Look everywhere around the MLB world in April, and a reactionary judgement is taking place. Sample sizes are, by nature, too small from which to draw accurate conclusions, but they certainly have merit. This is especially true following one month of exhibition games where everything gets scrapped and begins with a clean, ‘This-time-it-matters’ slate.
We judge. We project. We adjust. It’s easy to dismiss the merits of fans, analysts, and fantasy owners due to over-reaction, as those parties have no impact on the overall landscape of the league. But when an organization makes a shift in thinking only a few short weeks into the season, it’s time to take notice.
Below are five players who have won or lost jobs before the end of April:
LaTroy Hawkins – Colorado Rockies
In reality, LaTroy Hawkins was such an obvious candidate for losing his job that, prior to the 2014 season, speculation stated Rex Brothers would lead the team in saves, mainly because his competition — Hawkins — was no competition at all. Twenty-three Hawkins saves later — compared to a whopping zero for Brothers, despite Rex appearing in 17 more games — the incumbent closer entered 2015 camp with a job to lose.
Lose it, he did.
The flavor of this year is Adam Ottavino. The setup man was so widely regarded as Hawkins’ eventual successor that he was selected in many fantasy baseball drafts. In addition to Ottavino, Rafael Betancourt — with 75 career saves — presented a valid option in case Hawkins failed. Betancourt received the first opportunity, but Ottavino gets the nod going forward.
Jake Lamb – Arizona Diamondbacks
There are roster spots given due to contractual ‘obligations’ — read, Alex Rodriguez — and then there are those earned. There is likely no position player in baseball who outperformed his opponents en route to making his team’s Major League squad more than Arizona’s Jake Lamb.
The Diamondbacks signed Cuban third baseman Yasmany Tomas to a six-year deal this offseason, despite a glut at the two positions he plays — in addition to third base, Tomas is listed as an outfielder, although reports of his defense border on the ‘historically bad’ level. With the amount of money the Diamondbacks had committed to Tomas, all indications were that he would break camp with the team and remain part of the Major League club for years to come. When Tomas proved to be nearly inept in the field, Arizona sent him to Triple-A for some seasoning.
Perhaps making this transition smoother was the emergence of third base prospect Jake Lamb. After an absolutely torrid spring — 1.040 OPS in 66 at-bats for those who take stock in March performances — Lamb’s presence in the Major Leagues paid dividends with a dramatic pinch-hit three-run double that cut the deficit to one run. Lamb followed up his pinch-hit heroics with a four-RBI game the next day.
Kirk Gibson? No. But a deserving Major League talent, nonetheless.
Brett Cecil – Toronto Blue Jays
Closing carousels are nothing new — typically, a team enters a season with a ‘closer by committee,’ in which any one of a specific group of pitchers may rotate into and out of the closer role. Less common is the ‘Closing and Back-End Rotation Carousel’ made famous by the Spring Training version of the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays.
Aaron Sanchez was the team’s closer, then a starter. Brett Cecil was competing for the same role, only to win it by virtue of a pitcher-fielding drill that left starter Marcus Stroeman out for the season with a torn knee. This is the same injury that basically solidified Daniel Norris as a rotation mainstay.
Weeks of shuffling blown up in one day of disaster.
In the team’s second game of the season, Brett Cecil entered the contest in the eighth inning with the bases loaded, nobody out, and a two-run lead to protect. A wild pitch, a hit batsman, and an RBI single later, Cecil was pulled from the game en route to the team’s first loss.
The next day, he was pulled from the closer’s role. 20-year old flamethrower Miguel Castro had officially won the job, despite not actively being part of the original competition.
Odubel Herrera – Philadelphia Phillies
By all accounts, the Philadelphia Phillies are not expected to do much this season. As grim as the talent pool at the Major League level looked prior to the season, a former Rule 5 player has won the heart of manager Ryne Sandberg and should bring a formerly nonexistent level of excitement to the organization.
Odubel Herrera, dubbed a “Spark plug” by the aforementioned Sandberg, is the prototypical example of a player working his way through the Minor League system, performing throughout Spring Training, and providing enough versatility to deserve a roster spot in one capacity or another. The former second-baseman is currently serving as the starting center fielder in Philadelphia.
Herrera fell into a perfect scenario, as his Rule 5 status, coupled with a shredded Phillies lineup, guaranteed he would get as many opportunities as necessary to prove his worth. Only a few short games into Spring Training, it became clear that Herrera was part of the team’s plans. Despite a less-than-stellar start to the season — .250 batting average and only one stolen base — Herrera delivered a game-winning RBI double in the 10th inning less than one week into the season.
Mookie Betts – Boston Red Sox
While some names on this list are pleasant surprises for their respective teams, Mookie Betts is arguably the best player forced to have earned his stripes in trial by fire. Entering camp in an open competition with Shane Victorino and Rusney Castillo, Betts was considered the odd man out for much of Spring Training.
A ridiculous .429 average and 1.217 OPS throughout the preseason forced Boston’s hand to include the outfield prospect on the Opening Day roster. Despite a relatively low batting average, Betts has hit safely in all but one game this season, and has two home runs and three stolen bases in his first eight games.
With Rusney Castillo currently injured in the Minor Leagues and Shane Victorino carrying a dismal .130 average, Betts has the keys to the car until he proves they should be revoked. He arguably had the toughest, most undeserving route to a starting position for someone as deserving as he was, but perhaps the necessity for him to perform out of the gate could be attributed to any future success.