Teams take a leisurely approach to spring training. It’s kind of like being on a class trip in grade school – technically you’re in school, but you really don’t feel like you’re in school. Established veterans get their work in. Managers are mellow.
But for players locked in battles to make the roster, it’s an entirely different atmosphere — both for them and the fans rooting for them. With limited playing time to go around, every inning pitched, every at bat taken, every defensive chance presented is a heightened opportunity to prove their worth. It is, in many ways, a bizarre Darwinian experiment.
That experiment is set to unfold once again. Will it be Tyler Wade or Thairo Estrada laying claim to the utility infield position? Clint Frazier or Mike Ford seizing the 26th roster spot? Jordan Montgomery or Jonathan Loaisiga (or Luis Cessa or Mike King or Deivi Garcia) grabbing a rotation slot?
Perhaps it’d be constructive (or at least fun) to look back on some of the most pivotal spring battles of recent vintage and see just what lessons we can glean from them.
Aaron Judge vs. Aaron Hicks, 2017
This is mind-boggling to think of, but heading into the spring of 2017, Aaron Judge was no lock to make the major league team. He’d debuted the previous summer, but after dramatically homering in his first major-league at-bat, he hit a meager .179 while striking out an amazing 44 percent of the time.
Aaron Hicks was coming off a 2016 campaign, his first year with the team, in which he struggled with the part-time role he was assigned. But the organization liked his tools, believed he could turn into an effective switch hitter and loved his defense (especially his arm).
The conventional wisdom said that if Judge didn’t seize the starting right field job, he’d have started the year back at Triple-A Scranton. They both played well (as of March 29, Judge had hit .327 with three home runs in 55 at-bats; Hicks hit .275 with three home runs in 51 at-bats). Judge edged a disappointed Hicks out and, of course, went on to have a historic Rookie of the Year campaign, just missing out on AL MVP (or winning it, depending on who you ask) and became one of the faces of baseball. It’s crazy to consider how the year might’ve played out if he’d hit just a bit worse and Hicks just a bit better. Crazy!
What’s the lesson? These competitions can be decided on a razor’s edge, but you just have to hope that greatness will win out.
Rotation Royal Rumble, 2017
In what is becoming far too eerily familiar, the Yankees entered spring training 2017 with just three rotation spots locked up – Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda. The contenders for the final two included Luis Severino (coming off a disappointing 2016 and not a certainty), Luis Cessa, Chad Green, Bryan Mitchell, Dietrich Enns, Jordan Montgomery and Chance Adams.
In retrospect, of course, Severino towered above the competition, and had no real issue locking down the fourth slot. But it was Montgomery, a non-roster invitee, who really opened eyes in the spring, winning the final spot and going on to make 29 starts and earning Rookie of the Year votes with a 3.88 ERA (4.07 FIP) and 1.230 WHIP across 155.1 innings.
The lesson here? Sometimes the expected happens (Sevy) and sometimes the unexpected (Montgomery). You can have fun with both!
Gleyber Torres vs. Neil Walker, 2018
This is one that, at the time, sent me into a white-hot rage. Torres was the Yankees’ 21-year-old top prospect and it seemed inevitable that he would cement himself as the everyday second baseman, and a future star in the league, in 2018. But he was coming off Tommy John surgery from the previous June after injuring himself in a slide into home plate and hadn’t hit well (just .160 in 25 at-bats) through mid-March.
Combine that with the late signing of veteran Neil Walker – Neil Walker! – and Torres’ fate was sealed, at least temporarily. Not one to sulk, Torres played well at Scranton and by April 22 — long enough to conveniently delay his service time by a year — he was back with the big club and had taken back from Neil Walker that which was rightfully his.
And the lesson here? Sometimes greatness doesn’t win out, at least not immediately. But no need to fly off the handle. It’ll happen eventually. So just remember that as the spring schedule begins, everything will be fine. Probably.