Commentary

Spring training 'watch' list

Updated: March 16, 2012, 12:36 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Spring training matters.

Yet, at the same time, spring training matters not.

It's all a matter of perspective, and the most incisive way to express such polar ideas is that exhibition statistics as a whole are meaningless, but select news and numbers can affect your draft preparation. And this generally pertains to players who entered spring camps faced with a specific question, or whose value was in flux.

Simply put, certain players bear more careful watching in the month of March, and these names annually go on what I like to call my annual spring "watch list."

This does not mean players I like to watch or players who are fun to watch. This is who is most important to watch. Watch Albert Pujols crush as many home runs as you wish this spring; barring unexpected injury, nothing he does this entire month is going to change my No. 3 overall ranking of him. He therefore is not on this list, nor is anyone else whose value is as predictable as Pujols'.

Here's the "watch list" I've been tracking to this point of spring training, the players listed in no particular order:

Jason Heyward, OF, Atlanta Braves

Heyward
Heyward

Shoulder problems effectively ruined his sophomore season in 2011, spawning .234/.321/.379 triple-slash rates after his return from the disabled list in June, and contributing to what was a ninth-in-the-majors (1,000-plus plate appearances) 54.6 percent ground ball rate during his first two big-league campaigns. Health, therefore, plus progress with his swing following winter work with hitting coach Greg Walker, was imperative from Heyward this preseason.

Progress so far: Heyward's stats don't stand out, and in fact seem somewhat damning, but from what I've seen of him -- most recently this past Wednesday's game, in which he homered against Stephen Strasburg -- his plate approach at least seems improved upon 2011. He'll probably be an all-or-nothing player in 2012 -- back to the future MVP talent predicted at the time of his 2010 debut, or a carbon copy of 2011 -- and I want to believe he'll be the former. I'm drafting him that way, albeit cautiously, wanting to first see more.

Adam Wainwright, SP, St. Louis Cardinals

Wainwright
Wainwright

They say Tommy John surgery sometimes makes a pitcher better, yes, but occasionally you get a Francisco Liriano or Edinson Volquez, pitchers who took longer to -- and in either care arguably still haven't -- recapture their pre-surgery form. Wainwright is on my "busts" list for the same reason he's on the watch list; I need to see that both his command and his breaking pitches are where they were in 2010, because he's a pitcher built around, well, command and his breaking pitches. I'll state that eventually I expect Wainwright to regain his touch in both departments. But how are we to assume that's going to happen by April, rather than, say, by June, or August, or (gasp) 2013?

Progress so far: I've watched two Wainwright games so far and his fastball looks identical to the one he threw in 2010. As for his breaking pitches? I counted fewer than five curveballs during this past Tuesday's start versus the New York Mets, and he struggled with his command on everything offspeed. In other words, all of the questions I had about Wainwright when camps opened remain, and while we might get answers in the upcoming weeks, I'm sticking by my ranking of the right-hander: That's 40th among starting pitchers, 13 beneath our consensus ranking.

Tommy Hanson, SP, Atlanta Braves

Hanson
Hanson

Shoulder tendinitis ended Hanson's 2011 prematurely, he had a 5.59 ERA in eight between-DL-stint starts during which time his fastball averaged 90.8 mph, down from 92.2 before his first stint, and then he suffered a concussion early in camp that delayed his debut by a few days. In short, Hanson hasn't had the best luck in the health department lately, and word that he's experimenting with a new delivery to ease the strain on his shoulder is ominous.

Progress so far: I haven't seen him yet, but he has also pitched just once, a rain-shortened postponement this past Sunday. Without any evidence that the Hanson of old is back, he's as high-risk as they come.

Jesus Montero, DH, Seattle Mariners

Montero
Montero

The question isn't necessarily his bat, it's his glove, and it's important to track both how the Mariners are using him behind the plate as well as his performance while catching. Here's why it's a big deal: Montero, our No. 188 player overall (my No. 135), has a projected stat line in range of No. 4 catcher Matt Wieters, and certainly better than that of No. 5 Alex Avila. We're talking about a potential top-100 player overall, should he earn catcher eligibility quickly (he needs 10 games).

Progress so far: The Mariners are splitting Montero's time between catcher and DH, and his catching work hasn't been overwhelming, at least not in the games I've seen. It's an experiment worth pursuing further for the team, but we're not at the point yet where 10 catching games is an absolute guarantee.

Zach Britton, SP, Baltimore Orioles

Britton
Britton

It's remarkable how quickly we can forget a pitcher's 3.18 ERA, 1.23 WHIP and 69.2 percent quality start rate before the All-Star break, should he struggle to the extent that Britton did thereafter. Britton couldn't keep his sinker down -- he threw 71 percent in the bottom third during the first half, 51 percent during the second half -- and he needs to show that he has regained his feel, and that his issues were more a result of the Orioles capping his innings than anything.

Progress so far: None, unfortunately. Britton came down with shoulder inflammation early in spring training and hasn't appeared in a game yet. He was scheduled for a minor league game on Thursday, and perhaps his spring debut on Monday. But even the slightest setback would eliminate him from the AL-only radar.

Brian Matusz, SP, Baltimore Orioles

Matusz
Matusz

Another Oriole? Really? Here's another case of "how quick we forget," in Matusz's case that he was advertised the future staff ace just one short year ago. Forgetting is somewhat understandable in his case; he set an all-time, single-season record for worst ERA (10.69) among pitchers with at least 10 starts. Diminished velocity pointed to him potentially having pitched while injured, but even if he wasn't, he has worlds to prove in camp before restoring his fantasy stock.

Progress so far: Some, and surprisingly. Matusz has had back-to-back solid outings, most recently a four-shutout-inning Thursday versus the Detroit Tigers' "A" lineup, during which he struck out six hitters, walked none and ranged 92-93 mph with his fastball. Two encouraging outings doesn't completely cure what was a season of ills, but it's restoring Matusz's stock as an AL-only bargain candidate. My opinion is slowly rising.

Justin Morneau, 1B, Minnesota Twins

Morneau
Morneau

Concussions have derailed what was once a promising career for the former American League MVP, and early during spring training Morneau was even hinting at retirement. Even when he was healthy last season he struggled at the plate, his triple-slash numbers (.227/.285/.333) and his 6.6 percent walk rate representing career worsts. In short, Morneau has plenty to prove this spring, needing to open eyes to have any hope of being draft-worthy at all.

Progress so far: Morneau is one player for whom the statistics speak volumes, as he's 3-for-22 (.136 AVG) with five strikeouts and zero extra-base hits so far during the exhibition season. Those at-bats I've seen of his -- including Wednesday's game versus the Philadelphia Phillies -- have been ugly, generally weak contact, pop-ups and grounders. It's a shame to say he looks done, but without a sign of hope soon, that might be the truth.

Johan Santana, SP, New York Mets

Santana
Morneau

He missed the entire 2011 season recovering from surgery to repair a torn anterior capsule in his shoulder, and as the two most notable names to have had the operation in the past were Mark Prior and Chien-Ming Wang, neither of whom was ever the same afterward, Santana's performance this spring is critical in determining whether he has anything left to offer. Even before the surgery, Santana's strikeout rate had dropped in each of his first three seasons with the Mets, his 6.51 K's-per-nine ratio and 43.3 percent fly ball rate of 2010 a somewhat distressing combination. He needed a standout spring in a serious way, what with the Mets unlikely to support him substantially in the win column.

Progress so far: I haven't seen either of Santana's two Grapefruit League starts to date, but so far he has allowed only an unearned run in 4 2/3 innings in them. Reports have him throwing 87 mph, not far off his pre-surgery velocity, but he might not be up to a starter's regular workload by Opening Day. It's too early to consider him anything more than a late-rounder or NL-only option.

Other players I'm watching: Yu Darvish, SP, Texas Rangers; Jhoulys Chacin, SP, Colorado Rockies; Neftali Feliz, SP, Texas Rangers; Pedro Alvarez, 3B, Pittsburgh Pirates; Yoenis Cespedes, OF, Oakland Athletics; Phil Hughes, SP, New York Yankees; Julio Teheran, SP, Atlanta Braves; Devin Mesoraco, C, Cincinnati Reds.