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Sunday, June 24, 2018

10 MLB players who are turning heads in spring training

Jason Kipnis

It’s hard to draw much of a conclusion from spring training. Players are all at different levels of fitness, some guys find hot streaks at the right time, and guys slug eight homers in two weeks and then are never heard from again.

Still, it’s worth taking a look at which players are off to a good spring start. As ever, small sample sizes are everywhere, and only so much should be drawn from these numbers. Still, it’s always best to get off to a good start, and that’s what these ten players have done.

1) Jason Kipnis, Indians

The Indians are still trying to figure out where Kipnis fits into their plans after Jose Ramirez displaced him as the team’s everyday second baseman. That’s not really Kipnis’ problem; his issue was convincing the team that he still has a part to play. He’s certainly done that so far. The two-time all-star has slugged six home runs in 17 spring at-bats, with 12 RBIs and a .529 average on top of it. The guy can still hit. Cleveland would be wise to find a spot on the diamond for him to do it.

2) Manny Machado, Orioles

Machado is at something of a crossroads. He’s coming off an underwhelming 2017 season, a tumultuous offseason of trade rumors, and is now entering a contract year while playing primarily at shortstop for the first time in his MLB career. Maybe this will help him. The early returns are good at least, as Machado is 10-for-18 so far this spring, good for a .556 average. Impressively, he’s hit two home runs and driven in a rather remarkable 12 runs. Machado needs a great season for a lot of reasons. He certainly has it in him, and he’s striking the right tone early.

3) Ronald Acuna, Braves

The top prospect in all of baseball according to many, Acuna is showing off what makes him so highly-touted. The 20-year-old impressed with a long home run off Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka, and he’s hitting .423 overall with 11 hits in 26 at-bats. He’s still very young and raw, and between that and the fact that teams are very cautious of starting the service time clock, he may not make the Opening Day roster. The fact that it’s even worth discussing, however, is demonstrative of the talent on display here.

4) Whit Merrifield, Royals

The Royals have lost so many key players this offseason, but perhaps their future isn’t quite as dim as some would predict. Merrifield had a fine season in 2017, hitting .288 with 19 home runs and 34 stolen bases in a surprisingly solid season. On the evidence of his spring training, there is every reason to expect a repeat performance. Merrifield has two doubles, two triples, and a home run in 19 at-bats, with a .474 average. The Royals, it is fair to say, have a nice player on their hands.

5) Ian Happ, Cubs

Happ is certainly doing everything within his power to show the Cubs that he’s ready to be the team’s everyday leadoff hitter once they break camp. After hitting 24 home runs in his rookie season, Happ has slugged four homers in 17 spring at-bats, good for a 1.294 slugging percentage. If the Cubs are looking for an impact bat atop their order, Happ is certainly doing all he can to demonstrate that he’s more than up to the challenge.

6) Blake Swihart, Red Sox

Once a former top catching prospect, Swihart has been forced to reform into a utility-type player. He’ll be 26 in April and is out of options, so this is basically it for him, and he’s seizing his chance. No one has more doubles than Swihart this spring, with six in 24 at-bats, along with eight RBIs and a .417 average. The Red Sox are going to have a tough decision to make on him, but even if they go in a different direction, Swihart is playing well enough that someone would probably be willing to take a chance on him.

7) Kyle Tucker, Astros

The Astros were extremely reluctant to trade their highly-touted outfield prospect when they were searching for upgrades last summer, and they ultimately may be rewarded for hanging onto him. The 21-year-old has shown off this spring, hitting .400 with four home runs and 10 RBIs so far. He’s still prone to strikeouts, and because of the depth of the Houston roster, he probably won’t start the season with the big club. That said, he isn’t far away, and he has the look of another Houston star.

8) Tanner Roark, Nationals

There’s a reason not many pitchers are on this list — they get so few chances to show their stuff, particularly early in the spring when starters are still being stretched out. Roark, though, has really made an impression. He had an underwhelming 2017, but is showing that he deserves a chance to right that ship in 2018. Roark has thrown eight innings this spring and has yet to allow an earned run, striking out eight and allowing just three hits. Maybe the Nationals don’t need another starter after all.

9) Gordon Beckham, Mariners

Now 30, the former top prospect joined up with the Mariners last year and ended up getting nothing but an unremarkable September call-up. The veteran infielder seems determined to avoid a repeat of that. Beckham is having an excellent spring, with his .588 average leading all qualified hitters. He’s 10-for-17 with six runs scored and three doubles. The non-roster invitee has a long way to go if he wants to challenge for a roster spot, but a start like this at least allows him to dream of the possibility if he can keep it up.

10) Justin Verlander, Astros

For a top starter like Verlander whose position at the top of the rotation is safe no matter how his spring goes, these games are typically a chance to work on some things and get into a rhythm, with the results a secondary concern. The Astros ace doesn’t seem to care much for that mentality. In five innings, Verlander has struck out nine batters, allowed only two hits, and hasn’t walked a batter. He’s yet to allow a run and it looks like his 2018 will be another excellent campaign at this rate.

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