(The following was originally published at SB*Nation’s Pinstripe Alley)
An old baseball adage warns against trusting numbers compiled in March, but nonetheless, teams still make decisions based on Spring Training performance. So, with almost half of the exhibition schedule in the books, let’s take a look at some of the early returns from position players facing important moments in their careers.
Alfonso Soriano, LF – Chicago Cubs
No one has started the spring hotter than Alfonso Soriano, whose four homeruns and 1.650 OPS lead all hitters with at least 20 at bats. Is Soriano’s renaissance the result of a new approach at the plate? The Cubs, who spent the entire winter trying to trade the left fielder, certainly hope so. Since singing an eight-year deal worth over $130 million in 2006, Soriano’s production has suffered a steady decline, so any evidence of marked improvement could go along way toward helping the Cubs either salvage some value from the remaining three years on his contract, or unload it altogether at some point before the trade deadline.
Brett Lawrie, 3B – Toronto Blue Jays
Not far off Soriano’s pace has been Blue Jays’ third baseman Brett Lawrie, who continues to build upon his impressive debut in 2011. The former Brewers’ first round pick, who was traded last year for Shawn Marcum, has not only hit a lusty .591, but also stolen four bases. According to a recent Blue Jays radio broadcast, Lawrie’s all around game has been off the charts this spring, which should add to the high expectations already being placed upon him. Even though he is no longer eligible for the Rookie of the Year award, Lawrie is well positioned to be a breakout star in 2012.
Mat Gamel, 1B – Milwaukee Brewers
The Brewers have been waiting for Mat Gamel to take the next step for several years, but with the departure of Prince Fielder, the matter has become more urgent. After compiling a .900 OPS in back-to-back seasons at AAA Nashville, Gamel has proven he can handle the bat, but before now, he hasn’t had a position. Filling Fielder’s shoes won’t be easy, but so far, the early indications have been positive. Gamel has belted three homeruns to go along with an OPS of 1.196 in the spring, which has to make Brewers’ fans feel a little better about facing life without their Prince.
Dustin Ackley, 2B and Jesus Montero, C/DH – Seattle Mariners
Over the past few seasons, the Mariners have had a historically bad offense. However, with several promising young hitters expected to be in the everyday lineup, the Seattle offense has good reason to be optimistic. In particular, Dustin Ackley and the newly acquired Jesus Montero have gotten off to strong starts in the spring, posting OPS rates of 1.042 and 0.978, respectively. Even Justin Smoak, who has a .935 OPS in 18 at bats, has been impressive this spring, so the Mariners’ days of epic futility could soon be a thing of the past.
Tim Beckham, SS – Tampa Rays and Tyler Pastornicky, SS – Atlanta Braves
At the other end of the spectrum, Rays shortstop prospect Tim Beckham has posted an OPS of 0.170, the lowest rate among all hitters with at least 20 at bats in March. The slow start probably extinguishes what little chance Beckham had to start the season in the majors. Another young shortstop in a similar precarious position is Tyler Pastornicky, who was all but handed the Braves starting job at the beginning of the spring. However, with a .268 OPS and shaky play in the field, Pastornicky’s handle on the job could be slipping.
Raul Ibanez, DH – New York Yankees
Unfortunately for the Yankees, Raul Ibanez has struggled as much as any hitter this spring. In 24 plate appearances, the 40-year old DH has only managed two hits, including a bloop single off Cole Hamels in his first exhibition at bat. Although the veteran slugger has expressed confidence that he’ll snap out his funk, there have already been grumblings that if he doesn’t start to hit soon, the Yankees could quickly cut ties with Ibanez. If that happens, maybe the Yankees can convince Jorge Posada to come out of retirement too?
Justin Morneau , 1B– Minnesota Twins
After losing most of the last season and a half to the effects of a concussion, Justin Morneau began the spring encouraged by the lack of symptoms related to the affliction. However, the 31-year old first baseman has been very slow to re-find his swing. In his first nine games, Morneau has managed only three hits in 22 at bats, which could mean the former MVP still has a long road back to full health.