Baseball is filled with interesting players. Brett Wallace? He's interesting! Former first-round pick, supposedly blessed with power and patience, who came with questions about his final position but was clearly going to hit. What went wrong? What could still go right? I'd read 4,000 words on Brett Wallace, easy.
But I'm a dork. Other people -- most people, even -- might not have the same fascination with a backup first baseman on the Padres. So it's our job to find the most interesting player on each team. We've been going division by division, and the National League East is our last stop.
Braves - Hector Olivera
Let me lean in and whisper something I believe to my very core: Hector Olivera is probably the most interesting player on any of these lists. He was a Cuban superstar, a combination of patience and power that made scouts put pictures of him in their lockers. He got older and more brittle, but he never lost the what-if that was attached to his talent for a decade.
And once the rich teams got their chance, the richest among them elbowed their way to the front of the line. They didn't have an obvious opening at third base, supposedly Olivera's best position, and it didn't matter so much that his elbow was being held on with roofing nails. The Dodgers could wait. They could wait a year, as long as they got a hold of this sweet, rare talent. They coughed up $62.5 million to wait for him, not caring that the contract would run through his age-35 season
Four months later, either the Dodgers became disillusioned or the Braves decided they simply must have Olivera. Maybe a combination of the two. Either way, he was the key piece in a deal that sent a cheap, effective 24-year-old pitcher the other way. Alex Wood won't be a free agent until after the 2019 season. Seems like it should take a lot for a rebuilding team to give one of those up. But faced with the choice to have Wood or a subsidized Olivera (the Dodgers are paying almost $5 million of his salary, and they took Bronson Arroyo expiring contract back to help their cap numbers), they pounced on the high-ceiling talent of Olivera.
He finally got a few at-bats. He got 79 at-bats, specifically, hitting .253/.310/.405, with a 99 OPS+. Oh, and he isn't a third baseman anymore, which most people think is a good idea.
You're welcome to wrinkle your nose at those numbers. But considering he missed 2012 with thrombosis, 2014 after defecting and 2015 with an elbow injury, maybe we should be more forgiving of a .715 OPS. Maybe it's impressive that he could stand up against Jose Fernandez and get a hit. He had fewer than 100 minor-league at-bats to get ready after that extended layoff. So, yeah, maybe his contact skills are rusty.
Or maybe he's a dented tin can, and the Braves just exchanged their young arm for an overextended role player. See? Interesting! I'll take the over on Olivera, unless you're Doug and on my fantasy team, in which case my opinion is that Olivera is a mess and you shouldn't draft him.
Marlins - Giancarlo Stanton
We rarely truck with stars in this series, for obvious reasons.
Bryce Harper is the most interesting player on the Nationals because he is their best player. The best players often have the most hits or home runs (HR), and they lead to runs, which excites the fans. Harper should be the best player again, which by definition means he is their most interesting.
Mmm. But Stanton is an exception for a couple of reasons, and both of them relate to his lingering knee injury. He's been limited to just seven games this spring because of it, and it brings up to very important points:
1. Everything the Marlins are planning, everything good about their local sports team, every idea they have about the future, every part of the blueprint they have to rebuild the damaged trust with their fans, revolves around Stanton doing Stanton things. No pressure.
2. Major League Baseball doesn't need Stanton in the literal sense, but they sure as heck want him healthy. There might be ... three? five? 10? ... players who transcend the geographical limitations of the sport and become constellations of what baseball's purest potential can be, players who draw in skeptical folks who are merely curious about baseball. Stanton does that. Because of dingers.
The Marlins have an outside, but not insignificant, shot of contending this year. They'll need Stanton. More than that, though, baseball needs Stanton. I need Stanton. Please, dammit, just give us Stanton.
AHHHHHHHHHHHH thank goodness oh wow the endorphins feel amazing
Mets - Steven Matz
Matz should use "Octopus' Garden" as his warmup music and spend his postgame interviews arguing that Ringo Starr was a crucial part of the band. "He didn't need to be Neil Peart, and it ticks me off when people say he's not talented," Matz would say, shirtless with his arm wrapped in a gigantic ice sling. "The Beatles didn't need flashy. Have you ever listened to how he keeps 'A Day in the Life' together? He was almost the st ... hey, get back here."
Matt Harvey is a young right-hander who throws a million miles per hour. Jacob deGrom is a young right-hander who throws a million miles per hour. Noah Syndergaard is a young right-hander who throws a million miles per hour. Bartolo Colon ...
... is still quite effective.
Matz is still the wild card. We've seen all of the other four enough to know what they can do, but we have just six regular-season starts to go by for Matz. We also have three postseason starts, but they were oddly truncated, as if the Mets didn't trust him, even while he was effective.
Harvey, Syndergaard, deGrom. deGrom, Syndergaard, Harvey. That's why the Mets won the pennant last year, and it's why they're pennant contenders this year. They have three aces where most teams are lucky to have one.
Except ... what if Matz also becomes an ace? What if he mines his talent immediately and doesn't just become a complementary piece at the back of the rotation, complete with the "for a fourth starter" disclaimer. What if he's as good as the other three? Where do the rest of us hide?
It could happen. He has the latent talent. After all, even though he's not a young right-hander who throws a million miles per hour, he's young, left-handed and throws the ball a million miles per hour. Those types of guys tend to have nice, exciting careers.
Phillies - Jerad Eickhoff
Aaron Nola was a high first-round pick from LSU who was supposed to move quickly. He did. He spent a season in the minors, then arrived in the majors, mostly polished, with impressive control and quality pitches. He's what we thought he was, and that's dandy.
Eickhoff's path wasn't quite so clear. He went to powerhouse Olney Central College (home of the Fightin' Rumors!) and was taken by the Rangers in the 15th round. He struggled with his first taste of full-season life in the minors, and did well enough, but not outstanding, after a promotion to Double-A. The Rangers liked him, but not enough to keep him away from the Phillies, who liked him liked him and snatched him away in the Cole Hamels trade.
Then he came up to the majors and was just as effective as Nola.
Look at that curveball. What an absolute delight.
We all know that every bad team is three years away from being an exceptional team. The 2003 Tigers winning the pennant in 2006 is my favorite example, but the kids these days might remember the Astros when they were hilarious, only to be a feared postseason-bound team just three years later. The Phillies have Matt Harrison and about 30 additional cents in payroll obligations for the next decade, and they'll streak through the big-market quad soon enough. When they do, they'll need at least a few players to build around, a framework of young talent.
Eickhoff is their best bet to pair with Nola and make up 40 percent of a contending rotation. He might miss a little of April with a thumb injury, but he's sort of the bellwether of how the Phillies' season is going. He's not the only part of the rebuilding plan, but he's suddenly one of the most important.
Nationals - Ryan Zimmerman
The Nationals had to lose 95 games to get Zimmerman. Then, when he was around and a star, they had to surround him with talent so awful, so unready for the majors, that they would lose 205 games in two seasons to get Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. Zimmerman was around for those losses. Think of the most unwatchable baseball team you've ever followed, then add 23 relief appearances from Kip Wells. Zimmerman was around for all of it.
Then, right when he was in the prime of his career, the Nationals became an excellent team. He was finally a part of something bigger, not just an All-Star surrounded by 20 players who would be out of the league in three years. This lasted for two years before he broke. It's not as unfair as, say, Nomar Garciaparra being dumped on the Cubs right before the Red Sox finally win a World Series, but it's still pretty stinkin' unfair.
We're in the second phase of Zimmerman's career, then. He's not the slick-fielding, do-everything third baseman. He's a slugging first baseman now, and everything else he contributes along the way is gravy. And as far as slugging first basemen go, he has a chance. His .465 slugging percentage last year was better than Prince Fielder, Eric Hosmer, and Adam Lind. It wasn't far behind Freddie Freeman, Albert Pujols, and Adrian Gonzalez. And his batting average was just .249, so the isolated power tells you there's something more than singles behind that number.
He just has to get the other part of his game back, the hard, consistent contact. His batting average on balls in play was just .268, which was 46 points below his career average, and that's a great place to start looking for optimism. If you want even more optimism, note that he was 15th in baseball in exit velocity. If you limit the search to just grounders, he was still 17th. He was hitting the ball hard, and he probably deserved better than a .249 batting average and the mediocre .308 on-base percentage that came along with it.
An extra 30 hits this season, with a half-dozen of them going over the fence? Yeah, that would do. And we could enjoy the renaissance of Ryan Zimmerman at the same time he finally gets to enjoy the renaissance of the Nationals.