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Off The Rankings: Top 10 Guys to Root for This Spring Training

Off the Rankings continues our look around the league that guarantees to prepare you for the upcoming major league season or your money back.  Today, we’ll be taking a look at guys you should root for as they compete to win a job at the major league level.  These are guys who haven’t taken the most direct route to the Majors; their career derailed either because injuries, personal reasons, or generally stuck in the minors.  Maybe these guys took awhile before committing to the sport, or maybe they’re just figuring life out.

Be sure to check out our other Off The Rankings posts as we’ll be providing great content all week and month leading up to Opening Day.  We’ll also be providing great content after Opening Day, so check us out then too.

10. Tyler White, 1B, Houston Astros

The Astros first base situation appears to be full of unproven guys who have crushed it at the minor league levels, but have yet to be given a real shot at the Major League level.  White is competing with Jon Singleton, and Matt Duffy, all of whom likely deserve a shot at the big league level, but won’t get it on an Astros team looking to breakthrough as AL West champs.  Tyler White is considered the big underdog here as he is not on the 40-man roster.  He’s more likely to start the season at AAA, but given his history of just raking, could see the big leagues soon. In 57 games in AAA, White posted a 178 wRC+ and a .362/.467/.559 batting line.  He makes the list simply because he’s a former 33rd round draft pick out of East Carolina State.  Guys selected that late do occasionally make it to the big leagues, but that doesn’t mean White’s isn’t a good story.  He’s worth rooting for, but then again so is Matt Duffy who appears slightly more likely to lock down that 1B job in Houston and was a 20th round selection in his own right.

9. David Buchanan, P, Philadelphia Phillies

Buchanan is just 26 and at first blush doesn’t feel like much of an underdog having posted a 3.75 ERA as a rookie in 2014, but like the most of these guys is aiming to push through adversary and find big league success. At the end of last April, Buchanan found himself in the minors after struggling to the tune of an 8.76 ERA in 5 starts for the Phillies.  Then after a call-up in July, Buchanan gave up 18 earned runs and recorded 17 outs across back-to-back starts.  He finished the year strong, but is again fighting for his place in the rotation after the Phils acquired more starting pitching this past winter.  Fighting through adversity is supposed to make you stronger.  Buchanan hopes so as he looks to get back in the majors.

8. Daniel Bard, P, Pittsburgh Pirates

Bard is a former all-world set-up man.  He ran a fastball up to triple digits and everything in life had led to what was a blossoming major league career. In 2010, he posted a 1.95 ERA and in 2011 his WHIP dipped below 1.  Then, he lost control.  He was eventually diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, where as Bard puts it, “The nerves in my hand weren’t telling my brain where my arm was. He’s been bouncing around since 2012.

In the Puerto Rican Winter League in 2013, he faced 13 batters across 3 games and walked 9, hit 3, and sprinkled in 4 wild pitches.  In 2014, he was in A-ball with the Texas Rangers and faced 18 batters across 4 games: 9 walks, 7 HBP, and a strikeout.  He didn’t even pitch in competition last year, despite being in Spring Training with the Cubs.

Now, Bard, 30, has another shot with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He apparently has a new, more mature, perspective and is ready to go.

7. Peter Moylan, P, Kansas City Royals

The jovial Australian made his big league comeback last year for a Braves team that really wasn’t very good.  He was a great story even before the latest round of injuries made last year’s Braves cameo noteworthy.  A failed minor league player who had spent two years in the Twins system in 1996 and 1997, Moylan caught on with his local club back in Australia where he played mostly first base.  Messing around in batting practice, he dropped his arm angle and picked up a few miles per hour. Moylan was rediscovered at the first World Baseball Classic, and signed on with the Braves.

Eventually Moylan worked his way into one of the better relievers in baseball, posting a 2.70 ERA across 90 innings in 2007. A few back surgeries and Tommy John Surgeries (yes, 2) later and Moylan is again competing for a job in the Royals bullpen.  The 3.65 ERA he posted last year for the Braves was nice, but Moylan is just one of those nice guys that you should root for.

6. Chris Colabello, 1B, Toronto Blue Jays

Colabello spent 7 years in independent league baseball.  From 2006-2011, all Chris knew was the Candian-American league.  Playing the likes of the Nashua Pride and the Worcester Tornadoes, Colabello caught on with the Twins organization just before slugging his 100th career homer in the league.  Last year was a magical one for Colabello.  He posted an .886 OPS with 15 homers for the Blue Jays as he split time at first base and in the outfield.  Now somewhat established as a Major Leaguer, Colabello is looking to cast platoon-mate Justin Smoak to the bench.  If he can repeat his excellent rates from last year, he’ll be a real star, after starring for the Can-Am league for so long.

5. Daniel Poncedeleon, P, St. Louis Cardinals

This is one of the stories that inspired me to write this post. These great stories come out of spring training and rarely see the light of day, unless whatever player happens to make an impact at the major league level. At first blush, Poncedeleon doesn’t belong here.  He’s 24, a 9th-round pick in 2014 and working his way though the Cardinals’ organization.  He’s in their Major League Spring Training this year and hit the only batter that has reached base in the 3 innings that he’s thrown.  If you dig deeper, you see the full story.

In this story from Ben Frederickson, you see how Poncedeleon effectively had his scholarship pulled at the University of Arizona after his freshman year.  Then, after a pitstop in junior college and a year at the University of Houston, the Chicago Cubs selected him in the 14th round in 2013.  Apparently, he signed a terms paper and reported to duty for the Cubs, but after 3 MRIs and an X-Ray, the Cubs nixed the deal. Because he had agreed to terms, the NCAA ruled him ineligible and Poncedeleon was forced to explore the NAIA.  2014 was spent at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach before the Cardinals selected him in the 9th round.

This is a guy who fought through the NCAA mess that is college baseball and still has a 95-mph fastball to show for it.  If his success continues, he could be pitching in big league parks sooner rather than later.

4. Matt Marsh, P, NY Yankees

Our Max Frankel sat down with Matt and wrote up a few quotes from the young righy.  Matt is a survivor of Tommy John surgery, and had another serious injury to his shoulder in his college days.  Marsh went undrafted out of Liberty University and found his way to the Yankees organization.  Still just 24, Marsh posted a 2.35 ERA across two levels of A-ball last year and is excited about his possibilities this year. Marsh is not close to the big leagues, but I grew up with the guy.  I’ll be rooting for him this spring and you should too.

3. Jonny Venters, P, Tampa Bay Rays

Venters was once at the apex of Major League relievers.  He was a left handed strikeout machine, armed with a 95-mph sinker and a disappearing slider.  After posting back-to-back sub-2.00 ERA seasons with 79 and 85 games pitched, Venters broke down.  In 2013, he required a second Tommy John surgery on his throwing arm.  The first had come in 2006 as a minor leaguer.

Working his way back from that second Tommy John surgery has been a struggle.  He ran into many bumps, taking months off from throwing at a time.  Eventually, in August 2014, it was decided that he would need a third ulnar collateral ligament replacement.

Venters has worked his way back from all those bumps and is in the Tampa Bay Rays camp attempting to make the roster. On March 10, he pitched his first bullpen session, and is taking this slowly.

2. Jurickson Profar, IF, Texas Rangers

Profar was once the top prospect in the game. He was a switch-hitting, 20-year old shortstop with power and speed and a solid feel for the game.  He had it all.  Then, he hurt his shoulder and hasn’t really played in the field since 2013.  The shoulder surgeries and extensive rehab make it unlikely that he will make the Majors out of Spring Training, but there’s hope yet for the 23-year old. He made an appearance in the Arizona Fall League last fall and looked good in his time as a DH.

1. Chien-Ming Wang, P, Kansas City Royals

Wang is another of these former greats who have been derailed by injuries.  The former New York Yankees 20-game winner appears to have some mojo back after a 5 or 6 year hiatus from relevance.  Wang was throwing 94-95 in a recent Spring Training game and apparently has a real chance at making the Royals bullpen.  What is so remarkable about Wang is his recent string of irrelevance.  He’s struggled to stay in the Majors since injuring his shoulder in 2008 and posting a 9.62 ERA in 40+ innings in 2009.  Since 2012, he’s been in the organizations of the Nationals, Yankees (second time), Blue Jays, Reds, White Sox, Braves, and Mariners.  Last year he posted ERAs near 6 in AAA stops in both Gwinnett (Atlanta) and Tacoma (Seattle).  He even made a few starts for an independent league team named the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs. Seriously.

Wang appears back on track.  There is optimism surrounding his right arm and sinking fastball.  That’s what spring is all about: Optimism.

 

-Sean Morash

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