I have noticed that even most baseball folks have become a bit ashamed of the clichés circulating at this time of year.
The three big ones:
1. Players claiming they “were in the best shape of their lives” (as if that should be award-worthy in an industry in which being in your best shape is mandatory and not being in top shape verges on disrespect to your teammates and your profession).
2. Those returning from injury defining how far ahead of schedule they were in their rehabs. (It was generally easy to be “ahead of schedule.” Teams were like airlines fluffing in an extra hour to the estimated time of arrival, so they could be late and still claim to be on time. Organizations don’t want to oversell or to get players to try to beat the quickest possible healing periods. So they say 18 months when maybe they mean 12 or 14 or 16.)
3. “We are really emphasizing fundamentals,” which leads to the obvious question: What were you accentuating before? Plus why, inevitably, are you still going to screw up your first rundown of the season?
Anyway, I have heard a lot less of this talk in spring training. The old tried-and-true clichés have been modernized.
For those claiming to be in improved shape, there are new workouts and/or trainers and/or diets that lead to “feeling more dynamic” or “feeling more explosive.” The pitchers all went to a pitching lab or guru, and have developed better mechanics or spin. And some days it has felt as if every pitcher this offseason went to the Cutter Genie and added that pitch to his repertoire.
There’s no better time than spring training to work on the fundamentals that often seem to elude teams once Opening Day arrives.Getty Images
Injured players have pretty much bought into the organizational groupthink. Few, if any, try to John Wayne it any longer and insist they will beat timeline projections — because so few teams even give firm projections. They are all looking at the big picture now. Which is smart, yet less fun.
You know what I also have heard more than ever, as if every team is operating under the same self-help manual? Team officials bragging about having the “best vibes” ever in their camps. This usually begins with a disclaimer such as “I know you hear this a lot” or “I know I have said this before” or some other such thing. Then I am told about how the organization really emphasized makeup and this is the best group of guys they have ever had. The environment is loose and fraternal, yet serious and down to business.
The leadership has never been better, and the dysfunction has never been more absent. It is one Disneyland after another — a 30-way tie for the Happiest Place on Earth. Side note: Which teams at this time of year ever have copped to having substandard leadership and a poor atmosphere and a phalanx of indifferent bad actors populating the clubhouse?
But the champion platitude more than ever is each team claiming their prospects are: 1) more advanced, and/or 2) greater in number and/or 3) going to make a difference this year. This usually comes with the disclaimer “despite what the ranking systems say.” If you have never heard a curse word used in front of “Baseball America,” then go talk to an executive whose organization ranks in the bottom two-thirds of that publication’s club-by-club prospect rankings. Within the game, that magazine is known as BA, but the executives who claim to have the most underappreciated or misunderstood group of prospects in the game fit nicely into our current national mindset of AA — Aggrieved America.
And for every executive in survival mode — which means every executive — there is nothing they want to push harder than their prospects. It means selling tomorrow when they all want to be employed tomorrow. Not only that, but it is a direct pitch of a less expensive tomorrow to their bosses. Plus, they have figured out that fan bases love homegrown players like they love the backup quarterback — the guy we haven’t seen yet who just has to be better than the guy who is playing now.
After hitting six homers last spring with the Pirates, former Yankees minor leaguer Diego Castillo hit only 11 more the rest of the season before Pittsburgh traded him in December to the Diamondbacks.Getty Images
Annually, we forget how deceiving spring statistics can be and that most prospects don’t actually hit at the highest level, if they even hit at all.
Spring stats? Remember that Kyle Higashioka delivered seven homers in a shortened spring last year, and Diego Castillo (the infielder traded from the Yankees for Clay Holmes) and Mickey Moniak each hit six. In the most recent six-week spring training, in 2021, Red Sox prospects Bobby Dalbec and Jarren Duran excelled, yet neither has fully established himself as even an average regular.
So I get the excitement around the Yankees for Jasson Dominguez and Anthony Volpe, and around the Mets with Brett Baty and Ronny Mauricio. It is that time of year, and prospects are what excites folks most at this time of year — not just with the New York teams.
When I stopped in Cubs camp, it was hard to miss that there is a New York tinge to the club. Marcus Stroman and Jameson Taillon are two-fifths of the rotation. Michael Fulmer is in the bullpen. Mike Tauchman has a chance to make the roster as a backup outfielder.
Plus, the Cubs, as they have been rebuilding, made three high-profile trades with the New York clubs: dealing 2016 champions Javier Baez (to the Mets) and Anthony Rizzo (to the Yankees) at the 2021 deadline and sending Scott Effross to the Yankees at last year’s deadline.
Why don’t we use 3UP to take a look at where the prospects the New York teams traded to the Cubs stand?
Hayden Wesneski pitched well for the Cubs after the Yankees dealt him at the trade deadline.Getty Images
1. Hayden Wesneski: He was acquired by the Cubs last year straight up for Effross, who after Tommy John surgery possibly is going to miss this entire Yankees season. Also, Wesneski plus J.P. Sears and Ken Waldichuk (who were used in the ill-fated Frankie Montas/Lou Trivino trade) would have represented Yankees rotation depth with Montas and Carlos Rodon already down to begin the season.
All three are projected to be back-of-the-rotation types. One scout who saw Wesneski both in the Yankees organization and this spring with the Cubs said, “He can excite you,” but said the righty can have inconsistent mechanics leading to command issues.
Cubs manager David Ross called Wesneski “the front-runner” over Javier Assad and Adrian Sampson to nab the No. 5 starter spot. Wesneski had a strong post-trade cameo with the Cubs in 2022: He appeared in six games (four starts), and pitched to a 2.18 ERA in 33 innings in which he allowed 24 hits, walked seven and struck out 33.
“We saw what he could do last year,” Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “He’s worked hard this offseason to put himself in the best position to come in here and show us what he can do and that he’s ready for that step. He’s got all the stuff you want for a starter: The workload. The mental approach. How he goes about his business. … You see how good his slider is. It’s one of the better sliders in the game. I think not only how it moves, but how he commands it and throws wherever he wants. He can throw it to both sides (of the plate), so he can use it to both-handed hitters.”
2. Pete Crow-Armstrong: The Mets have a lot of internal regret about obtaining Baez on July 30, 2021, for Crow-Armstrong barely a year after using the 19th overall pick in the 2020 draft on the center fielder. The Mets didn’t make the playoffs, and Baez left in free agency. And as Crow-Armstrong emerged last year after missing all action in 2020 due to COVID and most of 2021 following shoulder surgery, the Mets were left more circumspect about trading their better prospects at last year’s deadline. The Mets have seller’s remorse that they traded Crow-Armstrong without fully understanding what they had.
Pete Crow-Armstrong has impressed the Cubs with his speed and defense, but the former Mets first-round draft pick feels his bat isn’t far behind.Diamond Images/Getty Images
Between Low-A and High-A last year — his first full season playing in the minors — Crow-Armstrong hit .312 with 46 extra-base hits, including 16 homers. Plus, he stole 32 bases. But he did strike out 102 times versus 36 walks.
“He’s a free swinger,” Ross said. “He’s got to calm down as he ages, but man, does he have some special talents.”
There are no doubts about Crow-Armstrong’s speed and defense. Ryan Dempster, a Cubs broadcaster and special assistant to president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer, said he watched Crow-Armstrong replace Gold Glove-caliber center fielder Cody Bellinger in an early spring training game and asked, “How many times do you take Cody out of center and you get no worse?”
The low-end projections for Crow-Armstrong, who turns 21 next week, are a Kevin Kiermaier type — a lefty batter who really can defend center field, but with a league-average-type bat. That is valuable. Ross wondered whether there was some Kenny Lofton in Crow-Armstrong, especially because of the speed on the bases. But will the bat come?
“I don’t think I was trying to make any sort of statement (in spring),” Crow-Armstrong said. “People know that I could play defense and they know that the bat is behind the glove. I see what they see. I see a little bit more just because of what goes on in my own mind and what goals I have set for myself. … I’ve told people for years that I’m being patient with myself in terms of the power, and I showed a lot of that last year. I think I’m really damn close to being a more complete hitter than people give me credit for.”
In successive days while in Arizona, I was in Mariners camp, Giants camp and Cubs camp, which meant each day I saw a former Mets first-round draft pick lefty-hitting outfielder with lots to prove: Jarred Kelenic, Michael Conforto and Crow-Armstrong. Kelenic played just 56 minor league games for the Mets before being traded; Crow-Armstrong played just six.
Jarred Kelenic has struggled at the plate in the majors since arriving in Seattle from the Mets in exchange for Edwin Diaz and Robinson Cano, but he’s still just 23.Getty Images
In Mets world, this is how that worked: Kelenic was drafted by the Sandy Alderson regime and traded by Brodie Van Wagenen. Crow-Armstrong was drafted by Van Wagenen and traded by Zack Scott, who was working under the returned Alderson. Kelenic was drafted and traded under Wilpon ownership. Crow-Armstrong was drafted under the Wilpons and traded during Steve Cohen ownership.
“There is a whole new regime that owns the Mets from when I was there,” Crow-Armstrong said. “Brodie and his squad started my career. I am grateful they drafted me, but, yeah, I definitely hold a little, I wouldn’t call it a grudge, but I carry the chip with me, you know? But again, it’s all personally motivated. It’s not anything external. I couldn’t care less about who traded me or why they traded me. I’m here now. And I love it here.”
3. Kevin Alcantara: MLB.com ranks Crow-Armstrong as the Cubs’ top prospect and Alcantara second (Wesneski is fifth). Crow-Armstrong is ranked 28th among all prospects and Alcantara is 87th. Crow-Armstrong likely will begin this year at Double-A and Alcantara at High-A. In the Cubs’ dream scenario, they are two-thirds of a super-athletic, long-term outfield that’s in the majors by midway through 2024.
Alcantara, who turns 21 in July, is a toolshed. One scout said, “He has everything you want. There are a lot of guys in the minors who have a lot of tools. It is always who can translate it to the majors.”
When the Yankees traded Alcantara as the key piece for Rizzo at the 2021 trade deadline, they knew they were dealing a high-ceiling lottery ticket who — if he reached that ceiling — could be a terrific player.
Only 21, Kevin Alcantara has already impressed Cubs president Jed Hoyer as the most talented player in camp this spring.Getty Images
Hoyer called Alcantara “the most talented guy” in camp.
“He hasn’t had a single BP session where he hasn’t gone over 115 mph (off the bat),” Hoyer said. “He’s crushed balls. He can fly. He’s got a great personality. Can he translate that back to be successful in the majors? But in terms of his ability, he’s really, really fun to watch. Great kid. Cash (Yankees GM Brian Cashman) told me at the time of the trade that he’s a really great kid. Teammates gravitate toward him. Everyone down (in his minor league system) there comments on this intelligence.
“He wants to be really good. He has every ingredient to be a really good player. It is going to take time. He’s 6-foot-6. He’s filled out this year a little bit more. He has longer levers. That takes longer to develop. I do think he had a sneaky good season last year. Myrtle Beach is a graveyard for hitters. It’s really hard to hit there. You look at his home/road splits. He had good numbers overall and we wanted to keep him there for the full year.”
With Low-A Myrtle Beach last year, Alcantara played 59 games at home with a slash line of .242/.352/.393 for a .745 OPS. In 55 road games, he hit .306/.368/.518 for an .886 OPS.
“He hits the ball extremely hard,” Ross said. “He’s a freak athlete who goes and gets it with a great arm. It (his swing) doesn’t look long and slow. He can keep it compact, which is impressive with how big he is.”