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March 13, 2011

BP Unfiltered

Days 4 & 5 in Cactus Country

by Christina Kahrl

I had expected to go to see yesterday's Indians game, but real life got in the way, in that I was moving from one host's home (family friends out in Mesa) to that of an old college classmate. Catching up with Jeff's wife face to face (instead of on Facebook) for the first time in years was time well spent, and was followed by another rare opportunity: a chance to drop in on the concluding banquet celebrating the completion of this year's Nine conference.

Historian Charles Alexander was the keynote speaker of the occasion. Between his biographies of Ty Cobb, John McGraw, Tris Speaker, and Rogers Hornsby, you've probably got at least one of his books on your shelf, and if you lack a copy of the Seymour Medal-winning Breaking the Slump: Baseball in the Depression Era, it's an error you ought to correct. Alexander spoke eloquently about his slow, mid-career transition from a focus on more traditional history to sports and finally baseball-centric courses, and how that helped set the pace for the transition from baseball as a subject left to journalists alone to one subjected to more rigorous historical inquiry. Interestingly, when asked about topics that baseball historians have yet to mine, he immediately identified the history of the practice of sports journalism as a subject well worth exploring. He also noted the decline of academic publishing reflected in the coming closing of SMU Press, although not before it releases what may be his last work, Turbulent Seasons: Baseball in 1890-1891. He also made an impassioned defense of the proposition that the division between 19th- and 20th-century baseball history is an artificial division; as a long-time skeptic, in no small part because of the dubious reliability of so much of the data that comes to us from that period, I found myself persuaded that I owed the subject more thought. I'll look forward to reading Turbulent Seasons as an eventual corrective measure.

Crashing the conference in its eleventh hour was also fun in that I got to finally meet Steve Gietschier of The Sporting News in the flesh, this after nearly two decades of doing business with the man, leaning on TSN's outstanding photo library in particular. Being able to talk about what we've seen this spring, what we take from it, and what we're looking forward to, is one of the basic joys of fandom and friendship. I also finally got to meet Jean Ardell, the author of Breaking Into Baseball: Women and the National Pastime, and catch up with Stephanie Liscio, the author of Integrating Cleveland Baseball: Median Activism, the Integration of the Indians, and the Demise of the Negro League Buckeyes. Also in attendance was Dan Levitt, the co-author of Paths to Glory, which I had the honor of publishing back in the day, and which won the TSN/SABR Research Award for 2003; I was delighted to hear that he's got a history of the Federal League on the way (due out in 2012).

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All of which doesn't mean the Indians aren't interesting as well. I'm particularly curious about how the infield is going to be selected. Let's start with what we know: Asdrubal Cabrera will start at shortstop. What about second and third? Orlando Cabrera's bum shoulder has created reps for the other infielders clamoring for a shot at sticking, but Jared Goedert's hamstring injury has probably knocked him out of whatever limited consideration he might have earned. Jason Donald gets bandied about a lot as a viable third-base alternative, on the basis of little more than that he was once accused of being a prospect, and was included in a Cliff Lee trade, but a bone bruise on his hand has taken him back out of action, and his absence might give the Tribe time to reconsider. Luis Valbuena and Jayson Nix might have initially seemed relatively certain to stick around on the strength of time served, but both have been execrable. Jason Kipnis may have to remain on the future options menu because of what little he's done with the playing time he's received. It's the sort of scenario that gives non-roster invites like Jack Hannahan and Adam Everett hope that they might stick, while not inspiring much in fans worried about the near term.

And against all that, there's Lonnie Chisenhall, still raking, hustling, and generally just trying to nudge Manny Acta and Chris Antonetti to move up his timetable from August or July to sometime in the first half of the season. Given the caliber of the competition, that's a realizable goal, and the sooner the better.

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Today, I took in the A's/Rockies game, which was something of a mismatch, in that 2010 All-Star Trevor Cahill was slotted to go up against 2010 Cal League star Juan Nicasio. It wound up being an odd sort of ballgame, as home-plate ump Bill Miller called nine strikeouts in all, perhaps hardly notable for the man behind the mask when Kerry Wood struck out 20. Sprinkled among that sort of activist zone judging were Hideki Matsui's first big day at the plate in camp, as Godzilla jacked Huston Street's soft stuff out to right for his first homer in green, while also drawing a pair of walks and spanking a single off Cory Riordan.

Nicasio suffered through a trio of seeing-eye singles through the infield corners in the first inning, and suffered three runs for it, but managed to strike out the side nevertheless. Cliff Pennington's three-run shot off Riordan in the sixth was also a first, equally huge, and a reminder that Cactus League heroics are always made more epic by the competition and the venues. Cahill looked fairly good, other than his inability to retire Jonathan Herrera.

But there was also plenty of sloppiness to go around. Mike Jacobs got "caught stealing" for trying to advance to third on a loose ball produced by the Grant Balfour/Kurt Suzuki battery, while Eric Young Jr. got picked off first base immediately after delivering a run-scoring bunt play in the third--run-scoring only because Cahill's throw to Daric Barton wound up uncaught, allowing Herrera to motor home. Carlos Gonzalez might have strutted his stuff with a couple of steals (the first of which didn't even draw a throw), but he was nailed at home plate by Josh Willingham trying to score from second on Ryan Spilborghs' two-out single.

The last item of note was Cubano Yadel Marti's first in-person impression. He's spun a fine spring, having gone unscored upon in his first five frames. He added two more zeroes today, retiring all six batters, but since the closest resemblance to a major leaguer among the lot was Willy Taveras, it's hard to inflate this into something more than a veteran of long years of international and Cuban competition showing he clearly doesn't have much to prove against the unreadiest. He was pretty much as advertised: a short right-hander with sharp command of slow stuff. What the A's will do with him, having resigned themselves to having him, should be interesting to see what the decide to do with him.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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