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Five early observations from Week One of spring training games

Too soon? Certainly. But we finally have visual evidence to go with all the offseason motivational quotes, and it feels great.

MLB: Spring Training-Boston Red Sox at Baltimore Orioles
Giving Hunter Harvey a run for his money, mullet-wise?
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

There is nothing like watching baseball, is there? The thud of the ball hitting the glove, the crack of the bat ... Also, there’s nothing like actual game footage to help get a handle on each of the 69 guys vying for a spot on the roster this year.

There are a ton of dark horses in camp, and a bunch of young prospects like Dean Kremer, Ryan McKenna, and Kyle Stowers you don’t often get to see in action on live TV. So here’s a few scattered observations based off the spring training play so far, and a few rash predictions, too.

1. Wade LeBlanc, Wojo, and both Rule 5 guys will make the team.

The thirty-five-year-old Wade LeBlanc may not be “trying to impress” you, but his easy two innings Sunday against the Red Sox certainly had me convinced. He’s got typical old-man stuff, working at around 84-88 mph (for what it’s worth, the radar gun is apparently a tick slow), but he showed pinpoint command, easy confidence, a good pitch mix, and an ability to get guys out. Having a veteran on this largely inexperienced team would be huge.

On Wednesday against the Braves, Asher Wojciechowski made a convincing case for a spot in the rotation. With a refreshing new aggressivity, WoJo worked all over the strike zone, using two sharp breaking pitches to get ahead of Ronald Acuña before dotting a fastball right on the outside corner for strike three. WoJo said he worked on the split-change and cutter-slider in the offseason, and it showed.

Meanwhile, both Rule 5 guys impressed me. The biggest knock against the 5’7” Brandon Bailey is his height, but he’s breathing life into the old cliché: the guy knows how to pitch. Over two innings on Monday, Bailey showed command of all his pitches and a sense of how to use them and where. Michael Rucker has impressed, on the other hand, with his electric stuff. (From my notes: “Put this guy on the team!”) Depth on the rotation is key, Hyde’s been saying, and Bailey and Rucker are pieces that could be moved in and out of the bullpen. Now, if Kohl Stewart recovers from his bicep strain and Keegan Akin goes on to put up big numbers this spring, this assessment could change. But for now, I have both guys making the team.

2. Chris Davis is going to have a bounceback year, for what it’s worth, so we’d all better just deal with it.

Everybody is talking about it, so let’s just go there: as Ben McDonald put it on Wednesday, “Chris Davis looks like a different dude.” So far, he’s had all of eight plate appearances, but they’ve been quality ones: three walks and four oppo-field hits, including two home runs. From what I’ve been able to see, he’s not hanging back anymore, watching strikes go by, but swinging early and fighting off pitches! Hyde agrees: his BP looks different, his mentality is different, he’s smiling more, he’s huge. Yes! We know a lot of his issues were upstairs, so this is all good news. Now, how long can he keep it up?

3. The bullpen will be a lot better.

Two reasons for this precipitated claim. One, as promised, Mike Elias has managed to assemble what seems to be more talent than in past seasons, including the aforementioned Rule 5 guys and some of the youngsters: Hunter Harvey, Dean Kremer, who this week showed a 95-mph fastball with deceptiveness; and Bruce Zimmermann, flashing a mix of stuff as well as a great move to first!

Two, many old faces look better. It was the winter of adjustments (not a crazy thing for a staff coming off one of the worst collective years in history), and guys like David Hess, Shawn Armstrong, and Richard Bleier already look sharper. Bleier drew three ground balls in a scoreless inning against the Red Sox, and his stuff already has more bite than it did in his injury-marred 2019. Shawn Armstrong, too, has made adjustments, and he showed a downright nasty breaking ball against the Braves. David Hess has two scoreless innings with three strikeouts, showing nice command. I’d give him an outside shot to make the team as a swingman.

4. Rio Ruiz is hungry.

So far, Rio has five hits and one RBI in eight trips to the plate, and he’s swinging early and often. He’s also impressing with his oppo-field power, something that started to come on late last season. For a guy who pretty much had the starting job at third sewn up (if only for lack of competition), he is playing like a guy with something to prove.

5. The utility job is wide open.

I don’t envy Hyde here. José Rondón is 4-for-8 and looks smooth in the field. Pat Valaika has two home runs in his last two games. Even Richie Martin has gone long. Mason McCoy had some web gems. Andrew Velazquez looks comfortable out there, with smooth reflexes and an easy strong throw. Dilson Herrera is playing his face off. Stevie Wilkerson, my obvious sentimental favorite, offers the sort of versatility Hyde loves, but he needs a stronger showing with the bat than what he’s produced so far.

As for the outfield reserves, Dwight Smith Jr. still looks lumbering in the field but is showing a great approach at the plate, especially on a couple of lefty-on-lefty at-bats where he chipped breaking balls to the opposite field. Cedric Mullins is demonstrating a lot of speed, aggressiveness, and intellect on the base paths right now. Mason Williams, to my eye, still has a great set of tools. As for Ryan Mountcastle, he may be shooting just to be a “serviceable” outfielder, as Jeff Conine put it, but his monster Thursday—3-for-3 with two doubles and a home run (some game footage here)—seems to have gotten Hyde’s attention.

A parting thought: between Ruiz, Smith, and WoJo, there are some flowy new ‘dos in camp this spring, and so far, they’re all off to strong starts… just saying!