Spring training: that time of year when a bunch of players that only the most dedicated fans have heard of fill the field, as the team’s regular starters get themselves into gear for the season. While many of these players will go through the spring largely invisible, not infrequently, one of them goes on a hot streak and dominates, thrusting themselves into the public eye. For some, this small stretch is their sole time in the Sun, and they soon fade back into obscurity; for others, however, it is a sign of things to come.
With this in mind, let’s take a look at some of the spring training standouts from the last five years and see where they are now.
Johnny Barbato, 2016
Acquired by the Yankees after the 2014 season in exchange for Shawn Kelley, Johnny Barbato made the Yankees’ Opening Day roster in 2016 following a spring training in which he posted a 1.64 ERA in 11 innings. With a fastball-slider combination that appeared above average, the youngster looked like he could become a pivotal piece in the Yankees’ long-term bullpen plans. Unfortunately for him, his performance fell off a cliff, as he posted a 7.62 ERA in 13 appearances before being demoted to Scranton at the beginning of that May.
Over three major league seasons, Barbato posted a 6.14 ERA in 48 innings. After spending 2019 in Japan, he signed with the Somerset Patriots this past January.
Billy McKinney, 2017
As a former first-round pick, it wasn’t completely surprising when Billy McKinney put up big numbers during spring training in 2017, blasting three home runs en route to a 1.380 OPS in 29 plate appearances. Until that point, however, he had only ever reached Double-A Trenton, and had appeared to be losing bat speed.
He carried his spring success into the 2017 season, posting an .821 OPS between Trenton and Scranton. McKinney made his major league debut the following season before being traded to the Toronto Blue Jays, with whom he remains. In 84 games last year, he hit 12 home runs and posted an 83 OPS+, but may be pushed out of a crowded Blue Jays outfield.
Gio Urshela, 2019
Following an early-season injury to Miguel Andujar last season, the Yankees were forced to promote Gio Urshela, a non-roster invitee during spring training, to the active roster, in order to have a third baseman on the active roster. Seemingly out of nowhere, however, Urshela did more than keep the position warm: in 132 games, he posted a .314/.355/.534 slashline, including 21 home runs. Perhaps, we should have seem it coming more than we did.
Last spring, Urshela dominated the Grapefruit League in his limited playing time. In 29 plate appearances, he hit two home runs and batted .321, good for a 1.023 OPS. All the while, his Opposition Quality — a metric used by Baseball Reference to provide some context for a player’s spring training performance — was a 7.9, higher than every member of the Yankees’ projected 2019 starting lineup except Troy Tulowitzki, DJ LeMahieu, and Brett Gardner.
Kirby Yates, 2016
Acquired for cash considerations from the Cleveland Indians before the 2016 season, Kirby Yates looked to be a journeyman at the beginning of his career. In two seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays, he had posted a 5.27 ERA in 56.1 innings, and had been a “phantom” player for Cleveland, existing on their roster only during the 2015-2016 offseason.
Yates, however, looked like the future All-Star closer that he would become with the San Diego Padres during spring training in 2016, giving up no runs in eight innings of work, walking only one batter, giving up two hits, and striking out 11. He would make the Opening Day roster due to this performance, although his regular-season performance (5.23 ERA in 41 innings) left much to be desired.
Even so, it does make you wonder what would have happened if he had been able to tap into that potential for more than just spring training in pinstripes.