it is really strange that the two biggest names on the free agent market are still sitting there without having signed. Baseball is heading in a dangerous direction, and not a good one. But that’s for another day, when I finally get around to finishing my own middlebrow thinkpiece on the fate of free agency and owners vs. players and all that. Probably next week, I think.
Today, though, we’re going to be positive, and we’re going to do so by bringing back one of the longest-running annual features on this site. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen; it is once again time for our Spring Surprises game.
The point of this game is simple. What I want from you, dear reader, is one (1) pitcher and one (1) position player who you believe will make a big splash, in a positive and surprising way, come spring training this year. Now, perhaps a bit more definition is necessary; this is a rather vague game, after all. First off, no bad surprises. I don’t want spring disappointments, for two reasons. One, we have plenty of time to whine and be negative later on, so let’s not start things off on such a rotten foot, and two, ‘spring disappointments’ ruins the alliterative quality of the game’s title, which I freely admit was actually the first thing I thought of a decade ago now when I cooked this idea up.
Now I should point out, these players do not have to be on the major league roster, nor do they have to be minor leaguers. I think the players featured in this game for most answers tend to be up and comers, if only because it’s so much easier to see a kid putting up big spring numbers as a surprise, rather than simply what you hope one of your veteran guys does, seeing as how he’s coming in to his seventh spring as a starter, if that makes sense. However, even those vets can represent a surprise, if you think someone will come in in markedly better shape than in the past, or went away and learned a new hold, as the old wrestling guys might say, or just has a new perspective/attitude/dedication/whatever coming in. So these can be prospects or seasoned vets either one; just the player(s) you believe are going to be getting all the buzz come the second week of March.
So anyway, that’s the game. Everybody picks a pitcher and a position player, writes down their choices, and later on toward the end of spring training I will come back to this post and name winners. Now, those of you who have been around here for awhile know that my success rate at remembering to come back to the spring surprises game is better than 50/50, but not, like, that much better, so be warned.
With all that said, I will now make my own picks, and then open the floor up to you, the electorate. Or the proletariat. Or whatever term you all prefer to apply to yourselves as a group. Or mob.
I will begin with a pitcher, and it is not a young upstart looking to elbow his way into the conversation. Well, it is still a young guy, but the upstart/unknown part does not really apply. I’m going with Carlos Martinez to make a splash in spring training, and I actually think Carlos will have a huge year this year. Now, to be fair, I’ve felt this way before; I think it was before the 2016 season that I either picked him in this game or maybe just strongly considered him (I don’t honestly recall), and while he did, in fact, go out and have a very strong year in ‘16, it was still one of those seasons where all the good stuff feels like it’s just a hair away from coming together in some new, more cohesive way, rocketing the player to the moon, but it somehow stays just a hair short of that. Carlos has been a full-time starting pitcher for four seasons in the big leagues now (though last year’s injury-plagued campaign throws some weirdness into the numbers, admittedly), and has been worth about thirteen and a half wins over that period of time. That’s a very, very good record, but there’s still another gear in there, I believe, and the frustration of last season feels to me like the perfect jumping-off point for Martinez to show up in spring training ready to take that next step.
On the position player side, I’m having a little tougher time deciding. There’s a part of me that wants to go with Tyler O’Neill to come in to spring training mashing dingers and flexing needlessly in pretty much every game, but I really wonder about how much of an opportunity he’s going to get. With the organisation seemingly dead set on being stupid about their right-field situation, picking between the washed up and the one dimensional, I don’t see a path to that much playing time for the Canadian strong man (by which I do not mean Dino Bravo), even in spring. Hopefully I’m wrong, but I don’t have much faith in this club to actually make good decisions about the players they have under contract.
So instead, I’m going to go with a player I think will have a very clear opportunity in front of him, and who I think will have a big spring to excite everyone into writing thinkpieces about just how long the incumbent’s career might last, and should last, and what we might be missing out on in the interim here. I’m going with Andrew Knizner, who will likely get all the playing time he could hope for in spring training, seeing as how it appears Yadier Molina’s availability is very much up in the air right now. The biggest question regarding Knizner and Carson Kelly over the past handful of years was just what kind of opportunity they were going to have to show their talents; that question, at least for March of 2019, appears it will be answered in the affirmative for Knizner. I think he comes in, plays more or less every day, and we see the excitement in the bat, see the defense is essentially fine, not really standing out one way or the other, and begin to wonder just what happens when Yadi decides at the end of this contract that he’s changed his mind and isn’t actually going to retire the way he said he would, and still wants to be a starter, and the Cardinals are faced with another Ozzie ‘96 situation with their franchise cornerstone catcher.
So those are my picks. Carlos to blaze in looking stronger and more focused than ever before (although strength and focus have never really been my questions regarding Carlos; rather, I just want to know why he can’t dial in a consistent delivery and not experiment so much pitch to pitch mechanically), and Knizner to hit and hit and hit and foreshadow a looming situation that will seem easy to ignore until it suddenly isn’t.
What about you? Who do you see having all the buzz five weeks from now?