Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Scott Kazmir (29) throws against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park on June 27, 2016 in Pittsburgh. The Dodgers starter gave up 4 runs to the Pirates to start the game in the first inning. Photo by Archie Carpenter/UPI | License Photo
As spring training begins to wind down, teams are getting surprise performances from players they might not have anticipated. Now is the time to figure out where those players fit in a team's plans, whether it is in the major leagues or in the minors.
Here is a look at the biggest surprises of spring training for each team, as determined by The Sports Xchange's national network of baseball correspondents.
NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST
It is not really a surprise considering his work ethic and commitment, but Brandon Drury reported to camp thinner after a shift to second base and has shown the ability to handle the position on both sides of the ball. One major league talent evaluator called him a Jeff Kent type. Drury, who had 16 homers and a .786 OPS as a rookie third baseman/outfielder last season, has eight extra-base hits in 43 at-bats this spring.
Right-hander Antonio Senzatela, 22, who has yet to pitch at the Triple-A level, was limited to seven starts last year at Double-A Hartford, none after June 15 because of recurring shoulder inflammation and a return to his native Venezuela where his 52-year-old mother died in August of cancer. But with one walk and 15 strikeouts in 15 Cactus League innings, the competitive and poised Senzatela is contending for a place in the Opening Day rotation thanks to outstanding command of a mid-90s fastball, an average slider that should become a plus pitch and good arm speed on an average changeup.
LOS ANGELES DODGERS
The Dodgers expected LHP Scott Kazmir to rejoin their rotation when he signed a two-year contract worth $35.3 million in December. Yet on March 6, Kazmir left his second spring start after 14 pitches with a tight left hip. Since then, Kazmir's velocity unexpectedly and drastically dropped. Last year, the 33-year old averaged 91.6 mph on his fastball despite chronic hip, back and neck problems. But during a five-inning bullpen session Thursday against minor league batters, Kazmir averaged only 82-83 mph, threw just 44 strikes in 71 pitches and allowed two home runs.
SAN DIEGO PADRES
Jabari Blash has five homers this spring while hitting .273 with eight walks thanks to an adjustment in his swing. With left fielder Alex Dickerson probably opening the season on the disabled list with a protruded disk in his lower back, Blash might have played his way into the starting lineup as well as an Opening Day roster spot. A Rule 5 pick by the Padres in December of 2015, Blash struggled in 2016 after a good spring. But he looks far more mature this spring at the age of 27.
SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
When Buster Posey left to play for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, the door swung open for Nick Hundley to prove he's worthy of the club's backup role this season. Instead, journeyman Tim Federowicz is making the most noise with six doubles among his first seven hits. Federowicz and Hundley are both hitting over .300, creating a stiff completion for the reserve catching role and potentially giving the Giants depth behind the plate.
NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL
Kyle Schwarber leading off and playing ... right field? Schwarber missed the 2016 regular season following left knee surgery only to return in time for a spectacular World Series, batting .412 average in five games. Normally a catcher, there's not much room for regular time with Willson Contreras in the top role and Miguel Montero as backup. Schwarber has also played in left field. With Dexter Fowler gone, Manager Joe Maddon has toyed with having him lead off and lately has pondered a right field role. The Cubs need his potent bat no matter what position he plays.
Brandon Astin spent some time as a starter in college and in the minors, but his fastball-slider combo is thought to be best-served in the bullpen. Despite no Triple-A experience, Astin was considered an unlikely candidate to make the Opening Day roster. But, a 1.17 ERA in seven spring appearances helped his chances, as did his 12 strikeouts and no walks and one save in 6 2/3 innings. Heading into the final two weeks of camp there's a crowd looking to claim the final two bullpen spots, but Astin might be at the head the class.
Outfielder Keon Broxton has opened eyes with some impressive numbers this spring, but the transition of Scooter Gennett from second baseman to utility player has made things much easier for manager Craig Counsell. Gennett lost his starting job when Jonathan Villar was moved to accommodate top prospect Orlando Arcia. So Gennett took most of his spring work in left field, right field and third base. He's embraced the new role and figures to make the opening day roster as a jack-of-all-trades.
Surprises don't always favor the club. LHP Tony Watson's struggles are concerning. He inherited the closer job last year when Pittsburgh traded the reliable Mark Melancon to Washington. Watson has had trouble keeping his pitches down and getting batters out this spring. Through 4 1/3 innings over five outings, he had a 16.62 ERA with eight runs allowed on eight hits, three walks and six strikeouts. On March 19 against Toronto, he allowed five runs on three hits.
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
Outfielder Jose Martinez appears to have a good chance at sticking on his first Opening Night roster. Martinez is batting .400 this spring with four homers and 13 RBI, adding nine walks for an on-base percentage of .510. What's more, Martinez has played on occasion at first base, giving him another avenue to occasional starts. During the offseason, the son of former Major Leaguer Carlos Martinez spoke eloquently about what making an Opening Night roster would mean to him. Unless he slides badly in the last two weeks of spring training, it looks like he'll realize that goal.
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
SPRING SURPRISE: It looked like left-handed reliever Eric O'Flaherty had about run out of major league chances. His career was the victim of wear and tear and a series of injuries. The Braves brought him back on a minor league contract and the veteran turned heads with his work in exhibition games after undergoing offseason elbow surgery. The team will go with eight relievers and three could be lefties -- O'Flaherty, Ian Krol and Paco Rodriguez.
The Marlins may start the season without a lefty specialist. Mike Dunn, who signed as a free agent with the Colorado Rockies filled that lefty role for Miami with some success the past six years. Left-hander Jeff Locke (biceps injury) could eventually replace Dunn, but he will start the season on the disabled list. Left-handerHunter Cervenka was not effective in the bullpen when the Marlins acquired him last year, and might not make the club. Jarlin Garcia and Justin Nicolino are lefties on the 40-man roster but both are in the minors and are being trained as starters.
NEW YORK METS
The Mets have to be thrilled with how good right-hander Jacob deGrom looks after undergoing ulnar nerve surgery last September. DeGrom has shown no ill effects in uncorking a fastball regularly clocked at 97 mph, which is more than three mph faster than his average fastball last year. If deGrom -- who has a 2.74 ERA in his first three seasons -- is all the way back and then some, the Mets may have the best 1-2 punch in baseball with him and ace Noah Syndergaard.
First baseman/outfielder Brock Stassi has done pretty much everything he can to make the Opening Day roster and it still may not be enough. Stassi, 27, a 33rd-round pick by the Phillies in 2011, is among the spring leaders in home runs (five) and RBI (15). The left-handed hitting first baseman has also spent time this spring in left and right field. He could serve as a reserve to Tommy Joseph, a backup in a corner outfield spot and -- simply -- a left-handed hitting pinch hitting option. Stassi, whose 1.209 OPS is among the best in baseball this spring, is not currently on the team's 40-man roster.
Right-hander Koda Glover, 23, was 2-0 with a 5.03 ERA last season as he made his big league debut with the Nationals, pitching in 19 games. The Nationals feel he has the mentality to be a closer one day. Glover began last year at the Single-A level. "It can only help him," pitching coach Mike Maddux said of Glover's cup of coffee last year. "It was quite a first trip to the big leagues. He has a five-pitch mix and is ultra-aggressive." Glover had a 1.13 spring training ERA in eight innings.
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST
While the Astros already employ a valuable utility infielder in Marwin Gonzalez, the strong spring training performance of veteran Reid Brignac had increased the likelihood of the club adding another versatile infielder to their bench. A non-roster invitee with 369 career games spread across six clubs, Brignac posted a slash line of .324/.375/.514 with eight RBIs over his first 19 games and 37 at-bats. Gonzalez shouldered a heavy load filling in multiple roster gaps in 2016. Brignac might be a viable option to alleviate pressure on Gonzalez.
LOS ANGELES ANGELS
When right-hander Garrett Richards tore his ulnar collateral ligament in May, most observers thought he would miss all of this season. But instead of undergoing Tommy John surgery, Richards relied on injections of stem cells and platelet-rich plasma to regenerate the tissue. So far, so good. After doctors cleared him to throw in August, Richards pitched during the fall in Arizona's instructional league with no ensuing damage. This spring, Richards' fastball reached 100 mph in his second outing. "He's just where he should be," manager Mike Scioscia told the Orange County Register.
The A's signed the 29-year-old Ryan Lavarnway to serve as a veteran backup at Triple-A. Predictably, he rarely saw the light of day early on in camp in a crowded room of catchers. But what had to catch A's management's eye -- perhaps more so than anything else a catcher did -- was how the journeyman tore up the pitching in the Seoul pool of the World Baseball Classic, earning MVP honors in Israel's surprising 3-0 start.
Offense hasn't been a problem, even while stars Robinson Cano, Jean Segura and Nelson Cruz were playing at the WBC. Youngsters such as outfielders Mitch Haniger, Guillermo Heredia and Tyler O'Neill helped provide plenty of offense on a team that spent a good part of the offseason renovating a lineup that scored the third-most runs and hit the second-most home runs in the American League last season.
After a sub-par sophomore season that saw him get sent to Triple A, a slimmed down Delino DeShields has played himself back into the outfield conversation and could see more playing time than the No. 4 outfield spot he was pegged for. The Rangers plan to play Shin-Soo Choo at designated hitter more than in right field to keep him healthy. That means the speedy DeShields, who has a .388 on-base percentage this spring, has worked his way into a spot competing for playing time with Ryan Rua.
AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL
CHICAGO WHITE SOX
Journeyman outfielder Peter Bourjos knew that nothing would be guaranteed when he signed a minor league deal with the White Sox during the offseason. Several months later, Bourjos looks like the favorite to win the starting job in center field. The 29-year-old is hitting .333 (13-for-39) with two doubles, three triples and two RBIs in 16 spring games. Bourjos could start ahead of rookie center fielder Charlie Tilson, who has been plagued by injuries throughout the spring and will open the season on the disabled list.
Second baseman Jason Kipnis will start the season on the disabled list due to right shoulder inflammation. Kipnis only appeared in two spring training games, both early in camp, and both as a designated hitter. The original prognosis was he'd sit out some of the early spring training games, but the shoulder condition has persisted. On March 18 the Indians announced that Kipnis was approximately four to six weeks away from being ready to play in a major league game.
Left-hander Matt Boyd has had a solid spring and seems to have nailed down a spot in Detroit's rotation. Boyd, who faded down the stretch last year, has continued to work with a lowered arm slot in his delivery with positive results. His fastball is up a tick or two, his control is better to both sides of the plate, his curve and changeup are sharper and Boyd is throwing more strikes early in at-bats. He gets hurt throwing fastballs in fastball counts. Getting ahead in the count gives him four options to throw in four strike zone areas.
KANSAS CITY ROYALS
Nathan Karns has a power arm but is unproven. He also had not pitched since July 29 when a herniated disk sidelined him with the Mariners. Karns, however, came to camp healthy and with an improved slider. He beat out veteran Chris Young and left-hander Travis Wood for the fifth and final rotation slot. Karns went 6-2 with a 5.15 ERA last season with Seattle. He was acquired in a January trade for outfielder Jarrod Dyson. Young and Wood open the season as long men in the bullpen.
While the starting lineup appears all but set, Byung-ho Park might have changed the plans for the designated hitter spot. Park hit .191 last year in his arrival from South Korea, had wrist surgery and was even taken off the 40-man roster before spring training. This spring, Park leads the team with four home runs and is hitting .361. More importantly, he's handled fastballs better after struggling to adjust to harder throwers in the North America. Kennys Vargas was expected to be the designated hitter, but he's only had 13 at-bats because he's been away for the WBC.
AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST
Craig Gentry and Joey Rickard's success have made an already confusing corner outfield situation tougher to figure out. The veteran Gentry has a .282 average through 21 games while Rickard (.343, 21 games) has played well after missing most of the second half of an impressive rookie year with a thumb injury. The Orioles already have other possible corner outfielders, and the question is where (or if) these two could make the Opening Day roster. But that's a nice problem to deal with.
BOSTON RED SOX
Veteran right-hander Kyle Kendrick is 81-81 in his career but didn't pitch in the major leagues last year and has battled shoulder trouble. He's healthy and decided to defy the odds and enter a crowded Red Sox staff and rotation picture. Through six games, five starts, he is 3-0 with a 1.96 ERA, allowing 17 hits, walking four and striking out 20 in 23 innings.
NEW YORK YANKEES
Gleyber Torres is projected to be a major leaguer by 2019 or even 2018 but is impressing during his first major league spring training so much that manager Joe Girardi compared him to Miguel Cabrera last week. Torres, who has yet to play above high Single-A, is hitting .448 during spring training. While he will be in the minors on Opening Day, it's accurate to say Torres is making a bigger impression on the Yankees than anticipated.
TAMPA BAY RAYS
Rickie Weeks was a late addition on a minor league contract, but he's impressed as a consistent bat, hitting .360 with three home runs and 10 RBIs, all close to the team lead. Weeks can help at first base, where the Rays have searched for consistency since releasing James Loney before last season. He also can provide another key bat, especially early when OF Colby Rasmus and SS Matt Duffy are likely to open the season on the disabled list.
TORONTO BLUE JAYS
Darrell Ceciliani played in only 13 games for the Blue Jays last season, spending most of the season at Triple-A Buffalo, where he dealt with a shoulder injury. His hard-nosed style has made a fan of manager John Gibbons. Ceciliani had a five-RBI game against the Philadelphia Phillies that included a grand slam on March 17. The 26-year-old left-handed hitter could force his way into an outfield role, especially with a platoon being used in left field and 36-year-old right fielder Jose Bautista could be spelled at times during the season.