Spring Training stats don’t matter, right? Well, sure, they don’t count. But that’s not the same as not mattering. For players that aren’t expected to make the roster or are seeing Major League competition for the first time, it most definitely matters. It’s a chance to build up some confidence that they can indeed play against the best players in the world.
Sometimes a great spring gets a player on the map or sets them up for a trade to another team down the line. Other times it gets the attention of a Japanese team and leads to regular playing time (and a steady paycheck) overseas. And other times it really doesn’t matter at all.
Since Spring Training is almost over (in fact, the Cactus League schedule is already finished), I wanted to take a look back at some notable Cubs Spring Training performances. Sometimes it helped a player make the team and kick start a career, and other times—well, you’ll see. (I’m only looking at seasons after 2002, since that’s when I could find data.)
Mark Watson, 2002, 13.2 IP, 9 H, 14 Ks, 1.98 ERA
Umm, who? You may not remember the name, but Watson had himself quite a spring back in 2002. He out-pitched one Joe Borowski, who I’m sure many of you remember. Borowski pitched well enough to make the team as a setup guy and would take over the closer’s role a year later.
Sure, Borowski had pitched extremely well at Triple-A for the Cubs a year before while Watson was bouncing between the Mariners and Indians, but still. The Cubs obviously saw something in the 6’4’’ lefty to sign him as a free agent and invite him to spring training. Watson did all he could, pitching 13 2/3 innings, allowing nine hits (to Borowski’s 13), striking out 14 (to Borowski’s 10) and sporting an identical 1.98 ERA. To Watson’s dismay, he was sent to Triple-A while Borowski made the team and began his career as a big leaguer.
As for Watson, his story would end the way so many others do: he bounced around different teams (the Mariners brought him back and then the Cubs would also bring him back in 2006), collecting a grand total of 12 1/3 innings in the Major Leagues. He had a stint in Japan with the Hiroshima Carp and closed out his career with the independent league Long Island Ducks. Not much of a career, but at least he can tell his grand kids that he dominated (some) Major League hitters and outdid the legendary Joe Borowski during one glorious spring in 2002. For a guy that wasn’t even drafted, what else can you ask for?
Mark Prior, 2002, 10 IP, 12 H, 16 Ks, 9.00 ERA
The more heralded of the “Marks,” Prior arrived at Spring Training with more hype than any other player I can remember (Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg would overshadow him years later). While there was talk of Prior going straight to the big leagues (Jim Abbott style), he didn’t help himself out in his first taste of Major League competition.
While there were some positive comments about his spring, the numbers don’t back them up. He did prove he could strike Major League players out (his K rate was a sterling 14.4 /9 IP), but the rest of his numbers weren’t anything special. And sure, he hadn’t been on a mound since the prior June, but this is just another classic example of a guy whose Spring Training numbers carried little weight relative to the hype and the talent that accompanied him. Poor Mark Watson probably looked at the stat sheet as the spring was wrapping up and wondered why the Gods had forsaken him—that’s baseball, Mark.
Angel Echeverria, 2002, 51 ABs, 4 HRs, 12 RBIs, 11 R, .314 AVG, .627 SLG
Don’t worry, this is the last 2002 player we’ll cover. Echeverria was a 31-year-old bench guy when he arrived at Spring Training in 2002. His goal was to show the Cubs what he’d done for Colorado and Milwaukee: display decent control of the strike zone and some pop off the bench. Considering the role he was brought in to audition for, I’m surprised he got as many at bats as he did—it seems the Cubs really wanted to go with a veteran guy to serve as the 4th or 5th outfielder.
And Echeverria didn’t disappoint: only Corey Patterson hit more home runs (5). But it wasn’t meant to be—Echeverria didn’t break with the club and was sent to Triple-A. However, considering his main competition was Roosevelt Brown, Darren Lewis, and Chad Hermansen, it’s easy to see why he would eventually get called up in June. He finished the season with 98 at bats and a .306/.351/.469 slash line, including three home runs. Nice numbers for a bench guy.
Alas, this would prove to be Echeverria’s final season in the Major Leagues, as he’d also go to Japan for a couple of years (hitting 31 HRs in his first season with the Nippon Ham Fighters) before closing his career out on the Bridgeport Bluefish (independent ball) as a 35 year old. One thing of note: his very last home run was against the Cardinals on September 1st at Wrigley Field. The Cubs were down by one in the bottom of the 8th when Echeverria led off the inning with a solo home run off Chuck Finley to tie the game. The Cubs would score another run in the inning to eventually win the game. The Cardinals may have run away with the division that year, but Echeverria did his part. We who are Cub fans salute you, Angel.
Michael Wuertz, 2004, 15.2 IP, 11 H, 3 BB, 20 Ks, 2.30 ERA
Wuertz was a starter his whole career in the minors until the Cubs started experimenting with him out of the pen in Triple-A the year before. He got a shot to show what he could do as a reliever in Spring Training and he opened some eyes. That big strikeout rate (11 Ks/9 IP) was enough to convince Dusty Baker to take him up north.
This is one of those times where Spring Training definitely mattered because it gave a young guy an opportunity to show what he could do. For Wuertz, it led to his Major League debut and the beginning of a respectable career as a bullpen guy. He had three very good seasons with the Cubs before going to Oakland, where that above-average strikeout rate followed suit. Overall, Wuertz had himself a nice little career, earning over $8 million, and it all started with that impressive Spring Training in 2004.
Scott McClain, 2004, .333, 6HRs, 16 RBIs, 11 R, .813 SLG
Curious what Matt Murton’s move to and from Japan might look like in a few years (sans the power, of course)? McClain’s career gives us an idea. He slugged his way through the minors but got stuck in Triple-A. After seeing he wasn’t going to get a shot anytime soon (only 20 ABs by the time he was 28), he bolted for Japan, where he had a couple of good seasons doing what he was paid to do: hit home runs.
After his third year in Japan, he decided to try to crack a big-league lineup one more time and got invited to Spring Training with the Cubs in 2004. He had a ridiculous spring, leading the club in home runs and RBIs. But as these things sometimes go, it didn’t matter: the Cubs had Aramis Ramirez at 3B, Derek Lee at 1B, and nowhere to put him. So the Cubs cut him on April 1st and McClain took his power back to Japan for one more year. He would come back to the US in 2005 and hit 30 home runs for the Cubs’ Triple-A team, but only get called up for 14 ABs before leaving for Oakland and eventually San Francisco.
McClain was your prototypical “Four-A” player with plenty of pop, but he didn’t manage his first big-league home run until his age 36 season (also his last). So at least there’s that. He closed his career by returning to Japan for one more go of it, hitting 18 homers as a 37 year old. Nowadays, he’s a US-based scout for the Hiroshima Carp.
Jason DuBois, 2005, .288 AVG, 4 HRs, 8 RBIs, 10 R, .577 SLG
DuBois was one of the Cubs’ top prospects during the early 2000s thanks to his prodigious power, but most scouts thought his ceiling was that of a 4th outfielder. That tells you something about the rest of his game (his defense was terrible), as well as the state of the Cubs prospect pipeline at the time.
In 2005, got a ton of ABs (52) for a young guy that wasn’t supposed to break camp with the team, but he made the most of it, flashing his signature (and only) tool: power. Only Nomar Garciaparra would hit more home runs that spring (6). As a 26-year-old player, DuBois was in the make-or-break phase and his strong spring got him on the opening-day roster.
He got off to a good start too, hitting .346/.393/.808 with three HRs and three doubles in the first month of the season. Of course, that wasn’t sustainable, but DuBois did wind up with a decent .239/.289/.474 with 7 HRs before getting traded to the Indians for Jody Gerut. He would play 14 unforgettable games for the Indians before being banished to the minors—and was never seen again in the Major Leagues. Sad.
Angel Pagan, 2006, .381/.417/.833, 4 2B, 5 HRs, 10 RBIs, 4 BB, 4 SB
Pagan was a former top prospect with the Mets when the Cubs acquired him in January of 2006. He was entering his age-24 season and had nothing left to prove at Triple-A. In other words, this spring was a chance for him to show the Dusty Baker and company why he should make the team.
Pagan flashed his hit and run tools, leading the club in home runs (Aramis Ramirez also hit five), runs, and stolen bases. Sure, it helped that veteran Marquis Grissom decided to retire during that same spring, but Pagan made the most of it—and made the team out of Spring Training. He was no longer a prospect trying to prove he could make it in the big leagues—he was in. That was the beginning of a solid career for Pagan: he’d play off the bench with the Cubs and the Mets. Pagan eventually proved he could be an everyday player by slashing .290/.340/.425 with 11 HRs and 37 steals and thus began his life as an everyday big leaguer.
David Patton, 2009, 14.1 IP, 14 H, 5 BB, 15 Ks, 1.26 ERA
There must not have been much going on in the spring of 2009, because I vividly remember rooting for Patton to make the team. He was selected in the Rule 5 draft by the Reds and then the Cubs acquired him, which meant Patton had to stick it out on the big-league roster for the whole year in order for the Cubs to keep him. Not an easy task for a guy that had never pitched above High-A ball.
He flashed a 97 mph fastball and some funky arm action that led to some good results. Good enough that he made the team over the veteran Chad Gaudin (the Cubs would have to eat the $1.6 million on Gaudin’s contract, which tells you how badly they wanted to keep Patton). Things were looking really bright for Patton, with Reed Johnson posting some praise on his blog, “You can just tell. It’s not just a guy’s stuff, because there are guys with great stuff, but they don’t have the right attitude. He’s got the right combination [of both] and it’s exciting to see a player like that.”
It was a great underdog story, and so here’s the part where I crash the party and tell you what happened afterwards. Patton got off to a rocky start but was pitching well in May and June until a groin injury landed him on the DL. The Cubs sent him down to Triple-A afterwards for a rehab assignment and eventually brought him back up, where he struggled towards the end of the year. But no matter right? The Cubs had “stolen” a guy from another team and now had him for good. The Cubs sent Patton back down to High-A ball the next season, where he posted a 5.03 ERA and couldn’t figure out where the strike zone was. And poof—that was it. We never saw Patton in organized ball again. But thanks to some luck and a strong spring, Patton can tell his kids he was a big leaguer for a whole season—no small feat.
Tyler Colvin, 2010, .468/.468/.753, 8 2Bs, 4 3Bs, 2 HRs
The 2010 Cubs were not a good team, winning just 75 games and finishing dead last. So when Tyler Colvin put up the spring that he did, it’s easy to see why he made the team. He was a prospect and after hitting .468 in Cactus League play, the Cubs decided to see what he could do in the Major Leagues. Colvin produced: he hit 20 HRs in 135 games and Cubs fans thought they had themselves a regular, home-grown player. The he got impaled by a broken piece of bat while standing at third base and that ended his season.
But other than those glowing numbers I listed at the top, Colvin’s spring betrayed his single biggest problem: controlling the strike zone. He struck out 16 times and didn’t walk once. In fact, over 346 spring at bats over his career, Colvin has walked once and struck out 87 times. Colvin would eventually go to the Rockies for a few years. He spent all of 2015 in Triple-A with the White Sox and isn’t on any roster this spring. In fact, I couldn’t find any recent news about him other than a piece recalling the impaling incident. Colvin just turned 30, but it could be over already.
Kris Bryant, 2015, .425/.477/.1.175, 9 HRs, 15 RBIs, 14 Rs
What can you say about Bryant’s spring that hasn’t been said already? He definitely made it harder for the Cubs to justify sending him down to Triple-A, but they did what they had to do. Mike Olt (Bryant’s “competition” at third base) had himself a decent spring (.271/.386/.542 with 3 HRs), so it wasn’t like the Cubs simply did not want to have Bryant up for… well, other reasons.
Bryant’s ridiculous spring is already ancient history, as his Rookie of the Year campaign and the excitement around the team put any other storylines to rest.
If I had to pick one player to profile for this year, it would be Spencer Patton: he’s thrown 8 innings of 2-hit ball, hasn’t allowed an earned run, has struck out 12, and walked 1. It doesn’t get much better than that, but Patton was optioned earlier this week so it wasn’t meant to be. But Patton did well enough to earn high praise from Joe Maddon, who said “This guy is absolutely going to help us at some point this year,” Maddon said. Well done, Spencer.
John Andreoli is another guy that might’ve set himself up for a call-up later in the year. Andreoli’s game is getting on base and running fast, but the Cubs already knew that. Seeing the pop (4 HRs) is something that could convince them to call him up over the course of the season.
And to wrap things up, how about Jeimer Candelario (.350/.381/.675 with 3 HRs)? He wasn’t going to make the team, but a strong spring was the perfect way to show fans and other teams how far he’s come in the past year. Now he can go back down to Double-A knowing full well he’s capable of hitting Major League pitchers. Or he could be used in a trade for whatever need might arise during the season. Either way, Candelario has made it clear that he’s a force to be reckoned with.
Spring Training is funny: we’re so excited when it finally arrives and a week later we’re bored because the games don’t count. But as this Spring Training wraps up, remember this: there are guys that aren’t just playing to make the team—they’re playing for their livelihoods and their careers. And that’s no joke.
Lead photo courtesy Joe Camporeale—USA Today Sports.