After every long, cold offseason, major league baseball clubs reconvene in mid-February to begin prepping for the upcoming season. Fifteen of the 30 major league teams head to Arizona to participate in Cactus League play, while the other 15 spend their spring training in Florida for Grapefruit League play.
Although Cactus and Grapefruit League play is merely a warm-up for many seasoned veterans, there are also many younger players and older players past their prime battling it out to earn a roster spot on Opening Day.
Although stats and highlights during Spring Training rarely make the front page, there have been some noteworthy stories coming out of Arizona and Florida.
The first is Japanese superstar Shohei Ohtani. After being labeled the “Babe Ruth” of the Nippon Professional Baseball, Ohtani is unanimously agreed among scouts as the best non-American baseball player on the planet. After a long drawn-out process where Ohtani met with nearly half the teams in major league baseball, the two-way outfielder and pitcher decided to take his talents to Orange County and sign with the Angels.
Ohtani has been labeled the number one prospect in all of baseball, being able to launch balls out of stadiums in batting practice, as well as flirt with triple-digit fastballs.
While scouting reports rave about him, Ohtani’s performance in Spring Training has been notably horrendous. Ohtani has slashed an abysmal .107/.219/.107 while striking out nine times across only 28 at-bats. His outings on the mound have been equally unimpressive. Across only 2.2 innings, Ohtani’s surrendered eight earned runs and has given up the long-ball three times. This is not a product of bad luck, as his opponent’s average currently sits at .529.
Although discouraging, scouts aren’t worried. Transitioning from foreign baseball to American baseball is no easy task, and it is something with which players coming from other countries have always reasonably struggled. Ohtani is fine; his fastball is still showing the velocity he previously exhibited and scouts are still pleased with his power potential.
Spring Training numbers are hardly ever indicative of a player’s future, but if Ohtani does not adjust in time, he will likely begin the season in the higher levels of the minor leagues, until the Angels deem him as adequately prepared for major league baseball. Still young, the 23 -year-old still has plenty of time to develop into a superstar.
The second biggest story coming out of Spring Training is Ronald Acuna of the Atlanta Braves. Acuna spent the 2017 season as a 19-year-old. He began the year at A+ Florida where he posted strong numbers across 28 games. The Braves felt he was ready for the next level and bumped him up to AA Mississippi, a risky move on the Braves’ part, given Acuna’s age. The Braves’ risk paid off; Acuna rewarded them by absolutely breaking out in AA, batting .326 and blasting nine home runs across 57 games. The Braves felt the game was still too slow for Acuna, and they bumped him up to AAA Gwinnett, where he hit .344 and was 7.8 years younger than the average player.
Acuna was invited to the Arizona Fall League, a prestigious league to which only top prospects get invited. Acuna continued his dominance, batting .325 with seven home runs in only 23 games, earning the league MVP award. Acuna ended up winning Minor League Player of the Year in 2017.
The confidence and respect that scouts have for Acuna mirror those of Bryce Harper, the first overall pick in 2010 MLB Draft and current superstar, when he was a prospect. Some place him among the top tier of baseball players, noting his comparison to Mike Trout, said by many to be a number one position player in all of baseball.
Acuna has yet to slow down. At just 20 years old in Spring Training, Acuna smacked four home runs, 11 RBIs, four stolen bases, and slashed .432/.519/.728.
There is no doubt that Acuna is not only ready, but has earned a shot at the big leagues. However, Acuna was recently re-assigned from major league to minor league camp, indicating that he will begin the season at AAA Gwinnett. This is a strategic move on the Braves’ part. By delaying Acuna’s call-up, the Braves can limit his service time, which in turn extends his contract, so the Braves can hold on to him for an extra year.
As I mentioned before, Spring Training statistics are rarely predictive of long-term performance. Many players have struggled in the minors and sprint training, only to breakout in when they reached the majors. Ten years from now, it is possible that neither Ohtani nor Acuna will pan out, but it is equally possible that they could blossom into modern-day superstars. Being only 20 and 23 years old, both have plenty of time to both showcase their abilities and hopefully reach their potential.