Cactus League Performance Hardly Matters - Unless It Does

While major league players are in the middle of Cactus League play, spring training performances and stats always need to be taken in perspective.

If there is a worst part about Spring Training – besides me not getting to go this year – it is the tendency of fans to overreact to every spring development. The performance of established big leaguers in warm-up games should never be a cause for serious worry. You've got to be willing to trust the established performance that you've seen repeated time and time again in games that matter over the small sample size from languid March affairs that serve largely as a prelude to an evening on the golf course. Those who know a big league job awaits have three objectives in every spring game:

 

  1. Shake off the rust.

  2. Don't get hurt.

  3. Work on any significant mechanical adjustments that need work.

 

Those might be in order, although you're free to debate about the placement of the first two. Still, any time an established ace gives up a handful of runs in a start, I tend to skip the hand-wringing. Same goes for any March struggles from guys who are written in pen in the heart of their team's order, but, anecdotally at least, those seem to happen less often and be less publicized.

 

I still remember the spring training opener for the Rockies in 2007, when they faced the White Sox and absolutely torched Mark Buehrle for nearly a dozen runs in the first two innings. Buehrle ended up having an ERA nearly a run and a half better than he'd posted the season before, while showing improvement on his hit, walk, and strikeout rates. Anybody who freaked out about Mark Buehrle in March 2007 was wasting their time. So if you're looking for somebody to sound alarm bells based on Spring Training performance when it comes to big league regulars, you're reading the wrong columnist.

 

But established veterans aren't the only guys taking the field in the spring, of course. The subset of 'guys who have something to prove' encompasses hangers-on of the has-been and the maybe-never-will-be variety, rookies trying to earn a shot to stick in the Show, and young players trying to take the next step. And for those players, their work during Spring Training is of the utmost importance. Those are truly the players to watch - the ones for whom a strong spring can be the difference between room service omelettes and the continental breakfast options at all the finest Hampton Inns throughout the Pacific Coast League.

 

By design, the Rockies don't have a lot of those players in camp this year. There's almost no drama about the 25-man roster's composition, even with Aaron Cook's injury, though that's more a case of some of those aforementioned hangers-on pitching their way out of the competition to fill in for Cookie for a month or so. There's really only one bench job open, as the backup catcher spot has seemed fated to fall to Jose Morales since he was acquired and Jason Giambi looks set to give a Matt Stairs-style existence a whirl. Even the bullpen seemed stable entering the Cactus League season, with the spots available – basically, just 'swingman' – not really moving the needle. While the Rockies have had a successful spring, you can't really call it compelling.

 

Still, there are a handful of players with something on the line whose Spring Training performances have borne watching as a result. Jonathan Herrera, for one. Even though he was a favorite to seize that final bench job based upon his slap-tastic 2010 cameo, Herrera's still got a lot to prove to the skeptics who see his career minor league numbers as more predictive of his future value than his 76-game big league stint. Still, there was no denying that Herrera's all-fields, contact-oriented approach made him a tough out and made him stand out amongst the hack-happy 2010 Rockies lineup. Herrera's .364 average this spring make it worth finding out if he's really consolidated some gains as an offensive player – though he'll always lean on some luck in the BABIP department, he's got good enough bat control to be capable of a couple seasons that resemble a poor-man's Jamey Carroll off the bench, and his glove is legitimately strong as well.

 

On the more negative side of the ledger, there's southpaw reliever Matt Reynolds, who seemed to have sewn up a roster spot based upon a strong final two months of the 2010 season in Denver. But the big lefty has been tattooed this spring to the tune of six runs on eleven hits in six innings of work, including three home runs. Reynolds was never particularly homer-prone in the bushes, which makes his misadventures this March all the more concerning. The Rockies collection of lefties in the 2011 pen already includes The Franklin Morales Experience, and all the heart palpitations that come with it, so the Rockies need a steady left hand, and if Reynolds can't be it, then there's bound to be some discomfort in the late innings.

 

Help is on the way, it would seem, in the ascension of young Rex Brothers, a supplemental first round pick in 2009 who has looked dynamite this spring, whiffing eight in six scoreless frames. Along with Jordan Pacheco, who looks like he's got a big-league caliber bat, Brothers has been the biggest eye-raiser of the spring for the Rox. Billy Wagner is the easy comparison for Brothers, who's only six feet tall but has a big fastball and wipeout slider. He has used that arsenal to whiff 98 batters in 81 minor league innings, all in relief, and many have him pegged for a greater lot in bullpen life than the essential LOOGY role. The Rockies seem to have faith in him as well, working him in the eighth inning of a tied game on Sunday. Brothers is ticketed for the minors to begin 2011, but don't look for him to be there long. In fact, I wouldn't be shocked if he were pitching big innings for the big club as soon as June if Reynolds' spring numbers are a harbinger rather than a hiccup.

 

That's the second worst part of spring training, come to think of it – there's just no real way of knowing how those Cactus League performances are going to carry over when the grass gets greener, the crowd gets bigger, and the stakes get higher. Is it Opening Day yet?

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