March 6, 2006
It has been a whirlwind 48 hours here in Arizona, with two ballgames at the center of a couple days' of near-constant activity, which included my first look at Baseball Prospectus 2006.
Unlike Friday, when I watched the Giants and Brewers play while taking copious notes from the press box, I experienced the weekend tilts from the stands, with a variety of friends and, on Sunday, BP readers. Scorecards were kept and notes were taken, but I definitely had my "fan" hat on, rather than my "analyst" one, the one with the bright red propeller. Keep that in mind as you read this column.
Saturday in Tempe, Sophia and I met up with our friends Shelley and E.J., along with their just-shy-of-three-year-old Sierra, for the Rockies/Angels game. I was surprised by the crowd; it turned out to be a bit over 7,000, and it felt like a lot more while parking, walking up to the gates and moving through the park. It would appear that the Angels' success in the 21st century has bled across state lines. Here's hoping Arte Moreno doesn't notice and try to claim another media market within the team's name.
We settled in for a lackluster pitching matchup: Hector Carrasco against Zach Day. The Angels signed Carrasco to a two-year deal over the winter, a head-scratcher given that he'd spent just one of the prior three years in the majors. His '05 season, while effective, was also the first time since 1997 he'd had an ERA below 4.00. He wasn't an RFK Stadium fluke--his road ERA was 1.37--but his overall performance wasn't radically different from his 2001 campaign.
Having subsequently signed Jeff Weaver, the Angels now find themselves with a two-year commitment to a #6 starter/#4 right-handed reliever. Were it not for his contract, Carrasco would be a long shot to make the team at all. He didn't do anything on this day to change minds, allowing a run on a walk and two hits in two innings to a Rockies team that had left Todd Helton back in Tucson.
Meanwhile, Day looked terrific for two innings, allowing just a walk and throwing 30 pitches. That last figure may explain why he made an appearance in the third, and was promptly greeted with four straight singles. One was a beautiful bunt hit by Reggie Willits, an outfielder who looks about the size of a David Eckstein action figure. Day coughed up three runs in the frame, which ended when Brad Hawpe gunned down Adam Kennedy trying to tag up on a medium-depth fly to right. It was a terrific throw by Hawpe, who nailed Kennedy by at least ten feet.
The Rockies, who have a 24-year commitment to Helton for a total of $2.1 billion, are being forced to scatter the many first basemen their system produces around the diamond. Hawpe has been learning right for a while, Garrett Atkins doesn't play third base so much as he defends it, and Ryan Shealy is now having to develop a skill he's ill-suited for. Troy Tulowitzki can't get to the majors fast enough.
After the first three innings, the game is a bit blurry for me. I blame the kettle corn. See, Sierra has learned to share, and what she wanted to share was this very large bag of kettle corn that Sophia--who loves the stuff--had picked up. So I spent a big chunk of the rest of the game being hand-fed kettle corn and thanking her for it (because you have to reinforce the behavior; man, I hope Sophia reads that).
My first Bill James book was the 1988 Baseball Abstract, and if that wasn't his most groundbreaking of his works, I'll forever contend that it and The Politics of Glory were his best-written ones. In that annual was a guest piece by Mike Kopf about taking a friend's daughter, who I think was four, to a Royals game, and how that changed the entire experience for him. I could not get that out of my head Saturday as my scorecard, which started out with notations of pitch sequences (SBBCFF) and pitching changes, devolved into a very blue hope that I hadn't marked down a 20-yard completion from Ray King to Danny Ardoin.
It was the most fun I've had on the trip.
What was interesting was that full-platoon baseball--the starters bleed out almost completely after the fifth--was a feature, not a bug. The Angels are loaded with prospects, and almost all of the notable ones made appearances in this game. None did anything of note at the plate, although Erick Aybar did show a nice arm on a Jeff Baker grounder in the eighth. I don't know any more about Brandon Wood or Howie Kendrick than I did Friday. It was just nice to see them in action.
Two other items worth mentioning: Tim Salmon got by far the biggest cheer of the day, as he tries to come back as a DH. He walked, struck out and flied to right, which appears to be about right for him at this point. He's retained his eye and selectivity, but lost almost everything else. Salmon has long been an easy guy to root for; he and his wife are deeply invested in Orange County, he's been a terrific player in the past and has handled the back end of his career with class. It would be nice to see him have some role, but he'll have to get some of his pop back to warrant one.
Salmon's push for a job was hampered in part by Dallas McPherson, who also walked and whiffed, but mixed in an RBI single to right-center that Choo Freeman played into a two-run triple by taking a bad angle to the ball. McPherson is going to get a chunk of DH at-bats for the Angels, sharing time at third base with Chone Figgins. McPherson's injury-riddled 2005, and his lack of productivity, were a big disappointment to a team desperate for some offense. They need McPherson to contribute if they're going to keep pace with the A's.
After the game, we trekked out to our friends' place in Gilbert, a place notable for the fact that it's apparently a suburb of both Phoenix and Oklahoma City. It's one of many outlying--and I do mean outlying--areas experiencing tremendous growth, growth that currently leads infrastructure 17-10 with 4:51 to play in the second quarter. And it's driving.
Still, their new place is big and beautiful, the kind of house you can get in Arizona for what it would cost for a picture of something comparable in L.A. Our drool stains will hopefully come out of the carpet.
Sunday's game was out in Peoria, and featured a BP-sponsored pregame sitdown with Pads' GM Kevin Towers and Mariners' GM Bill Bavasi. Towers entertained our readers at Petco Park two years ago, and was once again informative and forthcoming about his team and his job. Towers, who has generally made good decisions since joining the Padres, has an enthusiasm for the game and for what he does that is infectious. Bavasi, at his first BP event and facing a heavily-Ms crowd, held up under questioning well and provided some of the biggest laughs of the event.
The two GMs, so busy with player evaluation this time of year, talked to our group for two hours. I thank them for their time, and I want to acknowledge Jonah Keri's work in putting this, and the sales station with copies of BP 2006 and Baseball Between the Numbers, together. It was a terrific day; look for more BP ballpark events with decision-makers throughout the season.
With Felix Hernandez having pitched Thursday, there was no hope of seeing him. We did get a decent matchup, however: Jarrod Washburn (who looked small from behind the first-base line) against Dewon Brazelton. Brazelton, acquired from the Devil Rays over the winter, was a revelation in two innings, throwing his fastball for strikes and getting six straight outs on 19 pitches. It's an upside play for the Padres, who lost only the psychic investment in Sean Burroughs and picked up a pitcher who throws hard and may just need the right environment to succeed.
Or he could have just looked good against a so-so offensive team without some of its best players. If I've taken away anything from this trip, it's that evaluating players in the early days of the exhibition season is virtually impossible. You can make observations, and use those to inform mental notes, but that's all. We don't know anything more about any of these guys than we knew two weeks ago. Regulars play half the game, prospects and suspects the second half, and a lot of the performances in play are against guys who won't be in these games once minor-league camps open. Scouts and other insiders can certainly glean some information, but I'd argue that even that data is skewed by the widely variant levels of competition.
Don't get me wrong: this trip has been a hoot, and I would recommend a trip to spring training to anyone who loves the game. But that's what this trip has become for me: reconnecting with that love of the game, sitting in the sun with friends and speculating on who the Ms will go with in the middle infield and or sitting in the shade of Walter Young and concluding that the Padres didn't bother with the "W." on his jersey because, let's face it, who the hell is going to confuse him and Eric?
That analyst beanie comes on and off my head all the time, and I think it looks pretty good on me. But the fan hat is 30 years old, and it's as much a part of my head as my bald spot is.