Lorenzo Cain's bat has been on fire to start Spring Training. (Yahoo Sports)

Surprising Springtime

Now that we’ve had the honor of actually watching some of the highly-esteemed prospects play a game this spring, it’s time to start making observations.

There are a lot of things to keep up with. There have been so many pitchers taking the mound in the first few games that it’s hard to keep track of everything. But there’s a few things I wanted to discuss, broken down into defense, pitching, and offense.

Alcides Escobar is not Yuniesky Betancourt. (John Sleezer/KC Star)

Defensive Notes:
The first thing I noticed in the game yesterday was that ground balls to the left side were actually staying in the infield. Melky Cabrera wasn’t fielding every other hit. The reason is what you might suspect: Alcides Escobar is not Yuniesky Betancourt.

My favorite part of this offseason has been upgrading the defense. I couldn’t stand watching Betancourt do his best Derek Zoolander impression out there, so seeing Escobar’s great defensive plays yesterday was the most refreshing part of Royals baseball I’ve seen in a while.

Now, I’m not huge on defensive statistics just yet. When they get the next round of ballpark F/X systems up and going to track ball path, etc., I’ll get more into it. Nonetheless, here are some numbers to just give you an idea of how much better Escobar is, with the glossary of terms here. Basically, positive numbers are above replacement and negative are below.

RngR (range):
Betancourt: -39.4, or -6.57 per season
Escobar: 6.0, or 3.0 per season (5.4 in 2010)

ErrR (error impact):
Betancourt: -5.1, or -0.85 per season
Escobar: -4.0, or -2.0 per season

UZR (total defense):
Betancourt: -41.9, or -6.98 per season
Escobar: 2.4, or 1.2 per season (3.8 in 2010)

I acknowledged that these numbers aren’t perfect and shouldn’t be solely used for analysis of defense, but the difference is just too huge to ignore. Granted, the ErrR value isn’t what you’d want, but I will be interested to see what happens as Escobar gets more than two years of data. His other numbers shot up in his second year to a level that you would expect, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him continue to improve.

At any rate, Escobar has surely impressed me so far. He’s got some great range and was deep, deep in the gap, almost behind the third baseman, on a few plays yesterday. It could make a huge difference and save runs on grounders that would bring in a run from second when Betancourt was letting them into the outfield. I can’t wait to see how this plays out throughout the season.

Random other notes about defense include Lorenzo Cain, Jeff Bianchi (this was great), and Chris Getz, all of whom have flashed the leather in some way. Mike Moustakas played a few grounders well and didn’t show any real flaws. I really didn’t see many glaring issues when I watched, so it could be a much more bearable team to follow, defense-wise, than past years.

Pitching Notes:
Like I said above, there are just so many guys that have seen time so far that it’s hard to single out particular ones, especially with so little time to throw so far. Nonetheless, here are some ones that have impressed me, either yesterday or in general:

John Lamb impressed against the Dodgers on Wednesday. (John Sleezer/KC Star)

John Lamb: Lamb looked solid yesterday as he struck out three around a grounder double just inside the third base line. He seemed to locate well, though there’s no Pitch F/X at Camelback Ranch, and two of the strikeouts were looking as Lamb’s strike three froze them solid. I was definitely impressed.

Sean O’Sullivan: O’Sullivan also pitched yesterday and allowed one hit over two innings, striking out one. Considering he might not even make the roster, that was a great showing. Supposedly, he lost 20 pounds in the offseason, but it’s hard to tell. It’ll be interesting to watch what he does the rest of the spring, though.

Kyle Davies: Davies threw two innings of three-strikeout, one-hit excellence and seemed to continue his trend of continuing his solid Septembers into Spring Training. His location was solid and he induced three ground balls to one fly ball. That’s what you want to see from a guy to start the year.

Tim Collins: He may have given up a hit, but Collins also struck out two and showed that great hidden-ball trick that I love about his pitching motion. I want this guy in the Kansas City bullpen.

Greg Holland: I really liked what Holland was throwing yesterday, as he struck out two with a walk over an inning. He was going right after hitters and made me expect to see him as a part of the Opening Day bullpen. Again, lots of time left, but color me impressed by early returns.

I also liked how Jeff Francis was throwing yesterday until he left one up for the three-run homer. I think he could fit the defense fairly well, as he had a groundball/flyball ratio of 4.0, and it was nice to see no walks. This could be good.

Some of the other guys, like Everett Teaford, Chris Dwyer, and Blake Wood worried me a bit with their propensity for both walks and hits, but I’ll let them get more outings (and experience for Dwyer) before I count them out.

Like I say, there’s a ton that can be discussed here. After the next couple games are broadcast on MLB.tv, I might have more to bring up.

Offensive Notes:
These have looked just like Spring Training games always do at the outset: lots of scoring. The Royals have scored 30 runs in four games, including two 11-run games. That’s the way it goes, but there’s still a lot of offense for this team.

The most obvious part of that has been the aggressive baserunning that Ned Yost is employing at this point. It may not sound like much, but the Royals have attempted 11 steals so far. For a team that hasn’t been flying around the bases as much in recent years, that’s a considerable difference. Add in that eight of those were successful (one by Greased Lightning incarnate, Billy Butler) and you get a team that could cause havoc this season with their potential speed.*

*An aside: never have Jeff Francoeur steal. Ever. If you didn’t see it, he took off too early yesterday and was caught in a pickle, when he subsequently basically curled up into the fetal position. It was both hilarious and depressing.

As far as offensive potential goes, though, both Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer have made the biggest impressions on me. I can’t believe how much more I like Hosmer than I do Moustakas (though Moustakas will still be good). He somehow reaches everything around the plate and gets good contact on anything he wants to hit. Still, it’s Spring Training, but I am thrilled to see this guy reach the majors.

As for Cain, I’ll be disappointed when he’s likely starting in Omaha to start the season, but that’s a better outcome than him sitting on the bench in Kansas City.* Anyway, he’s had a great spring so far both offensively and defensively, and should be in Kansas City by mid-season, when Melky Cabrera will hopefully be either traded or flat out demoted/released. Given Cain’s production lately, he could be a lot of fun to watch roaming Kauffman’s spacious outfield.

*Plus, I’ll get to see him again when Omaha plays in Nashville. So, I’m not that sad about it.

Mike Aviles‘s bat has looked just as hot to start Spring Training as he did ending the 2010 season. He’s getting on the ball well and hitting with authority.

Escobar hasn’t been nearly as bad as I feared, though that could always be a factor of starting Spring Training. He has a quick bat and can slap the ball all over, though there is potential for moderate power. It’ll be interesting to see what Kevin Seitzer does with him this year. That’s one of the more intriguing things I’m anticipating in 2011.

Other than that, there’s the usual random notes. Kila Ka’aihue is a beast, even with a low average so far. Moustakas has issues with lefties. Francoeur is Francoeur, though he did take a four-pitch walk. Mitch Maier is doing his thing, but he’ll need to keep it up to anchor a fourth-outfielder role. He gets the start today in the three-hole, so look forward to that box score (and live on MLB.tv). Alex Gordon has taken four walks in eight plate appearances, but doesn’t have a hit yet. Johnny Giavotella is a dark horse to be a utility infielder candidate, though we should reserve judgement until Wilson Betemit gets his swings in. Last, but not least, the offensive potential from the catchers looks…well, a bit scary so far. In 17 plate appearances by the fearsome foursome, they’ve had one hit (by Luke May) and one walk (by Salvador Perez). That’s it. Let’s hope they’re just cold from the start of the year. They have only struck out twice (Brayan Pena once and Manny Pina once), so there’s that.

Anyway, the offense has been fun to watch so far. The young guys are getting a lot of at bats and the ones that you want to succeed are doing so. There’s a long time to go until Opening Day, but the positional battles are far from over. I might update after watching the next couple games on MLB.tv, so look for that sometime in the next few days.

So, here’s where I want to leave this. It’s Spring Training. Pitchers are working on pitches. Hitters are perfecting their swings. Everything is fluid and anything can happen. Take every game with a grain of salt at this point. Check back in a week and we’ll likely know much more than we do now.

With that in mind, are these young guys great or what?

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