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2015 MLB Spring Training: 5 Players Making Headlines for Right Reasons

We all know spring training stats don’t matter. You can hit .950 in the Cactus League and still hit .150 in the Major Leagues. 

But some spring performances are hard to ignore. That’s especially true when a young player trying to prove himself shines or when a guy looking to bounce back from injury suddenly looks like his old self again.

What follows is a look at five players doing the best they can to convince us that how you play in March kind of, sort of matters.

Two are up-and-comers, one is a stud pitcher bouncing back from surgery, one is a hitter hoping to revive his career, and one is…well, let’s just say one is in a category all his own.

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Why New York Mets’ Bullpen Could Make or Break Squad’s 2015 Season

Remember the last time the New York Mets were contenders? It was 2008, and just about everything was clicking. Everything, that is, except the bullpen.

The Mets blew a total of 29 saves that season. Their bullpen finished with a 4.27 ERA. They lost six of their final nine games, getting knocked out of the playoff race by the Florida Marlins on the last day of the season for a second straight year. 

If every game had ended after eight innings, then-Philadelphia Inquirer writer Andy Martino pointed out, the Mets would have won the National League East by 12 games.

But that was then. If the Mets again find themselves in a playoff race in September 2015, their bullpen could very well provide the boost they need, instead of ripping their hopes apart at the seams. 

Mets fans will be quick to note that, in ’08, closer Billy Wagner was injured for the final two months of the season. But that’s exactly the point: Their ‘pen was so mediocre, so fragile to begin with, that it couldn’t possibly withstand that type of loss.

Now, the Mets enter spring training with not only an adequate bullpen, but one that has the potential to be great—and deep.  

“We’ve got a back end of our bullpen that has four guys that could be closers on any team,” manager Terry Collins said at the Winter Meetings, per Adam Rubin of The four Collins was presumably referring to: Jenrry Mejia, Jeurys Familia, Vic Black and Bobby Parnell.

Over the past several seasons, general manager Sandy Alderson has typically brought in veteran, past-their-prime relievers in an attempt to fill gaping bullpen holes. Names like Jose Valverde, Kyle Farnsworth, Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch jump to mind. 

This offseason, Alderson didn’t feel the need. The Mets’ young arms have come into their own, finishing 2014 with a 3.14 bullpen ERA that ranked eighth in Major League Baseball. 

Mejia took over the closer’s role when Parnell needed Tommy John surgery, and he recorded 28 saves with a 3.65 ERA in 63 appearances. His curveball and slider were nasty, and he transitioned nicely from a starter to a reliever, with swagger:

With Parnell due to return in May, it remains to be seen whether Mejia will keep the closing duties when he comes back or cede them to the more experienced righty. Relative to past years, this is a wonderful problem for the Mets to have. 

Familia, who’s likely to handle the eighth inning, had a 2.21 ERA in 77 1/3 innings last year and finished seventh in NL Rookie of the Year Voting. He averages over 96 mph on his fastball, according to FanGraphs.

Black was demoted in spring training in 2014 before being called up and posting a 2.60 ERA, fanning just under a batter per inning.

Mejia, Familia, Black and Parnell: four flame-throwing righties, three of whom are 25 or 26 years old and one of whom (Parnell) is 30. All four should be approaching or still in their prime.

Add to the equation right-hander Carlos Torres, who was reliable though overworked in 2014; lefty Josh Edgin, who’s established himself as a left-handed specialist but believes he can be more; Dillon Gee, the odd man out of the rotation who will likely begin the year in the ‘pen; and another southpaw, perhaps Sean Gilmartin from the Rule 5 draft, and the Mets could find themselves with a shutdown bullpen to piggyback a rotation full of rising stars.

But there’s a flip side.  

Bullpens are a fickle thing, and the four aforementioned flame-throwers haven’t exactly been putting up numbers in the big leagues over a sustained period. Last season was Mejia’s first with more than 39 innings pitched and marked his first experience closing. Familia was a rookie after cups of coffee in 2012 and 2013. Black, too, achieved rookie status in 2014. And Parnell has pitched just one inning in the last year and a half. 

Lukas Vlahos of Amazin‘ Avenue wrote last summer that the peripheral stats suggest Familia, Edgin and Black could all be due for some regression. Plus, Mejia and Familia each underwent offseason sports hernia surgery, while Black was shut down early last season with shoulder/neck issues. All three say they’re back at 100 percent, per Kristie Ackert of the Daily News

Surely, there are questions regarding the Mets’ lineup: Can David Wright bounce back from a down year? Is Lucas Duda the real deal? What will Curtis Granderson provide? But it’s fairly safe to assume the offense will be somewhere between subpar and average. The rotation, meanwhile, will fall somewhere between good and unstoppable, and the defense will be strong in the outfield and weak in the infield. 

The bullpen? It could fall just about anywhere on that spectrum.  

The 2015 season is make-or-break for Collins, Alderson and the Mets, and the bullpen—specifically, whether Mejia, Familia, Black and Edgin continue to improve—could ultimately be the deciding factor in whether the Amazin‘s are destined for a seventh straight losing campaign, or a shot at the postseason. 

“I think this is the year,” Familia told Matt Ehalt of The Bergen Record. “Like Mejia said, I think we have to believe. We have a pretty good rotation, got good guys that can hit the ball, and the bullpen is strong. I think we can be there.”

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Ranking the 10 Biggest Land Mines Left on MLB Free-Agency Landscape

The MLB free-agent market is running thin, which means you can count on teams to make a few desperation offers to fill out their rosters. While there are still valuable players to be had, there are also some guys who simply aren’t worth the risk.

In this list of the 10 biggest land mines left in free agency, the rankings are based on risk versus reward—in other words, which decisions have the greatest potential to blow up in a team’s face while also creating the largest explosion?

Reliever Brian Wilson, for example, is only at No. 7 because the Dodgers are paying his 2015 salary and he can be signed at the league minimum. Cuban infielder Yoan Moncada, on the other hand, is near the top of the list because of the huge investment required to sign him.

After reading these names, just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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MLB’s 10 Most Valuable Free Agents Still on the Market

The MLB free-agent market now consists of Max Scherzer, James Shields and everyone else. But beyond Scherzer and Shields, there are still a handful of valuable players to be had. And as the market gets thinner, those assets will only become increasingly valuable as teams try to fill their remaining roster voids.

What follows is a list of the 10 most valuable free agents still available, based not only on projected 2015 performance but also on the current market at a given position. Colby Rasmus, for example, just became more valuable on Friday after Nori Aoki signed with the Giants, according to John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle.  

Here’s a look at the 10 free agents who will be most highly coveted in the weeks leading up to spring training.

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Wilmer Flores Will Probably Be the Mets’ Opening Day Shortstop, and That’s Okay

Mets general manager Sandy Alderson reiterated on Wednesday that, in all likelihood, Wilmer Flores will be the team’s starting shortstop on Opening Day 2015.

“We’ve continued to have conversations, but nothing is likely to occur,” Alderson told Mike Puma of the New York Post.

With the Mets looking to compete for the first time since 2008, this sort of offseason stagnancy can understandably drive fans up a wall. In this case, however, the Mets faithful should feel okay—happy, even—about giving Flores a shot.

Yes, there’s a sense of deja vu after last year’s offseason, when Alderson said finding a shortstop would be a priority, didn’t sign one and made Ruben Tejada the 2014 shortstop by default.

But Tejada and Flores are very different cases—almost polar opposites, in fact, in terms of their respective skill sets. Tejada is a plus defensive shortstop with just 84 extra-base hits in 1,571 major league at-bats. Flores is a shaky defensive shortstop who’s proven he can hit at every stop of his professional career.

Is he Troy Tulowitzki? Of course not. The Rockies shortstop, when healthy, is a better ballplayer than Tejada and Flores combined.

Rumors of a potential trade between the Mets and Rockies have been swirling all winter, but Kristie Ackert of the New York Daily News reports that talks seem to have cooled because the Rockies’ asking price is too high.

The Mets’ concerns are valid: They’re reluctant to give up their top pitching prospect, Noah Syndergaard, and possibly another promising arm like Zack Wheeler or Jacob deGrom.

Tulowitzki has missed 213 games to injury over the past three seasons, and the $114 million remaining on his contract until 2020 (per Spotrac) would be a big investment for a team with an infamously tight budget.

For the right price, sure, trade for Tulo. But it’s not worth surrendering two pitchers with star potential, especially when you have Flores as your fallback.

Offensively, Flores has impressed scouts every step of the way. He cracked Baseball Prospectus’ top 101 prospects list at No. 71 last January, when the BP team had this to say (subscription required) about his bat:

Excellent hand-eye coordination; good bat speed; good bat control; able to manipulate barrel in the zone; hit tool is a 5; a few sources had it rated slightly higher; raw power is plus…aggressive hitter that can punish mistakes.  

Has the raw pop to hit 17-25 home runs at the highest level…has the potential to hit ~.270 because of contact ability.

In 162 games at Triple-A Las Vegas between 2013-14, Flores raked, hitting 28 home runs and driving in 143.

To be fair, Vegas is a hitter’s paradise, and Flores did struggle during his first MLB cup of tea in 2013. His May and June performance with the Mets in 2014 was not much better, but once he began playing every day, Flores hit his stride.

From July 29 through the end of the season, making almost every start at shortstop, Flores posted a slash line of .262/.301/.419 with five homers in 172 at-bats, despite a relatively low BABIP of .258. Over the final month, his OPS was .791. Best of all: The Venezuela native just turned 23 in August.

The bigger concern, of course, is his defense. In BP‘s top 101 last year, Flores was listed as a second baseman with this assessment: “Not a graceful athlete; 3 run; limited range on left-side of infield; glove actions are good, but footwork is clumsy; arm is average; best defensive profile is 1B.”

Flores played shortstop in the minors from 2008-11, but for the reasons stated above, he began splitting time between second, third and first in 2012-13. He played shortstop for the first time in three years in 2014.

And yet, as Carson Cistulli of FanGraphs pointed out in September, Flores was actually “not a disaster” in the field last season.

He certainly showed signs of that clumsy footwork and limited range, but as Mike Vorkunov of noted, he ranked 21st in defensive runs saved among 38 shortstops with 400-plus innings. In a small sample size, Flores held his own.

A double-play combo of Flores and Daniel Murphy is not exactly ideal, but the Mets, more than anything, need pop in their lineup.

Just like Murphy did at second, Flores could become a serviceable shortstop if he puts in the work.

Alderson has been known to say one thing publicly and then do the exact opposite, so he may still have another trick up his sleeve. But the shortstop market is running thin. The Yankees re-signed Stephen Drew to a one-year deal on Tuesday, and Hanley Ramirez, Jed Lowrie, Asdrubal Cabrera and Jung-ho Kang have all been snatched up.

Everth Cabrera is still a free agent, though he’s facing up to one year in jail for resisting arrest, and his career .248/.319/.333 slash line won’t make your mouth water.

The Mariners have two young shortstops in Brad Miller and Chris Taylor, and’s Adam Rubin has suggested Seattle could make a good trade partner for the Mets. Puma reported they are shopping right-hander Dillon Gee.

But Flores, more so than Cabrera, Miller or Taylor, poses an offensive threat. If his defense becomes too great a liability, Alderson could always look to swing a midseason deal with a team in need of pitching.

For now? Flores deserves a chance to blossom.


Stats courtesy of unless otherwise noted. 

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