NL East: 5 things to glean from Grapefruit play

Here are five things to glean from spring training to date, targeting National League East clubs.

Here are five things to glean from the National League East teams during spring training, even though the sample sizes of production are small — and largely irrelevant.

After all, only precocious talents and veterans in dire need of redemption lament the success or failure of isolated at-bats during Grapefruit League action.

And that's how it should be ... particularly when non-participatory teammates are jogging in center field during sanctioned games.

1. Ryan Howard's run as a dominant masher might not be over

It's not the .370 batting average after 27 at-bats.

It's not the three homers, 10 RBI and .815 slugging percentage.

It's not even the absurd OPS (1.215) through 10 Grapefruit games.

In Howard's case, it's the totality of everything, as he enters his first healthy spring training since blowing out his Achilles on the final play of the 2011 season (a Game 5 home loss to the Cardinals in the NLDS).

At 33, Howard is still young enough to recapture his big-time form of a few years ago, when 35 homers and 110 RBI were the minimum thresholds of annual success. But with big, wide bodies — especially first basemen — 33 is also an age where stars begin losing their athletic flexibility, power and overall grace.

For what it's worth, Howard wasn't bad last season in limited action. For July, August and September, he belted at least four homers per month.

The funny thing about it: If Howard had never ruptured the aforementioned Achilles, maybe he shows up at Phillies camp in good, but not awesome shape, believing the status quo would occur again by season's end. Instead, he seems to have a laser-like focus on reclaiming his standing as an elite power hitter.

Check out the smooth hip turn on this blast from a few days ago. Eerily reminiscent of any swing from 2006-09.

2. It's hard to ignore the quirkiness of Bryce Harper's lights-out batting average

By all accounts, Harper (22 homers, 98 runs last year) will blossom into a bona fide star for the Nationals — sooner than later. After all, we're talking about a 20-year old phenom who's batting .474 (9 of 19) through six Grapefruit games.

But it's somewhat comical that Harper's current tallies in batting average and on-base percentage are identical ... meaning the kid has yet to draw a walk in spring training.

OK, so getting a free pass in March may be a mindless experience for MLB hitters (and ticket-buying patrons), but it does warm the heart of fantasy shamans who view "on-base percentage" as some indicator of future greatness.

3. Travis d'Arnaud badly wants to be the Mets' opening-day catcher

Catcher might be baseball's most difficult position to master, especially with young assets. But this rationale doesn't necessarily apply to d'Arnaud, one of the most complete hitting prospects of the last two years (with the Blue Jays).

To Toronto's credit, the organization never felt pressure to rush d'Arnaud's development, as both a catcher and premium hitter. Six years of seasoning is a long time to impede a future star's shot at major league fame ... but the end result was this:

In the minors, d'Arnaud had evolved into a lock for 20-plus homers, 75 RBI, a .315 batting average and slugging rate in the neighborhood of .600 — with room for growth at the next level.

Fast forward to the present. The Mets don't have a slugging backstop like J.P. Arencibia to block d'Arnaud's path to a 15-year career in the majors. Only John Buck (12 homers, .192 batting last year) and journeyman Anthony Recker can stop d'Arnaud (.429 batting, .571 slugging, .971 OPS in spring training) from experiencing a seventh campaign in the minors.

Given the Mets' need to appease the masses (prospective ticket buyers), it makes sense to showcase their next big thing on Day 1.

4. The Marlins' best pure hitter won't be showcased until Memorial Day, at the earliest

We all know Giancarlo Stanton is an athletic freak of nature, blessed with absurd talent and prodigious raw power (37 homers, .608 slugging in 2012). But with a K/BB rate of 143-46 last season, it's hard to qualify him as a classic pure hitter.

Instead, with the star-strapped Marlins (sans Stanton, of course), that honor likely falls to prospect Christian Yelich, who racked up the following numbers in the minors last year: 12 homers, 48 RBI, 76 runs, 20 steals and a .329 batting average.

For this spring training, Yelich has maintained his destructive ways at the plate, batting .467 (7 of 15), with one homer, three RBI, five runs, .933 slugging and an otherworldly OPS of 1.489.

OK, so the kid only has a few Grapefruit games under his belt, but there are still enough positive signs to justify Yelich's No. 1 standing amongst the Marlins' deep pool of building blocks.

This 21-year-old wunderkind has it all: Rapidly improving plate discipline, a smooth uppercut swing and a lightning-fast bat in the zone ... meaning he seldom gets overwhelmed by power pitchers.

If the Marlins were in a rush to promote Yelich, perhaps he'd be a viable threat for the opening-day roster. But that likely won't wash with a patient franchise that is one Stanton mega-trade away from one of the most comprehensive roster demolitions in recent memory.

By extension, Miami probably doesn't see the benefits of expediting Yelich's major-league clock in April 2013.

5. Only two of the Braves' 11 batters at .300 or above have starting spots nailed down

I don't know what to make of the above stat. Right now, Atlanta currently boasts top-10 rankings for spring homers (third) and batting average (10th), but is this a product of middling pitching (with opponents) or are the Braves flush with incredible hitting depth in the minors?

Freddie Freeman (.385 batting, .565 slugging), B.J. Upton (one HR, .320 batting), Justin Upton (two homers, .292 batting) and Jason Heyward (three homers) have no reason to sweat Grapefruit results.

But for unknown assets like Joey Terdoslavich (.579 average, 1.361 OPS) or Evan Gattis (.421 batting, 1.139 OPS), this March mayhem might be a springboard to major-league recognition — as either backups on the Braves ... or attractive trade chips for clubs bereft of power and potential at the corner-infield spots.