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March 14, 2001

Derek in the Desert

Wrapping it Up

by Derek Zumsteg

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

On my last day in Arizona, my brother and I decided to see a game in Tempe, which would let me catch a fourth game and still make my flight out of town from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport ("The Airport With the Needlessly Long Name"). Phoenix is about a two-hour drive from Tucson, along a two-lane highway that's filled with slow-moving trucks, aggressive SUV drivers, speed traps, and roadside memorials for people killed while drunk driving. The bridges over dry creeks have huge signs that read "No Parking on Bridge," which is strange, as there's no place to park and no reason to park there.

I used to watch games at Tempe Diablo Stadium, back when my parents would take us down for spring training to chase players down for autographs. I got to see my favorite teams, the Mariners and Giants, play there before interleague play made it unremarkable. The stadium is at the foot of a mesa that a nice hotel has been built into/around ("The Buttes, a Wyndham Resort," about $200/night). The Buttes is sweet: in addition to offering nice rooms, there are a bunch of four-person hot tubs built into little grottos on different levels, and it features amazing views of Phoenix at night. If you have the means, I highly recommend it.

Diablo Stadium has a nice field, but the box seats are uncomfortable. It's more like they're personal hinged bleacher seats than anything nice. The program is $5, and features 42 pages of ads and really well-done player profiles, with big pictures, vital statistics, marital status (as if the Annies pay attention or would respect such things), and 2000 season highlights. Bengie Molina, for instance, has two kids, Kyshly and Kelssy, and "registered 18 clutch RBI, nine which put Angels in lead [sic]."

The problem with this slick magazine is that it's printed on glossy paper that won't take a mark, and the scorecard only covers about half a page, the other half taken up by a Coors Light ad, which means that not only can you not write on the paper, but you don't have space to do so anyway. I ended up scoring on my notebook.

Despite being in familiar settings and sitting in good seats, I was uncomfortable waiting for the game to start, because Mickey Hatcher was out by the Angels' dugout before the game, laughing and talking to people he apparently knew while also shaking hands and stopping to talk to little kids. I've said some bad things about Hatcher because he's a big advocate of being an "aggressive" hitter, like Garret Anderson, instead of a being a really good hitter like Troy Glaus. I don't have any evidence that Mickey Hatcher is a bad guy, just like I don't know Cam Bonifay from Adam's off ox, but my dislike for his coaching stance means I hold a low opinion of him that leads to some pointed jabs.

One of the problems we face as baseball writers is that while it's Hatcher's fault that he's not the best hitting coach he can be, it's really the Angels' fault for hiring him for that position when he's obviously not going to help. Having him stand not ten feet from me, acting like one of the friendliest guys I'd seen in the Cactus League, made me wonder if I'd been too hard on him. On reflection, I don't think I was, but when I saw Al Martin, who last year got into his scuffle with his backup wife in nearby Scottsdale, sitting in the opposing dugout, it gave me pause.

It was a split-squad game, and while the Angels did play a number of probable starters, good and bad (Darin Erstad, Troy Glaus, Garret Anderson, Wally Joyner), the Mariners sent their bad starters (Al Martin, Bret Boone, David Bell) and John Olerud. New Angels backup catcher Jorge Fabergas was there. I don't know why the Angels picked him up, but we coined a new term to describe his play: "Fabergastic." Feel free to use that to describe other low-hitting backup catchers with good arms, like, say, Henry Blanco.

Center field was played by Charles Gipson and Darin Erstad. I'd never seen Erstad in center, and he displayed range and ball-tracking befitting the position. Moving Erstad in center could be the right thing to do for Anaheim, especially considering that Garret Anderson's play out there looked much worse last year than it ever had before. I don't know what happened to him, but unless he's back to his 1999 form Erstad is the clear choice.

Gipson is a player with limited use: he can play three positions really well, another couple as well as the average major leaguer, and probably wouldn't embarrass himself at the remainder, plus he's a great raw base-stealer. Without knowing how to read pitchers, or picking good counts, he steals bases easily entirely on his speed. But he can't hit and has never been able to, which means his chance of contributing to a good team is slim. He's the kind of player to have on a playoff roster for use as a pinch-runner, and to cover in the field for in-game pinch-hitting switches, but during the season he doesn't offer enough to warrant a roster spot.

The day's starters were Paul Abbott, who I really like to cheer for, and Tim Belcher, who I think is too fragile to contribute and should retire with a decent career under his belt. Abbott looked bad after the first inning and was hit hard, while Belcher looked sharp until he ran out of steam in the fourth and got batted around badly.

With Fabregas making the last out, Mike Scioscia himself took incoming pitcher Troy Percival's warmup throws, then walked back to the dugout, laughing and shaking his hand like it really hurt, which it must have. Percival was as good as I've seen him in some time, throwing heat and sitting down a few scrubs (Blake Barthol, Manny Alexander, Scott Posednik) with an easy grace. Two of them watched beautiful pitches go right past them for called third strikes, and I couldn't help but think that maybe Percival will stay healthy and we'll get to see him pitch like he can all year long.

Al Martin's play in the outfield was not only so bad that the Angels ran on him when he was the relay man, but he dropped the ball while turning, and had to shuffle around comically trying to find it. Martin's hitting looked good (maybe the laser eye surgery worked as well for him as it did for me), and he went 2-for-3. I was going to heckle Martin some, but I was close enough to the field that he would have been able to identify me immediately and get to me without much trouble, and he seems the sort of guy who wouldn't bat an eye at beating me senseless. I was going to start off with "Hey, Al, how are the wives and kids?" and work from there, but getting put in the hospital would have required me to change my return ticket, and that's $70 I don't have.

Bret Boone, who once had a nasty public feud with Lou Piniella and would have been one of two players I'd have bet would never play for Piniella again (the other Jeff Nelson, who had a multi-year feud with Mt. Piniella in the early nineties and has also returned), made a couple of really nice defensive plays at second base. He also showboated at the plate: when a call went against him he would step out of the box, gave the ump a weary look as if to say "Oh, please now," turn away, sigh, and then step back in the box. It was disrespectful, and also stupid, as they weren't bad calls. And when Boone popped up one pitch, he swore so loudly that I didn't really believe it and had to look around for confirmation on other shocked faces. Please shield sensitive ears when he's up to bat.

I expect he and Lou are going to have trouble this year, as that's pretty much the kind of behavior that rubs Lou the wrong way, and will likely lead to Mark McLemore getting back into the lineup at second base a lot more than people are figuring.

I saw two young pitchers I was interested in (and who I saw pitch against each other in a Triple-A game last year), Mariner Joel Pineiro and Angel Matt Wise, both of who I like a lot. Pineiro looked really bad; his pitches were wild up and down, in the dirt and then head-level, and he gave up three hits and a walk in two innings of work. Wise, who've I've said a lot of good things about and gone as far as making him my BIG FANTASY TOUT for the year to anybody who would listen, was not at all the pitcher I saw last year. He didn't get ahead as often, gave up a lot of hard hits, and, unlike Pineiro, didn't escape without giving up a run, aided by a brutal error by Wilmy Caceres at shortstop. He didn't locate his breaking pitches and his fastball got jumped. The only thing I saw from the Wise I'd remembered was his changeup, which is beautifully deceptive and gets him a strike nearly every time he throws it.

I didn't like Angels outfield prospect Gary Johnson because in covering the Angels last year, it pained me to have to pay attention to their farm system, which is stocked with teams full of players too old for their leagues, and still losing in spite of it. Gary Johnson at 24 was playing in high-A ball with good-looking raw stats, and was held up as a great prospect, which he wasn't. Plus, he annoyed me personally because in interviews he seemed really dim in a way that grated on me to the point I made some comments about him that were (wisely) cut from the 2001 annual.

But there he was, at the plate taking pitches and working the pitcher in both of his at-bats, in exactly the way I like to see hitters do (and a skill rarely seen in the Angels system). He also displayed a good arm, nearly gunning down a runner, and was stymied in some smart baserunning when he tried to take advantage of an error to advance to third base, only to be tangled up with Boone, who'd fallen down trying to save the ball. Johnson is going to have to advance quickly to make me believe in him as a prospect, but I'm sufficiently interested now that I'll try to interview him if he's playing a game I'm scouting, and I'll see if he's just been playing dumb.

I also got to see David Eckstein, who the Angels picked off of waivers last year, and who is one of the few Angels prospects I like. What really impressed me was how fast he was on the basepaths. He went 2-for-4 with a double to center field on which he tore out of the batter's box and got to second almost immediately. I know the Angels are big on Adam Kennedy, but the injury that will sideline Kennedy for a month may give Eckstein a place to play. He'd be a significant upgrade, offering an average glove and a good on-base bat. Eckstein also warms up in the on-deck circle as vigorously as anyone I've seen, doing quick stretches and drills, swinging the bat back and forth...it's a marked contrast from Garret Anderson, who I saw just stand around, waiting for his turn.

The Cactus League is strange, without enough teams playing to ensure it'll be around in ten years, but at the same time blessed with some nice parks and supportive communities. They come out in good numbers, with a lot of fans from the West Coast who fly in to hang out, and the league features high-quality training fields and spacious complexes for workouts.

The limited number of teams in the league means there's speculation that Cactus League teams don't get the level or variety of competition that they need to be ready for the season. I'm not sure that that's so true anymore: the Cactus League this year features three division winners and a lot of really good minor-league talent. And despite my carping about Hi Corbett Field and beer prices in general--I'm disappointed that spring-training games now have major-league concession prices--I really like the Cactus League. It's a good time, if you pick your games right you can see some elite players you may not otherwise ever get the chance to see in person, and for me, getting out from under a long, gray Seattle winter by heading out to see baseball played is the great.

Derek Zumsteg is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

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2001-04-03 - The Week in Quotes: March 17-April 1
2001-04-01 - The Week in Quotes: April 1
2001-03-19 - The Week in Quotes: February 25-March 16
2001-03-14 - Derek in the Desert
2001-03-13 - Derek in the Desert
2001-03-12 - Derek in the Desert
2001-03-10 - Derek in the Desert