by Jim Pratt
3B Ian Stewart
Stewart is hoping a change of scenery helps him forget the worst season of his career. A once promising bat with legitimate power potential, Stewart was unable to hit a homerun in 136 at-bats in Colorado last year.
Still only 26 years old, Stewart was targeted early in the offseason by Chicago Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer as a potential replacement for the departed Aramis Ramirez. Ron Shandler, author of Baseball Forecaster, says "Once a player displays a skill, he owns it." With that said, the Cubs are hoping the left-handed hitter is able to return to the form he showed during the 2009-2010 seasons when he hit 43 HR and drove in 131 runs.
Even though he is a .223/.320/.406 career hitter vs. left-handed pitching, manager Dale Sveum recently told the Chicago Sun-Times, "Ian Stewart’s going to play. These things are all left up to them and how they’re doing at the time. But there is no platoon situation in mind at all for anybody right now."
One More to Watch: Theo Epstein & Co. are in the midst of a youth movement and outfielder Brett Jackson is the very definition of how they expect to rejuvenate the Cubs organization. He has solid-to-plus skills across the board that could eventually result in some 20/20 seasons. The main concern is the swing and miss in his bat, but as long as he can continue to play in the middle of the diamond as a center fielder, that can be overlooked to an extent.
OF Chris Heisey
|Heisey had 6 HR and 13 RBI in September|
Picture courtesy of Icon Sports Media, Inc.
The odd part of this potential platoon is that both players are right-handed hitters and both struggle against left-handed pitching (career totals -- Heisey vs. LHP .180/.258/.295 … Ludwick vs. LHP .237/.316/.435), although Ludwick was better against LHP last season (.763 OPS). Heisey's power and fly-ball tendencies play well in the Great American Ball Park, but to become an everyday player he must learn to use the whole field better. Only one of his 18 homers were hit to right field.
While Heisey is seen as the front-runner heading into camp, it’s unlikely that either player will win the job in Spring Training. If he is able to piggy-back off his late season success with a strong spring camp, it could lean the majority of the playing time in his favor early in 2012. More at-bats could come due to his glove being adequate enough to play all the outfield positions.
One More to Watch: With the questions surrounding Billy Hamilton’s ability to stay at shortstop, Didi Gregorius could be the prospect that eventually challenges Zack Cozart. A plus defender up the middle, Gregorius has enough projection in his bat to become an everyday shortstop. He should return to Double-A to start the season with a likely promotion to Triple-A at some point.
RHP Juan Abreu
RHP Brett Myers is being moved from the rotation to be the team's closer in 2012. While he has a vesting option in 2013, there's also a chance he gets traded during the season. Abreu is one of many relievers vying to be the next in line. What the 26 year-old brings to the table is the skill to miss bats with a 95-98 mph fastball (10.47 K/9 in the minors). Where he finds himself getting into trouble is a lack of control.
If he can find a way to harness that lack of control, he could challenge for the set-up role behind Myers. Until then, he is just a bullpen arm with a high ceiling.
One More to Watch: The ability to eat innings is probably the most overlooked value when evaluating a pitcher. Brett Oberholtzer doesn’t have any plus offerings, but he can locate all four of his pitches and has the look of a guy that can become a reliable back-end of the rotation starter.
1B Mat Gamel
Gamel will finally get his chance to break camp with the big league club, but that opportunity will come with the spotlight of being Prince Fielder's replacement. Coming off a career season at Triple-A Nashville (.310 AVG, 28 HR, 96 RBI), the Brewers are banking on consistent at-bats being the cure for Gamel’s struggles at the major league level (.222 AVG, 5 HR in 171 ABs).
The 26 year-old comes into camp in the proverbial “best shape of his life” as he tries to put the injuries of the past three seasons behind him. Taking every aspect into account when trying to ease the pressure of replacing a superstar, manager Ron Roenicke told Tom Haudricourt of the Journal Sentinel that he expects Gamel to hit towards the bottom of the lineup. "Seventh, eighth, sixth. A lot of that depends on how he's swinging and feeling. I don't want to put a lot of pressure on him right away and stick him in the fifth slot.”
One More to Watch: Wily Peralta is on the outside looking in at a rotation spot this spring, but he will eventually get a call-up at some point during the season and might not return to the minors once he’s in Milwaukee. He needs to use his innings in the spring refining his secondary pitches instead of trying to win a job.
3B Pedro Alvarez
Spring numbers don’t mean a lot to most players, but Alvarez needs to get off to a quick start to help shake the debacle that was 2011. Limited to only 74 games because of injury and demotions to Triple-A Indianapolis, he hit a lowly .191 with 4 HR and 19 RBI. The 2nd overall pick in the 2008 draft, Alvarez will get first crack at the third base job ahead of Casey McGehee, who the Pirates traded for in December.
If the Pirates finally expect to break the 19 year streak of sub-.500 play that has haunted them, they need Alvarez to return to the 16 homer form he displayed during his rookie season. To do that, he needs to become more selective than aggressive. In 648 big league plate appearances, he has struck out 199 times or 30.7 percent.
Remembering that he is still just 25 years old, all Alvarez needs is some time and patience from the Pirates to eventually hit and hit with power in the big leagues.
One More to Watch: Kyle McPherson is a strike-thrower with plus velocity in his fastball. He has the ceiling of a mid-rotation starter that would be a nice compliment to the more high profile arms the Pirates have coming through the system. If he continues to progress with his secondary pitches, he could see the majors this season.
St. Louis Cardinals
1B Matt Adams
Adams' path to St. Louis was cleared with the departure of Albert Pujols to the Angels. Listed at 6'3" and 230 pounds, he has the swing to hit for average as well as plus power. After a successful season in the Double-A Texas League (.300/.357/.566 w/ 32 HR, 101 RBI), the 23 year-old played in the Arizona Fall League where he managed 10 extra base hits in 80 ABs.
Adams heads into Spring Training with the mindset of making the Opening Day roster, as he tells the Centre Daily Times “My goal is to make the big league club out of spring training. I’m going to shoot for that. If that doesn’t happen, then hopefully I get put on the (Triple-A) Memphis roster and go from there.” Regardless of whether it’s Opening Day or mid-season, Adams will be manning first base soon enough in St. Louis.
One More to Watch: At a mere 5'9" and 190 pounds, Kolten Wong is the other end of the spectrum compared to the previously mentioned Adams. Although Wong doesn’t have that jaw-dropping tool that most top prospects are expected to have - especially those that could start their first professional season at the Double-A level - the overall polish he shows as a ballplayer more than makes up for what he lacks in a standout tool.
Click HERE to see my 'Players To Watch (NL EAST)
Jim Pratt is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and also contributes to BravesWire.com. Follow him on Twitter @2OutSacBunt.