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March 13, 2007
"People who write about spring training not being necessary have never tried to throw a baseball."
"A young ballplayer looks on his first spring training trip as a stage struck young woman regards the theater."
Professional baseball teams began to realize the benefits of preseason training as long ago as the 1870s, and it was in 1886 that the Chicago White Stockings stopped off in Hot Springs, Arkansas on their way home from a preseason barnstorming tour to more or less sober up. Thereafter, Hot Springs became a popular spot, and by the 1890s most teams engaged in some form of spring workouts, both as a way of getting in shape and as a means to promote the upcoming season. The Grapefruit League was established by 1910, and spring training became an established tradition.
Although teams had trained in the west for some time--most notably the Cubs in Santa Monica in 1905, and on Catalina Island from 1922 through 1945--that alternative finally gained broader acceptance in Arizona starting in 1947 with the Cleveland Indians making their winter home in Tucson and the New York Giants taking up residence in Phoenix. Since then, the major league presence in the Valley of the Sun has been steadily growing, to the point where the number of teams will increase to 13 when the Indians, who moved to Winter Haven in 1992, relocate to the Phoenix suburb of Goodyear for the 2009 Cactus League season. The White Sox would also like to move to Glendale if they can lure another team to take their lease at Tucson's Electric Park (it runs through 2013).
Clearly the tradition of spring training is a long and venerable one. It also gave rise to the now-annual mantra--largely created by a media that is fishing for stories--claiming that spring training is too long and that there are too many games. Leaving aside the philosophical question as to whether there ever really could be too much baseball, my annual spring fling last week reminded me that both the training camp and the games are necessary to prepare the teams for the upcoming season by making them ask and answer a host of questions before the games start counting.
With that in mind, this week I'll share a few notes I made during my whirlwind tour of Tucson and Phoenix, where I attended three camps and saw four games in three days.
There's no doubt that one of the favorite preseason picks (and that includes our own Joe Sheehan) is an improved Snakes squad. In Tucson last Friday I witnessed some of that promise as Chris Young and Alberto Callaspo hit back-to-back home runs off of Chicago's John Garland. Young pulled his hands in and turned on an inside pitch, lofting it over the left field fence for his first spring home run in his 16th plate appearance. Callaspo, slated for a super-utility role, followed on the very next pitch pulling a long home run over the right-centerfield fence.
As mentioned by John Perrotto on Sunday, Bob Melvin has experimented with his batting order and placed Young in the leadoff spot on Friday. However, Melvin has not emphasized a change in approach towards taking more pitches for Young, noting that "I don't want him thinking about it too much. We've got a lot of spring training to go through here. The more he's in there, the more comfortable he gets."
Perhaps even more impressive was the play of right fielder Carlos Gonzalez, who banged out three hits off Garland and John Danks, including a double. Gonzalez played in the High-A California League last season, and although his walk rate fell, he still led the league in slugging percentage. He'll start the season young for his level at the D'Backs new Double-A affiliate in Mobile, but his presence at the plate and his quick hands go along with his strong throwing arm to provide him with an impressive enough package of tools that, on top of his performance record, make me think we'll see him in Phoenix during the regular season, adding to the club's outfield logjam.
On the pitching side of the ledger, I saw Edgar Gonzalez. He's competing with Enrique Gonzalez and Dustin Nippert for the final rotation spot, and threw three solid innings against the White Sox, giving up a double to Juan Uribe and a home run to Brian Anderson while walking one. There's a chance that two of the three pitchers may begin the season in the rotation as Randy Johnson continues to rehab from surgery to repair a ruptured disk in his back.
Right now it seems the White Sox have more questions than answers. The most obvious is the health of Jon Garland. He was lit up for the second time in three outings on Friday, giving up eight hits and four runs in his three innings of work. That brings his spring total to 18 hits and 11 runs in eight frames. What's more problematic is that although he said after the game that his arm doesn't hurt, he does have a "knot" in his right shoulder that makes it difficult for him to find his control. This wouldn't be quite as big an issue if Ozzie Guillen had more depth in the rotation. Both Gavin Floyd and knuckleballer Charlie Haeger have struggled, although John Danks looked very good in his three innings against the Diamondbacks, facing the minimum by using his curveball effectively and inducing two double plays.
Friday's game also highlighted the club's outfield dilemma. Darin Erstad got the start in left field, batting leadoff going 1-for-4 (an eighth-inning single off Chad Harville); he's holding his own. Brian Anderson started in center, homering off Gonzalez and walking in his four trips. With Scott Podsednik set to return to live games on March 21st once he's recovered from a surgically-repaired sports hernia, and with Ryan Sweeney waiting in the wings, it appears there are still two outfield spots up for grabs and four players to fill them. Unfortunately for Sox fans, at least three of those options have little chance of producing much offense.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
For the Angels, the battle for the fourth outfield spot is on. In both games I took in over the weekend Reggie Willits, Nick Gorneault, Tommy Murphy were getting looks in a variety of outfield spots. Willits is the youngest of the bunch at 26, and profiles as a "situational hitter," otherwise known as a slap hitter with no power. Still, he's probably the best of the bunch defensively, and he did also record a .448 OBP in Triple-A last season. Gorneault has the most power of the trio, but after a stellar 2005 campaign struggled through an injured kneecap in 2006, and his production suffered as his walk rate declined and his strikeout rate went up. He's also 28, so his upside is probably limited. Murphy is a switch-hitter who supposedly has power from both sides of the plate, although he hasn't really shown it anywhere he's been. OK, so it's not that really that interesting a battle, but it is a distraction from the Gary Matthews Jr. controversy, for which Angels fans should be glad.
In other news, Erick Aybar, the Angels number three prospect, looked very good. Aybar is blocked by Orlando Cabrera at shortstop, and so will likely end up back in Triple-A or traded. On Friday he went 5-for-6, and on Sunday 1-for-3 with a two-run home run, raising his spring line to .333/.414/.625. In the field he showed off his stellar range and rocket arm. Perhaps in an effort to impress, on Friday night he made an excellent stop in the hole, but sailed the ball into the Angels dugout.
The Royals are counting on an offensive boost this season now that number one prospect Alex Gordon is ensconced at third and Mark Teahen is taking over in right field. At the same time, Gordon projects as a slightly better defender than Teahen at third base, so there's another happy benefit to bringing Gordon up. Nevertheless, there are always transitional issues for a rookie, and spring training provides an opportunity to work out the kinks. On Friday night in Surprise, Gordon misplayed three balls in the span of two innings, and was charged with two errors. He acquitted himself well, however, by making a very nice over-the-shoulder catch behind third base to end the second of those innings.
Of more concern though is the development of the starting rotation. On Saturday afternoon in Surprise, Jorge de la Rosa (pictured below), acquired from the Brewers in the Tony Graffanino deal last season, got the start on Saturday afternoon against the Cubs.
De la Rosa is out of options, and is in a battle for the fourth and fifth slots in the rotation, contending with Zack Greinke and Brian Bannister; Scott Elarton figures to get into the mix in May once he's healed up. As mentioned in Baseball Prospectus 2007, the rotation is probably not the right place for a guy who has yet to show any control at the major league level--de la Rosa has issued 106 walks in 144 career innings. Still, his stuff is for real, and in three innings against the Cubs he showed an effective 92-94 mph fastball, and mixed in a 79-81 mph breaking ball. He also predictably struggled a bit with his command. Buddy Bell seems to like him, and the Royals seem intent on going forward with the experiment.
And as if that wasn't bad enough, that crack heard at Friday night's game was the wrist of Leo Nunez when it was broken by being hit by a line drive off the bat of the Angels' Kendry Morales. He'll be sidelined for at least a month.
Ted Lilly got the start for the Cubs on Saturday, and he threw the ball well, giving up one hit and one run in three innings. In a good sign for Cubs fans, he worked in his curveball effectively and was able to get it over for strikes.
Mark Prior, on the other hand, was anything but effective for the second consecutive outing. In his two innings and 40 pitches the Royals tagged him for four runs on six hits. Although his motion looked smooth, his velocity was clearly down, never topping 89 mph with his fastball. He also struggled to get his breaking ball over (walking three), and Royals hitters were able to simply wait on his fastball. He may be pain-free, as he said after his first spring outing, but he's still apparently got a ways to go. The Cubs will give him a start in their minor league camp this week.
It seems the topic of conversation on everyone's lips is the return of Sammy Sosa. On Sunday afternoon the Sammy show took on the Angels in Surprise. His 1-for-3 performance produced a solid line-drive single to left in the first inning off of Dustin Moseley, but he saw all of four pitches. He's now 10-for-21 with two home runs, sporting a cool .476/.500/.810 line and hitting safely in all seven "A" games in which he's played. Watching him in the morning workouts, it's clear that he has not fundamentally changed his approach, employing the same timing mechanism (a short back step with his front foot) that he did in his final years with the Cubs. And although he's slated to be the regular DH, he took extra fielding practice on Saturday morning, and started in right field against the Angels on Sunday.
Non-roster invitees Jamey Wright (most recently of the Giants) and Mike Wood (the former Royal) both looked good on Sunday. Wright had a lot of life on his fastball, touching 94, and he located all of his pitches while throwing three no-hit innings. With a couple of good outings under his belt, he's still in the running for the fifth spot in the rotation. Wood threw two scoreless innings, giving up two hits and walking none.
As emphasized in our Hope and Faith series, this is the time of year when fans of all 30 teams can focus on the bright side and steel themselves for what lies ahead. Spring training provides the backdrop for those hopes, and the preparation teams need in order to realize them.