Spring watch list: Players to track

Updated: February 27, 2013, 11:37 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

There's a reason that spring training statistics are neither easily found nor very detailed: It's because they're almost entirely meaningless.

Oh sure, some spring numbers have relevance -- such as strikeouts and walks for pitchers, especially for those who might have performed poorly in the past in those departments. But for the most part, spring is not about the statistics. It's about roster developments, injury rehabilitation and player scouting. It's more about what the eye sees on the field than in the box score.

These next 37 days will afford (presumably) your first opportunity since October to see players about whom you might have some questions. If possible, read the daily updates about these players and catch at least two to three of the player's games to refine your opinion about him.

[+] EnlargeEric Hosmer
Anthony Gruppuso/US PresswireEric Hosmer finished just 32nd among first basemen on the ESPN Player Rater in 2012, below such players as Brandon Moss and Jeff Keppinger.

I understand many fantasy owners have jobs and lack the luxury of watching dozens of spring games. With that in mind, the list I've prepared for you below should help. This is the list of players I'll be tracking most closely during spring training, and it's what I call my annual "spring watch list." These are players, in my opinion, who possessed the widest range of 2013 possibilities at the dawn of spring training, making these next 37 days critical for each.

Let's illustrate the watch list's purpose with a drafting example. I play in two expert leagues each season; the first, the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR), drafts the first weekend in March. Though this spring's schedule is accelerated due to the World Baseball Classic, spring camps have typically been open for only three weeks, and spring games are in their first few days by the time I sit down at the LABR draft table. There's no question, therefore, that the draft sheets I prepare, as well as the extensive winter research I have contributed in many forms to our Draft Kit, projections and player profiles, are based almost exclusively on player skills and immediate opportunity. In fact, some players' profiles might even include "watch him this spring," because they're the exact type of player I'm talking about. At LABR, I'll be guessing about these players, because in early March, that's what one must do.

The second, Tout Wars, typically drafts in the final full weekend preceding Opening Day. At this stage of the spring, roster decisions have mostly been made, players' injury status is well known, and I've reached my final opinion on every player. The draft sheet I prepare for Tout is vastly different. It weights opportunity much more, and it's based off projections that have a much higher probability of being correct because of a full spring's worth of knowledge gained.

What happens between these drafts ties into the "watch list." Yes, I'm watching every player during the spring. But these names -- and in a few instances, roster situations -- are the ones I'm tracking most, because my opinions of them are most likely to change during March.

With that, here's the list, with the players in no particular order.

Eric Hosmer, 1B, Kansas City Royals

Jason Heyward topped this list a year ago, and Hosmer's situation looks eerily similar entering 2013. "Heyward's swing is broken" was a common statement during 2012 spring training; expect to hear the same about Hosmer's this year. Here's why: Last season, he hit a slew of ground balls, more than 50 percent, and he proved incapable of adjusting to opponents' tendency to use defensive shifts against him, going from a 25 percent rate of hitting to the opposite field before the All-Star break to 16 percent after it. Hosmer had a .101 BABIP on pulled ground balls last season; he played right into the defense's hands.

In order for Hosmer to break out in his third season, therefore, he needs to make those adjustments -- just as Heyward did during March of 2012. Though shoulder problems might have contributed to Hosmer's late-season struggles, just as they did to Heyward's in 2011, we need evidence before saying he's this year's Heyward. For what it's worth, Heyward provided said evidence in the spring games and went on to have a fine season.

Derek Jeter, SS, New York Yankees

Jeter's health is one of the most critical situations to watch, and not simply because of the direct impact on his games played/plate appearances total. That's relevant; it's the per-plate appearance production that's most in flux. He is recovering from a fractured ankle, an ugly injury most everyone witnessed during last year's ALCS, and one he recently admitted was probably as a result of playing through pain since he first injured the ankle on Sept. 12. And here's why Jeter's recovery is key: A healthy Jeter logs the PAs and occupies a role that drives his value into the top 10 at one of the weakest positions in fantasy. A Jeter at anything less might warrant no more than middle-infield status in mixed formats, and he'd possess a downside that could drop him to near-replacement level in 10-team mixed leagues.

Statistically speaking, Jeter batted .279/.339/.324 and did not attempt a single stolen base in 25 games between the dates he initially hurt the ankle (Sept. 12), then fractured it (Oct. 13), and it's also worth mentioning that his 13 stolen base attempts for the season -- those in the first 140 games of 2012 -- were a career low. Jeter's mobility and speed are most critical to watch; a Jeter who steals less than 10 bases is far less likely to crack the top 10 shortstops than one who steals more. Edgar Renteria's final five seasons (ages 30-34) -- .279 batting average, 11 homers, 10 stolen bases per 162 games played -- might be a fair low-end comparison for Jeter, if either you or I don't like what we see.

New York Yankees batting order

This ties into the Jeter discussion above, because a healthy Jeter will bat leadoff in the 2013 Yankees lineup, even if he probably shouldn't against right-handers. Jeter has a .330 on-base percentage against righties (and a .403 OBP against lefties) over the past three seasons combined, while Brett Gardner has a .361 mark against righties during that span. That the Yankees faced 101 right-handed starting pitchers in 162 games last season, and 105 per year from 2010-12, shows how important the Yankees' 2013 lineup construction against righties and lefties is.

My guess is that the Yankees won't maximize their lineup options: They'll probably go Jeter, Ichiro Suzuki (.309 OBP against righties in 2011-12), Mark Teixeira at 1-2-3 every day, relegating better on-base options -- Kevin Youkilis (.372 on-base from 2010-12) and Curtis Granderson (.348 against righties from 2010-12) -- to the 5-6-7 holes. While that wouldn't be a devastating arrangement, it'd likely result in outs being spent in a smaller number of team plate appearances per night, adversely impacting, even if only slightly, the team's run total. There are better ways for this team to maximize run potential, which is important in a year that the Yankees' lineup isn't as deep, and it's important to monitor their spring batting orders to see whether they're doing so.

My pitch: Gardner-Youkilis-Cano against righties, Jeter-Youkilis-Cano against lefties. There's little doubt, though, that Jeter batting 7-8-9 in the 100-plus games against righties would adversely impact his fantasy value.

Madison Bumgarner, SP, San Francisco Giants

Bumgarner makes the list because, if healthy, he's a 23-year-old pitcher capable of 200 strikeouts, a sub-3.00 ERA and a WHIP close to 1.00, and a pitcher almost certain of scoring many votes in the Cy Young balloting. The problem is that, with the exception of his World Series Game 2 gem (7 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 8 K's), the last we saw of him was troubling: 2 quality starts, 5.92 ERA, 1.59 WHIP in his final 10 appearances (postseason -- even the Game 2 performance -- included), during which time his average fastball velocity was significantly down.

During that time, Bumgarner's fastball location was off, and he leaned more on his slider, which is troubling from an injury-candidate angle. I'm not saying I think Bumgarner is a lock to break down -- he is my No. 11 starting pitcher, after all -- but any further velocity/command issues would increase my concern.

Alexi Ogando, RP, Texas Rangers

He's a "RP" initially, but the Rangers will audition Ogando for one of two rotation openings this spring, which is the right move. Let's talk skills: He is a fly ball pitcher (43.8 percent career rate) with a blazing fastball (95.0 mph average velocity in a starting role), biting slider and a passable changeup, a repertoire that seems silly relegated to short spurts, where the occasional homer would be perceived much more of a knock on his skills. He has 17 quality starts in 29 career games in a rotation role, with a 3.49 ERA and 1.12. Earning the No. 4 spot should earn him equal draft stock to his final 2011 stats: He was the No. 37 starter on our Player Rater.

Los Angeles Angels batting order

Specifically, this refers to the No. 2 hole between Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, vacated when Torii Hunter signed with the Detroit Tigers. Yes, lineup construction is largely overrated and this merely hints at a small boost to a player's plate appearance and runs scored total, but batting second would be a lot bigger boost to Erick Aybar, Alberto Callaspo or Howard Kendrick's fantasy value than, say, sixth, seventh, eighth or ninth. Consider this: Hunter averaged 4.48 plate appearance and 0.67 runs per game as the No. 2 hitter last season, but 4.20 and 0.56 overall in his five-year stint with the Angels. Aybar or Kendrick would become more attractive -- perhaps making borderline runs at top-10 status at their positions -- with the extra PAs and runs, while Callaspo could be a beneath-the-radar AL-only pick if he nabs the spot.

Bruce Rondon, RP, Detroit Tigers

The Tigers maintain that they're serious about their closer role being Rondon's to lose this spring, and based upon his lofty save and strikeout totals in the minors (29 saves, 11.21 K's per nine in 2012 alone), his progress is perhaps the most important to track of any "current closer." Most of the buzz surrounding him came from promising reports during his stint in the Venezuelan Winter League. Still, it's worth pointing out that he had a 4.41 ERA and 1.35 WHIP in his 18 appearances there, with his 19:6 K:BB performance being the one worth stressing. Rondon can touch 100 mph with his fastball, and there's any range of possibilities from near-Craig Kimbrel's-rookie-year to near-Carlos Marmol's-2012, and both of those assume he indeed keeps the job into the year. In his defense, he should: Openly labeled fallback option Phil Coke's lefty/righty splits suggest he should be more specialist than closer.

Jason Kipnis, 2B, Cleveland Indians

He's the first of two "adjustment period" youngsters on the list, with that label applied because the final stages of his 2012 appeared exactly that: An adjustment period. During the second half of the year, he was increasingly busted up in the zone with fastballs, and his ground ball rate overall swelled to 52.3 percent. The Kipnis between All-Star breaks -- July 2011 to July 2012 -- was a .275-hitting, 18-homer, 25-steal player in 119 games played. That's the ceiling you're shooting for, and you'll pay a top-10-among-second-basemen draft pick to nab it. But it'd sure be nice to see him hitting at closer to those levels in March.

Brett Lawrie, 3B, Toronto Blue Jays

Lawrie is the other youngster who finished 2012 in the midst of an adjustment period, and for which it'd be nice to see a glimmer of spring stardom. Like Kipnis, Lawrie's ground ball rate was disturbingly high last season, 51.0 percent for the full year, and his season broken down by halves showed struggles against pitches high in the zone -- previously a strength of his -- in the first half. Then in the second half, he showed improvement there but regression in pitches low in the zone. Lawrie has the makings of a 20-homer/20-steal candidate much in the David Wright mold, but he has work to do.

Melky Cabrera, OF, Blue Jays

It's the question everyone seems to have this spring: How much of Cabrera's 2011-12 explosion was the product of PEDs, and how much was the result of an improving skill set as he moved into the prime years of his career? Without any on-field evidence -- Cabrera hasn't played a game of relevance since last Aug. 14 -- I am forced to assume it's mostly the latter, but as someone who might have seen every one of his 453 games played (postseason included) from 2007-09 and wasn't overwhelmed by his raw ability back then, I admit I have some doubts. Cabrera's spring stat line might be one of the very few this spring that has relevance across the board; a solid March could erase almost every question.

Others I'm watching

Ivan Nova, SP, New York Yankees: His breaking stuff is outstanding, but his fastball is a mess, so improvement in the latter regard would not only earn him a rotation spot, it'd ease his prospective fantasy owners' minds.

Vance Worley, SP, Minnesota Twins: I think you must assume that his poor performance after July 1 last year was directly related to the elbow trouble he pitched through, then had repaired with surgery, but … March might tell us more.

Danny Espinosa, 2B/SS, Washington Nationals: He's playing through a rotator cuff (nonthrowing shoulder) injury, and he's already risky enough in terms of batting average that monitoring his health is imperative.

Colby Rasmus, OF, Blue Jays: He's 26 years old and has time to improve, but Rasmus' second half was awful, and he completely erased any memory of an encouraging 2012 first half.

Mike Napoli, C/1B, Boston Red Sox: I'm not as confident in his health as my colleagues are, ranking him significantly lower in my personal than our group ranks, but Napoli could convince me otherwise during camp.

Atlanta Braves batting order: Andrelton Simmons appears the de facto leadoff hitter, but whether his bat is advanced enough at this stage of his career is the question tied to the extent of his breakout potential.

Jurickson Profar, 2B, Texas Rangers: I'd say his glove is major league-ready and his bat is maybe a half-year off, but a strong spring could easily convince me otherwise and lead to him being one of 2013's top fantasy rookies.

Wil Myers, OF, Tampa Bay Rays: His bat is ready, but the Rays like to keep those free agency clocks in check. Myers is going to need an eye-popping spring to make the team, though he does have the skills to do it.