MLB Handicapping: Spring Training Surprises
by Trevor Whenham - 3/7/2014
We're not quite a third of the way through Spring Training already. While it is far too early to have really learned a whole lot that will be useful during the season, it is worthwhile looking at some of the surprising early developments. There is obviously no guarantee that what was unexpected now will have any bearing on what happens in the future, but it can give us a head start on spotting surprising teams early in the season - in a positive or negative way.
Here are five storylines so far that have stood out in my eyes:
Cleveland's hot start: Expectations are reasonably low for the Indians this year - at +5000 at Sportsbook.ag to win the World Series they sit in the bottom half of the league. So far, though, the Indians have the best record in Spring Training. They lost their opening game but then have won seven straight. Two of those wins came against Seattle - the only two times the Mariners have lost so far. Only the Angels have allowed fewer runs in the Cactus League than the 28 the Indians have, and eight of those runs were allowed in the opening loss to the Reds. This rotation does not look like it will be a collection of superstars on paper, but so far they have been performing well. I'm not betting that it will last, and I wouldn't be surprised at all if the crash back to earth happens before the team leaves Phoenix. For now, though, it has been a pleasant surprise to watch.
Seattle's offense: If you listen to Robinson Cano then the Mariners need help on offense. It sure hasn't looked that way so far in the spring, though. They have scored the second most runs in baseball so far, and their run differential of +27 is 10 runs better than any other team. At 7-2 they have the second-best overall record behind only the previously-mentioned Indians. Of course, Seattle is the ultimate spring team. In each of the last two years they have had the second-best record in the Cactus League, and that obviously hasn't translated into regular-season success. In other words, don't get too excited just yet. Like the Indians, the Mariners are at +5000 to win it all, so they have a lot of work to do before they can start planning the parade route.
Atlanta's woes: The Braves come into this season with reasonably high expectations - at +1800 they aren't one of the elite squads in the league, but only seven squads have lower odds, so they are in the ranks of legitimate contenders. So far, though, they have looked just plain lethargic. They opened the spring with six straight losses, and the 55 runs they have given up are the most in baseball. So far the Braves have played the Nationals three times. That is where their only two wins have come from. The third game was one of the most ridiculous played all spring - Washington won it 16-15. Atlanta is obviously better than they have played so far, but it would be nice to see them play with a bit more spirit when they are up against anyone other than Washington.
Miami's start: The Marlins are, on paper, a lousy team. They won't spend any money, and they have systematically purged their organization of any good mature talent. They have a promising young rotation with one potential superstar, but that is about it. They sit at +12500 to win the World Series, meaning that oddsmakers think that only the Astros are less likely to win it all. In the spring, though, the Marlins have been playing with the big boys - they are off to a 5-2 start. When you look at the production, though, you see what is likely to be the story all year long. They have allowed just 26 runs in seven games, which is among the better totals in the league. The offense has produced just 30 runs, though, so they only barely have a positive run differential - and are therefore winning games at a better rate so far than they should be. We should see that same problem all year - though they almost certainly will score quite a few fewer runs than they allow when the games start to matter.
Tanaka's fastball: The hype surrounding Masahiro Tanaka has been massive ever since he announced that he intended to come over and play here. He has pitched only five innings so far, and his only start was delayed by 90 minutes due to a rain delay - something he has rarely had to deal with in Japan, apparently. In other words, we really don't know anything about him so far. What has stood out so far, though, is just how nasty his split finger fastball is. Time and again hitters have sat off a pitch that they obviously thought was a ball only to see it rise into the strike zone when it hits the plate. It is a devastating pitch, and it was a big part of the reason he was so very successful in Japan. I can't wait to see what happens when top major league hitters see it for the second time in the regular season, but early indications sure are that he has a chance to at least come close to living up to the hype. Of course, no matter how good that pitch is, the public is certain to bet any value out of him for at least the first few games of his regular-season career.
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