By Michael Levitt
With spring training getting underway last week, there has been a buzz around baseball that has not been there since before the pandemic. Last season, the pandemic seemed to be the main news story for the whole season, but it has taken more of a background role this year with teams expecting to play a full season. Like every year, there are many intriguing hitters in spring training camps this season, and some of them are worth keeping an eye on.
One hitter to watch will be Chicago White Sox first base prospect Andrew Vaughn. Vaughn has a shot to make the major league roster and get some playing time either at designated hitter or first base. It would help Vaughn’s chances if he were to sign a long-term extension prior to the start of the season, as former White Sox top prospects Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert did. White Sox General Manager Rick Hahn has publicly stated that Jimenez will be the team’s starting left fielder despite his below-average defense, which opens a spot for Vaughn and Jose Abreu to rotate between first base and designated hitter. Vaughn is better defensively than Abreu, so the expectation is that Vaughn would play more at first base with Abreu getting more time at designated hitter.
Another hitter to watch is Texas Rangers catcher Sam Huff. Huff, who got his first taste of the major leagues in 2020, will look to receive an extended look at the major league level. The Rangers’ catching depth chart is up for grabs, as Huff, Jose Trevino, Jonah Heim and Drew Butera are all vying for spots on the major league roster. Most of Huff’s value comes from his bat, and while he does not lack for power, his tendency to swing for the fences gives him more strikeouts than an average catcher. Huff had not played above High-A going into 2020, but he hit .355 with a .394 on-base percentage and .742 slugging percentage in his small sample of the majors, so the Rangers could give him some more at-bats since they are in a rebuilding phase. If Huff makes the opening day roster, the Rangers would probably want their other catcher to have great defense, which would seem to be the case since Trevino, Heim, and Butera all fit that profile. Butera has proven that he does not bring much offensively, while Trevino has not shown that he has much power. Heim has the most offensive potential of those three and is also looking to get more of a look with the major league club since coming over via trade from Oakland.
Staying in the American League West division, the Seattle Mariners have an interesting position battle at second base. Shed Long, who struggled in 2020 after receiving the starting second base job, and Dylan Moore, who can play all over the diamond, will be the primary options. Even if Moore does not end up winning the starting job, he will likely still receive everyday at-bats as a utility player. Moore did not have a good rookie season in 2019 but rebounded in 2020 and will look to keep developing this season. Long will likely have to earn the job in less playing time than Moore during spring training since Long is coming back from a fractured shin and will be monitored more closely by the coaching staff. However, Long was the opposite of Moore for the past two seasons, as Long had a strong rookie season in 2019 but took a step backward in 2020. For both players, the question that remains is which year is the typical work for them. They both have stark contrasts between their first two seasons, so the Mariners’ coaching staff will look to determine what to expect for each player.
Switching to the National League, the Cincinnati Reds have an opening at shortstop that has many possibilities for a solution. There are four players that will likely compete for the spot in spring training, with those being veteran Dee Strange-Gordon, Rule 5 pick Kyle Holder, prospect Luis Garcia and utility player Kyle Farmer. None of these options are too appealing to the Reds, but barring an outside acquisition, one of them would stand to have considerable playing time. Prior to 2020, Garcia had not played above the High-A level yet was called up to the major league team in August and struggled in his limited time, hitting .194 with a .206 on-base percentage and a .194 slugging percentage. He did look sharp with the glove but could probably benefit from some more seasoning in the minors. If Holder makes the opening day roster, he would be required to stay on it for the whole season or would be returned to the New York Yankees, the team that the Philadelphia Phillies took him from in the Rule 5 Draft before trading him to Cincinnati. Holder has not played above Double-A and has not shown much power in his minor league career. The two that are the most likely to receive the starting job are Strange-Gordon and Farmer. Both may end up making the roster since both can play multiple other positions besides shortstop and could be used as a utility player. Neither one will bring much power, as both are contact hitters, although Strange-Gordon adds a speed element that Farmer does not. However, Strange-Gordon has not played more than 10 games at shortstop in a season since 2013, so it may take some getting used to for him to play there regularly again. Although Strange-Gordon and Farmer are the most likely to receive the starting job, all four players bear watching with the chance that either Garcia or Holder is named the starter.
Going into the 2020 season, there was talk that the Washington Nationals wanted top prospect Carter Kieboom to be their starting third baseman following the loss of Anthony Rendon. However, Kieboom faltered in spring training and ended up splitting time at third base with Asdrubal Cabrera over the course of the shortened season. This year, with Cabrera gone and on the Arizona Diamondbacks, Kieboom again has a shot to be the starter at third base. And again, the Nationals said that they want him to play everyday at third base. If the Nationals decide that Kieboom does not cut it as their starting third baseman, they can turn to utility infielder Josh Harrison or slide starting second baseman Starlin Castro to third base and insert prospect Luis Garcia (a different Luis Garcia than the prospect on the Reds) into the lineup. Kieboom has nothing else to do at the minor league level; he has shown that he can hit and field. The next step for him is to do the same thing at the major league level. He will almost certainly get another shot to prove that this year. Whether he gets to do it at the beginning of the year or not is why he should be watched carefully.
All these hitters have something to prove, whether it is that they belong in the major leagues, that they deserve regular playing time or something else. Their chance for redemption or a first shot at their goal starts in spring training. Some of these players could even be a reason why their teams are still playing in October, while others will look to be part of the core that their team can build around.
Edited by Emma Moloney