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March 22, 2001

Bouncing Around Florida

Bad Weather, Worse Bullpens

by Jeff Hildebrand

(Ed. note: On the heels of Derek Zumsteg's jaunt through Arizona, Jeff Hildebrand is making his way around Florida. He'll be filing periodic reports during his trip.)

Part One

One of the reasons teams have trained in Florida for years is because there isn't much in the way of consistent, heavy rain to disrupt the spring schedule. However, despite much of the state being in a drought, this March has seen a lot of problems due to bad weather.

Monday brought more. The storm that had been threatening for several days finally rolled in late in the morning and caused the cancellation of the entire Grapefruit League schedule. Two weeks ago this wouldn't have been much of a problem, but with only a couple of weeks left before the season starts, teams are starting to worry about pitchers getting enough work to be able to go later into the games when the season starts. As a result, there was scurrying all over the state as managers tried to figure out how to set up simulated games for the pitchers in indoor batting cages. For the fans though, there wasn't much to see, so it was mostly a lost day.

Tuesday morning looked like it might be more of the same as a few heavy showers moved through, but in Clearwater the rains subsided by noon and the game between the Phillies and the Rangers went on, albeit under some fairly chilly conditions by Florida standards. The players took various approaches to dealing with the weather. Some players huddled in the dugout under jackets while Bo Porter was spotted bringing a large cup of coffee in from the clubhouse. Shortly before the first pitch, the sun finally started to peek out and was met with loud cheers from the crowd.

The crowd was somewhat larger than usual for a midweek game, because this was the first appearance ever in Clearwater by Alex Rodriguez. As usual, the visitors only brought some of their regulars with them. A-Rod was joined by Rusty Greer and Rafael Palmiero, but Ivan Rodriguez, Andres Galarraga, and Ken Caminiti were nowhere to be seen.

One irritating similarity between spring-training parks and regular-season parks is their insistence on displaying silly stats on the scoreboard. During the first time through the Phillies' lineup, messages such as "Doug Glanville has hit in six of his last nine games" would be displayed. Well, assuming three at-bats per game (pretty typical for this part of the spring) you would expect a player to get a hit about 60-70% of the time, so these messages, which seem to be intended to sound impressive, are fundamentally quite uninteresting.

Once again, being very close to the field proved useful in observing the pitchers. Bruce Chen throws a variety of pitches at different speeds and the changes are quite noticeable from up close. So, too, is the fact that some batters are fooled badly by him. Since I wasn't behind home plate, it was essentially impossible to tell whether or not the umpires have stuck to their pledge to call a narrower strike zone, but it is quite clear that they are indeed calling higher strikes. The players are still adjusting to this; several players from both teams frequently looked back at the umpire with "Uh oh, that wasn't a strike was it?" expressions on their faces. Right now, they are not complaining too much about the calls, but once the season starts, I expect to see squawking about some called strikes.

Many spring games have a tendency to get sloppy, and this game was no exception. A 2-2 game through five-and-a-half innings turned into a slugfest thanks to poor defense and highly combustible bullpens. Tim Crabtree, who appears intent on challenging Tim Wakefield for the shortest leg kick of any pitcher in the majors, got smoked in more ways than one in the sixth inning. He first gave up a long home run to Scott Rolen, then was hit by a line drive off the bat of Pat Burrell. Images of Bryce Florie must have flashed through everyone's mind, but fortunately the ball had hit Crabtree's glove hand and he seemed to be fine. Burrell eventually came around to score.

In the top of the seventh, Wayne Gomes gave the runs right back. The first batter reached on a throwing error by Jimmy Rollins that pulled Brian R. Hunter off first base. (Several people in the stands commented that now that they're on the same team, the two Brian Hunters really need nicknames to keep people from being confused.) Then, consecutive balls sliced into left field scored two runs.

Next was the obligatory "We must have lefties in the bullpen so we'll try these guys!" parade. Texas brought in Mike Munoz, who managed to sneak through an inning without damage. The Phillies then trotted out Eddie Oropesa, who struck out the side. As Jayson Stark pointed out Wednesday at ESPN.com, Oropesa is starting to look like another example of a player getting a break by playing really well at just the right time. Signed as a minor-league free agent this off-season, he has never been in the majors and spent last year in Double-A. He has a strange, hunched-over stance on the mound (picture Snoopy imitating a vulture in the old Peanuts cartoons) which serves to deceive batters, at least for now. Because he's been doing well this spring and because the team wants two left-handers in the bullpen, Oropesa may very well start the season in the bullpen. After teams start to figure out the goofy motion, this will be revealed as a bad idea.

In the ninth, Jose Mesa pitched about as well as he pitched last year for the Mariners, which is to say not well at all. Bo Porter doubled with one out, scored on Mike Lamb's home run, and then Kelly Dransfeldt nearly put one over the high center-field wall before scoring on a single by a "not listed on the roster" special. (The name in the box score is Monroe.) By this point the fans who had been opening the inning with "As long as it isn't [Ricky] Bottalico out on the mound we don't care" were now saying "Bring in Bottalico, he can't be any worse." The boo birds in Philly are going to have ample fodder this year, most of it in the bullpen.

On the other hand, the folks in Arlington may not be too thrilled with their bullpen either. Chris Haney took a three-run lead into the bottom of the ninth, got two outs with only one runner reaching, but then gave up a single and a home run to tie the game. After a scoreless top of the tenth another mystery player (Randall according to the box score) gave up a double to Burrell and then watched Lamb boot a routine grounder that allowed the winning run to score.

Tomorrow is a bit of a road trip to a park I've never seen, down to Fort Myers and the Red Sox. While I can't find any announcements about starting pitchers, I don't think I'm going to be lucky enough to time it so I get to see Pedro Martinez.

Jeff Hildebrand is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

Related Content:  Ricky Oropesa,  The Who,  Managers Of The Year

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